Southern Exposure: The City of Angels

I’ve just returned to the cool, breezy, perfumed summer days of my home in Sausalito following our annual preview launch of the Craig Howell Mountain wines on the roof of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in the center of Hollywood, CA. Shelly and I are glad to be home after four days of hauling wine, umbrellas and ice buckets, but the allure of Los Angeles; its balmy weather, scantily clad citizens, breezy beaches, and unique culture leave Shelly and I longing for a reserved chair at the Roosevelt pool and a few more schedule-free days down south.

As a San Francisco Bay resident for more then twenty years I can remember a time, not so long ago, that I would look down my nose on that teeming city to our south, Los Angeles. There’s no great food. It’s all tourists. The traffic, my god the traffic. A lack of intellect and a less than zero work ethic were all rolled into the constitution of a semi-moronic populace in my mind’s eye. How foolhardy, and uninitiated I was.

As the 90’s gave way to the 21st century, however, the world has shifted on it’s axis. As the cost of entry has made NYC one of the least attractive places to put out a shingle for the independent restaurateur (or dine if your net worth is below $10MM), the food and wine adventurers in this country have had to look for places where the young (or old) and talented can afford to pay a staff and overhead without having a large restaurant group or private equity money backing them.

San Francisco had the Mission District where Charles Phan of The Slanted Door could put his grandma’s recipes to the test before heading to the Ferry Building and adding 150 seats. Chicago has had the luxury of warehouse districts slowly giving way to residences and neighborhoods. Los Angeles has it going on everywhere from the Staples Center and Korea Town to the beaches. A great deal of affordable commercial real estate and rentable square footage exists in marginal areas that are adjacent to affluent neighborhoods, and Uber has cracked the city wide open for navigating the journey to and from without a DUI or a parking nightmare.

Over the last 10 years, I have to say that I’ve come to enjoy the food and wine scene in the Los Angeles area as much or more than that of any other city in the country. It is as vibrant and diverse as the citizens who are working like crazy every day to make a life and follow their passions. In other words, I was an idiot to feel any sense of superiority in my 7×7 bubble up north.

The beauty of a great old town like Los Angeles is that amid all the cutting edge, there is still room for old school precision and classic hospitality. In San Francisco we have the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins and Tadich Grill, Boulevard, Zuni, Delfina, The House of Prime Rib and Harris’ Steakhouse to name a few. We also have Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist hell that the locals avoid like New Yorkers avoid the naked guy in their subway car. 

When Shelly and Adam and I ventured out of the cool confines of the Roosevelt onto Hollywood Boulevard for a 3 block walk to a 9 PM dinner reservation, I realized that Fisherman’s Warf might as well be a local dive bar in comparison to Hollywood Boulevard and the walk of fame. Chewbacca in dreadlocks rolled past in his wheelchair smoking a giant sized spleef on a packed sidewalk as the temperature was just fading from 90 degrees that afternoon, and I couldn’t help wondering what that suit smelled like in the morning. A feast for the senses.

Yet, in the middle of it all, since 1919, exists The Musso and Frank Grill thanks to Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet. This Italian chophouse has been called “the genesis of Hollywood “, and it remains in the spiritual center. We weren’t able to get a reservation during last year’s event because they were closed for Quentin Tarantino to film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That sums it up. Chilled martinis served with a classic sidecar were followed by amazing wine and food. Adam’s spicy tortellini knocked me off of my no carb diet, while our booth at the back provided the perfect perch to experience some large animal sightings as celebrities came and went. Our server Angele had seen it all there in his 15 years of service, and his attention was practiced and warm with our table. My advice, do this place.

Classic haunts in Los Angeles like The Musso and Frank Grill, Spago, Dan Tana’s, Yamashiro, Lucques, and the San Francisco restaurants mentioned above, are jewels that require the love and support of the locals to survive and thrive in the decades to come. When we hit the roof of the Hollywood Roosevelt next year in July, I hope you all can make a weekend of it and come to this singular part of the world, a section yet to be homogenized into a corporate restaurant and experience culture that has swept the United States. Email me to let me know if anyone is interested in experiencing a couple of meals at smaller tables at these places, and we will get a group together to share a rare treat.

In the mean time, support your local independent restaurateurs. I’ll be dreaming of a cool glass and a good read poolside down south.