Dialogue, one of LA’s most celebrated fine dining establishments of the past few years, announced its closure this week, joining the ranks of numerous restaurants across the city that have made the difficult decision to end operations due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The closure is emblematic of the high watermark and now downturn in LA’s fine dining scene, one in which Los Angeles rose from an afterthought in the high-flying world of white-tablecloth glory to a real contender as one of the most destination-worthy dining cities in the world.
Before 2010, when the Michelin Guide had issued two years of ratings but then decided this city wasn’t worthy of further coverage, not many people believed Los Angeles needed a powerhouse fine dining scene. LA’s restaurant culture has always been defined by its casualness. Street food and reasonably priced options in strip malls abound. A trendy restaurant might have more jeans and sneakers than dinner jackets and heels. LA diners, who were happy to place street tacos and mulitas on the same pedestal as the tasting menu, didn’t aspire to live in a Michelin-favored city. But as any chef will tell you, especially ones that trained in other cities, there are few professional accomplishments that can outweigh a Michelin designation or a World’s 50 Best honor.
Observers of LA’s restaurant scene in the past 10 years may have noticed a fervent, chef-driven movement toward the tweezer-and-fine-porcelain approach of international fine dining celebrated by food media and Michelin inspectors across the world. Places like Maude, Somni, Vespertine, Kato, Kali, Nozawa Bar, Shibumi, and Hayato — all Michelin star recipients — opened in recent years in response to larger demand for fancy dining experiences. But perhaps the tone shifted most when Dave Beran came to Los Angeles in 2017 to open his first restaurant, an announcement analogous to the Lakers making a massive free agent signing. The longtime Alinea veteran, whose food I first had in 2009, had been executive chef for five years at the popular Next restaurant in Chicago and was looking to make a mark of his own after working in the long shadow of Grant Achatz. It was a coup for LA’s scene and a validation that the city could support someone of his reputation.
Beran initially thought he would join the busy Arts District fray with a larger-scale restaurant, but ultimately opened a tiny, almost hidden 18-seat dining room in a Santa Monica food hall. People doubted if he would make it serving 20-plus courses at a near $200 per person cost in a space as big as a two-car garage. The thoughtful, avant-garde meals weaved through a narrative of the seasons, leaning on LA’s extraordinary produce but also Beran’s mastery of textures, flavors, and contrasts to create an artful journey that often left one hungry for another dinner there. It was a massive success — so much of a success, in fact, that its investors were paid off within a year and the ownership was restructured so that the profits would be distributed among its staff.
Beran said in an email to the restaurant’s newsletter subscribers that Dialogue’s location was ultimately meant to be temporary, with the team intending to relocate to another space in due time. But the COVID-19 pandemic’s eight-month assault on the restaurant industry forced Dialogue to abruptly end its first chapter. Tidbits, Beran’s experimental outdoor menu on the balcony just outside of Dialogue, will close on November 7. Dialogue isn’t alone: In the past six months, Somni, Trois Mec, and Patina — all Michelin-starred restaurants — announced their closures. Aspirational restaurants like Auburn, Bon Temps, Broken Spanish, and Here’s Looking at You also closed. With indoor dining still closed and a potentially rainy, cold La Niña winter jeopardizing the outdoor dining rooms that have sprouted across the city, the prospect of fine dining in Los Angeles looks grim only one year after Michelin made its return to the city.
Of course, Beran wasn’t the only chef who came from out of town to make a mark on LA’s dining scene. TV chef and personality Curtis Stone opened Maude and then Gwen with intentions of introducing an Australian tasting menu perspective. Eric Bost spent years with Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and Singapore, taking the helm at Republique for a while before opening the resplendent Auburn in the former Citrus/Hatfield’s space. Aitor Zabala, who worked at El Bulli and other high-end Spanish tasting menu spots until he opened Saam at the Bazaar and later Somni, always believed LA’s fine dining could compete at an international level.
This dream came to fruition with the return of the Michelin Guide in 2019 as part of a statewide book that would award stars from San Diego up to Sacramento, with Los Angeles in between. Michelin had already been in LA from 2008 to 2010, dying out with barely a whimper and its former director saying Angelenos “weren’t real foodies.” The revival of the guide, at least with its LA coverage, was a culmination of years of ambitious new restaurants opening in town.
On the home front, chefs like Mei Lin, Jon Yao, Ludo Lefebvre, Evan Funke, Niki Nakayama, Ricardo Zarate, Carlos Salgado, Phillip Frankland and Margarita Kallas-Lee, and Kevin Meehan all represented LA-based talent who weaved their perspective of this city’s food with an ambitious tilt. These talented chefs found it advantageous to actually stay in LA rather than go elsewhere to make a name for themselves. Conversely, the appeal of pleasant weather, amazing produce, and boundless real estate opportunities led out-of-towners, from Joshua Skenes of Angler to Diego Hernandez of Corazón de Tierra to Gabriela Cámara of Contramar, to launch new restaurants here.
But in 2020, LA looks nothing like the land of opportunity. Michelin opted out of awarding stars this year in California. The James Beard Award Foundation nixed its commendations for the next two years. Something like a World’s 50 Best restaurant designation seems nonsensical while the industry slumps through a crippling pandemic.
There is a sliver of hope for these high-end restaurants. In October, Enrique Olvera finally opened Damian, his take on familiar street food and California flavors, in a sleek Arts District space (complete with a sizable outdoor patio). Angler has reopened, taking over the valet area of the Beverly Center (what could be more LA?). Unheralded Westwood restaurant Fellow signed on talented New York City fine dining veterans to serve plates like salmon with sorrel sauce and a carefully manicured microgreen garnish. Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec transitioned into a kebab spot, implying a potential return if and when full capacity indoor dining is allowed. Even Beverly Hills landed the completely unexpected Mírame from modern Mexican chef Joshua Gil with a spot-on presentation of Baja California elegance.
Perhaps one of LA’s most interesting new additions comes from Echo Park neighborhood restaurant Counterpart, which introduced a completely vegan tasting menu from chef Mimi Williams. The menu is priced at an attainable $75 per person with eight courses that explore the potential of plant-based cooking. Williams leads a collaborative effort from her kitchen, with the confidence of producing a new kind of tasting menu for Angelenos that comes from years of deep experience, as well as a crucial ownership stake in the restaurant that gives her the creative freedom to execute a menu like this amid the uncertainty of a pandemic.
As for Beran, his Santa Monica French bistro Pasjoli, which was named a James Beard Foundation best new restaurant finalist, has tables set up on the sidewalk as well as a patio in the back. The restaurant did, like many others, turn to takeout and delivery to weather the start of the pandemic shutdown, but eventually reopened for outdoor dining — returning with a prix fixe menu at $95 before reverting to a truncated a la carte bill of fare. In fact, Beran says he almost wishes he opened with a smaller menu to make it easier on the kitchen. It now serves its original dishes like the crab with pickled cauliflower and baked brioche filled with chicken liver, but also has a halibut meunière and butter-poached lobster in puff pastry that would make Escoffier smile.
Beran says he’s been most encouraged by the Sunday supper takeout packages, including a recent beef Wellington kit that appealed to locals, while the lunch menu, which started in July, gives the neighborhood a reasonably priced gateway to Pasjoli’s cooking. “I’m not going to lie and pretend that it’s a cheap restaurant [for dinner], but we’ve been seeing a lot more new faces, as well as repeat customers during lunch,” he said. Still, with a more streamlined menu and a current seating situation at less than half its original capacity, Pasjoli is in survival mode.
LA’s fine dining scene may have regressed from its zenith in 2019, but with potentially friendly real estate prices, a glut of talented kitchen staff, and at least a certain portion of the public eager to come back to the table, things could look rosy again in the future. Though the features that differentiate fine dining — proximity and interaction with service staff, attention to hospitality, and often intimate spaces — will likely change in the coming months and years, Beran still feels optimistic about the future of upscale restaurants in LA. “LA has so much young talent that I think it will be among the leaders in bringing [fine dining] back,” he says, adding that the availability of outdoor venues will lead to flexibility for operators.
Years ago, upscale eating in Los Angeles had a small but passionate following, with restaurants like Melisse, Providence, and Spago standing out among the contingent of white-tablecloth establishments. Perhaps it’s less remembered that Michel Richard debuted Citrus back in the late ’80s, or that Thomas Keller left a position at the Checkers Hotel in Downtown LA in the early ’90s before opening the French Laundry. Fine dining has a place here, like any major city. However, looming threats like high unemployment, lack of federal stimulus, and another surge in COVID-19 cases could stymie any residual momentum for spendy restaurants as social-distancing measures loosen across the state.
As Los Angeles grew into a new era of culinary relevance and prominence in the past decade, it attracted renowned chefs, critics, diners, and, finally, Michelin. It finally added the one thing detractors of the city’s restaurant scene always cited — that while LA had amazing street food, casual fare, and international cuisines, all invaluable to the city’s culture, it lacked the measured, composed dining that other big cities invested in. Whether LA’s fine dining can rebound depends on the willingness of talented chefs and operators to continue pushing their ideas and their food, and if the dining public will come out and spend the money to support it.