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      My Restaurant Stories: Los Angeles in the ’80s

      August 4, 2010

      80s Restaurants 003

      Hey, Los Angeles foodies, or any other foodies, and readers, for that matter.  Does that picture look at all familiar?  Were you living in Los Angeles during the ’80s?  Do you remember these restaurants: City Restaurant, Spago (on Sunset), Restaurant Muse, Morton’s, Chasen’s, Citrus, Ma Maison, 385 North, West Beach Café, 72 Market?

      During the ’80s and part of the ’90s the Marlboro Man sat so close to the intersection of Sunset and Crescent Heights, he could have spit and hit the middle of it.  This billboard was on the Sunset Strip right below the Chateau Marmont.  It sat there for years hawking Marlboro cigarettes.  I always found it oddly fascinating.  I don’t smoke now, didn’t then.  It wasn’t about cigarettes.  It was something iconic.  He came to symbolize Los Angeles to me.  He sat at the entrance to the legendary Sunset Strip.  A place where magic happened.

      Sunset Blvd. & Crescent Heights Ave., Los Angeles, circa 1984

      Looking west down Sunset Blvd. from Crescent Heights Blvd., Los Angeles, circa 1984

      Michael’s Restaurant, Santa Monica

      By now, my faithful readers, you are wondering what does an old Marlboro Man billboard have to do with food and restaurants?  Well, let me tell you.  I first came to Los Angeles as an adult sometime in 1983.  I’d been to Los Angeles as a child once or twice but besides trips to Disneyland I hadn’t really spent any time there.  In the early ’80s when I was in my early 20s I was living in San Francisco, and working in the restaurant business.  At the time I was working for Chef Jeremiah Tower.  Jeremiah and a few members of his staff were invited to attend the wedding of Michael and Kim McCarty.  Michael McCarty of Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica.  I was one of the staff lucky enough to go.  The wedding was very chic and took place in Malibu.  Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, were there as well as other chefs and restaurateurs of the day.  It was a fun, lively wedding with, naturally, incredible food.

      Michael McCarty and Jeremiah Tower at Michael McCarty's wedding circa 1983.

      Michael McCarty, middle, & Jeremiah Tower, right, at Michael McCarty's wedding circa 1982

      The trip was my re-introduction to Los Angeles and Southern California.  I remember a lot of light, lots of white everywhere, palm trees and warm ocean breezes.  I’d come from foggy, cold, wet San Francisco.  My body and my head were like what is this place?  It’s hot, there’s blue, blue sky, there are mountains.  I was in heaven.  I was hooked.  I moved down the following year.

      Jeremiah Tower at Michael McCarty's wedding circa 1983

      Jeremiah Tower, Margrit Beaver, Robert Mondavi and James Nassikas (hidden) at Michael McCarty's wedding circa 1982

      Michael & Kim McCarty's wedding.

      Kim McCarty dancing at her wedding

      A recent article in Saveur magazine by Patrick Kuh, ‘Nights on the Town: A Short History of Fine Dining in Los Angeles’ got me thinking back to my own experiences in the restaurant business in Los Angeles, and to how innocent the restaurant scene was in the early ’80s.  It was all so new, young and exciting.  On one of my first trips down from San Francisco – a weekend trip – my friend Adele and I did a whirlwind tour.  We saw all the tourist spots, and hit some restaurants.

      Photographs, (an explanation)

      Before I continue, an explanation about the photographs.  I’ve been wanting to write this piece for awhile but I didn’t have photos from the time period, or of the places I wanted to write about.  It was the ’80s before digital cameras and taking pictures of everything.  I looked through my ‘archives,’ and the photos here are all I came up with.  I did take a series of shots of the Marlboro Man so I decided to use him, to me he was a symbol of the time.  I also took the really bad black and white shots at the McCarty wedding.  I wish I could do better.  I was not a great photographer back then; I think I’ve improved.

      80s Restaurants 002

      The back side of the Marlboro Man with the Chateau Marmont in the background

      Spago, (the original one, on Horn above Sunset)

      On my trip with Adele, we ate at Spago when it was still on Horn Avenue above Sunset, above the car rental agency (now a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf), and across the street from Tower Records.  This was the original Spago, the one with the wonderful coveted window tables overlooking the lights of Los Angeles.  Adele and I scored a two top close to the front room and those windows; close enough to watch Joan Collins having dinner with friends.  That was a big deal, it was the time of ‘Dynasty’ and Joan was huge.  We did, of course, eat the famous Smoked Salmon Pizza with Caviar, and other wonderful things.  At the table next to us a movie mogul and his girlfriend befriended us, bought us a bottle of champagne, and then insisted we join them for a night cap at Sushi on Sunset.  It turned out to be quite the raucous night.

      When I was down with Jeremiah and his staff for the McCarty wedding we also ate at Spago.  On that visit I met a very young Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton.  Mark was Executive Chef; Nancy was Pastry Chef.  Throughout my years of working in the Los Angeles restaurant business I went to Spago many times, and always had a great time.  It was a classic, pitch perfect Los Angeles restaurant.  A place to see and be seen with great food.  Times change; it grew up and moved to Beverly Hills.  Wolfgang became a trillionaire.  Peel and Silverton went on to their own successes.

      Restaurant Muse, Beverly Blvd., Fairfax District, (most recently the space housed Grace Restaurant)

      When I moved to L.A. in 1983 I needed a job.  After working the Christmas season at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, I took a job as maître d’ at Restaurant Muse — or just Muse as most people called it.  To me, this was the quintessential Los Angeles restaurant of the ’80s.  All white inside with gray booths and banquets, gray industrial carpeting on the floor, polished concrete in the bar area, and an amazing tank of tropical fish over the bar.  Windows up high on the street side so it had a fairly dark interior during the day.  An immense metal sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky hung from the ceiling and dominated the dining room.  At Muse it was not about the food; it was all about the scene.  Owner, Ron Braun had crafted a club cum restaurant and it was hugely popular for many years.  We had a lot of Hollywood players who were regulars from celebrity photographers, to film producers, directors and executives, to record executives, to the stars themselves.

      Muse & Madonna (& Prince)

      One of our regulars was an A&R executive at Sire Records.  He came in for lunch several times a week.  One day he handed me a cassette tape and asked me to play it — often.  I immediately put it on the sound system then looked at the writing on the case: ‘Madonna.’  It was an advance copy of her first album ‘Madonna.’  We played it constantly, it was a huge hit at the restaurant.  A few months later the album exploded, her star quickly ascended, and she became a regular patron of the restaurant.  She once said she came to Muse for the margaritas.  This was during her ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Boy Toy’ phase so whenever she called to make a reservation we (hand) wrote into the reservation book: ‘Boy Toy’ or ‘Material Girl.’  Each time I started a shift I’d look to see if she’d been in, or was coming in.

      Another memorable moment at Muse was the Friday night a guy in a black suit appeared at the host stand and said he needed two tables next to each other.  He had no reservations.  Every table was taken, and we had people waiting in the bar.  I told him we couldn’t do it.  He said it was for Prince.  I said where is he?  He said outside in the car.  A couple of tables were in the process of leaving but not side by side.  I persuaded two women to move tables so I could get two booths together.  Once both tables were ready, the guy in the suit radioed out to the limousine.

      A moment later Prince walked in with Madonna on his arm.  We didn’t know Madonna was with him.  They sat together at one booth, side by side, facing the back wall.  Prince’s security detail sat at the other booth.  When they walked in the restaurant went silent as the other patrons looked, but the dinnertime din resumed as soon as they sat down.  These were jaded Angelenos used to seeing celebrities in their midst.  Muse was a lot of fun to work at, a lot of fun to hang out at, and a solid introduction for me to Hollywood, and the Los Angeles food scene.

      An '80s purloined ashtray from City Restaurant

      An '80s purloined ashtray from City Restaurant

      City Restaurant, La Brea Ave. Fairfax District, (now Sonora, a Mexican restaurant)

      One of my favorite places at the time was City Restaurant, started by the young chef duo, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.  Like I mentioned before the color white played a big part in my early impressions of Los Angeles.  It seemed to me it was the color of the decade.  So many restaurants were white both inside and out; places like Spago, Citrus, Muse, and West Beach Café.  City was no exception.  It was a cavernous space with a lot of light, and big windows.  The food was so different to me.  The menus were influenced by the chefs travels to India, Mexico, Thailand and Japan.  It echoed those ethnic cuisines but also had those uniquely ’80s-So Cal twists of lightness and cleanliness of flavor.  I loved to sit at the cement bar and order a selection of starters before I started my shift at neighboring Muse.  Feniger’s current restaurant, Street, harkens back to what these two chefs did at City.

      L’Orangerie, Ma Maison, Valentino, Border Grill (on Melrose), 385 North, West Beach Café (now James Beach), Angeli Caffe, 72 Market

      The ’80s were such a fun time to be in the restaurant business in Los Angeles.  I made it a point to try to eat at all the hot spots, and I did for the most part.  Some I can’t remember now.  The places mentioned in this post are those that I could remember, or that made a lasting impression on me.  There are so many places that have come and gone since the ’80s.  385 North was Roy Yamaguchi’s ‘Hawaiian Fusion’ place on La Cienega — I think it may now be a strip club?  The original Border Grill was located in a tiny, narrow space on Melrose Avenue just west of La Brea.  I loved what Chefs Feniger and Milliken did with Mexican food at that restaurant.  Now Border Grill is a huge place in Santa Monica.  Several places have survived over the years: Valentino’s, Michael’s and Angeli Caffe are still around.  I remember when Evan Kleiman opened Angeli on Melrose Avenue.  I used to eat there a few times a month.  This was well before her KCRW-Good Food fame.

      It’s been well-documented that in the early ’80s a sea change took place within the Los Angeles food scene.  A movement started; its own version of California Cuisine different from what the chefs in Northern California were doing.  Led by Michael McCarty, Wolfgang Puck, Michel Richard, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Roy Yamaguchi and others.  It was an exciting time to be eating in L.A.  Now the scene is all grown up.  The city has proven to the rest of the world that it can cook and eat.  It’s become so sophisticated.  When nostalgia gets the better of me I miss those early days when the Young Turks of the Los Angeles food world showed us what they were really made of — and how they could cook their asses off.

      Coming Up: International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC), August 27 – 29, 2010, Seattle Washington.  So much fun last year that I’ll be attending again this year.  Are you?

      Upcoming Posts: Cookbook Reviews: Steak and Friends: At Home with Rick Tramonto by Rick Tramonto; Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly by Joan E. Aller: Mary Mac’s Tea Room: 65 Years of Recipes from Atlanta’s Favorite Dining Room by John Ferrell.


      23 Comments on “My Restaurant Stories: Los Angeles in the ’80s”

      1. Pat says:

        Nice article Charles! I do remember City and Border Grill, I lived nearby on Martel. I ate at some of those places but my memories of the 80s were mostly Oki Dog, Torung Thai, Chao Praya, Marix, Hugo’s Gorky’s, Atomic Cafe, Hide Sushi, Suehiro and Duke’s Tropicana — different worlds, I guess.

      2. Deon says:

        what about the heavy hitters like l’ ermitage, l ‘orangerie, Rex, Patina, Ma Maison, 7th street bistro, la toque, Bernard! and many more

      3. Thank you, Pat. I ate at many of the places on your list as well — it wasn’t always high end eating for me! I used to eat at Chao Praya all the time because I lived close by.

      4. I’m exhausted reading this! What a great food memory you have. I love the great anecdotes.

      5. Andrew says:

        This is such a cool article. I could see reading this in the Sunday LA Times. As a foodie obsessed with LA restaurant scene it is so cool to take this trip down memory lane with you.

        Thanks!

      6. Robert: Thanks. I have so many more stories to share too!

        Andrew: From you comment to the L.A. Times editors ears! That would be very nice and I sincerely appreciate the comment and your enthusiasm. As I just told Robert above, there are more stories to come.

      7. Donna says:

        We arrive in LA the same time…I came from SF and made the best of it…became a regular at the original Spago and used to wow visitors with the filet mignon tacos from West Beach Cafe…..
        I’m in Chicago now with LA 80s reminders that have evolved into national chains (with all the baggage): California Pizza Kitchen; Cheesecake Factory; Johnny Rockets. Thanks for the memories…

      8. Blanche says:

        Oh my, such memories. I remember that visit to Spago. When we alit from your blue VW bug, the paparazzi were waiting. They almost took our picture too and in our innocence we thought they just might!
        Wonderful article Charles and do tell us more…

      9. Thank you, Charles, for the fun trip down Memory Lane. I’m originally from LA, left for NYC for a while, then returned in the late 80s. A friend had a neighbor who was a pastry chef at Spago’s, Sunset Spago’s, just as it was heating up, and we went there together. We also frequented Duke’s and Chan Dara and – what was the Feniger/Milliken place in Santa Monica on Montana – also Border Grill? I also remember, before there ever was a Citrus, Michel Richard’s little cafe on Robertson – probably one of the first places I ever had quiche. You and I did the reverse commute – I’m in the SF Bay Area now, but miss LA, and the weather, a lot. I grew up in the Hollywood Hills – that Marlboro Man always looked to me like he was galloping out of them.

      10. Monica says:

        Wow, great memories.

        Love looking at the other icons of Sunset Blvd. during 1984. Strohs. And coincidentally, the film “2010.”

      11. Kathy Gori says:

        What a great piece, and loaded with so many memories for me. We lived in Santa Monica and met Mary Sue and Susan when they first opened the City Cafe. We ate there almost every day, driving all the way in to Melrose from the beach,it was that good.
        I’m only sorry we never invested in the City Restaurant when we got the chance. Once we discovered the West Beach we started eating there a lot and made friends with Bruce Marder and his wife Rebecca. All those places were so great and you are absolutely correct when you talk about the huge change that LA food went through. I moved to LA from SF in the 70’s and it was a food wasteland then all of a sudden bingo! Great food everywhere. I moved back up to Northern California 5 years ago and now live in Sonoma but we’re down in LA every few months on business and I eat my fill.Looking forward to reading more memories of LA.

      12. Bill says:

        What a trip down memory lane!
        My favorites you didn’t mention: Le St. Germain, Antonio’s, Citrus and What-the-heck-was-it’s-name the Italian place at Highland and Melrose where Batali/Silverton’s pizza place is now; Mischas on Sunset, L’Orangerie on La Cienega, Simply Blues on Vine…

        Ahh, the good old days.

      13. Donna: Thank you for the comment. Filet mignon tacos at West Beach Cafe – yum! It’s sad that the California Cuisine of the 80s morphed into CPKs, isn’t it?

        Adele: You just had to remind me about my broken down VW bug! Loved the arrival and the paprazzi waiting. I forgot about that.

        Jill: Thank you. Yes, Feniger/Milliken opened Border Grill in Santa Monica after they opened a smaller one on Melrose. On my first visit to L.A I went to Dukes. Those were fun days! Love your comment about the Marlboro Man galloping out of the hills. So true.

        Monica: Yes, I saw those ‘other’ 80s reminders too! Stroh’s and 2010. Great reminders. Thank you!

        Kathy: I am very impressed that you drove from S.M. to City every day! That is devotion. I understand why – it was that good!! I can see why you started going to the West Beach too. Thank you for your kind comments. I love Sonoma – that is a great part of California.

        Bill: Thanks for your additions. I now realize how many places there actually were back then. The Italian place where Mozza is now was there forever but I can’t remember the name.

      14. Deon says:

        @Bill, the Italian place was Emilio’s – next door was the Caviar Lady…Betty!

      15. Alex says:

        Does anyone remember a beautiful and elegant (pricey)restaurant on top of a building by the garment district??? For the life of me I cannot remember the name. Thanks I appreciate your help with this.

      16. Jon Michaels says:

        We remember ‘Nucleus Nuance’ on the north side of Melrose Ave.
        Chrome – Pink – Aqua – Grey

      17. Rusty says:

        I, too worked at Muse and had a blast. That is until spilling a salad on Lisa Hartman’s lap in front of a large group at her table. Oops!

      18. Garry says:

        Wow, came across this completely by accident. I worked as a bartender at Muse in the mid-eighties and enjoyed the mad lunchtimes with movie exec lunch checks running into thousands of dollars. I also did a few shifts at Ron’s other place, the ill-fated Dominick’s, which was broken into virtually every night. We had to take the booze home with us!
        And thanks for reminding me of some of the great (less high-end) places to eat in LA. I still have the match books.
        Living in Amsterdam now, and the food scene is nowhere near as much fun.

      19. Diane says:

        Thanks so much for this walk down memory lane – and the photos. You have a great memory! City has huge memories for me as I lived in the neighborhood and Angeli as well . . . good times. I look forward to seeing the rest of your blog.

      20. I Fisher says:

        Thank you for telling your stories, would love to hear more.

        I used to go to Muse in the mid 80s. We would sit at the bar because we couldn’t afford to eat there and drink Champagne with Framboise and raspberries. Fantastic. That place certainly defined cool.

        I am trying to compile a list of all the phenomenal restos in LA at the time. Many had great food, others were scenic and fun. Can someone can help me remember the name of a place that was owned by the Valentino’s people, located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Glendale (on Glendale Blvd maybe?). PHENOMENAL Ital food. Thank you!

      21. Carl says:

        What a trip down memory lane! I was a bartender at Muse in the ’80s. It was definitely one of the coolest places in LA.

        I was just describing that fish tank to a friend of mine. I remember how Ron wanted us to peel all of the labels off of the bottles of soda/mixers so that the bar would always have that minimal look! The only other place that I remember with the same vibe was the China Club on 3rd ( they never ID’d us).

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