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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.