The Neighborhood Spot

By Lesley Balla | Will Blunt, Antoinette Bruno, and Erin Lettera

By

Lesley Balla
Will Blunt, Antoinette Bruno, and Erin Lettera

When I first moved to Los Angeles, a coworker wanted to introduce me to one of her favorite restaurants for lunch. Less than five miles away from our office, the restaurant was Angeli Caffe, a little Italian place owned and operated by Evan Kleiman since the 1980s. I had probably driven or walked by at least 50 times at that point, but I hadn’t stopped yet. Just a place you keep in the back of your head for next time.

The meal was sublime: Simple salads with local, organic baby greens; the pillowy purple beet ricotta gnocchi I still dream about; tiramisu for dessert. I was hooked. 

I made Angeli Caffe one of my regular haunts. I took out-of-town visitors there, dined with friends, and went solo once or twice. It was welcoming and familial even as a stranger; Kleiman watched first dates turn into growing families over the years. It was my favorite neighborhood joint, though it wasn’t my neighborhood.

Los Angeles is a huge expanse of community pockets that collectively beat as one, a microcosm of global cuisine, and getting out to explore a new neighborhood can sometimes feel like flying across the world. Though it sadly closed in 2012, Angeli was a place that felt particularly L.A., and restaurants today hope for the same lifespan of almost 30 years. The way it’s looking, many are poised to do just that.


 

Calling It Their Own

When Rising Star Restaurateur Vivian Ku wanted to open her first restaurant, she had the concept—a fast-casual place for Taiwanese staples made with fresh ingredients—but didn’t know exactly where to put it. With UCLA nearby and a strong residential community, Sawtelle Japantown had a great walkability factor with lots of foot traffic thanks to the mix of retail, noodle shops, and tea and coffee cafes. 

But she always loved the Sunset Junction area of Silver Lake. She wanted to create something for the local community but also for anyone simply looking for quality Taiwanese food. Before taking the plunge, Ku talked to locals at the Silver Lake farmers market, located right in front of what’s now her second restaurant Pine & Crane, showing the menu and asking what they thought about her idea.

“Everyone was so nice and willing to talk,” she recalls. “The bulk of our guests are still within 5 miles of the restaurant, but we get people from outside of it. They don’t have to be an expert on Chinese food, but as long as they feel like they’re getting the same quality of service as anyone else, they call it their own.”

When it came time to open Joy in nearby Highland Park, Ku was equally conscious of the community and the people and places that came before her. Although the area was predominantly Latino, Ku thought her Taiwanese street food concept jibed with the other businesses along York Boulevard, a street dotted with generations of family-owned eateries, shops, and bars. She was right. It was well-received from day one, not just because the food is stellar. It’s Ku’s way of embracing the community.

The building that houses Joy once held a stalwart of the neighborhood, a bakery that lasted more than 40 years. The retired family still owns the building and leased the space to Ku. To honor them, she bakes and sells Mexican wedding cookies with all sales going to different Northeast Los Angeles charities and nonprofits.

“It’s always about the new restaurant that’s exciting but fleeting in L.A.,” says Ku. “For us, it’s about being here for the long haul. And a restaurant has to have a symbiotic relationship with the neighborhood to do that.” 

This isn’t necessarily a new idea, to create a neighborhood spot that appeals to the masses. After all, not everyone wants to drive across town, or even a few miles, to sate a craving for noodles or pizza. But as the city grows more into its culinary destination status, we’ve seen a wave of independent restaurants and chefs with strong points of view garner national attention from their tiny, often hidden, corners of the metropolis. 

Los Angeles has always had a vibrant food scene, but it hit full-tilt dining destination somewhere around 2010. The country was just bouncing out of a recession that left many venerable restaurants closing for good. Others had to shift business models to stay alive, relying mostly on regulars and locals who wouldn’t dare see their favorite Friday night spot die. A decade later, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we see that all coming around again.

Then, like now, there’s a rise of young chefs trying new things that might or might not stick, who follow their gut more than anything and serve food that means something to them personally. They don’t always have the capital of big-investor-backed chefs, so they search for more modest locations in neighborhoods they hope will support them. They blend training from technique-driven kitchens with their cultural heritage and their love of vibrant flavors from all over L.A.. 

Think: Roy Choi’s Kogi truck and the ensuing food truck revolution, an explosion of Filipino and Nashville hot chicken in Chinatown, or the birth of Michelin-starred strip-mall restaurants with minimalist design and a lower price point. We’ve moved beyond just California cuisine. This is Los Angeles cuisine.

Everyone knows that the most successful neighborhood restaurants rely on a constant stream of regulars to maintain the status quo. Eventually, it becomes a living, breathing part of the community—a place to gather, to celebrate, to mourn, to remember, to grow. That’s how Ku felt when she wanted to open Pine & Crane and Joy. 

"We see kids go from being in the womb to being in elementary school and from elementary school to getting their driver's licenses,” she says. “It’s really rewarding.”


 

Staying Afloat

During the pandemic, Chef Ryan Wong had to let the tides drive his vision for Needle, his small, Hong Kong-focused spot in Silver Lake. After working with some of the city’s top chefs like Timothy Hollingsworth, Michael Voltaggio, and Ludo Lefebvre, he wanted to get back to his familial roots and focus on the Hong Kong food he grew up eating. He knew the concept would work somewhere, but he needed a place that would support an independent small business, have a demographic that would be open to new ideas in food, and stay within budget. 

Not far from Pine & Crane, Needle is little more than a counter and a few tables, which dictates what and how Wong can serve. He admits that although he had the concept in mind, the neighborhood helped shape the direction the restaurant is going today. Pre-pandemic, guests ordered small plates from the counter and took a number—maybe you’d stop for a pork chop bun and sit at one of the small tables inside or on the patio. When he shifted to takeout meals, he created simple rice plates, things that were easy to reheat and traveled well. 

“It wasn’t really cutting it,” Wong says. “So I started to introduce things that were more thoughtful, used better ingredients, even if they were more labor-intensive. It started to stick. During the pandemic, people just wanted something different, so we made things other restaurants wouldn’t have.” For example, he tried vegan lettuce cups or a Hong Kong-style beef curry.

“Our Silver Lake regulars kept us afloat during the pandemic, and we wouldn’t have made it without them,” he adds. “Fortunately, we’ve been getting new customers, probably word of mouth. More people are going out now. But we don’t want to lose our regulars.”


 

Target Audience

When Chef Daniel Cutler and his general manager and wife, Caitlin, opened Ronan, their packed stretch of Melrose already had plenty of pizza and Italian food, but that didn’t discourage them. They tried to create something that would stand out. Everything was personalized: the decor, which they had a hand in designing; the right ambience; their music; a menu tailored for more relaxed dining, nothing formal, where you didn’t need an Italian dictionary to decipher dishes. 

Cutler says it felt like L.A. but not really L.A., and it hit big. But after the initial opening rush, things died down. They realized they had to cultivate a more local audience. The pandemic actually kind of helped find it.

“We made it up as we went along,” says Cutler. “We have people come in now that say, ‘I lived three houses down and never knew about this place.’ We kind of got lucky with that stuff. We were lucky we served pizza. Now we have a regular neighborhood crowd, more local support.”

Moving to the neighborhood before opening helped the Cutlers balance their family and feel closer to the community. “We’re seeing that people don’t want to go back to their office; they’re all working from home now. We plan on keeping takeout, which we didn’t do before the pandemic,” he adds. “We’re just used to doing it now, the neighborhood wants it.” 


 

Taking the High Road

The West Adams neighborhood wasn’t known as a hotbed for sit-down restaurants when Chef Keith Corbin and business partner Daniel Patterson opened Alta Adams in 2018. But the corner restaurant with its sleek, down-home vibe quickly gained a following for California soul food, healthier riffs on Southern dishes.

Like many restaurants, the pandemic meant having to morph into something the community needed, not just wanted. Alta Adams switched to takeout and delivery, served made-to-order fried chicken and pantry staples from the adjacent coffee shop, and allowed customers to pay on a sliding scale, thanks to the statewide initiative High Road Kitchens. 

Through all the changes, Corbin’s steadfast commitment to serving his community remained. Having grown up in Watts, his main goal has always been to make good food accessible for those who need it most. 

“People really engaged with us on social media, giving us suggestions about what they wanted in the shop,” he says. “We just tried to bring better and more products to the community.”

As things began to reopen, including outdoor and indoor dining, the marketplace shifted to selling wine, especially those produced by women and BIPOC, and takeout will remain. It’s all in keeping with the ethos of Alta and the neighborhood.


 

Market Research

Rising Star Chef Jackson Kalb knew a marketplace wouldn’t work for his newest restaurant, Ospi, in Venice. During the pandemic, he sold staples like pasta, eggs, and flour at his first restaurant, Jame Enoteca, in El Segundo. If it didn’t catch at the more laid-back beach city, it wouldn't work at Ospi. And with a mishmash of devoted locals, tourists, beachgoers, and a cluster of unhoused folks who make the boardwalk their home, Venice is a much different beast. 

Kalb really got to know the neighbors during construction. They were happy about Ospi coming in, even though it took over the space of the longstanding Canal Club restaurant; it was something fresher, an esoteric take on Southern Italian cuisine. But the food was still familiar and accessible.

If there’s one thing the pandemic shed light on, good restaurateurs must be flexible in order to succeed. Pivoting is fine, as long as the original spark remains. Listening to the community is paramount; so is being there for it in good times and bad. It’s what makes our best neighborhood restaurants stand out.

“We just wanted to be a constant, positive force in the neighborhood,” Ku says. “A lot of people just wanted part of their routine back. The comfort in familiarity with food, the friendly interaction, being thoughtful in service, it all mattered.”

 

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