The building has indeed been put to a variety of uses — built as a church in 1924, it was sold to a developer in 1973, but plans for a restaurant didn’t work out. It was an artist’s cooperative called the Creative Craft Center for a few years, then went on to fame as the rehearsal space for punk rock’s Black Flag, Redd Kross, and other bands. Penelope Spheeris shot much of her famous music documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” in the dilapidated and vandalized building shortly before it was scheduled to be demolished. Black Flag played a famous final show using the altar as a stage, and then the majority of the building fell to the bulldozers.
In 1998 the remains were rebuilt into Ein Stein’s Brewery, and when that business closed in 2002, Jed Sanford and his brother Allen stepped in to open Union Cattle. At the time it was a daring proposition – a large, beautifully decorated place with an impressive wine list that also had a mechanical bull in the bar.
“There weren’t any other steakhouses in Hermosa back when we opened… there were places where you could get a steak, but they didn’t really focus on it,” Sanford reminisced. “It could still do well as Union Cattle, but I want to change the name and décor to show that we’ve taken an evolution, food-wise. When we opened up we were pushing the edge in Hermosa, and I think we’re now ready to do that again.”
Sanford’s decision to change the food and décor reflects a change in his own tastes and ambitions as much as it does a reading of the changing demographics of Hermosa. Asked about a comment Palmilla co-owner Greg Newman made in an Easy Reader article to the effect that as he got older he preferred his upscale restaurant to the college bar he also owns, Sanford said that mirrored his experience.
“I started Union Cattle while I was in my late 20s, now I’m in my late 30s,” he said. “Every business owner wants to work with what generates their passion, and as you develop new ideas and products, that passion changes. I think the same people who went to Union Cattle will be interested in Abigaile, just as I am.”
The famous mechanical bull will not be part of Abigaile, but when Sanford talks about it you can hear the wistful note of a child remembering a favorite toy.
“I remember the first day they drove the bull in and my brother and I took turns controlling it and riding it. We had a lot of fun with that – it wasn’t just the bar crowd, we had a lot of kids who loved it. I haven’t ridden it for quite a while, actually.”
From Sanford’s description of his new concept, the bull would definitely be out of place. “The designers I’m using are Bishop-Pass, who also did M Street and Gjelina on the Westside. It’s going to have an upscale feel but be casual, to fit the experience here.”
Another element of the restaurant uses an asset that most people forgot was still there.
“This used to be Ein Stein’s Brewery, and the brewing tanks are still in place. It’s a Ferrari of a brewery, but we haven’t been using it because it didn’t fit the Union Cattle concept. I brought in Brian Brewer from Stone Brewery, and we’ve been rebuilding and testing the system and we will have some new releases when we open Abigaile.”
“As for the menu, we don’t like to be put in boxes, but if you have to, then we’re a New American brasserie. A lot of what our chef does has an Italian and French Mediterranean influence, and we’ll have a mix of small plate dining options and full entrees. It will definitely be different from anything else in Hermosa.”
Sanford is counting on the skills of new chef Max DiMare, a newcomer to the area.
“We moved Max down here from Northern California. He had been at Wood Tavern in the Bay Area and made a huge reputation there, and was ready for a move,” Sanford said. “He fell in love with surfing, and Hermosa was very attractive to him. He’s a great guy and a really talented chef, and the South Bay is super lucky to have him. He moved here last week and I took him out to the cove where I grew up surfing, and we had a fantastic time. He was a natural, really took to the big waves.”
The chef remembers the surfing trip slightly differently.
“I love surfing, but I’ve only been doing it for two years,” DiMare said. “Jed took me out last week when the waves were really high and I thought I was gonna die out there. It was really exciting, paddling out into those massive waves, and I was glad to make it out alive.”
His surf skills may need some honing, but there is no doubt about his talents in the kitchen. DiMare worked at San Francisco restaurants Scala’s Bistro, Paragon, and Frascati before becoming founding chef at Wood Tavern in 2007, winning several awards including a “Rising Star Chef” designation from the James Beard Foundation. He developed a devoted following for menus that were heavy on seasonal produce and sophisticated versions of American and Italian favorites. Both at Wood Tavern and in his planned menu at Abigaile, DiMare drew on his own heritage for inspiration.
“My family is from Sicily, and that is reflected in my menu – you’ll see some meatballs, osso bucco, gnocchi, some pasta starters,” he said. “There will be a very large appetizer menu, and if you want to dine that way you can, or you can be more traditional.”
His own tradition includes the art of making many items in-house.
“I make my own charcuterie, pates, rillettes, and I’m going to start making my own dry-cured salamis,” he said. “It takes a full day of hard work to make the sausages, but they have to hang and cure for two months. I’ll be using local suppliers for fresh cheeses and as many other things as I can. As it happened, I’ve been getting my specialty produce from a Los Angeles-based company for years, so I can keep using a supplier I trust.”
Though DiMare is new to Hermosa, he has been enjoying dining out at South Bay restaurants and has already found a restaurant that is similar to what he wants to do.
“I ate at MB Post this weekend and had a great meal there… they’re doing some of the same things I’m doing, but there’s a lot of Asian influence on their menu,” he said. “My menu will be American, with Italian, Spanish, and French influence. Like the menu I had at Wood Tavern, I’m sure that it will grow and change with the community; what I was doing when I left was way different from what I started with. I’m writing the menu now and will bounce it off Jed and the other guys – I know how to put together some great things, but they know the community better.”
Union Cattle’s last day in business is Jan. 14, with Abigaile scheduled to open on Feb. 3. The Ocean Bar, which is upstairs from the restaurant, will remain open with their current menu until Abigaile opens, at which time the menu will expand to include items from DiMare’s kitchen.
Sanford is confident that the transition will go smoothly despite the unusually short amount of time that has been allotted, and is optimistic about the prospects for an innovative restaurant in a downtown that is dominated by party places.
“I think there’s a really interesting scene going on in Hermosa, and I try to be active in it – I’m the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and I see an influx of energy in the business community. I also enjoy history and think it’s important to remember our roots – my goal is to push the envelope in certain areas and in others to really be grounded in what has come before.”