Lemonade, a new cafeteria style eatery in Manhattan Beach’s Metlox Plaza, was representative of both a more health and cost-conscious approach to fine dining in the South Bay. Photo by Richard Foss
2012 was a turbulent year in the local dining scene, one in which local restaurants worked to attract thrifty diners. Despite a slow but steady economic recovery, the tendency was for expensive and high-concept places to close and be replaced by more modest and straightforward establishments.
The South Bay’s most ambitiously themed restaurants, Maison Riz and Oliver’s, both closed, one to be replaced by a branch of Rockn’Brews while the other remains empty. Both had capable chefs but were the kind of place people visit only once to see what is going on. The decline of sushi in the South Bay continued with the closure of four Japanese restaurants; Sashi, Taiko, Redondo & Sushi, and Sun & Moon all catered to an affluent crowd, while the only sushi bar to open this year, El Segundio’s BAD Sushi, is modestly priced.
Abigaile, the only new high concept eatery, has different goals from the places that closed – to serve very adventurous food in a casual setting based on Hermosa’s music history. Compared to places that had rivaled a theme park, it’s a modest ambition. This isn’t to say that the newcomers are timid, but that like Abigaile they offer ambience that’s more everyday than exotic. The Hamptons interprets East Coast beach chic for West Coasters, while House of Pita dispenses exceptional Arabic and North African food in a serene atmosphere. The most stylish newcomer is Dominique’s Kitchen, which offers country French fare at moderate prices and is doing well in a location that has doomed several other establishments.
Two trends have stalled – dining lounges and gastropubs. No gastropubs opened in 2012, and the two places that opened with a lounge atmosphere, Studio and Establishment, replaced conceptually identical restaurants. Establishment seems locals-oriented while Studio woos the Hollywood crowd; given the glut of nightlife-oriented places near the Hermosa Plaza there may only be room for one. Neither is going after the same demographic as the Mermaid, which died and rose again this year. The Mermaid’s days are numbered, and when the area is redeveloped it will probably close for good. Given the heritage of the place, it wouldn’t surprise me if the bar and some fixtures are saved for incorporation into the new hotel’s lounge.
The seasonal peach salad by Chef Tin at Abigaile in Hermosa Beach, perhaps the most adventurous new restaurant to open in the South Bay this year. Photo by Wicked+
Another landmark, the Rocky Cola Café, closed and left a big hole in the neighborhood. There is now nowhere to get a real meal in Hermosa after 10 p.m. – fast food or bar snacks are the only options. Night owls, shift workers, and those who wanted to have dessert with the family after seeing a show have no choices without leaving town.
A surprising number of the newcomers are health-oriented – Lemonade, Leafy Greens, Ripe Choice, Turmeric, The Source, and Marine Street Café all cater to same crowd, even though they offer a range of cuisines. Along with the Blue Zone menus that have cropped up at mainstream restaurants, this represents confidence that healthy dining will be good business in 2013 and beyond. One new establishment made a big bet in the opposite direction – if you want a deep fried hot dog wrapped in bacon on white bread, Hotdoggers will be happy to oblige. Given our tendency to say we want to eat healthier while actually buying junk food, it may be a wise choice, though Hotdogger’s is visibly struggling and has cut operating hours.
That reduced schedule is the opposite of what has been happening elsewhere, because other establishments have been acting confident. Hermosa’s La Campagña was most ambitious, moving upstairs to more than triple their seating. Other dinner houses have been opening for breakfast and lunch, particularly in Manhattan Beach where brunch culture is strong. Several restaurants in downtown MB underwent changes in chef or ownership this year, and more have remodeling either scheduled or underway; Café Pierre and Mucho have both announced impending makeovers. MB Post plans to open up a seafood restaurant, called FWD, somewhere in the city this year, as well. Along with the closure of Mr. Cecil’s and the pending sale of another restaurant nearby, it portends major changes in the coming year.
It’s worth remembering that closure isn’t always the end, since two restaurants that reopened in 2012 had been closed for years: Uncle Stavros and Jackson’s. It seems that there are second lives in the local restaurant scene after all, so other long-lost favorites may reemerge.
The place to watch in 2013 is Redondo, where the resolution of pier lease problems and redevelopment of the Boardwalk and marina promise a major overhaul. New entrants are working on proposals and existing owners are planning upgrades to their facilities to compete. Hermosa will probably be quieter, with only two high profile openings announced, an Irish gastropub and a branch of Killer Shrimp, and no new openings have been announced in El Segundo.
As the economy improves, will the pricey end of the spectrum recover? It’s impossible to say. My only bet is that the variety of local dining options will continue to expand, which is good news for all who call this place home.