Chef Tin outside Little Sister, one of several new restaurants that opened this year which raised the bar in the local dining scene. Photo by Pete Henze (petehenze.com)
When I wrote my evaluation for 2012, a clear trend was ongoing – toward cheaper, simpler restaurants. That tendency reversed somewhat in 2013, as some of the most interesting and complex restaurants in the history of the South Bay made their debut. The local dining community, and the parade of outsiders who regard our area as a nightlife and tourism destination, are patronizing some restaurants that are world class and come with high tabs.
Circa Chef Byron Freeze. Photo by Kevin Cody
As has been the case for some time, the high-end action was in Manhattan Beach, with Circa, Fishing With Dynamite, and Little Sister all taking off quickly and then flourishing. All three offer stylish multicultural cuisine with dynamic chefs presenting daily creations, each with their own distinctive twist. Circa is the most eclectic, as FWD is exclusively for seafood lovers and Little Sister appeals to those who appreciate adventurous Asian fusion.
Chef David LeFevre at his newest restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Fishing With Dynamite. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan
The fourth high-end opening in downtown, Chez Soi, was as much of a bust as the others have been successes – the restaurant opened badly and then made just about every possible mistake, veering wildly on price point and style of food. The problems were at the top; the service staff was doing all they could, but with a mercurial and sometimes hostile manager and an erratic chef they were doomed to fail. Some locals had sneered that any place with snooty attitude could sell food in downtown Manhattan, but that has now been conclusively disproved.
Outside of downtown, Manhattan got another high-end place with the opening of Brickworks Roasthouse & Grill in Manhattan Village. The aim here is obviously to compete with Fleming’s and Houston’s for the crowd that enjoys stylish American food and steaks, and it’s probably a sound strategy for the location.
Elsewhere, Kah on Manhattan Beach Boulevard was replaced by Aji, which offers all-you-can-eat sushi and Japanese food made to order. The unusual concept offers all the advantages of a buffet with fresher food, and it will be interesting to see how it is received. Manhattan also got a full-service Indian restaurant for the first time in decades with India’s Tandoori, which proved immediately popular. Cantina Real, which opened next door, has struggled, and the owners may be wondering if opening across the street from a popular and well-established Mexican restaurant was a great idea.
Ragin’ Cajun owner Steven Domingue welcomes customers from the Pier Avenue days at the grand opening of the new Suzy’s Ragin’ Cajun Café, combining the Suzy’s Bar & Grill with the Ragin’ Cajun on Aviation Boulevard in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Richard Foss
The big news in Hermosa was about reopenings rather than openings, as Banzai Beach and the Ragin Cajun both came back into existence after being closed for years. Both fill unique niches – Banzai Beach’s reinvention as a teppanyaki-and-tiki themed place and the Ragin Cajun’s Louisiana cuisine with live entertainment make them destination restaurants. The Ragin Cajun’s place in the community is even more secure since one of their longtime South Bay competitors serving Louisiana food closed – Café Boogaloo, which had declined and earned a reputation for rowdiness and indifferent food.
Baker and owner of Hermosa Pie & Cake Company David Wallace gives a pair of young regulars a free cookie to share. “My cookies are ace,” Wallace says. “Trust me, they’re that good.” Wallace makes savory baked goods in his small but efficient back-room kitchen that’s modeled after a mobile French surgical unit. The entire area is a stainless steal environment that’s runs like a hospital. “I go from one dish to the next and don’t worry about cross-contamination,” he said. “The sink area’s used for washing utensils, and that’s no different than surgical equipment.” Photo by Chelsea Sektnan
One of the critically acclaimed openings was the smallest – Project Taco, a tiny stall on the pier plaza, dishes up eclectic tacos until the wee hours and seems to have a firm hold in the neighborhood. Do Hermosans want a blueberry-chipotle taco at 1 a.m.? This unlikely success story says yes. The town also got a new bakery, the small but ambitious Hermosa Pie & Cake Company, which specializes in European-style pastries using whatever ingredients the owner finds most appealing at the farmer’s market.
Elsewhere in Hermosa multiple restaurants that had announced imminent openings have stalled – Spiaggia seems completely moribund, and the plan for a Spanish restaurant in the former Hibachi space collapsed when the star chef who was integral to the project decamped. Things look better at Hook & Plow, which is scheduled to open early next year.
Brett Doherty and Kevin Michaels,new proprietors of the Mermaid. It reopened Friday, December 27. Photo by Chelsea Schreiber
A landmark was saved with the surprising reprieve for The Mermaid, which was scheduled for demolition so the hotel project could proceed. In my 2012 roundup I mentioned that it would be smart business to incorporate that local institution into the project rather than destroy it, and apparently the developers agreed. The Mermaid will reopen soon, more stylish and lots cleaner than its old incarnation, but recognizably the same.
Mermaid co-owner Kevin Michaels and contractor Bennett Talsky celebrate the legendary restaurant’s reopening Friday, December 27.
Derek of House Beer and Mermaid owner Kevin Michaels prepare for Friday’s reopening. Photo by Adrienne Slaughter
El Segundo was quiet – Shoop’s opened and closed, doomed by inept service and expensive and inconsistent food. The space was bought by Petros and is scheduled to become a Greek restaurant and bakery in 2014. The only other opening of note was a branch of PizzaRev, a top-your-own pizza chain. Palos Verdes had a bit more activity with the reopening of Giorgio’s and an upscale competitor, Avenue Italy.
Redondo lost a landmark when Aimee Mizrahi closed her restaurant, and gained a new upscale sports bar when Avenue A opened in the same location. Another closure was Delzano’s, the steak and seafood house that had anchored the north end of the Boardwalk for years. The surprising replacement for that restaurant is R10 Social House, an ambitious “New American Gastropub” that opened for business as the year came to a close. R10 is very adventurous for the area, but could be the model for upscale restaurants in a neighborhood that will be transformed by the opening of the new Shade Hotel.
Like Manhattan and El Segundo, Redondo had a major opening that suddenly closed. The Redondo Wine Bistro opened in February and seemed to be doing well, but suddenly shuttered at the end of November. The space will become a second location for The Bottle Inn, an unusual example of a business that has been in operation almost forty years spawning its first offshoot.
Elsewhere in Riviera Village, Dolce Vita, which had opened with great fanfare under a celebrity chef, never gained any traction and closed ignominiously – it will soon become Locale 90, another modern Italian concept.
Doma Kitchen utilizes a large, colorful patio space as its primary dining area.
The oddest opening in town was Doma Kitchen, serving the cuisine of Uzbekhistan from a tiny cottage on PCH. Though the concept might seem questionable, the patio café has caught on and people who can’t find that country on a map now enjoy cumin-scented lamb kebabs. Other multicultural openings include Mashawi Kebab, Pho Show, Praha Czech Cuisine, and Panela’s Brazilian. More mainstream debuts include Rockn’Brews and Made By Meg, a gourmet lunch counter that is a side business for an acclaimed catering operation.
On the liquid side of the ledger, cocktail culture in the South Bay has been in flower, and most of the upscale openings that have full liquor licenses offer signature drinks. The South Bay has been a bit behind in recognizing the skills of creative cocktail concocters, but is definitely catching up.
Looking at broad trends, our dining options continue to expand, with no ethnic or cultural style having a clear advantage. Unlike some years when there was a rush of Italian, Japanese, or gastropubs, this crop was not fad-driven, but instead reflected many individual decisions about what cuisine and price point the locality would support. Over forty places opened, a new record, and based on the number of new restaurants announced we may average a new restaurant a week in 2014. Chefs and investors obviously believe that the area will continue to make fortunes, or at least comfortable livings, and they’re betting their money on pleasing our palates. ER