Manhattan Beach Ultrafication: The great dining divide
(Third in a series.)
by Kevin Cody
Last September, the McColgan family, owners of several South Bay sports bars, sold Sharks Cove in downtown Manhattan Beach to the Newman family, owners of the upscale Palmilla Cocina y Tequila restaurant in downtown Hermosa Beach. Sharks Cove is to become a Palmilla Cocina y Tequila.
Two weeks later, the Marine Street Cafe, in North Manhattan, whose servings were named after local pro volleyball players (“The Hov” spicy brisket panini, the “Loiola” Brazilian acai bowl and “The McPeak” wild salmon) closed. The owner and landlord were unable to agree on a lease extension. “The only place you could walk in with no shirt, no shoes or in a wetsuit,” as owner Skylar Tourigny described her neighborhood cafe, is to become Les P’Tits Bretons Restaurant. Landlord Michael Leigh said the new owner is an award winning chef from Brittany who has been looking for a Manhattan Beach location for years.
The two turnovers reflect Manhattan Beach’s transition from culinary backwater to dining destination. After long being ignored by Westside-centric LA critics, Manhattan restaurants now regularly appear on the 101 Best Restaurants List, prepared annually by Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Manhattan’s new showcase restaurants, like its new showcase architecture, followed the post 2008 recession influx of ultra wealthy residents. (Since 2010, 25 percent of Manhattan Beach single-family homes have changed hands. The average price is $2.2 million.) And like the new architecture, the new restaurants have received mixed reviews from older residents, whose concerns have little to do with those of food critics.
In December, the Manhattan Beach city staff presented a 700 page Downtown Specific Plan to the city council. The plan’s purpose is to preserve the downtown’s small town character, at significant costs to downtown property owners. The plan would limit, if not prohibit, street level offices and chain stores, which can pay higher rents than the small retailers and independent restaurants the plan is designed to protect.
Private property rights were barely discussed at the council meeting in which the plan was approved. Instead, the flashpoint was the plan’s provision for second-floor, outdoor dining, which would afford ocean views along the downtown’s steep streets. The provision would have been more restrictive than the current code.
As the evening progressed it became clear the opposition wasn’t just to second floor, outdoor tables.
“It’s not simply dining. It’s intensification of use which brings trash, traffic and parking issues,” resident Martha Andreani told the council.
“Visitors may very much like it and it may help their needs to get outdoor dining,” said Carol Perrin, head of the Downtown Resident’s group, leaving to be inferred that the downtown is for residents, not visitors.
By the end of the meeting, the council had deleted second floor, outdoor dining from the downtown plan. And it pointedly rewrote the plan’s vision statement, which stated the plan was “primarily oriented toward the local Manhattan Beach community, while acknowledging the role that visitors play in supporting the downtown.” The second half of the vision, relating to visitors, was deleted.
The nostalgia factor
Even after Manhattan Beach completed its transformation from blue collar to white collar in the 1970s, residents’ dining preferences leaned toward Uncle Bill’s pancakes and Sloopy’s burgers and malts. The most successful downtown restaurant was the 24-hour Kettle coffeeshop.
In the late 1970s, London restaurateur Michael Franks and chef Robert Bell introduced downtown Manhattan Beach to a fusion of French, Indian and Filipino foods, first at Courtney’s Bistro and then at The Silo. Both attempts failed, Franks said, because only old people went out to dinner and they did it to drink and socialize. Young people went to clubs and concerts.
In 1981, Silo’s young chef John Sedlar and sommelier Steve Garcia opened Saint Estephe in the Manhattan Village Shopping Center. Sedlar’s artful entrees included Salmon Painted Desert and blue corn tortillas with foie gras and tequila jelly. Cactus pear granita was served between meals as a palate cleanser.
“It was the first time I had hominy, pasilla chiles or sopapilla,” Franks recalled.“John was always a charming chef and the first in the South Bay to receive national recognition.”
In a 2011 Easy Reader interview, Sedlar returned the compliment to his mentor and fellow South Bay pioneer by noting, “There is a lot of interesting food in the South Bay now, but back then, there was just us and Chez Melange.”
St. Estephe survived barely a year. Today, it is revered as the birthplace of modern Southwest cuisine. Sedlar failed, Franks said, because South Bay people had neither the money nor sufficient interest in food to support a boundary-pushing restaurant.
“John depended on people from the Westside and they weren’t willing to drive here. What’s changed, is now those people live here and they don’t want to drive to the Westside,” Franks said.
In 1982, the year St. Estephe closed, Franks and Bell opened Chez Melange in the Plush Horse Hotel coffee shop, at the foot of Palos Verdes in Redondo’s Riviera Village. Their menu changed daily, and what later became known as farm-to-table ingredients caught the attention of Richard Sanford, a Palos Verdes resident and Santa Barbara winery owner.
“He invited us to fly up to his winery for the founding meeting of the American Institute of Food and Wine. When we told him we didn’t have a plane, that we could barely afford to keep the restaurant open, he rented a plane for us and met us at the Santa Barbara airport. Julia Child, Robert Mondavi, Alice Waters, actor Danny Kaye — everyone there was famous except us.”
Franks and Bell returned to Redondo encouraged by the recognition, but still destined to labor for decades like dishonored prophets in a culinary desert.
A 2010 story by Easy Reader restaurant critic Richard Foss listed 236 Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach restaurants that opened between 2001 and 2010. (The list did not include fast food or grocery food counters). Only five of the restaurants were high cuisine and only two lasted more than three years: Towne in Manhattan Beach (2001 to 2009), Avenue in Manhattan Beach (2005 to 2008). Brix in Hermosa Beach (2008 to 2010), La Sosta in Hermosa Beach (2005 to 2015) and Maison Riz on the Redondo Pier (2009 to 2012).
Then the Great Recession of 2008 lifted and the ultra wealthy began to arrive in numbers significant enough to attract celebrity chefs.
In 2011, Manhattan Beach finally caught the attention of the greater Los Angeles area restaurant critics when Michelin star chef David LeFevre left Los Angeles’ Water Grill to open MB Post in the old, downtown Manhattan Beach post office. Chef Tin Vuong followed across the street, with Little Sister. The two became the first Manhattan Beach restaurants to land on Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list.
In 2015, two new Beach Cities restaurants opened with menu prices that track with Strand home prices.
The first was Steak and Whisky in Hermosa Beach, another of chef Tin Vuong’s ventures. Reviewer Richard Foss wrote dryly of its dry aging offerings, “The smallest steak was a 14 ounce filet, not my favorite cut, and it was priced at $80. Japanese wagyu ribeye could be had for $34 per ounce, but I have never been a fan of wagyu and didn’t feel like spending over $150 to see if they could convert me.”
Steak and Whisky was recently relaunched as S & W American Table & Bar. Its menu doesn’t have prices, suggesting the old maxim that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
The second ultra expensive restaurant to open in 2015 was Arthur J’s, in downtown Manhattan Beach. Foss’s otherwise very positive review contained the following caveat: “Dinner at The Arthur J is on the high side by local standards. The less expensive of the two meals ran just over $250 for two, with two cocktails and four glasses of wine. That could have been much less if we had watched the wine budget. One the sommelier suggested was almost $25 for a three-ounce pour. It was a splendid pairing, but there were other good ones at more modest prices.”
The Arthur J is owned by the Simms family, who also own the Kettle and Simmzy’s Pub and are partners in MB Post and Fishing with Dynamite in downtown Manhattan Beach.
The Kettle was the family’s first Manhattan Beach restaurant. When it opened in 1973 a cup of coffee was 25 cents and steaks $6. Today a cup of its “artisan roasted proprietary blend” is $3.50. A New York steak is $27.95.
Still, the Kettle retains the hometown feel and even the affordability that Manhattan’s downtown specific plan hopes to preserve. The price of a coffee has outpaced the CPI, but its New York steak is actually cheaper than the $35 it would be based on 1973 prices.
“There have been six or seven marriages between members of our late night staff and members of the police department. When the cops get done at three or four o’clock in the morning they come here and talk with the waitresses. At six, she’s off shift and he walks her home and things blossom,” second generation Kettle co-owner Scott Simms told Easy Reader in 2014, during the restaurant’s 40th anniversary celebration.
Staff and customer loyalty have also survived the arrival of upscale, trend chasing restaurants.
“A third of the staff has been here more than 20 years,” Simms said. “Kids who grew up here and worked here bring their kids here now. We’re a community place, a multi-generational gathering place.”
Scott’s nephew Mike said that despite Manhattan Beach’s increasing wealth, he believes there will continue to be a place downtown for restaurants in all price ranges.
“The wealthy dine out more frequently. But they don’t want to spend $100 for a steak dinner every night. We see The Arthur J’s customers having business lunches at the Kettle.”
“The pinch,” he said, “will be in the mid-range because of rent and minimum wage increases.”
“My grandpa (Arthur J’s namesake) used to tell me food and labor should be 40 to 45 percent of a restaurant’s cost. But at $15 an hour, labor will be north of 35 percent.
“Higher end restaurants can raise prices because people are paying for the experience. Lower priced, ‘fast casual’ places like Sloopy’s and Manhattan Pizzeria, are typically self service and have small footprints.
“It’s the mid-priced restaurants offering full service that may have problems, not for lack of customers, but because people don’t want to pay $15 for their burgers,” Simms said.
The problems aren’t unique to Manhattan Beach, he noted.
“The restaurant landscape changes yearly. Amazon and now Uber have gotten into the food delivery service,” he pointed out by way of example. “Even at MB Post and Fishing with Dynamite, we get tons of orders through delivery services.”
Richard Foss and Ryan McDonald contributed to this article. ER
by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com