Eleven from ‘11: Last year’s top eleven new South Bay restaurants
Restaurateurs in the South Bay are usually selling something more than food; they’re selling a vision of their eatery as a reflection of the Good Life. That means different things in different places, but usually involves a lively, exciting environment, dining very well while not having to dress up to match, and eating something that is artisanal, farm-raised, or eclectic.
This year’s crop of new restaurants delivers on those promises remarkably well, whether your idea of the good life is sitting at a rustic outdoor table with plastic cutlery or lounging in a high-style booth with crystal on the table. As always, when it came to deciding which restaurants could be considered for a list of the very best, I had some difficult judgment calls. American Farmhouse Tavern & Dining Hall is substantially different from the American Farmhouse Grill, has a greatly expanded menu, and is in a different location – should it be regarded as a new establishment? There is enough continuity that I decided it should not be in contention, though it would have been an obvious winner otherwise. Should Bar Comida be regarded as separate from Chez Melange? They share the same management and items from both kitchens are served in the Bar Comida space, so again I erred on the side of favoring truly new establishments. To get a new restaurant up to speed involves training front of house and kitchen staff to do both their own jobs and to work together, and places that start out with established teams would have an overwhelming advantage.
There were some fascinating near-misses, places that came very close to making the cut. One Redondo restaurant would have made the cut if the service hadn’t been so chaotic – in multiple visits I never received the correct meal. The kitchen and servers seem to barely communicate, which profoundly affected the dining experience. At another, the servers were downright grouchy and argued loudly right next to customers, shattering any sense of a comfortable dining experience. The tight job market has not apparently made some servers decide to learn their job well in the hope of keeping it and of getting higher tips, but there have still been problems at all price levels with staff who knew little about their menu or the art of pleasing customers.
The restaurants that did make the cut include some of the most and least pricey of last year’s openings, and showed inspiring ingenuity in creating original environments that suit their cuisine. As occasionally happens when I try to create a top ten list, I found that the list just didn’t feel complete without one more – therefore, it’s a top eleven this time, listed in alphabetical order.
The space on Main Street in El Segundo is as comfortable as a living room, and even looks like one if your living room has a thirty-foot long bar on one side. The theme is unpretentious fun, creative snacks to complement a glass of wine or two, and the place feels more like a European neighborhood hangout than just about anywhere else in the area. The menu is heavy on crostini and salads with an Asian twist, and you can fill the table with small plates for a very modest price. It’s not high concept, but it’s a relaxing place to while away the end of the day.
Almost a year after opening Fishbar continues to evolve, having set up shop in a dated and scruffy environment and renovated into a more contemporary environment. It doesn’t look like a food-centered place thanks to the wall of TVs tuned to sports channels, but chef Jessica Jordan has highly creative ideas about what to do with fish. Never decide what you’re going to have before checking the specials board, because new items have been known to become available partway through the evening. At first it seemed like Fishbar was going to have the accent on the “bar”, but the supply of fresh seafood at modest prices has ensured a healthy balance.
Otherwise known as “that place with the invisible sign where the sushi place used to be in Redondo,” Hostaria Piave is a rarity, a restaurant serving the cuisine of Venice and Italy’s northeast. The atmosphere is strictly traditional and the menu has items you will find nowhere else in the area, like cuttlefish over polenta, pasta with fresh sardines and breadcrumbs, monkfish with clams and mussels, and poached veal tongue. The flavors are wonderfully Italian, the service professional and charming, and there is nothing to suggest that the ocean a few blocks away is the Pacific rather than the Adriatic.
231 S. Pacific Cst. Hwy., RB. (310) 374-1000. See Hostaria Piave’s website.
If flavors were sound, these would be shouting – Hot’s Kitchen is as bold and brassy as any restaurant that has ever existed in theSouthBay. Wild things happen here, like the Thai green curry fish tacos, an extraordinary idea that is very well handled. Menus change constantly, and the house beer expert brings in all manner of seasonal suds to charm those who like their ales and stouts. The ambiance is a problem for some people, an echoing, cavernous space, but the first-rate food keeps bringing people in.
David LeFevre is an accomplished chef who favors small portions of exquisite food – these dishes are almost fractal in their layers of flavor and color. It’s a mystery how a chef can deliver hundreds of plates an hour with every one looking like a glamour shot, but the team here are experts at what they do. The menu selections change daily, including an array of artisanal cheeses and cured meats, and for an experience of this caliber and sophistication the prices are modest. It is loud and most tables are shared, but in this place it actually does come off as exciting and edgy rather than contrived.
Oh La La Bistro
The French bistro on PCH is defiantly old fashioned in style, welcoming people with soft music rather than thumping beats. This is a place to relax over your food, which is French traditional cuisine served in classic but not fussy style. The sunny flavors of Southern Europe come alive here, rich sauces that perfectly complement good wine paired with exquisite meat and seafood – mussels are a specialty. The service is genteel and nothing is rushed – this restaurant celebrates the eternal values of traditional cuisine, and you should slow down and savor it.
Oliver’s CafeAfter opening with an eccentric and somewhat incoherent menu, this restaurant has snapped into focus. The food they now serve has little to do with the theme, which involves walls festooned with Broadway posters of Oliver Twist. Instead there are items like wild boar tenderloin over champagne-braised napa cabbage, five-spice seared tuna with soy-mint vinaigrette, and a very creditable fried Jidori chicken with country gravy – eclectic, but very well handled. There are still rough edges in the service and the wine list has evolved so fast that nobody knows what is on the list, but everyone is obviously doing their best to make things work and the overall experience is positive.
6300 Pacific Cst. Hwy., RB. (310) 375-5481. See Oliver’s Cafe’s website.
PalmillaModernizing Mexican food can be a difficult task – there are ancient ideas here that need to be expressed without compromise, and many kitchens can’t hit that balance. Palmilla’s boutique version of South of the Border food doesn’t try to break much new ground, aiming instead to use top-quality ingredients with traditional flavors and presentations. It works, and they’ve been packed since the day they opened. The standard of food and service is high for the South Bayand exceptional for the Pier Plaza, and Palmilla raises the standards for the whole area.
39 Pier Ave., HB. (310) 503-7722. See Palmilla’s website and the full Easy Reader review.
The gastropub movement still has plenty of life in it based on this classy and upscale bar and grill, which opened with a simple menu but has been evolving toward greater sophistication. Grilled or fried vegetables are fresh-cut when you order them, ketchup and sauces are made in-house, and old favorites are expertly prepared using quality ingredients. Of late more complex items have been added to the menu, marking an evolution toward a more sophisticated eatery. New items like slow-braised short ribs have been crowd pleasers, and joining yellowtail ceviche and mussels with blue cheese and bacon on the menu. Most appropriately, they now offer oysters Rockefeller daily instead of only on weekends, so the place lives up to its name.
422 Pier Ave., HB. (310) 372-8467. See Rockefeller’s website.
The Standing Room
Does your idea of the South Bay good life can extend to eating from a takeout container at a bus stop? If so, you need not go very far to eat your dinner from The Standing Room – the bus stop bench is the closest place to sit down after picking up your order here. If more luxury is in order, dash home to enjoy the wildly adventurous food that comes from the sandwich counter in the back of a liquor store. The overall theme is Hawaiian fusion matched with fast food classics – Korean-style fried chicken, a burger with gourmet toppings paired with spicy fried edamame beans or Parmesan truffle fries, or a pulled pork sandwich to beat the rest. The prices are subterranean for the quality; this is the best commercial kitchen in theSouthBaythat doesn’t happen to be attached to a restaurant. In case you want this food at its freshest, the public park across the street offers great views of the pier and ocean, so you can have dinner with a view.
144 N Catalina Ave., RB. (310) 374-7545. See a menu at UrbanSpoon.com.
The only restaurant in Manhattan Beachwith a panoramic ocean view could serve almost anything and attract tourists – that was certainly the attitude of the previous restaurant in this space. Instead the Strand House offers easily the most ambitious menu in a wide radius, with house-made sausages, cured meats, and terrines, arcane vegetable items, and top quality meats and seafood paired with thoughtful side dishes. As with any innovative place there are occasional misfires, but even when things are not totally successful they are thought provoking. Creativity comes at a price – this may be the most expensive restaurant in a high-end town – but chefs Travis Lorton and Neal Fraser are delivering an experience like no other in the South Bay.
117 Manhattan Beach Blvd. MB, (310) 545-7470. See the Strand House’s website.
By any standard this has been an eventful year, with the arrival of celebrity chefs marking a new maturity in the local scene and convergence with the greater Los Angeles dining community. The openings announced for the coming year don’t include any similar blockbusters, but the year is young, and as our community proves that innovative dining has a market here, the stars are sure to take notice.