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The Force Behind L.A.'s Booming Restaurant Scene

New-school places might get all the attention, but it's these blockbuster classics that paved the way
Photos: Todd Coleman

A gleaming rolling cart of Lawry's standing rib roasts clanged to a stop in front of me, and a carver, all self-serious, pivoted to reveal himself. A huge gold medal held in place by a thick red ribbon was draped around his neck, reading The Royal Order of Carvers. (Medieval Times called; they want their playbook back.)

I discovered later that after months of training, each carver-initiate kneels in a ceremony in front of the staff and is knighted into the order with a huge sword. This is telling of the experience that is dining at Lawry's, one that's morphed from the glitz and glamour of 1930s L.A. to a worthy meat-laden venture, populated by servers who appear to have just won Olympic medals. In a move that felt like a Salt Bae precursor, the carver's knife deftly slashed through a crusty roast, revealing a deep-red cut with thick rivulets of fat throughout. Plated with creamed spinach, the effect was devastatingly delicious. It was hard to stay smug, and I began to feel as if I were the one who'd just won gold. 

Later that night, I sat at the Tropicana Pool at The Hollywood Roosevelt hotel beneath an apartment that once housed Marilyn Monroe, with echoes of Shirley Temple's tap shoes lingering in the air. I sipped a tequila cocktail called Traffic and thought about why I'd come to Los Angeles. All is Very Not Quiet on the western front lately, as far as restaurants are concerned. L.A.'s dining scene has never been buzzier, and every time you think the wave is going to ebb, high tide picks right back up again. As a New Yorker, I wanted to better understand it. And I planned on doing that the only way I knew how: by entering its soul through the restaurants its reputation was built on. 

The next morning, I sat in (actual non-tequila-based) traffic on my way to Grand Central Market in L.A.'s ever-changing Downtown. My driver introduced himself as Raymond Masters (a nom de plume surely plucked from a 1960s soap opera). He proceeded to tell me his life story, which he styled as "the confessions of a chauffeur"—his ups and downs, polished over years of fleeting customer rapport. As we entered Downtown, he fiddled with the radio knob and asked if I liked Amy Winehouse. Sure, I said, not looking up from my phone. With a start, he unleashed a pitch-perfect rendition of "Rehab." As I stepped out of the car at the market, he stopped mid-retro warble to turn and say, "Get the wonton soup." 

Not one to ignore an order under such circumstances, I walked through a sea of millennial food bloggers buzzing around the market to the glowing-red China Cafe, the oldest merchant on-site. Grand Central Market used to be a sleepy open floor plan of taquerias and produce stalls; now, it's teeming with energy with a seemingly uncountable number of new vendors. 

When the soup arrived at my counter seat, I immediately wished I hadn't ordered it. I was going to be ruined on wonton soup for life. A big, wide restorative bowl with a generous amount of deeply crenellated wontons, rough hunks of chicken, stained-red roast pork—all densely packed in broth punctuated with scallion and ginger. I doused it with lime and chile oil and fell in, rediscovering how Chinese American food should always be. 

I had to leave it half-finished, though, when I looked up and spotted a purple neon sign straight out of the movie To Live and Die in L.A. that read PBJ LA. I quickly queued up for my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich in 20 years at the six-month-old stand. I chose one called the Old Fashioned: a swirl of salted pecan butter with an apple jam tinted with Angostura bitters, in a highly new-fashioned nod to the classic cocktail. To toast or not to toast, that was the question. "Don't toast it," the owner said with a smile. Each sandwich was built on pillowy, thick round slices and punched into a sphere in a modified hand-pulled juice press. The edges were pinched in the process, sealing everything inside. Each bite was like birthday cake, a celebration so welcome I didn't even care that Smuckers invented this "new concept" 20-plus years ago (it's called the Uncrustable). 

It's hard to get a grip on the geographic sprawl of L.A., so I decided to walk over to OUE Skyspace in the old US Bank Tower. At 1,000 feet in the air, the view from what is the tallest observation deck in California was nothing if not Blade Runner-esque, as the sun fell and the citywide neon glow crested. This place really does go on forever.

Down below, among the old movie palaces on South Broadway, I thought I could make out the newly refurbished Clifton's Cafeteria.The last time I was at the 1930s-era Clifton's, almost a decade ago, I was floored by its bombastic quirkiness. In mood and decoration, it was like a drugged version of Disneyland's "It's a Small World" with a cafeteria attached. Since then, it's been closed, renovated and officially revived in 2015. The new owner has actually succeeded in making it even crazier: by cutting through several floors to add a (fake) giant redwood tree and a tiki bar with a (real) boat centerpiece, while keeping the lunchroom Jell-O molds (I counted at least five wondrous, wiggly variations). If you plan ahead, go on a Living History Tour. It takes you deep into the untold nooks and crannies, like the neon sign they found behind a wall that had been on for 90 years, racking up a $30,000 dollar electric bill.

Something about L.A.'s old-world charm pulled me in, and, not ready to snap back into 2018, I headed to the venerable Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard to meet Mark Echeverria, the great-grandson of one of the original owners. "This place opened in 1919," Mark said. "The secret to its longevity has been the staff—everyone comes here for our waiters." One such paragon is Sergio Gonzales, who's been working there for 47 years. Majestic and avuncular in his black-trimmed red waiter's coat, napkin over his arm at the ready, he struck me as the type who'd be an excellent sounding board for all of life's questions.

I started by asking whether to have the grilled calf's liver with bacon or the grenadine of beef with béarnaise sauce. While finishing up a creamy, sherry-spiked turkey à la king (the third option), I mentioned that I had other plans but didn't really want to leave. He wasn't surprised. "Jack Webb [aka Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet fame] used to sit here all day wearing red socks, smoking and drinking Jack Daniel's," Gonzales said. "A lot of actors and actresses and regular old people—then and now—consider this their home." 

That night, when I sat down at Wolfgang Puck's Spago, the table next to me leaned over to tell me I look like Joaquin Phoenix, which was quickly followed by a hushed and furtive, "Are you him?" I wasn't, and I'm still not, but in the luxurious ambience and dim-lovely light, I didn't blame them—everyone looked like a star.

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that people want to go out. As in really go out, to experience something special and feel something out of the ordinary. This, along with the earlier stops on my Beverly Hills tour, was a place that provided that service. I was thinking all this, as Laurent Steunou, the general manager, raised a condensated glass cloche from a plate of truffled agnolotti, letting me take it in as if I was breathing from a diamond-crusted Neti Pot.  Next, I decided to go for Wolfgang Puck's childhood favorite: Wiener schnitzel. It's an off-menu item they can't take off the menu.

I sat for hours marveling at the orchestrated flow of the dining room. I told Laurent I couldn't believe that Wolfgang had been operating at this level for so long. "It's an American story," he said. "And he hasn't stopped going." Much like the city itself.

Todd Coleman is a creative director and editor at large for Tasting Table. Follow him on Instagram at @toddwcoleman. 

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