One 12 months Into Coronavirus, What Even Is a Restaurant in LA Anymore?
There is a driveway in Glendale, a residential slip of concrete that terminates in an overgrown gate with a little doorway cut in it. There are chalk X’s at six-foot intervals leading toward the sidewalk, ultimately fading out into the single-family neighborhood beyond. Come on the right night at the right time, and you’ll find most of those X’s occupied by people wearing masks, shaggy COVID hair spilling everywhere, peering into their phones as they wait for their turn to approach the gate. Quick hellos and confirmations follow, a package is exchanged, and that’s that. The food inside, warm but not heat-lamp hot, is shepherded away, to be eaten at home or in a park or under the dim hue of an interior car light from the driver’s seat.
Is this a restaurant in 2021? As the coronavirus continues to kill scores of people every single day in Los Angeles County and beyond, the places we have gone to gather, to eat, to enjoy have all changed in massively meaningful ways — so much so that the very definition of the word restaurant has become uncertain.
Now a restaurant may be a virtual/ghost/name-only kitchen concept, serving cheesy breakfast burritos, smashed burgers, and once-crisp fries that inevitably get steamed during delivery. It may also be a bag of food left by a gig worker on your front doorstep, or made by intrepid Instagram bakers crafting pastries and desserts from noncommercial home ovens. Most traditional sit-down restaurants around the city have spent most of the past year using dining rooms as storage space, complete with stacked takeaway boxes and overturned chairs. The low glow of delivery-app tablets light up old host stations, former banquettes and booths now hold extra jars of chile crisp and grocery inventory, kitchens work with skeleton crews as thousands of former restaurant workers remain unemployed. With loosening restrictions and lower coronavirus case counts lately some of these scenes are changing, but restaurants — at least the way we’ve traditionally known them — are far from back.
To understand how people within the industry define restaurants now, Eater reached out to nearly two dozen restaurant owners, chefs, underground and Instagram cooks, and more. They include people who started home-cooking operations during the pandemic or opened a counter-service setup inside of a limited-capacity food hall; people who have been making mariscos from a garage for half a decade in Long Beach; and people who cook some of the most in-demand food east of the LA River, earning write-ups in the LA Times and Food & Wine. There are few definitive answers to the seemingly simple question ‘What is a restaurant?’, but one overarching truth: A restaurant in 2021 might look very different than the restaurants of 2019, and how customers, workers, tech companies, and government officials come to view these new spaces will have implications for the future of the Los Angeles dining industry. Some are hopeful that the city’s thriving food world will reemerge from this yearlong darkness with a new sense of responsibility, equity, and hope; others are simply hanging on.
“I miss going to restaurants and eating food,” says Hannah Ziskin of underground bakery House of Gluten in Glendale. “What I don’t miss is working in one, to be honest. I know that the state and the city have been really lenient about people patching something together and making it work, and it’ll be really interesting to see how that transition happens once they decide to start legislating it.”
For what it’s worth, Ziskin says that her home baking operation, House of Gluten (previously run out of her apartment, but now in a pop-up space at the Row DTLA development), is not a restaurant, though she acknowledges that her small business does compete directly with brick-and-mortar, fully licensed restaurants for the same pool of dining dollars within the Los Angeles food ecosystem. And as the number of ways that people can choose to spend those dollars expands, it means that businesses large and small will have to rethink how they feed and build connections with customers.
“I don’t think the pop-ups are going away,” says Jeremy Fox of Birdie G’s. His Santa Monica restaurant, and the larger Rustic Canyon restaurant group of which he is a part, has been battered by a year of limited on-site dining and takeout demands brought on by the ongoing pandemic, and still isn’t offering indoor dining quite yet. Fox is a traditional restaurant guy, and his places focus on hospitality and in-person experience as much as on the food, which makes this past year all the more difficult, though there is some greater symbiosis possible with the new wave of food entrepreneurs entering the scene, he says. “I’ve enjoyed a lot of these pop-up meals; several of them have been from former and current employees of mine. It’s been a necessity for some, very fruitful for some, and as far as I’m concerned, if restaurants are able to get back to a capacity that we need to be, I am all for sharing the to-go business.”
Overturned chairs inside of Sun Nong Dan in Koreatown, April 2020
For some in the restaurant world, that sense of personal, on-site connection, at pre-pandemic capacity, is everything. Prior to 2020, Jo Kimberly owned one of the busiest restaurants in the city, the shoulder-to-shoulder all-day brunch restaurant the Griddle on Sunset Boulevard. Now she’s doing spaced-out patio dining at the Yamashiro property in Hollywood, but it’s hard to recreate the ambience she had before. “A restaurant is a place where people can come together, eat food, make memories, and smile,” says Kimberly, things that are hard to do behind masks and at distanced tables with smaller groups. Kimberly says she likely won’t return to her small Griddle space on Sunset, known for its giant pancakes and equally large line of waiting customers, until some of those COVID-19 protocols have been significantly eased. “I don’t want to go back to my restaurant and see it under these circumstances,” says Kimberly. “It’s depressing.”
“I love seeing people’s faces when they eat my food. I can’t wait to just have that face to face with customers”
Eden Batki, a home cook who makes and delivers weekly preorders of Hungarian food around Los Angeles, agrees that a restaurant can be best defined by its community, even during those months-long stretches where sit-down restaurants could only offer takeout. Batki says her home-cooking setup, sold mostly through Instagram and occasional pop-ups around the city, is decidedly not a restaurant. “There’s no space, no community, no nothing. Even if you were a home cook in Cuba or Africa or LA, if you have a space where people can come, then yeah, that’s a restaurant. I don’t care if you’re a legal one or not. This is so much more of a lonely journey for me. The only interaction I have is dropping off food at people’s houses.”
Louis Maskin’s Greek food pop-up Xenia, which has operated as a ghost kitchen and a weekly pop-up inside of Melody wine bar in Virgil Village, isn’t exactly a lonely affair, given Maskin’s ability to work collaboratively with other business owners in a single space and to see customers on occasion — but for him, the distance between realizing his full sit-down restaurant dream and his current setup is still too much. “We have this master vision for what this guest experience will be like,” says Maskin, “and in our current situation, we don’t have that control.” His business — not a restaurant, he says — is in limbo, even if it is a workable one for now. Well, mostly workable.
“We’ve had drivers show up for a $200 order and then delete the app off their phone, and those people don’t get their food and they’re pissed,” says Maskin, echoing just some of the business frustrations felt by places like Ronan and Spoon By H during the takeout phase of the pandemic. “The experience is so different when it’s food from an app, or when you’re in person and there’s a server and they can guide you through it. There’s a hospitality component that we’re all just missing.”
Still others, like Ria Barbosa of Downtown (mostly) takeaway Petite Peso, say that the baseline for being a restaurant is in many ways a simple exchange: food for money. The rest is still important, though. “Having worked in a variety of different settings,” Barbosa says, “from fine dining to what we’ve been doing for this past year, at the heart of it a restaurant is defined by connection and delicious food and excellent service. I think you can still achieve good service even though it’s something like a takeaway.”
“You can still keep hospitality levels high online,” says Daniel Sarkissian of HotChix, an online and drive-thru pop-up that sells hot chicken in Glendale. “The way you deal with drivers, the way you present your food, price your food. You’re still serving your customer. If it’s a Postmates order, you could just throw everything in, or you could make it nice like how the customer would want it — especially if it’s a repeat customer. You know who that is. It’s changing, but if people keep up, we’ll be fine.”
As owner of popular DTown Pizzeria (which cooks inside of Phorage in West Hollywood) chef Ryan Ososky has a similar background in upscale sit-down dining as Barbosa, and he agrees that restaurants are both transactional and emotional spaces — something hard to duplicate from an invisible kitchen and sell online. DTown is on the verge of opening a shared patio with Phorage and maybe, just maybe, is returning to indoor dining soon. “We’re not operating out of a commissary. We’re not quite as hidden, we have a storefront. What’s that category? I don’t know.”
Allen Yelent of Highland Park’s takeaway-only storefront Goldburger thinks the definition is straightforward: “I think that any place that serves food, no matter the environment — street food, whatever — can be a restaurant. I mean, why not?”
Street vending and home-cooking setups have been and remain an integral part of the dining landscape of Southern California, even as cities and public health departments have struggled to define and regulate them. One hundred twenty-five years ago, tamale vendors would crowd the city’s central plaza offering bites to travelers and locals while avoiding run-ins with police. Today the scene is much the same, as taco stands and churro trucks work to feed communities from Sylmar to South Gate, all with one eye open for enforcement officers. And while legislative efforts are creeping forward, unlicensed operators continue to play an important but largely unheralded role in conversations about dining al fresco or providing low-cost (or free) meals to those in need. Vendors are overwhelmingly women of color, often undocumented, and have been frequently left out of federal financial assistance programs. They even struggle to supply the needed paperwork to qualify for vaccine prioritization alongside other hospitality employees.
Elsa Barragan took over her father’s bustling underground restaurant, Mariscos El Garage in Long Beach, five years ago, working to keep his dream alive after his sudden death. “I wouldn’t say that it’s a restaurant,” Barragan says, “but I think the love and the passion that I have and the flavor that my food has, it totally can be. Some people, just by looking at [my food], they ask me where my restaurant is located. That feels awesome.” Barragan recently purchased a food truck to bring Mariscos El Garage to the streets, in part because she misses the more direct connection she used to have with customers around tables inside her garage. “I love seeing people’s faces when they eat my food. I can’t wait to just have that face to face with customers,” she says.
A mostly-closed Original Farmers Market in April 2020
Wonho Frank Lee
“The whole interaction between the customers and yourself, I miss it,” says Jonathan Perez of longtime Mexican food setup Macheen, which has had an itinerant lifestyle for most of its existence and now cooks inside of Boyle Heights’ Milpa Grille weekly. “That’s how you build your clientele as well. You’ve got to build these relationships one-on-one with the people.”
The Tamal Queen, Steph Lemus, cooks out of her home in El Monte, offering both traditional and nontraditional tamales to locals, family members, friends, and Instagram buddies. For her, the current food scene is an exciting confluence of old and new Los Angeles. “I was telling my parents the other day, I feel like an entrepreneur,” says Lemus. “You’re starting from zero and really taking a chance.” Lemus’s menus are on hiatus as she works to upgrade her kitchen, but she feels more energized than ever to bridge the two worlds this year. “I want to be traditional, but also somewhat different,” says Lemus, “with dishes that growing up in a traditional Mexican family I never ate.”
Piroshki Bakery Bros Cafe in North Hollywood is chasing tradition with modern sensibilities. The restaurant opened just months before the first wave of lockdowns last year, and while it has a brick-and-mortar location, the team is sticking with takeout only to keep employees safe. “One of my grandmas is French, the other is Russian,” says co-owner Abraham Palezyan of his restaurant’s inspiration, serving hand-rolled puff pastry bites filled with spinach and feta, fresh croissants, and extra-cheesy breakfast burritos that sell well on Instagram. “We’ve been eating their food our whole lives.”
The original plan with Piroshki was to bring a surprising level of service to the restaurant for dine-in customers, part of the blending of old and new. “It was how I saw my grandma serve us as kids,” says Palezyan, “I wanted people to feel that.” Now that’s all on hold, with Palezyan and his crew running the takeout model they’ve had since the first days of the pandemic. “We shifted straight into ‘nobody can come inside, we’re really scared, we only do front-door takeout.’ It’s worked out for us.”
Others, like Tara Carrara — one half of Indonesian Glendale home restaurant Bungkus Bagus, also born in the pandemic — say they don’t ever plan to take their underground operation too far above board. Like Palezyan and Lemus, Carrarus is reaching back into her family’s street food past to think about the future of her upstart Balinese restaurant. “Back home in Bali, this kind of thing is so normal, where you go to a shack on the side of the road and you don’t really ask any questions,” says Carrarus of Bali’s many roadside warungs. It’s just, ‘Do you have food?’ and you grab it and go. There isn’t any kind of formality to eating that you sort of have here.”
For Carrarus, and others, these pop-ups and at-home restaurants are not a springboard to a restaurant empire. In many ways, it’s exactly the opposite. “Our goal was never to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant with sit-down service,” she says.
“I don’t want to open restaurants anymore,” says Dustin Lancaster, owner of nearly a dozen restaurants under his Eastside Establishment company, with a wry laugh. “That’s what the last year has taught me. Prior to March 15, what we traditionally thought of as restaurants in LA … I don’t want to open those anymore.” Instead, Lancaster has found some personal satisfaction in Odie’s, his meatball sandwich-only pop-up inside of his wine bar Covell in Los Feliz. It’s simple, fun to run, and a lot less complicated.
“It was already a broken system,” says Lancaster of the restaurant ecosystem. “As someone who has owned restaurants for the last 10 years in Los Angeles, the numbers have only gotten worse for us. It’s not always about profit, but clearly it needs to be a viable business to keep working.”
Up the street, Kismet co-owner Sarah Hymanson runs the restaurant without a robust patio space, offering takeout and grocery goods only. Hymanson isn’t sure the restaurant will make it through this latest moment as people spend on delivery apps, outdoor dining, and a return to safe, post-winter surge grocery store runs instead of buying direct from farmers and pivoted businesses like hers. “I think that as society changes, the meaning of the word ‘restaurant’ will change,” she says. “Maybe it needs to grow to include those places” like underground restaurants and app companies, Hymanson says, “even though that might be hard for us to stomach emotionally.”
“Food service in the past has been restaurants, but also hospital cafeterias and airplane dining. The general population didn’t think about those systems unless they were a part of them,” says Hymanson. “Now people are just going to think about dine-in restaurants, but also delivery services, cottage kitchens, and other kinds of prepared meal situations. I don’t know that it makes sense to use the word ‘restaurant’ for all those types of businesses, but [they] will in some cases replace what we know, in some ways, to be restaurants.”
Wonho Frank Lee
Hymanson says she is in favor of underground restaurants, cottage-industry home bakers, and street food vendors in all forms; it’s simply the language and the way diners interact and spend their money that she is keen to parse out. Ryan Fisher, head of operations and head roaster for Goodboybob, which operates several coffee-focused locations including a walk-up space inside of Citizen Public Market in Culver City, agrees that consumer interaction is going to become paramount in this new food ecosystem, restaurant or not. “I don’t think having ownership of a space, or the lack of a location, nullifies the definition,” he says, though he adds that he personally believes in the idea of restaurants as a “third space” between home and work for communal congregation — a definition he says fits for Goodboybob in Culver City, even with limited capacities and the rise of work-from-home culture. “I think it requires a more nimble customer base is all. The only difference to me is zoning, and that’s a formality.”
“People who care are going to work to make sure that they are supporting small, local folks and not huge restaurant companies,” Hymanson says. “It’s going to take more labor on their part to know where they’re buying from.”
Making the effort is a two-way street, says House of Gluten’s Hannah Ziskin. “I’m glad traditional restaurants are asking themselves questions,” she says. “I think there needed to be a reckoning about why things are the way they are.” House of Gluten, for her, was a chance to move out of occasionally toxic restaurant spaces, to have more personal agency. “I’m actually happy. There’s something about getting to make every choice. It’s my bakery, and I get to do whatever I want.”
“Back home in Bali, this kind of thing is so normal, where you go to a shack on the side of the road and you don’t really ask any questions”
If anything, Ziskin says, more traditional sit-down restaurants could learn a thing or two from cottage-industry start-ups like hers — particularly when it comes to worker equity, work-life balance, and finding (and keeping) the happiness in food. “Maybe,” Ziskin wonders, “a restaurant is always going to feel inauthentic” now when compared to an Instagram baker like her, “because it’s a business versus an individual.”
Calabama’s Cara Haltiwanger, who sells once-a-week breakfast sandwiches from her fourth-floor apartment in East Hollywood using a novel bucket-drop system (not a restaurant, she says), agrees that the current moment, and the past history of restaurant margins and worker issues, is not sustainable in the future. Some restaurant setups now just feel like “a shitty version of what we’ve gotten used to,” says Haltiwanger, pointing out the need for staff to load themselves down with personal protective equipment just to wait on diners who may not be wearing masks — all to keep their jobs because federal financial intervention has been dismal. Pop-ups like hers, she says, can be lucrative enough, safe, and forward-thinking all at the same time, though they don’t scale as well (or as quickly) as more formal restaurants do. That tends to mean more decentralization, more gig work, more uncertainty still to come.
Eric Greenspan, longtime restaurant owner, television personality, and now chef and partner in ghost-kitchen company Virtual Dining Concepts, says that not only are nontraditional sit-down restaurant models here to stay, they’re going to be massive economic and employment drivers in the food scene for years to come. And while companies like his can in some cases hurt the bottom lines of some small restaurants by offering attractive competition on delivery apps — VDC has partnered with a number of celebrities, such as rapper Tyga and Mario Lopez, on delivery-only food concepts, which can draw eyeballs away from independent places — they do provide employment opportunities at scale, which is inarguably meaningful right now.
Dustin Lancaster working Odie’s inside of Covell in Los Feliz
Greenspan calls all these new ordering and dining options “exciting” so long as the workers and the customers are kept at the forefront of the conversation. Fitting the previous generation’s definition of a “restaurant,” he says, is meaningless now; it’s what you do with the space you have that matters. “What’s a restaurant? I don’t know. It is what it is,” says Greenspan. “Does it taste good or not? Does it satisfy what you are looking for? Is it a ghost kitchen, is it a restaurant, is it a pop-up, is it a brand? Is it an experience? They’re all culinary experiences.”
Birdie G’s chef-owner Jeremy Fox sees the employment side as well. “If [pop-ups] are able to give people jobs, that’s great,” he says. “For the past year I have not been able to offer as many jobs as I would like. They’ve definitely filled a niche and served a greater good, especially for people who could not survive on just unemployment alone or did not have access to unemployment. I think that’s really important.”
As for the original question — what is or is not a restaurant anymore? — Fox takes a more direct approach to an answer. “A restaurant, you could say, is any business that serves food, but then I’m sure you can break that down and say that it’s a physical place where people come and go,” says Fox. “I don’t know if it’s worth having the argument about what is or is not a restaurant. There’s a lot more important stuff to talk about.”