August 2008

Icons of Los Angeles

By: The Tasting Panel Editorial Team

As the spotlight shines on the West Coast’s newest sensation, Asbolut Los Angeles, we salute five hospitality industry trendsetters who helped pave the way for today’s L.A., a city marked by commitment and infused with glamour and fame.  But what makes these Angelenos iconic has more to do with creativity than celebrity, and is more about legwork than lucky breaks.

“Don’t follow trends! Start them!” — legendary filmmaker Frank Capra


Spotlight on the Levine Family: Monty’s Steak House

Larry, Michael and Dennis Levine, second- and third-generation restaurateurs, at Monty’s Woodland Hills. Since 1941, they’ve been ahead of their time.

In the days when Los Angeles was Hollywood-centric and zoot suits were the fashion, the first freeway was built, and it led to Pasadena.

That was 1941, the same year that Monty Levine and his wife Libby opened Monty’s on Fair Oaks Avenue in the city that hosts the Tournament of Roses parade and the Rose Bowl. The storefront bar would eventually expand to an entire block, and after WWII, Monty became broiler man and chef, with a four-steak menu, a signature giant baked potato with Libby’s homemade sour cream dressing and cheese pie, the predecessor of cheesecake.

Partnered with jockey Ralph Neves, they opened Monty’s Talk of the Town, the equine crowd’s top spot, situated just a few furlongs from Santa Anita Park. In the mid-1950s, there was no off-track betting, so where better to dine, mingle with jockeys , trainers and breeders and then trot over to the track to wager.

“This was also a time when home barbecues were starting to be marketed,” Dennis Levine, Monty’s son, now 73, tells THE TASTING PANEL. Mesquite grilling, which imparts a distinct smoky sweetness to the meat, was popular at home in the 1950s, but a rarity at restaurants. Monty’s and Talk of the Town sported this style of cooking and set a trend.

The Monty’s name expanded when Larry Levine (Dennis’s brother) and his wife Bobbi came to the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. “It was a country-like setting in 1956,” recalls Larry, who explained that the Ventura Freeway─then called Highway 101─barely reached Sepulveda Boulevard. “We were an extra four miles to the west, but we found the right spot for Monty’s Encino.”

A little over a decade later, Monty’s name towered over the high-rises of Westwood, with a top-floor location in an upscale office building. Larry’s son Michael joined the family business in 1979. “I was 19 and began as a cook,” he recalls. He had the foresight to learn the business by working for other restaurants while honing his management skills. Today, he and Larry run Monty’s in Woodland Hills, now the family’s only standing restaurant, but a landmark for a family business with longevity.

“We’ve never left the city,” says Michael, 48, referring to their allegiance to Los Angeles. “Where others have gone national, we never left our city.”
Taming of the Screw 

 Michael Levine is more of a romantic than you may think.

Michael Levine, third-generation restaurateur of Monty’s, is also a talented chef and a thinking man’s inventor.

Thanks to his father, Larry Levine, Monty’s maintains a strong reputation for a well-thought out and spectacularly stocked wine list and cellar. “Part of the ceremony of dining at Monty’s Steak House is a classic cocktail at the bar and then a bottle of wine with dinner. Our waitstaff is well-trained to offer superb service, and that includes opening bottles and pouring wine for guests.”

“Sadly, many customers believe that the romance of ordering wine is deflated when a screw cap takes the place of popping a cork. I have a solution for that.”

Michael Levine’s Butterfly Wine Opener, a patented device, slips over the top of the bottle and with a simple movement of the wrist, uncaps it while maintaining the romance and ceremony of opening a bottle of wine; the customer never realizes the difference. For further information, go to
Spotlight on Loren Dunsworth: Lola’s
Loren Dunsworth built her reputation on intuition, perseverance and the Apple Martini.

The invention of the Apple Martini was no accident. Restaurateur Loren Dunsworth may have made an overnight success of her supper club/bar, Lola’s, simply due to foresight in the cocktail department, but the story starts several years back.

The Canadian-born dynamo moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and within a year hit the on-premise scene, mixing and blending with a social network of up-and-coming chefs, general managers, bartenders and restaurant owners.

“My first job was hostess of the [then] brand-new Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills,” she tells THE TASTING PANEL. “I learned right away how to handle reservations at a much-in-demand dining spot. Lydia Shire was the celebrity chef and everyone wanted a table.”

Whether she learned diplomacy or the art of running the front of the house, Dunsworth picked up some pertinent direction, but at her core was that basic instinct that eventually led her to own and operate Lola’s. In July of 1996, Dunsworth accepted a loan from a fellow Canadian who had encouraged her for a long time to start her own business.

“I had to be ready,” she explains. “It’s like having a child. You must be prepared. In my case I had to be in the right mindset to borrow (a lot of) money from a friend. But I knew my background and experience was my strength. Once I found this building, I plugged my nose and dove in.”

There are no over-the-top neon signs announcing Lola’s. Settling on a quiet stretch of Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood, Dunsworth began building her clientele based on a gut feeling of what she thought would work. Hollywood was a dead zone in the late ‘90s. Gone were the slick nightclubs of the prior decade. “The area was dried up,” confirms Dunsworth, who, despite warnings from ‘friends’ in the industry that it would never work, used her greatest talents to keep her dream alive: dedication and perseverance. “Many restaurant owners begin with hope and vision. But, instead of keeping true to those notions, they let their ideas flounder. “

Blessed with determination (she calls it “heart”) and a “wonderful staff,” Dunsworth pushed ahead. “When we opened, no one else had a Martini list; we had 40 Martinis on ours.” One year after opening, on the Fourth of July, she challenged one of her bartenders to make a unique cocktail with a new mixer from DeKuyper called Sour Apple Pucker. It was the color of emeralds.

“We sliced a Granny Smith apple, added it to vodka and called it the Apple Martini; over 17 billion Martinis later, Lola’s remains on the radar. If I could put a sign up where I live, it would read, ‘The House That Martini Built,’ but I’m sure my homeowners’ association wouldn’t approve.”

She sips on her Absolut Los Angeles Martini, garnished with four bright red cherries. “Hooray for Hollywood! If anyone can make it, Absolut Los Angeles can.” As they say about icons, it takes one to know one.


Spotlight on Sandy Clark: Chaya Brasserie

Sandy Clark has been with Chaya Brasserie for more than two decades.

Just steps off fashionable Robertson Boulevard, snuggling up to the Beverly Hills border, Chaya Brasserie is an icon in more ways than one. Not only did this Japanese-French restaurant galvanize the fusion cuisine trend in Los Angeles when it opened in 1984, it’s also been a regular gathering place for entertainment industry insiders and their celebrity clients for well over two decades. But Chaya has a deeper claim to icon status than even the oldest local haunts: Its roots going back nearly 400 years, to Hikage Chaya, the “little teahouse in the shade” that the Tsunoda family opened in Hamaya, Japan, during the Edo period.

Contemporary L.A. is a far cry from feudal Japan, but today’s Chaya still offers the same pleasures its historic predecessor did: hospitality, relaxation and unique food and drink. Sandy Clark has been in charge at Chaya Brasserie for 20 years and has witnessed today’s bustling Los Angeles restaurant scene develop from the inside out. “I tended bar for a long time,” says Clark, who later worked in wine and spirits sales before becoming involved in restaurant management. He’s now Beverage & Technology Director for Chaya and its sister restaurants, a position that draws both on his expertise in the beverage business and on his skills as a techie. “We have 25 computers and nine servers,” Clark says nonchalantly. “They help things run smoother.”

Not that hacking computers takes him away from his duties as an arbiter of the wines and spirits that appear on Chaya’s list. Clark keeps his list open to both foreign and domestic offerings, but as he notes, “In the L.A. market, European wines sell as well as domestic wines do. It’s a market-driven phenomenon. We don’t hand-sell to customers, and we don’t have sommeliers.”  Salespeople are understandably eager to get their products into Chaya’s beverage program, but with the competition stiffer than ever (“How many California wineries opened this week?”), Clark is justifiably selective. His adventuresome by-the-glass list includes surprises such as an Argentine Torrontés and a Pouilly-Fuissé.
On the spirits side, Clark keeps the house mixologist supplied with enough top-shelf spirits to fuel the extensive cocktail menu, which shamelessly lists a selection of “Foo Foo Drinks” among its “Industry Hour” specials. A special signature cocktail featuring the new Absolut Los Angeles will debut shortly.

The restaurant’s clientele—especially at the beachside Chaya Venice—is on the youngish side, notes Clark. “What generation are we on now? X? Y? Z?” he quips. “Kids like things they don’t know about and that aren’t too expensive. The trend is to keep pushing the public to try things they haven’t had before. Kids don’t have prejudices.”

In the competitive world of Los Angeles restaurants, that’s a winning concept, as Clark can attest: “This place is 24 years old in the town where five years is a long time for a restaurant to last.”

Spotlight on Cedd Moses: The Doheny
Visionary urban nightlife developer Cedd Moses relaxes with a vodka cocktail at his latest creation, The Doheny.

Downtown L.A.’s bar scene is hotter than ever, largely thanks to Cedd Moses and his 213 group. But leave it to the visionary urban nightlife developer to take the game to a whole new level with the creation of The Doheny. Named for notorious tycoon Edward Doheny, this private club—the first one licensed in Los Angeles since the Playboy Club, more than 40 years ago—is housed in what was once an employee coffeeshop on the ground floor of the massive granite-faced edifice that served as headquarters for Doheny’s oil empire. Adjacent is Mrs. Doheny’s private greenhouse, now the club’s outdoor smoking lounge.

Moses (whose father is well-known L.A. abstract painter Ed Moses) had a thriving career in money management when he became enchanted with the idea of owning a bar. After a few ventures on the Westside, Moses finally had the inspiration to concentrate on L.A.’s once-neglected Downtown, converting some of the district’s most distinctive architectural gems into urbane watering holes: the funky-chic Golden Gopher, the glam-influenced Broadway Bar and the decidedly masculine Seven Grand. Several more concepts are in development, including a revamp of historic Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet (reputed originator of the French Dip sandwich), and Moses is also working on a boutique hotel project. “I think I’ve been in every building in Downtown,” the architecture-addicted Moses confesses.

The Doheny, the soft-spoken mogul says, is “a new-generation private club” with a heavy emphasis on cocktail culture, which makes it a prime venue for limited-edition spirits such as Absolut Los Angeles. The private format allows the house barmen—celebrated mixologists Vincenzo Marianella, Eric Alperin and Marcos Tello, along with visiting bartenders—to create complex, labor-intensive cocktails that wouldn’t be feasible elsewhere. “Some of the drinks have to be ordered 24 hours in advance,” warns Moses. “We’re cultivating a cocktail renaissance here in L.A., like the ones that happened in London and New York.”

Membership fees for Moses’s new brainchild run in the four-figure range and include concierge services and other amenities, assuring that The Doheny will become as much of a Los Angeles icon as any of the places where roisterers John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks once wined and dined. A portion of the initiation fee is donated to Moses’s favorite charities, including the Los Angeles Conservancy, which fights to save the city’s architectural heritage.

“Our establishments are the antithesis of Westside bars and Hollywood nightclubs,” says Moses, who feels that promoters of velvet-rope venues have “a short-term way of thinking” driven mainly by money. “We want to be around for a hundred years. I’m a big believer in the future of Downtown.”


Spotlight on Michael Cardenas: Sushi Roku

At West Hollywood’s Sushi Roku, co-founder Michael Cardenas takes a break with a rock shrimp and asparagus hand roll and a Martini made with Absolut Los Angeles.

From the time Michael Cardenas was the first GM at sushi star Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous Los Angeles restaurant, entrepreneurial blood was running through his veins. That was 1992, when Matsuhisa became famous for enhancing traditional Japanese dishes with South American ingredients.

Cardenas, then barely over 30 years old, found himself traveling from L.A. to New York with the likes of Nobu and his high-profile partners, actor Robert DeNiro and now-prolific restaurateur Drew Nieporent. “Sitting around at dinner one night, the three of us came up with the idea of the partnership deal to open Nobu New York. That concept soon spread to global proportions,” Cardenas notes. With Nobu’s success, Cardenas’s imagination would soon start to soar in its own right, getting its lift from the idea of sushi going more mainstream. “The theory of fine dining sushi was the impetus behind Sushi Roku.”

Realizing his own potential to become a restaurant owner, Cardenas co-founded Sushi Roku, in 1997. It was dubbed a “rock ‘n roll” sushi bar by the press, but Cardenas prefers to think of it, in true L.A. showbiz-fashion, as “dinertainment.” Situated on Third Street, just east of busy La Cienega Boulevard in trendy West Hollywood, Sushi Roku became an instant status stop for beautiful young Angelenos, who found a foodie haven that stretched into a late-night bar scene.

Cardenas’s company, Innovative Dining Group, is aptly named.  Now eight restaurants strong in L.A. alone—including BOA steakhouses and vibrant Katana on the Sunset Strip—the group has two locations in Vegas, and a Sushi Roku is slated to appear later this summer at the W Hotel in Scottsdale.
“I see myself as a pioneer,” Cardenas says to THE TASTING PANEL, when asked to explain how he defines himself as a trendsetter. “I took a lot of risks. Creating concept dining is like keeping up with fashion─we just seem able to keep ahead of the trends.”


On the Cover: Wolfgang Puck

Wolfgang Puck has been an icon on the L.A. scene since his early days as a wunderkind chef at Ma Maison. Celebrity magnet Spago opened on the Sunset Strip in 1982 (later moving to Beverly Hills) and became the beacon of the Puck universe, which now includes major restaurants in several U.S. markets and casual concepts nationwide, among many other enterprises and charities. “Wolf” can still be seen most days in his kitchen whites at Spago Beverly Hills, where he treats every guest as a celebrity.

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