From Bust to Boom
The Valley is fast becoming a food mecca,
with dozens of new eateries not only opening
but attracting crowds. And what’s more, many of the
newcomers boast impressive pedigrees from the Westside.
Written byKaren Young
Drive along Ventura Boulevard these days, and you’ll see something new—people crowded on sidewalks waiting for valets or cueing up to get into restaurants.
Save for a few notable sushi spots, the San Fernando Valley dining scene has forever been viewed as the poor stepsister to the tonier Westside and hipper Hollywood. But in recent years, there’s been a discernable shift. The Valley has seen a boon in new eateries—and we’re not talking run-of-the-mill franchises. These newbies are backed by prestigious chefs and restaurateurs who’ve made their names over the hill. Cinderella no more, Ventura Boulevard is making its grand entrance as a serious contender in the LA dining game.
Indeed, “foodies” raised eyebrows when famed chef Ludo Lefebvre chose the former Max/Marche space in Sherman Oaks as his “pop-up” Ludobites 6.0 location for a few weeks last fall—generating a nod in The New York Times. Diners who’d never ventured to the Valley clamored to get one of the highly coveted reservations.
Change first hit, in terms of bringing a “city vibe” here, with the opening of Firefly in 2002. Reeking of cool, with no exterior sign, a dark library bar filled with couches and books, fireplaces and a unisex washroom, this ivy-covered structure has endured the test of time as the first Valley restaurant with a distinct city buzz.
Owner Jeffrey Best, who grew up in Encino, says that when he was considering location, he found there were no new restaurants trying to capture the demographic going over the hill to dine.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” explains Best, “but I looked around and saw that people who lived in Studio City, Hollywood, Los Feliz and surrounding areas were the ones with the buying power.”
Best, who also runs Best Events, recently hired Jason Travi to oversee Firefly’s kitchen. He’s the chef behind the successful Fraiche restaurants in Culver City and Santa Monica. As the pioneer of a city concept restaurant here, Best says he’s thrilled with the industry growth around Firefly. “It increases business for everyone,” he says.
It took some time before other restaurateurs followed suit, but once a few key shingles were hung, the concept caught like wildfire. Among recent openings: Raphael, Firenze Osteria, Ombra and on the more casual side, La Cava.
Raphael offers classic fine dining with a modern twist. Arnon Raphael owned the Bel Air Bar & Grill before deciding to open a restaurant closer to his Studio City home. With 100 seats and a good-sized bar, the mod dining area peeks into the wine room. Earlier this year, executive chef Adam Horton left the high-end Saddle Peak Lodge to helm Raphael.
Top Chef All-Star Fabio Viviani spins his magic over at Toluca Lake’s Firenze Osteria, home of the former Barsac Brasserie, with its open kitchen and elegant dining room. Viviani puts his touch on northern Italian specialties and even teaches some cooking classes,
Ombra’s Michael Young
while partner Jacopo Falleni concocts specialty cocktails.
Meantime, Ombra, which opened this past June, has chef/owner Michael Young. His extensive resume includes Il Grano, Drago and Valentino. With Ombra, Young has set out to create a neighborhood restaurant with an upscale vibe. The small but select menu is not typical Italian fare—no pizza or simple pastas here. Instead, Young focuses on creative seasonal dishes with a rustic twist.
“What attracted me to Studio City was seeing the development of the corridor from Sherman Oaks through Studio City into Hollywood,” remarks Young. He adds, “I grew up in Sherman Oaks, and I could never understand how there were so many great sushi restaurants and yet just a handful of European restaurants. My concept was a neighborhood Italian restaurant. What better place than my own neighborhood?”
Offering a more casual, Italian trattoria feel is La Cava in Sherman Oaks, which opened in January. Owner Armando Pucci was a partner at the Westside’s La Buca and Il Picolino. Pucci, a Sherman Oaks dweller, also noted business growth along the Boulevard corridor as a factor in coming here. As for his strategy, he says, “I wanted a different type of Italian restaurant that served similar food to what I was used to presenting over the hill.”
Studio City’s Laurel Tavern combines a terrific selection of craft beer with well-prepared comfort food in a hip atmosphere. It serves perfectly cooked burgers, gourmet grilled cheese and tasty seasonal sides—often with the front window panels kicked up, allowing for a festive, open-air feeling. With exposed brick walls, it’s a favorite of 20- and 30-somethings, with evening crowds that often spill outside. Co-owners William Shamilian and Mark Leddy also own The Library Bar downtown and 4300 Bar in Los Feliz.
The uber-success of Laurel Tavern seems to be spawning something of a new food culture, with variations popping up and down across the Boulevard. Umami Valli, which has four other LA locations, is known for its “fifth taste”
Black Market Liquor Bar’s Soft Shell Po’Boy
grass-fed beef burgers, unique cocktails, cool Hollywood regency vibe with chandeliers, red tufted chairs and servers decked out like Bonnie & Clyde. While The Counter also has Westside roots, it’s more family-friendly, with a “build your burger” theme.
Adam Fleischman, who’s dubbed “Umami king,” partnered on his 818 venture with Allen Ravert, owner of the adjacent Mexicali. They own just the Studio City Umami Valli. Fleischman said he chose Studio City because “there’s a city-like energy there and more of a scene than other parts of the Valley.”
Rounding out the tavern scene is The Local Peasant in Sherman Oaks and Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City. Both are owned by various members of the group behind the edgy The Happy Ending Bar in Hollywood.
The Local Peasant has an authentic pub feel with white tile walls and steel fixtures mixed with a combination of wood and stone. All the beer and wine is locally sourced. The menu is an eclectic twist on classic pub food using local, seasonal fare.
In June, Black Market Liquor Bar moved into the decades-old Wine Bistro space, did a major redesign that includes an arched brick ceiling and opened to serious fanfare. Running the kitchen is former Top Chef and Top Chef All-Star Antonia Lofaso, who also worked at Spago. This spot boasts some of the most entertaining mixologists in town, who “perform” nearly a dozen innovative signature cocktails. With a casual feel akin to a pub but with different fare are two more newcomers. Oak Fire Pizzeria is owned by Greg Morris, who currently runs six other Westside restaurants. Loteria Grill, from the L.A. Farmers Market and Hollywood, is owned by chef Jimmy Shaw, who’s been featured on The Food Network cooking his famous molé.
Another hot Valley trend is a de-emphasis on dinner. These spots focus on entrees with a farmhouse or upscale take-out element. Sweetsalt, Olive & Thyme, Sweet Butter Cafe & Market and Charlie’s Pantry all allow diners to order at the counter while feasting their eyes on attractively displayed entrees in glass-enclosed cases.
Kings Road Café, the West Hollywood trailblazer that started combining good food and fresh roasted coffee more than 20 years ago, recently opened its second location in Studio City and continues to have lines out the door. “I chose Studio City because of the family-oriented atmosphere,” owner Lawrence Casperson offers. “I love that one can walk to familiar boutique shops, restaurants, a great bookstore and plenty of coffee. Also the fact that you can walk your kids to an excellent school was an affirmation of the neighborhood’s strength.”
Olive & Thyme
And the invasion of Westsiders continues. Word has it The Six, a gastropub on Pico from restaurateurs Will Karges and Jake King, will be debuting on the Coldwater Curve later this year.
Plans are also in the works for Century City’s Take A Bao and Hollywood’s Stout Burgers & Beers to open here—giving Valley diners yet another indicator that, these days, you don’t have to go over the hill for a great meal.