Downtown Los Angeles | The Restaurant Veterans Bite Back

The Restaurant Veterans Bite Back

With a Wave of New Eateries Hitting Downtown, the Food Pioneers Work to Stay Relevant

by Richard Guzmán
Published: Friday, August 5, 2011 5:29 PM PDT
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – The crush of new restaurants in Downtown Los Angeles is impossible to miss. In the effort to capitalize on the growing residential population and the eruption of L.A. Live and other attractions, chefs and dining entrepreneurs have debuted dozens of spots in the past several years. In the first six months of 2011 alone, 20 eating and drinking establishments came online.

While the trend is heralded by Downtown boosters, it has posed something of a challenge for another sector: the Downtown restaurant veterans. In particular, a handful of higher-end eateries that have been serving for a decade or longer have been hit with wave after wave of competition.

In the effort to keep drawing crowds, some have reinvented themselves completely. Others have gone through a more subtle evolution, updating menus or getting new talent in the kitchen. Still others have banked on loyal customers and conducted a facelift here and there in the effort to stay relevant among the hot new things.

There is no sure way to stave off the newcomers. In June, the operators of Zucca Ristorante shut down the Figueroa Street establishment. The Italian eatery, part of the Patina Group, had been serving for 10 years.

The Water Grill has fared better. The heralded Financial District seafood purveyor has been in operation since 1994 and recently signed a new 20-year lease for its space at 544 S. Grand Ave. Jeff King, the chairman of the board and co-founder of King’s Seafood Company, the owner of Water Grill, said the restaurant’s longevity is due to factors like filling an early niche, constant tweaks to the menu and loyal customers.

“There was nothing around here back in those days,” he said of the opening 17 years ago. “So we filled a niche Downtown as an upscale seafood restaurant with a wine list.”

King noted that, early on, many of his customers were attorneys and other white-collar employees who worked in the area’s skyscrapers. Being one of the relatively few well-reviewed power lunch spots established a base that still comes in for lunch and dinner.

Still, he noted, the restaurant is not resting on its laurels or reputation. King said the wine list is constantly updated and new items are regularly added to the menu. Additionally, the restaurant will soon get a makeover, although King would not discuss specifics.

“This year we’re going through some major changes,” he said. “We’ll be remodeling to open up the restaurant a little more.”

That’s the attitude a veteran restaurateur should have, said James Sinclair of OnSite Consulting, a hospitality and restaurant consulting firm based in Los Angeles. It is particularly important in a neighborhood with heightened competition.

“They can’t stay stagnant and expect to continue their business,” he said. “They have to tweak the concept consistently, think about how they can be better, listen to customers, respond to customers, recognize competition, because there’s a lot of competition.”

There’s also a new toque in the Water Grill kitchen, though not by design. Last year, longtime chef David LeFevre left to open his own restaurant (M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach). After an extensive search, King picked Amanda Baumgarten, LeFevre’s sous chef, to take over. She made a name as a contestant on Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” show. The publicity was welcomed, King said.

Avoid the Theme

Some Downtown restaurant veterans don’t do much to stay current. Nor should they. Spots like Philippe’s, East Side Market and Deli and The Original Pantry Café are lower-priced joints where the tradition in both decor and cuisine is part of the charm. Changing things too much might drive loyal customers away.

It’s a different game for more upscale establishments like Water Grill, The Palm, Traxx, Pacific Dining Car and Engine Co. 28. Each of those veterans possess something Sinclair notes is vital: the ability to be unique without going overboard.

“Don’t be thematic,” Sinclair warns. “Thematic goes in and out of style.”

Tara Thomas, the owner of Traxx, had that in mind when she opened her restaurant in 1997. Located inside Union Station, the Art Deco style establishment sports dark wood furniture, patio dining and a courtyard with a fountain.

The goal, Thomas noted, was to have a look that was timeless rather than trendy. She knew she was in a space, a 1939 train station, that already has an architectural wow factor.

Still, Thomas notes that she hasn’t survived 14 years because of the look of the building. She satisfies a loyal customer base, including a large City Hall crowd, by changing her menu seasonally. She views the new crop of Downtown restaurants more as help than competition.

“I think the critical mass of new restaurants has done nothing but benefit me because more people are attracted to Downtown,” she said.

Nevertheless, Thomas, like many other people, has embraced social media as a business tool. She has a presence on Facebook and Twitter and launched a chef’s blog on her website, which she admits she needs to update regularly.

Regardless of how many newcomers land in Downtown, she said Traxx will remain a constant classic.

“I will never radically change Traxx,” she said. “It will continue to be a chef-driven seasonal restaurant. I’m not going to turn it into a nightclub.”

Actually, Thomas is changing one thing, which makes her similar to the swell of competition — she is opening a new restaurant in Downtown. She would not reveal any details.

Bigger Changes

Even restaurants with deep traditions make changes to keep up with their neighbors. The Palm in South Park has been a favorite for local business figures and power brokers since it opened in 2002. Restaurant officials want not only to make sure that customers keeps coming back, but that people new to the area can easily spot The Palm.

In April, the restaurant known for its steaks and lobsters opened a 56-seat patio fronting Flower Street. General Manager Bryan Lytle said it was an effort to compete with all of the outdoor dining options at nearby L.A. Live. He said The Palm plans to host regular prix-fixe patio events to attract customers.

“The patio gives us better curb appeal,” he said. “People can see the large canopy, the dining area. You see there’s a restaurant over here.”

Not all of the changes have been cosmetic. Part of the menu has been revamped (something happening in all Palms across the nation) and some Italian dishes have been added. It even offers donuts in a bag for dessert. The restaurant has also upped its advertising, Lytle said.

“With 20 new restaurants opening in the last six months, staying fresh and current is very important to us,” Lytle remarked.

Still, the changes at The Palm seem minor compared to those effected by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, who in 1998 launched Ciudad at Fourth and Figueroa streets. The Latin food establishment from the pioneering chefs was a quick hit with the business crowd and later with the Staples Center audience.

However, in October Milliken and Feniger closed Ciudad. It reopened a few days later as a Downtown outpost of Border Grill. The duo also operate Border Grills in Santa Monica and Las Vegas.

The interior is not markedly different from Ciudad and some of the old entrees and appetizers remain. Still, the shift to a more Mexican menu reflects what customers were asking for, Feniger said.

“We definitely made a big change,” she said. “We were looking to grow Border Grill, but in addition we felt that since Downtown has a lot of new competition…. In order to feel like we can be in that game we decided to make the restaurant feel new and fresh and exciting.”

The restaurant also offers lower price points, allowing them to reach a broader audience than before, Feniger pointed out.

As far as the new batch of eateries in Downtown, Feniger sees them as both competition and an asset to the area.

“It’s competition for sure,” she said, “but on the other hand I feel that by having more restaurants in Downtown, more people think about coming Downtown.”

In fact, the change is just one of many for the women who made a name for themselves as the Two Hot Tamales. They’ve authored five cookbooks, have both appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” show, and jumped on the mobile food bandwagon with a Border Grill truck.

“We try to stay current and aware of what is out there,” Feniger said. “We’ve stayed very hands-on for 30 years. We know we have to work really hard and we never assume because you’re busy today, you’ll be busy tomorrow.”

Contact Richard Guzman at richard@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 08/08/2011

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