October 15, 2019

Nine Ways to Make LA the “Ultimate Food City”

Touchy touchy.  Last week in Foodaism I dared suggest that Saveur magazine may have been overhyping things by declaring Los Angeles “The Ultimate Food City.” To read the bawling, angry, acting-out reactions to my post you’d think I called for every Yelper to be sent to bed without his Kogi.  So this week I’ll do what any good child psychologist would have suggested I do first: use positive language. 

To reiterate my basic point: LA has wonderful food.  It has bountiful ethnic restaurants and markets, some very good high end places, and an impressive web of farmer’s markets.  Saveur got all that right. But LA is not yet the ultimate food city; it is not even a great food city.  That was the thrust of my criticism. I didn’t mean to insult those who just discovered Koreatown, where I’ve been working and eating for the past 16 years, back when there were more bad Fillipino places there than good Korean ones (Who else remembers the Jitney Café?).  And who knew that Palms has such a loyal fan base. You’d almost think it was, I don’t know, Venice.

Yes, I love that I can—as I did not long ago—stop on the way to work at the Argentine café Grand Casino for a yerba mate and a cornetto, continue onto Koreatown where at lunch a Korean chef will show a Latino busboy how to make my Japanese sushi roll, then pop into the Tar Pit on the way home for a meeting and drink a glorious concoction of bay leaf infused vodka, oloroso sherry and flamed orange rind, grab a cupcake for the kids at Famous Cupcake, then have dinner at Ado, where the chef/owner is in the kitchen and the maitre d’ owner would hold his hand on a light bulb if you told him it was too bright. That is a good food day, in a very good food city. (Not average though—usually I make my own mate, grab an avocado sandwich from Sunny and Charles at Trimana, and make dinner for the family at home).

But here, on the positive side, are the Nine Ways to Make LA a Great Food City.  Read to the end, then add Number 10:

1. Open a Massive, Throbbing, Heart-Stopping, Hunger-Stirring Big-Ass Perpetual Farmers Market.

Think Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market,  but indoors in a landmark centrally-located building, open 7 days a week. Think Les Halles of the 19th century, updated to the 21st. This would be the jewel in LA’s food crown—a showcase for the finest locally-grown ingredients, a ready market to encourage new growers and artisan food makers, a place for chefs and diners to mingle, a spur for new food and food education.  Yes we have Grand Central and the Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax, and maybe these could morph into that, but they aren’t there yet.

2. Triple the number of Food AND PROVISION trucks

Those food trucks descending like fine smelling SWAT wagons into Venice and Holywood and Mid-Wilshire prove that in a city that makes it hard to get to food, there is an abundant market for food that gets to you.  Build on that success. Bring back the bakery and vegetable and seltzer trucks that used to cruise LA—one of my happiest childhood memories is of the Helms Bakery truck that regularly honked its horn in front of my Encino house, bringing the Mad Men-era housewives and us kids out for bread and a glazed donut.  The Japanese man who sold vegetables out of the back of his truck soon followed.  Besides making sure good food permeates the city’s long stretches of mediocrity, a new food truck flotilla would create impromptu neighborhood meeting places.

3. Free up zoning and licensing to mix food businesses and residential areas, and F the NIMBYs.

When I dared dis Palms in my last post, what I meant was that between Pico and Venice boulevards to the south and north and between Lincoln and National (to be kind) on the west and east, there is NOTHING TO EAT.  Nowhere to stop.  If you want to walk from your house for a cup of good coffee, you will walk for a mile.  True, at the scale of fully tanked-up car LA’s food is spread out before you like Babbette’s Feast, but driving from course to course does not a great food city make.  The key is to integrate high quality corner stores, cafes, restaurants and bars into neighborhoods.  Make good food a part of the block, not a distant destination.  Of course when proprietors try to do that, neighbors load on so many conditional users the bottom line won’t pan out.

4. Loosen after hours regulations and encourage more late dining out

A lot of great dining happens after 10, in Madrid, in Bangkok, in Buenos Airies. This town closes up too early. What about keeping the lights on the Venice Boardwalk on warm nights, and turning it into a strolling promenade like the Zattere in the real Venice?  Let people linger, eat late, enjoy.

5. Improve public transportation

To be a great food city you need to have diners who can get around to eat it, explore it, stay late enjoying it.  Many commenters pointed out the fact that LA’s miserable public transportation system makes that difficult, but that, they say, is the problem with LA, not LA’s food.  To which I say, quoting Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, “I don’t care.”  Doesn’t matter whose fault it is, it is an irrefutable damper on LA’s ability to be a great food city.

6. Encourage City and Suburban Agriculture

The more stuff we grow, the stronger our ties to good fresh ingredients and the chefs who turn them into good food.  Turn lawns into artichoke plots, empty lots into tomato fields, sideyards into chicken coops—a pygmy milk goat or two on every block!  Make it easy and legal to sell the excess at neighborhood farm stands.

7. Invest in Yummier Schools

I believe that children are our future. No, really.  The more money and time we put into programs like Alice Waters Edible Schoolyards, the more the next generation won’t settle for calling LA the ultimate food city, yet.

8. Zone for More Outdoor Cafés, Especially on the Coast

As I said, we have the best weather and the fewest outdoor cafes; some of the nicest beaches and the worst coastal dining.  Let’s convince the county and the powers that be that there is revenue in smart restaurant growth along the beaches.

9. Make the Supermarkets Part of the Solution

Jim Murez, who runs the Friday Venice Farmers Market,  rightly points out that LA food revolves around the car and the supermarket.  When you consider the quality of the supermarkets, you understand a lot about how far we have to go to improve people’s understanding of how good food can be. But that’s where we are, and that’s where we need to start. So here’s the plan: encourage the supermarkets to carry more local food and produce; to hold more nutrition, cooking and gardening demos, to use some of their hardscaping for demo gardens, to work with local chefs to promote better eating and cooking.

That’s my list of 9.  What’s your #10?