Saveur magazine’s March issue is devoted to Los Angeles. But is it a little too devoted?
The best food journalism—like the best journalism— describes its subjects fully, both the positives and negatives. This package, written by some of our finest food writers, is edited to within a hairs breadth of puffery. Eating in Saveur’s LA is such a never ending garden of unmitigated delight, you’d think you were in, I don’t know, New York.
What did the editors leave out?
Among the good stuff, not much. Between Jonathan Gold’s pitch perfect concise essay summing up every variety of culinary experience to be had here, to Sandra Tsing Loh’s brief, intense ,memoir of a booze soaked gastronomic wake at the Oyster Bar, to Patrick Kuh’s rehash of the gin joints of old, to David Sax’s endlessly publicized ode to LA’s delis—it was all good. If you’ve been eating LA for a while and follow the food here, there was little new. But if your idea of LA cuisine is the sprout salad in Annie Hall, you will be schooled.
The problem is not what the editors included, it’s what they left out. LA, it turns out, has some improving to do. It is not a great food city. It is an almost-very good one. Here are the ten things missing from LA food, and from the current issue of Saveur:
1. Restaurants close too early.
This is a big problem. It’s hard to be a great food city when half the time you’re hungry, the restaurants are closed. Outside of Koreatown and a few other spots, LA refuses to shake its Midwestern Protestant roots. Starving at 2 am? Go to 7-11.
2. Much of LA is a food desert.
There are few food neighborhoods or food blocks or food streets, where you can walk from a great grocery to a great bar to a nice cafe to a butcher shop to a bakery—you get it. What there are disparate atomized food locations, and you’ll need a car, gas, time and a GPS linked to Jonathan Gold’s Visa card to find them. You can drive Olympic Blvd. from Crenshaw to Santa Monica and not be tempted to stop once. Try to find anything delicious in Palms. The Westside, where much of LA’s money lives, is particularly parched. I don’t remember any entries in Saveur’s issue from Pacific Palisades or Montana Ave. Do people eat there? In Paris, New York, Bangkok—- even Tel Aviv—good food and drink beckons around every corner. Here it’s always a drive away.
3. Angelenos eat to live. They don’t live to eat.
The unit of currency here is the deal, not the meal. Long lunches, long dinner, for that matter, are a rarity. Have lunch in the nicest spots and you’ll see barely a filled wine glass, much less a wine bottle. Outside the American South, the seriousness of a food culture is inversely proportional to the gallons of ice tea served at lunch. LA, whose movies and TV shows sell sexiness and cool, is not a sensuous city. It is a city of grasping, sweating, ambitious Blackberry addicts; millworkers with laptops. There is great food to be had in LA—no denying that—if only we’d give ourselves time to enjoy it.
4. Supermarkets and cars ganged up to strangle LA’s food culture. It is still trying to breathe.
These are the culprits, the twin hands on our food throat. Instead of walking to a great corner bakery, we drive to a mediocre bakery section in a supermarket. The development of the entrepreneurial, much less artisanal, specialty food store was undercut by the Ralphs and Vons and Whole Foods. When we are accustomed to second best in our own pantries, we settle for it in our restaurants as well. (But I don’t include Trader Joes in this indictment. TJs is another LA gift to food, which I think Saveur left out…)
5. The coffee culture is below average.
Again, you can drive to La Mill or Intelligentsia—neither of which are as welcoming and rejuvenating as Profeta—but one sign of a great food city is a plethora of great cafes. And they’re not called Starbucks.
6. Driving makes for a mediocre bar scene.
Don’t drink and drive + poor public transportation = let’s just have a glass of wine and stay home and watch Mad Men.
7. There are far too few outdoor dining options.
LA should be the “ultimate” sidewalk cafe city. Instead silly laws and heavy traffic have combined to keep our outdoor areas safe from people enjoying them. Tellingly, one of the most mediocre meals you can eat in LA is at a place called The Sidewalk Cafe.
8. We have the best beaches and the best weather, and some of the worst beachside dining in the world.
Think Tel Aviv. The wide beaches lined with cafes and restaurants open from morning until 3 am. Chairs and tables right down to the water. Servers in bare feet running out beers, hookah pipes, hummus, grilled fish and fresh chips and huge slabs of icy watermelon layered with feta cheese, the music mixing with the sound of crashing waves. And LA? We have Perry’s. And Gladstones 4 Crap. Shame on us.
9. No one comes to LA for the food.
The sign of the ultimate food city: people go there for the food. What makes our famous restaurants famous is not their food, but the people who eat it. Take Pizzeria Mozza. It is a near perfect recreation of a Roman pizzeria. But no sane diner will ever crave it as they would a Roman pizzeria. Because it’s not the ideal. It’s the idea of the ideal. On the other hand, you get to watch James L. Brooks eat. So there’s that. There are some wonderful places to eat in LA—Campanile, Mozza, Spago’s, all the places Saveur describes—but no one talks about them with the sense of yearning for their favorite cafe in Paris or trattoria in Venice or street food stall in Singapore. The food is at the end of the day replaceable. The scene is one of a kind. If that’s your thing.
10. The fresh, local food scene has not permeated beyond the precious.
In great food cities, even a mom and pop cafe will have market fresh food, local wine, regional specialties. Here few places behind the most precious ones have that approach. Fresh and local isn’t ubiquitous—another mark of a far from great food city.
But…. in Saveur’s defense: We do have potential. And Langers.