FOOD & DRINK

The Classics of California Cuisine

Zuni Café’s brick oven, open kitchen, and airy, industrial-looking dining room helped define the look for a new generation of farm-to-table restaurants 40 years ago.
CRAIG LEE
Zuni Café’s brick oven, open kitchen, and airy, industrial-looking dining room helped define the look for a new generation of farm-to-table restaurants 40 years ago.
These 17 seminal restaurants—some over a century old—have shaped the way we eat and continue to spark new trends.

California is a hotbed of culinary trends, and it’s been that way since the gold rush, when miners patronized houses of prostitution that appeared on just about every corner in San Francisco. These businesses started the “free lunch,” luring in customers and forever linking culinary and carnal pleasures. On the East Coast, Puritan beliefs meant that food was seen as fuel, not fun. Today we Californians have a healthy love for good food, and it’s generously mingled with the joy of eating.

However, unlike Larousse Gastronomique and Escoffier, the bibles of French cuisine, there are no definitive texts that codify California cuisine. Instead, our chefs made it up as they went along—and they’re still doing it that way. Like the 49ers who came to San Francisco to find fortune, California’s dining style is freewheeling and adventuresome.

California is made up of immigrants, and from its beginnings, our food wove together elements of various cuisines, particularly Chinese, Spanish, and Mexican.

Today our cuisine is defined by the many chefs who draw from their own cultural and ethnic traditions to create unique signature dishes, whether it’s mesquite-grilled petrale sole at Tadich Grill in San Francisco, miso-marinated black cod at Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, or mile-high banana cream pie that has been on the Chinese menu of Frank Fat’s in Sacramento since the 1940s.

While many of the restaurants that shaped our dining culture are now only memories, there remains a strong contingent that continues to thrive, shepherded by descendants of the original owners. By visiting these classic restaurants, diners can witness firsthand the ideas that influenced restaurants around the West—and beyond. The oldest has been in business for 170 years and the newest more than 30, which still is considered several lifetimes in the volatile restaurant industry.

THE OLD GUARD

Much of what we see today—the casual bar and grill, farm-to-table dining—has roots in a pair of 19th-century restaurants that are still going strong.

Tadich GrillCRAIG LEE
Tadich Grill
TADICH GRILL
San Francisco 1849

The distinction of being California’s oldest restaurant is reason enough to consider Tadich a cornerstone of dining, but its influence extends well past its age. The idea of a pop-up started here. A year before California was admitted to the Union, Tadich, then known as Coffee Stand, set up business in a tent. It progressed from a stand to a saloon to a restaurant called the Cold Day.

John Tadich, who worked there as a bartender, bought the restaurant and changed the name after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1913, Tom Buich was hired as a pantryman, and 15 years later he owned the place. It’s still in his family.

In 1967, redevelopment caused the restaurant to move a few blocks to its current location, but the owners installed the original bar and re-created the establishment’s period look. The restaurant defines the classic bar and grill genre, and since its founding, Tadich has promoted local seafood, including sand dabs and petrale sole—all simply prepared and presented.

Today there’s often a wait for a white-clothed table or private booth, and the bar is nearly always crowded. 240 California St., San Francisco, 415-391-1849, tadichgrill.com

Duarte’s TavernCRAIG LEE
Duarte’s Tavern
DUARTE’S TAVERN
Pescadero 1894

Since it opened 125 years ago as a barbershop and tavern, Duarte’s has been a family affair. Located in Pescadero, a town of fewer than 650 people, the restaurant has long served as a gathering place for the surrounding coastal farming communities. It opens at 7 a.m. to accommodate nearby farmers and operates through the day until 8 p.m.

Founder Frank Duarte added a Portuguese slant to the tavern fare of the day, and his ancestors are proudly maintaining that tradition. There’s a consistency here that can’t be found in other restaurants, and “farm-to-table” is more than a clever phrase. Using a garden in back to supply the restaurant has always been a given (three full-time gardeners are employed), and Duarte’s celebrates its ethnic roots in dishes such as braised tripe and crab cioppino, one of the best versions around.

From the restaurant’s earliest days, chefs here have sourced fish from the nearby waters. Preparations are straightforward and familiar, whether it’s fried oysters, pork chops with applesauce, or artichoke ravioli; the now famous artichoke soup first appeared on the menu more than five decades ago. The kitchen is also known for its pies, including olallieberry, which showcases a thick jam of fruit and a rich, browned crust. On any weekend, Duarte’s makes as many as 60 pies. 202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, 650-879-0464, duartestavern.com

SARA O’SULLIVAN ON DUARTE’S TAVERN Owner of Coastside Books in Half Moon Bay who has been going to the restaurant for more than 30 years: “My relationship started when I was nine, when my mother got a job working as a waitress at Duarte’s. I spent quite a bit of time at the restaurant, and it became a second home. I still go there today. I love how you can be from the community or outside the community and you still feel comfortable. There’s something really organic about it.”

SARA O’SULLIVAN ON DUARTE’S TAVERN

Owner of Coastside Books in Half Moon Bay who has been going to the restaurant for more than 30 years: “My relationship started when I was nine, when my mother got a job working as a waitress at Duarte’s. I spent quite a bit of time at the restaurant, and it became a second home. I still go there today. I love how you can be from the community or outside the community and you still feel comfortable. There’s something really organic about it.”

L.A. AND THE 1930s

Los Angeles lagged a bit behind Northern California—the oldest restaurants still operating are Philippe the Original and Cole’s, each founded in 1908. (Both lay claim to creating the French dip sandwich.) However, with the birth of the movie industry, the see-and-be-seen aspect of dining was practically invented in Southern California, and with it came the parallel ascension of Mexican, Chinese, and Italian American food, as well as wood-fired pizzas and open kitchens.

Musso & FrankCHRISTINA GANDOLFO
Musso & Frank
MUSSO & FRANK GRILL
Hollywood 1919

As in life itself, the 100th year at this Hollywood restaurant has brought extreme lows and highs. Amid the celebration of its centennial, famed bartender Ruben Rueda, who’d worked there for 52 years, died in April. Server Sergio Gonzalez passed away in June after 47 years of service at the eatery.

Yet a permit sign in the window hints at more positive news: the restaurant is expanding into a space next door. That’s just the latest addition in the history of this celebrity hangout—the first one to attract stars of the silver screen. The restaurant moved one door down in 1934, and it added a second dining room in 1955. Musso & Frank was one of the first restaurants to hire a French chef who prepared specialties such as sweetbreads, grilled lamb kidneys, and Welsh rarebit.

Ownership has remained in the same family since John Mosso and a partner bought the business in 1927. Today it’s run by Mosso’s great-grandson Mark Echeverria. The red booths, mahogany wainscoting, and murals—all softened by age—are often featured in films and television shows (Ocean’s Eleven and The Kominsky Method are recent examples).

Waiters in red coats with black collars practice a time-honored, respectful deference to customers, and they are quick to bring the signature martini with a side pitcher for refills. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-467-7788, mussoandfrank.com

El Cholo Spanish CafeLUIS GARCIA
El Cholo Spanish Cafe
EL CHOLO SPANISH CAFE
Los Angeles 1923

When El Cholo opened as Sonora Cafe, prejudices against Mexicans were such that Alejandro and Rosa Borquez called the restaurant a Spanish Cafe, even though the food clearly wasn’t European. Since then, the Borquez heirs have opened five El Cholo outposts across Southern California.

The menu lists the year every dish was first served, starting with 1923’s Joe’s Albondigas Soup of cumin-infused meatballs, chunks of celery, carrots, and other vegetables. Then there are the green corn tamales, from 1923, in which kernels of corn stud the tender masa that is wrapped around cheddar cheese.

House guacamole appeared in 1955, and many people believe the nachos that debuted in 1959 were the first served in a U.S. restaurant. Chicken chimichangas were added in 1967; crabmeat enchiladas, in 1971; fajitas, in 1984. Newer items include fish tacos (2001) and filet mignon tacos (2009).

The well-maintained stucco interior of the original location has expanded over the years and looks like a Mexican version of a steakhouse, with memorabilia and photos of celebrity customers—like Emmylou Harris, Jack Nicholson, and Madonna—covering every wall. 1121 Western Ave., Los Angeles, 323-734-2773, elcholo.com

Tommaso’sCRAIG LEE
Tommaso’s
TOMMASO’S
San Francisco 1935

Opened more than 80 years ago, Tommaso’s is the birthplace of West Coast wood-fired pizza. The restaurant started life as Lupo’s, got its current name in 1971, and changed hands when it was bought by the Crotti family in 1973.

Upon entering the establishment, diners step down a small number of stairs into a dim, cave-like interior permeated with the yeasty smell of dough and the aroma of tomato sauce and pepperoni. The communal table in the center of the room is often filled with celebrating parties.

Tommaso’s moderately thick pizza crust sports a light char from the oven, a preparation that has endured for decades. While just about everyone orders pizza, the menu is also filled with Cal-Ital favorites like beef carpaccio, Caesar salad, lasagna, and pastas sauced with housemade marinara. 1042 Kearny St., San Francisco, 415-398-9696, tommasos.com

Mitla CafeLUIS GARCIA
Mitla Cafe
MITLA CAFE
San Bernardino 1937

The hard-shell tacos at Mitla Cafe are so good that in the 1950s, when Glen Bell, who owned a hamburger and hot dog stand across the street, tasted one filled with seasoned ground beef, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes, he was inspired to create Taco Bell.

This might seem like a dubious contribution from Mitla Cafe to California cuisine, but the chain it sparked has introduced Mexican food to countless Americans, which led to salsa replacing ketchup as this country’s favorite condiment in 1992. Thanks to Mitla Cafe, many consumers consider tacos and tortilla chips as American as a hamburger and fries.

Little has changed at Mitla in its 80-plus years of operation. It’s still under the same family ownership, its mustard-colored walls and green and white paper flags festooning the beamed ceiling feel timeless, and its menu offers simple authenticity. Customers can order the taco with shredded beef, which has a strong meaty presence, or opt for the milder ground meat that inspired Bell. There are also excellent tortilla chips, tamales, enchiladas, and premium margaritas. Oh, and diners can have a cheeseburger, if they please. 602 N. Mount Vernon Ave., San Bernardino, 909-888-0460, mitlacafesb.com

Original Joe'sCRAIG LEE
Original Joe’s
ORIGINAL JOE’S
San Francisco 1937

A few decades ago, there seemed to be a Joe’s in just about every San Francisco neighborhood, with offshoots in San Rafael, San Jose, Half Moon Bay, and Corte Madera. Since then, some have changed ownership and some have closed, but to see what the fuss was about, you need to go back to the source.

The original, Original Joe’s, can be found in North Beach. It relocated from its longtime home in the Tenderloin, which was destroyed by fire in 2007. It took five years to reopen, but fans claim it was worth the wait.

Run by the Duggan family since the beginning, the North Beach establishment serves a typical Italian American menu, gently updated: prime rib, ravioli (which is available as a side with every main course), chicken, fillet of sole, veal piccata, and Joe’s Famous Hamburger Sandwich, whose ground beef is laced with onions and cooked either on a flat-top griddle or over mesquite before being placed in a partly hollowed-out baguette. There’s also Joe’s Special: a scramble of eggs, spinach, and ground beef.

Five years ago, the Duggans purchased one of the restaurant’s popular brethren, Joe’s of Westlake, and spent two years restoring it to its midcentury grandeur. This location opened in 1956 as part of a planned development built by Henry Doelger, one of the largest builders in the United States. Located in Daly City, on the southern edge of San Francisco, Joe’s of Westlake was designed to be a community hub for the 6,500 homes he built.

While many people credit Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Hollywood with pioneering the exhibition kitchen, credit really is due to Original Joe’s, where a diner-like counter separated the open kitchen from the white-tablecloth dining room manned by tuxedoed waiters. 601 Union St., San Francisco, 415-775-4877, originaljoes.com (also 11 Glenwood Ave., Daly City, 650-755-7400)

DENNIS HERRERA ON ORIGINAL JOE’S San Francisco city attorney since 2001: “I love the warmth, the spirit, and the camaraderie at Original Joe’s. There’s a great cross section of San Francisco you find there. In a lot of ways, that restaurant has led to the revival of the Stockton corridor in North Beach.”

DENNIS HERRERA ON ORIGINAL JOE’S

San Francisco city attorney since 2001:“I love the warmth, the spirit, and the camaraderie at Original Joe’s. There’s a great cross section of San Francisco you find there. In a lot of ways, that restaurant has led to the revival of the Stockton corridor in North Beach.”

Frank Fat'sPAUL KITAGAKI JR.
Frank Fat’s
FRANK FAT’S
Sacramento 1939

The year was 1987, and Democrat Willie Brown and representatives of both parties gathered at this Chinese restaurant near the state capitol and jotted down provisions for tort reform on a white cloth napkin. It became known as the Napkin Deal, and it was the basis for a landmark agreement on civil liability involving lawyers, insurance companies, and doctors. It also solidified the restaurant’s nickname—the Third House—for politicos.

Yet the story of Frank Fat’s began in 1919, when 16-year-old Fat came to Sacramento as an undocumented immigrant from China and worked as a dishwasher before borrowing $2,000 to start his restaurant. It has remained in the family and has been joined by three other establishments in the Fat Family Restaurant Group.

Frank Fat’s is a testament to how one man cleverly bridged two cultures. One of the most popular items on the menu is the banana cream pie, which Fat introduced in the 1940s. The flaky-crusted dessert is just one of the classics that have cemented the restaurant’s reputation: crisp, moist fried chicken marinated in brandy, soy, ginger, and garlic; Yu Kwok, golf ball–size dumplings filled with ground meat; New York steak smothered in onions and oyster sauce; and chow mein with chicken, black mushrooms, and snow peas.

The low lighting and art deco–inspired decor of this Sacramento power spot evoke comparisons to a 1930s Shanghai speakeasy. 806 L St., Sacramento, 916-442-7092, frankfats.com

WILLIE BROWN ON FRANK FAT’s Former Speaker of the California State Assembly and mayor of San Francisco: “Frank Fat’s was the number-one restaurant in Sacramento for so many years. [Governor] Jerry Brown went there, his father went there, everyone went there. In the last 20 years, things have changed, but Frank Fat’s still holds its own despite all the new restaurants in Sacramento and all the new ideas.”GETTY IMAGES
WILLIE BROWN ON FRANK FAT’S

Former Speaker of the California State Assembly and mayor of San Francisco: “Frank Fat’s was the number-one restaurant in Sacramento for so many years. [Governor] Jerry Brown went there, his father went there, everyone went there. In the last 20 years, things have changed, but Frank Fat’s still holds its own despite all the new restaurants in Sacramento and all the new ideas.”

FARM-TO-TABLE AND ROAST CRAB

The 1950s introduced Swanson’s TV dinners and other convenience items, but the 1960s set the stage for a more politicized approach to food, which set the table in the 1970s for a desire to get back to the land.

Chez PanisseCRAIG LEE
Chez Panisse
CHEZ PANISSE
Berkeley 1971

Alice Waters had been a member of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, and when she opened Chez Panisse, the restaurant embodied many of her beliefs. Her purpose was to feed her patrons as if she were hosting friends.

Waters’s restaurant, more than any other in the United States, has influenced the way we eat in California and the West. Chez Panisse serves a daily changing menu, incorporating the most pristine local, organic, and sustainable ingredients to be found.

Naturally—pun intended—meals here are not cheap. Prices range from $75 to $125, depending on the day and the number of courses. Previous dishes include fisherman’s stew accompanied by an ethereal aioli and leg of lamb suspended over an open fire. Combinations are simple, which means that excellence is often harder to achieve because there are fewer ways to mask any unpalatable flaws. Yet Chez Panisse pulls it off every time.

Waters started another trend in 1980 when she opened the Cafe on the top floor of the Craftsman-style cottage that houses Chez Panisse. Following up a high-end tasting format with an approachable à la carte menu is an idea that has been picked up by chefs like Thomas Keller, Dominique Crenn, David Kinch, and Corey Lee.

While others have used their celebrity to open additional restaurants or as a calling card to appear on reality television, Waters continues to pursue her ideals through her restaurant and her advocacy for food education. 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-5525 (Chez Panisse) and 510-548-5049 (Cafe), chezpanisse.com

Thanh LongCRAIG LEE
Thanh Long
THANH LONG
San Francisco 1971

When Diana An opened this modest 20-seat restaurant in the Sunset in 1971, it was likely the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. After Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended, the rest of An’s family joined her. Their arrival eventually led to the opening of eateries in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills under the House of An name. Today the business is run by An’s daughter-in-law, Helene, as well as Helene’s daughters and granddaughter.

In May, Helene and the An family received a Pioneer Award in Culinary Arts from the Smithsonian, which recognized the restaurant for being the “first to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to mainstream America, changing American palates forever with cuisine that honors both cultures.”

Most people come for the roast crab and garlic noodles—so special, they are produced in a separate kitchen. But the Ans have done much more than create these signature dishes. In 1991, they opened the seafood restaurant Crustacean, with its grand dining room on Polk Street, following that six years later with a Beverly Hills location. Last year, that branch reopened after an eight-month, $10 million renovation. 4101 Judah St., San Francisco, 415-665-1146, thanhlongsf.com

The French LaundryCRAIG LEE
The French Laundry
THE FRENCH LAUNDRY
Yountville 1978

The French Laundry story began when the restaurant was owned and operated by Don and Sally Schmitt in the late 1970s (see “Boonville Hotel’s Prodigal Son,” page 118). With a homey, fixed-price menu, they crafted a culinary destination in what was then a sleepy Napa Valley. The stone building from 1900 was surrounded by gardens, and diners were encouraged to stroll through them between courses.

Thomas Keller built on this foundation when he took over in 1994, catapulting the restaurant and himself to fame. He has become one of the most influential chefs in the world, focusing the culinary spotlight on Napa Valley and the entire Bay Area—it now boasts more three-Michelin-star restaurants than New York. Speaking of which, in 2004 Keller opened Per Se in Manhattan, subsequently becoming the only American-born chef with two three-Michelin-star restaurants.

What Keller did for fine dining was seminal, creating fantastical dishes from ideas that left intimidation behind: He invented such specialties as oysters and pearls (oysters, caviar, and tapioca in sabayon). Instead of ice cream, he scooped raw marinated salmon into housemade cones. He offered a fresh take on coffee and doughnuts with a rich cappuccino semifreddo served alongside cinnamon-sugar-dusted doughnuts. Today the French Laundry’s multicourse, daily changing tasting menu continues to evolve, and no two ingredients are repeated (with the possible exception of truffles and caviar).

Keller’s techniques and attitude have influenced generations of chefs, and he continues to pay it forward with his involvement in Bocuse d’Or, one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions. 6640 Washington St., Yountville, 707-944-2380, thomaskeller.com/tfl

CECILIA CHIANG ON THE FRENCH LAUNDRY At 99 years old, is considered the Julia Child of California’s Chinese cuisine and over the past 25 years has dined at the French Laundry about 50 times: “One thing I must say is that after all these years, the food is really consistent and the service is excellent. The French Laundry was really the first to make such an elegant statement in dining, and the whole idea is unique. The portions remind me of Chinese food: one course after another, and every single dish has a unique flavor.”GETTY IMAGES
CECILIA CHIANG ON THE FRENCH LAUNDRY

At 99 years old, is considered the Julia Child of California’s Chinese cuisine and over the past 25 years has dined at the French Laundry about 50 times: “One thing I must say is that after all these years, the food is really consistent and the service is excellent. The French Laundry was really the first to make such an elegant statement in dining, and the whole idea is unique. The portions remind me of Chinese food: one course after another, and every single dish has a unique flavor.”

Michael'sLUIS GARCIA
Michael’s
MICHAEL’S
Santa Monica 1979

Michael McCarty may be the Alice Waters of Southern California. Without fanfare, he started working with farmers to procure the best products, and he didn’t have much restaurant experience when he entered the business in his mid-20s. But unlike Waters, he studied cooking in France.

McCarty wasn’t interested in following the classic French ideas about cooking. Like other California food pioneers, he chose to make it up as he went along. In so doing, he helped define what we still see on his plates and those of many others today: scrupulously fresh produce and bold flavorings from vinaigrettes instead of heavy sauces. In the summer, diners at Michael’s might find a main course of branzino nestled next to cherry tomatoes, snap peas, mung beans, and parsley flecked with beluga lentils, or roast chicken with grilled lettuces, jicama, snap peas, and celtuce.

The food and the restaurant’s interior continue to capture the California lifestyle, with a patio cooled by a fountain and a dining room filled with first-class art. As a founder of the American Institute of Wine and Food, along with Julia Child and Robert Mondavi, McCarty worked to change perceptions of American food and cooking. He launched the careers of such high-profile chefs as Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Jonathan Waxman, Sang Yoon, and Roy Yamaguchi. And 10 years after opening his place in Santa Monica, he brought his vision of California cuisine to Midtown Manhattan with another eponymously named power-lunch spot: Michael’s. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica, 310-451-0843, michaelssantamonica.com

GERALD V. CASALE ON MICHAEL'S Cofounder of the music group Devo and owner of 50 by 50 Wines in Napa Valley: “The California food revolution of the late 1970s fundamentally transformed the way Americans ate and drank. Michael was one of its most colorful pioneers. I pretty much lived [the book Chefs, Drugs & Rock and Roll], and it all started with meeting Michael McCarty two weeks after he opened Michael’s.”GETTY IMAGES
GERALD V. CASALE ON MICHAEL’S

Cofounder of the music group Devo and owner of 50 by 50 Wines in Napa Valley: “The California food revolution of the late 1970s fundamentally transformed the way Americans ate and drank. Michael was one of its most colorful pioneers. I pretty much lived [the book Chefs, Drugs & Rock and Roll], and it all started with meeting Michael McCarty two weeks after he opened Michael’s.”

Greens RestaurantCRAIG LEE
Greens Restaurant
GREENS RESTAURANT
San Francisco 1979

Started by the San Francisco Zen Center, this vegetarian restaurant paved many paths for others to follow. It may seem strange that a Buddhist organization would open a restaurant, but it was a way to use the produce it grew at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County. In this case, farm-to-table was a literal description.

Under early chef Deborah Madison, who has gone on to a distinguished cookbook career, Greens took vegetarian food mainstream and made it sexy. It was also one of the first restaurants to promote the idea that fine wines paired well with vegetarian food.

The restaurant maintained its edge under chef Annie Sommerville, who is moving into semiretirement after guiding the kitchen for more than three decades. She brought the world into her kitchen as far back as the early 1990s with such dishes as Moroccan lentil soup, dolmas, and North African vegetable stew.

Grilled tofu brochettes threaded with seasonal ingredients remain a classic, as are the regularly changing pizzas; recently one was topped with tomato, zucchini, red onions, garlic confit, and basil. You’ll even find carrot hummus, a longtime favorite, on the menu.

Greens, one of the first restaurants in the then newly developed Fort Mason Center (a former army post), offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Dining there disproves the truism that the better the view, the more disappointing the food. 2 Marina Blvd., Fort Mason, Building A, San Francisco, 415-771-6222, greensrestaurant.com

Zuni CaféCRAIG LEE
Zuni Café
ZUNI CAFÉ
San Francisco 1979

This restaurant is 40 years old, but it still feels like a newbie. The quirky building comes to a rounded point on one end, with windows exposed to the urban landscape of Market Street. The copper bar, brick walls, and industrial-looking steel earthquake beams all speak to current design sensibilities. More than any other eatery, Zuni Café defines the San Francisco ethos.

When it opened, owner Billy West grilled meats outdoors in a make-do situation that was possible at the time. The restaurant evolved from its southwestern theme and grew to national prominence when Judy Rodgers came aboard in 1987. She insisted on a brick wood oven that protrudes into the dining room in front of the open kitchen. Rodgers, who passed away in 2013, pioneered the trend of roasting whole chickens and created a national phenomenon. Served with bread salad, the dish remains one of Zuni’s most popular menu items.

The hamburger has become just as popular. Chunks of chuck are coated in salt and marinated overnight before being ground. The grilled patty is served on rosemary focaccia with aioli and a side of house-pickled zucchini and onions.

Zuni is an enduring icon of a sophisticated yet rustic style of dining, and it remains as relevant today as when it all began. 1658 Market St., San Francisco, 415-552-2522, zunicafe.com

HAIL THE CELEBRITY CHEF

Some historians claim that Victor Hertzler became America’s first high-profile chef after the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906, but chefs really didn’t garner much attention until the 1980s. Los Angeles, a city with stars on its sidewalks, was the natural incubator for that culinary phenomenon, the celebrity chef.

SpagoLUIS GARCIA
Spago
SPAGO
Beverly Hills 1982

Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff invigorated the California dining scene with the opening of Spago, which rose above a car rental agency and overlooked Sunset Boulevard. The couple, who have since divorced, were a dynamic duo. Other places may have embraced the idea of an exhibition kitchen, but Lazaroff took it to new heights. She treated the open kitchen like a theatrical stage, complete with lighting that spotlighted the action.

Like Musso & Frank in its heyday, Spago became the celebrity hangout. It was Puck, more than any other chef, who casualized fine dining. He served pizzas with such unexpected toppings as smoked lamb, eggplant, roasted peppers, and cilantro. His most famous pizza, one with smoked salmon, wasn’t on the original menu but was given as a gift to important guests. Other innovative dishes included Chinese-style duck breast, grilled whole fish, and tuna sashimi with ponzu. In 1997, the couple opened another Spago, this one in Beverly Hills. They closed the original location in 2001.

In an earlier, fittingly dramatic move, Puck brought a Spago to Las Vegas’s Caesars Palace in 1992. This action lifted the floodgates for scores of other celebrity chefs to take up residence at the high-profile restaurants of big casinos. This Spago outpost moved from Caesars to the Bellagio last year. 176 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-385-0880, wolfgangpuck.com

Chinois on MainLUIS GARCIA
Chinois on Main
CHINOIS ON MAIN
Santa Monica 1983

Today no chef would use the word fusion to describe their restaurant’s cross-cultural blends, because the term has been so misused and abused. However, when first coined, it succinctly described Wolfgang Puck’s innovative use of French techniques intermingled with Asian ingredients and techniques at Chinois. Puck showed many chefs a more creative path to traditional preparations: cuisine without borders, if you will.

The dining room’s unique design also suggested new ways forward for California cuisine. It features a wall of orchids behind glass and cloisonné birds in the middle of the space rising over specially designed scalloped-edge celadon tables. A massive hammered-copper hood and dining counter defines the open exhibition kitchen.

Proven classics at Chinois include a Chinese chicken salad, whole sizzling catfish with ponzu and ginger, Shanghai lobster in a buttery curry sauce with fried spinach, and grilled lamb chops with cilantro vinaigrette. Today the place is as busy as it was when it opened, which is a testament to Puck’s legacy. 2709 Main St., Santa Monica, 310-392-9025, wolfgangpuck.com

GWYNETH PALTROW ON CHINOIS ON MAIN Academy Award–winning actor and founder of Goop: “I have been going to Chinois on Main since I was about 12 years old. My father was a foodie, immersed in the early days of the California cuisine food scene, and Chinois was one of our regular family spots. I now go with my own family regularly, and the restaurant remains one of my favorite places in the city.”GETTY IMAGES
GWYNETH PALTROW ON CHINOIS ON MAIN

Academy Award–winning actor and founder of Goop:“I have been going to Chinois on Main since I was about 12 years old. My father was a foodie, immersed in the early days of the California cuisine food scene, and Chinois was one of our regular family spots. I now go with my own family regularly, and the restaurant remains one of my favorite places in the city.”

MatsuhisaLUIS GARCIA
Matsuhisa
MATSUHISA
Beverly Hills 1987

Few people would have predicted that Nobu Matsuhisa’s namesake business would one day birth a hospitality empire. Today this small, 32-year-old Japanese restaurant is one of more than 40 properties (including hotels and Nobu restaurants) in places like Milan, Munich, Hong Kong, Mexico City, London, and Perth.

Chef Matsuhisa was born in Japan and worked for years in Peru, where he was forced to substitute and adapt the strict standards of his native cuisine. When he came to Los Angeles, he once again honed his style, this time for American tastes.

In the early days, when a customer sent back a plate of raw fish, the chef poured hot oil over it to sear the flesh, salvaging the dish. When a child turned his nose up at squid, Matsuhisa cut the seafood like pasta and the young customer loved it. Both dishes are still on the menu. We can also thank the chef for the black cod marinated in miso that has become a staple on just about every Japanese menu in America.

The chefs at the original Matsuhisa also prepare many dishes served at the much grander Nobu restaurants. The modest flagship remains popular in Los Angeles, with tables close together and a sushi bar with seating as tight as three people squeezed into a Miata. 129 N. La Cienega, Beverly Hills, 310-659-9639, matsuhisabeverlyhills.com

While the seeds of California cuisine were sowed in the gold rush, the idea gained traction in the 1970s, and by the end of the 1980s, the concept of a regional cuisine was widely embraced. To this day, California chefs continue to seek fresh, creative approaches to good food. Some restaurants that may not seem so innovative today certainly were when they opened. They paved the way for new standouts, like Ray Garcia’s imaginative take on Mexican food at Broken Spanish in Los Angeles and Mourad Lahlou’s Moroccan flourishes at Mourad in San Francisco. After all, California cuisine remains a very wide umbrella that is more about the spirit than about carefully defined techniques.

Michael Bauer was the lead restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 25 years.