Visitors to L.A. are sure to find one dining trend here to their taste: lower prices. "Definitely it's a consumer's market," said Janet Lowder, a Rancho Palos Verdes restaurant consultant.
There are three reasons such local mini-chains as Claim Jumper have "lines out the door," according to Lowder: "Quality product. Modest prices. Great service."
And a California Restaurant Association survey finds that restaurants in this highly competitive market are placing the highest priority on cutting costs and improving service.
Besides the relatively new Claim Jumper, other small chains, notably Daily Grill, Jerry's Famous Deli, Cheesecake Factory and Louise's Trattoria, are doing well not only because of pricing and service, according to Lowder, but because they offer "a pleasant atmosphere ... almost a bistro-style setting."
L.A.'s celebrity chefs have joined the fray, opening bistro and cafe spin-offs serving more casual fare that retains their signature style. A case in point is Joachim Splichal of the pricey California-French Patina, who has opened Pinot Bistro in Studio City, Cafe Pinot Downtown and the new Pinot Hollywood. "Even Wolfgang (Puck, of Spago, Chinois on Main and Granita fame) is doing casual at his cafes," Lowder said.
The bistros and trattorias fit well within the Southern California lifestyle because they offer "more of a casual atmosphere," Lowder said, "even though they might have white tablecloths."
Thanks to the weather, the Southern California lifestyle included year-round outdoor dining even before the arrival of the first European explorers. Until recently, though, it seemed to be something Angelenos enjoyed mostly in their sidewalk suburban backyards.
Now, perhaps seeking to emulate the success of the sidewalk and patio cafes of Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade and Old Pasadena (and perhaps as a way of dealing with California's strict indoor smoking laws), outdoor tables and umbrellas are sprouting at restaurants like spring wildflowers on a hillside.
"With our weather and climate, almost everyone wants to be outdoors when it's nice," Lowder said, noting the success of such restaurants as Chin Chin in West Hollywood and the Daily Grill in Brentwood. Others cite the Hotel Bel-Air's dining room and patio. The restaurant is a favorite with celebrities and L.A. power brokers.
The L.A. lifestyle and its location on the Pacific Rim continue to attract immigrants from around the world: the highest concentration of Mexicans outside Mexico, more Koreans than any city besides Seoul, and the most Thais outside Thailand. All have brought their cuisines with them, as have Russians, Uzbekis, Nigerians, Cambodians, Armenians, Ethiopians and Cubans, to stand alongside, and often mix with, the more traditional, but still-expanding collection of Japanese, French, Chinese and Italian restaurants. (One favorite of critics, Yujean Kang in Pasadena, serves Chinese polenta and minestrone Mandarin-style.)
Indeed, one of the hottest trends identified by California Restaurant Association surveys is "ethnic anything." Of the top 10 cities in the United States in number of ethnic restaurants, seven are in California, according to Lisa Doerman, association spokesman. One needn't search too far for ethnic eateries: They're found in every corner of the city. Strip malls, especially in the heart of the city, have become magnets for authentic ethnic spots from Thais to Korean bar-b-que to Caribbean jerk chicken.
A short stretch of Fairfax Avenue just south of Olympic has been a center of ethnic restaurants. For decades, the block was an Eastern European stronghold; later it became a locus of the Sunday-night Chinese restaurant scene.
More recently, South Fairfax coalesced into an Ethiopian enclave, lined with markets selling vegetables, beauty shops and of course, Ethiopian restaurants, like the family-friendly Blue Nile.
For those looking for the traditional, the association notes that Southern California is the birthplace of the cheeseburger, chili dogs, the Cobb salad and the hot fudge sundae, among other "All-American" favorites.
Doerman also says another hot dining trend tracked by the association is one toward heartier food. And L.A., long considered the home of the salad and sushi, has seen a resurgence, matching a national trend, in the consumption of beef at restaurants.
Restaurant consultant Lowder notes the arrival of the upscale Ruth's Chris and Morton's of Chicago steakhouse chains to tap a growing market long served by the longestablished veterans Pacific Dining Car and Lawry's, the Prime Rib, which itself has started to expand to other cities.
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