Elizabeth Blau is doing the Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas commute in reverse.
After planting Simon Kitchen & Bar in Sin City's celebrity hot spot, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the restaurant's co-owner has trailed her patrons back to their weekday stomping grounds in Los Angeles.
She's making her own bet: that Angelenos will shell out for pricey meals hundreds of miles away from the black jack tables.
"We already knew our restaurant works with the L.A. market on the weekend, when Hard Rock becomes L.A. East. That made it an easier business decision," said Blau, whose newest endeavor, the Simon L.A. at the hotel Sofitel Los Angeles, is throwing its gala opening party this week.
The arrival of Blau and Kerry Simon, the restaurant's Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, is part of a culinary movement west. Celebrity chefs, who long ago fired up their grills in Las Vegas, are starting to test the L.A. market. The city could soon be feasting at a slew of eateries opened by culinary transplants, both rising stars and established impresarios.
The most recognizable names in the batch of newcomers are Mario Batali, who is teaming up with La Brea Bakery maven Nancy Silverton at what is expected to be called Mozza at Highland and Melrose avenues, and Gordon Ramsay, who could swing two locations at the Bel Age Hotel, which is to be renamed the London L.A.
Reports are swirling that others could join the pair. David Burke, the executive chef and co-owner of New York's davidburke & donatella, and Tom Colicchio, the force behind the James Beard-lauded restaurant Craft, pop up as possibilities. Norman Van Aken, who brought Norman's here in 2004 after flourishing in Florida, is also considering another spot downtown.
"It is happening more, and I think it's a great sign of the allure and status of L.A. as a major dining and travel destination," wrote Suzanne Goin, who, with partner Caroline Styne, is behind L.A. restaurants A.O.C. and Lucques, in an e-mail. "For the chefs, I'm assuming these are good deals financially and give them a chance to expand their brand."
Open for business
Some culinary immigrants are already serving up meals. Quinn and Karen Hatfield launched Hatfield's this month after leaving Cortez Restaurant & Bar in San Francisco. (The couple met while working at Spago, and Karen grew up in the Pacific Palisades.) Jeffrey Chodorow, the New Yorker at the top of China Grill Inc., made a splash with Social Hollywood in the renovated Hollywood Athletic Club space, and hotelier Jeff Klein, who also hails from New York, turned old Hollywood charm into a draw for new Hollywood at the Tower Bar in the Sunset Tower Hotel.
That chefs and restaurateurs with recognized names and borderline obsessive followings outside L.A. are even contemplating setting up shop locally could be a harbinger of more change. If dining VIPs break in here Southern California has been seen as difficult territory they could convince others to take L.A. seriously. As Las Vegas demonstrates, chefs do travel in packs.
"It is a very complex piece of machinery," said Merrill Shindler, a senior editor of Zagat Survey. "Restaurants fail here, and people don't want to go here. Restaurants succeed here, and they want to go here."
Los Angeles has long cultivated its own crop of renowned chefs. Silverton, Wolfgang Puck, Joachim Splichal, Mark Peel, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger are stalwarts. They've given birth to the next generation of local restaurateurs: Goin, Neal Fraser at Grace, David Myers at Sona and Govind Armstrong at Table 8 all sharpened their knives in the kitchens of the former group.
However, when it comes to out-of-towners gaining traction, the examples are sparse. "It is surprising how long it is has taken," said Van Aken. "Many restaurants that are standard bearers are the same that they were 10 to 12 years ago."
Hatfield said chefs aren't sure whether Angelenos are willing to spend the money on fine dining that their counterparts in New York, San Francisco or Vegas do. And Van Aken described chefs' hesitance about L.A. as the "egg white omelet" issue. Here's the horror scenario: a plate with fois gras spooks locals who shudder at the slightest thought of fat.
But Van Aken hasn't found L.A. customers to be so healthy that they won't dig into a good meal, including a celebrity or two who show up at his weekly pig roast. That's not to say every dish will fly here, and some chefs certainly have avoided the area for fear the cuisine won't translate.
After getting the food right, the geography comes into play. L.A. is a tough beast for outsiders to get their arms around. The expanse and the car culture often mystify those not accustomed to Southern California's peculiarities. Where to put a restaurant is of paramount concern and offers no easy answers. Beverly Hills. Westwood. Downtown. Each area has its own clientele and distinct culinary demands.
Hatfield opted to locate on Beverly Boulevard, quickly becoming a restaurant row for smaller, intimate offerings. She said the neighborhood feel of the area appealed to her. And she's depending on locals to keep her business humming. When trying Hatfield's out recently, Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine, said she did see locals walk up and check out the menu.
Van Aken learned the hard way about the importance of parking to Angelenos. At first, he said the Norman's in Sunset Millennium Plaza didn't have valet up front, a critical misstep. "It has been difficult to overcome the fact that people don't know we have valet parking now," he said.
So, what's driving chefs to shift their sights westward? Are restaurateurs compelled to come to L.A. because there simply too many upscale restaurants with big-name chefs in Vegas?
Whether Sin City's ebbing appetite for restaurants is a factor in the burgeoning L.A. scene is up for debate. Fairchild said she's begun to wonder if the market for ultra-fine dining in Vegas is being overwhelmed. But Juliette Rossant, editor-in-chief and publisher of Superchefblog, hasn't seen a restaurant slowdown there yet. "There is plenty more room," she said.
The national market for celebrity chefs may be a better explanation for the push into L.A. As these chefs become increasingly popular, they have to continue to feed their customers' desire to keep growing. For example, Ramsay's Food Network television show, "Hell's Kitchen," and his L.A. restaurants go hand in hand. The show brings in an audience, which he can direct to his restaurants to generate revenues long after the television program ends. Same goes for Batali with his shows, appearances and books.
And the restaurants themselves become relatively straightforward additions as chefs expand outside their home base. Rossant explained that as chefs build up infrastructure, they hone efficiencies so the next restaurant can be more profitable than the last. "Until you get to about five restaurants, your back office is not financially viable. Once you get all that in place, it is financially easier to open up another restaurant," she said.
But location is always key, and attractive real estate has been freed up in L.A. by hotel renovations. It is no coincidence that Ramsay is slated for the Bel Age and the Simon L.A. is going into the Sofitel. Hotels have the advantage of providing a consistent traffic flow. And hotel companies often foot the bill for the construction of the restaurant to lure a big-name chef.
"In Las Vegas, we have 1,000 rooms on top of us. Here, we have several hundred. It is about a built-in customer base. It is about a built-in marketing team," said Blau.
Simon L.A. sits in a prime spot across the street from the Beverly Center in a 295-room hotel that's undergoing a $40 million revamp. Nightlife guru Rande Gerber, husband of supermodel Cindy Crawford, is putting his latest joint, the Stone Rose Lounge, next door.
Location, of course, does not guarantee success. Neither does a celebrity. In L.A., the center of the nation's celebrity culture, the cache of a name may not amount to much. And some believe diners may even be getting tired of celebrity chefs.
"Ultimately, it is all about what is on the plate," said Fairchild. "If what you get from that restaurant kitchen disappoints, it never matters who the chef is, you are never going to go back."
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