Welcome to The Gatekeepers, a monthly feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tough-to-get tables.
Elizabeth Daniels 3/12
Michael Cardenas helped conceive a little company called IDG or Innovative Dining Group, a Los Angeles and Las Vegas hospitality firm responsible for the likes of celeb-drenched haunts Sushi Roku, Katana, Delphine, and BOA, among others. However, in 2009 Cardenas ventured down a new path with the inception of Lazy Ox Canteen, reeling in chef Josef Centeno to served a fusion menu of seasonal small plates in an - at the time - relatively undeveloped stretch of San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo. Centeno's Asian-South American-California fare offered in a casual, pubby space quickly caught on and, from the early days, Lazy Ox Canteen established itself as a destination, chef-driven restaurant. Three stars by the LA Times didn't hurt, either. Two years later The Ox is still as buzzy as ever and here now Cardenas' right-hand woman, Anjela Bolivar, who shares intel on how to score a seat.
It's Saturday at 8PM. What's the wait for two? If you walk in it will be a 30 minute to an hour wait. And if you have a reservation, there is unfortunately sometimes a 15 minute wait on a busy Friday or Saturday night.
What is the best time to come in for dinner during the week if you don't want to wait? We always recommend that customers call us to make a reservation, but if you do not make a reservation, guests can walk in Sunday through Thursday beginning at 5PM. During the week we save twenty to thirty percent of our tables for walk-in guests. If you walk in on Friday or Saturday night, our busiest nights, we recommend grabbing drinks next door at Toranoko's bar while waiting to be seated.
How many seats are in the dining room? Our main dining room has 70 covers and our patio has 20 covers, so 90 seats total.
How would you describe your clientele? Our diverse clientele is composed of downtown residents and business people, celebrities, theatergoers, hipsters, out-of-town visitors, other restaurateurs. They come from all over, really. Westsiders, a lot of Asian bloggers and true foodies. It’s a really cool mix of people reflective of L.A. They all tend to have a passion for good food and beverage.
Who are your VIPs here? Our VIPs are our neighbors from our building and around Little Tokyo, the downtown art crowd and, of course, business people who frequent The Ox during lunch. Our neighbors are one of our keys to success.
What's the strangest request that you've accommodated so far? “Can we get some sushi and sashimi from chef Hisa (formerly of Nobu Matsuhisa empire) from Toranoko?” We always oblige...it’s all about guest satisfaction.
How did your LA Times review affect business? The LA Times boosted our traffic, mostly with “Curious George"-type diners. We won them over with our great food and service. We made them our new friends.
How did this project come together? Michael (Cardenas) was born and raised in Japan. He wanted to do something in Little Tokyo to give back to the Japanese community and he wanted to take part in the revival of downtown. Luckily, the perfect space opened up and Lazy Ox was born.
How did he find chef Josef Centeno? Michael used to dine at Opus back when Josef was the chef there. He and Josef were formally introduced by his real estate broker Derrick Moore at CBRE when Michael was first exploring the idea of doing something in DTLA.
Tell us about some of your favorite customers. All our neighbors, of course! But to name a few? Steve and Jean of Teramachi, Ernie Doizaki from LA Fish Company who lives next door to the restaurant, Seth Kittay who’s involved in Sushi Roku, and all the good people from the downtown LA Police Department.
What's the best table in the house? Table 2 for a romantic date for two. Table 7 and 8 are booths for a nice family dinner or double date. For large parties of 8, we have a communal table. Or if you’d like some privacy, there’s table 13 in the corner.
What's your most important tool for working the room?
Knowledge of food and beverage. It is the key to success at The Ox, paired with a big smile.
When you're not at the restaurant, where do you like to eat? Tokyo Kalbi in West LA for Japanese-style Korean BBQ; Robata Bar in Santa Monica with chef Toshi and chef Jason Yamazaki's special sashimi of the day; La Playita in Venice for mixto ceviche tostada; Pollo a la Brasa for Peruvian chicken; sitting at the bar with a bottle of Sassicaia, truffle pizza and bottarga pasta at Madeo on Beverly Boulevard.
What are the best things to eat and drink here? Our "pig ear chicharron" is the BEST in town; the famous Lazy Ox burger; roasted cauliflower with pine nuts; "cote du boeuf" family style dinner on Saturdays is a MUST for the experience; a bottle of Semler's "Canteen Red" that we make in Malibu to support the local winery; and any cool beer on tap that our beverage buyer Jennifer Attebery recommends...Trust her.
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