Welcome to Ten Years In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their ten year anniversary.
Elizabeth Daniels 10/13
Joachim Splichal founded Patina almost 25 years ago on a sleepy stretch of Melrose, in a building where Michael Cimarusti's Providence now stands. Ten years ago, Splichal decided to pack Patina up and move it to the architectural gem that is now Walt Disney Concert Hall, perhaps the marquee building in all of Los Angeles. Since then, Splichal has had to contend with a completely different clientele, changes in the overall Los Angeles fine dining milieu, as well as an emerging Downtown restaurant scene. Here now, Splichal and general manager Kevin Welby talk about the development of this landmark establishment that bears the name of a restaurant group that now operates almost 50 eateries around the country.
How did you come to this location? JS: We've been open for 25 years, about 15 years at the previous location. We run the whole block, we run the cafes and restaurants on Grand Avenue. The space was available, we'd been interested in doing a restaurant. We thought about it and said, we've been in Hancock Park for 15 years. Maybe we move Downtown with the opening of the Hall.
Were you worried about losing the clientele you'd built up over 15 years? JS: There was one fear that people from Beverly Hills would not drive Downtown, but we would replace them with the theater-goers, which is basically what happened. The clientele totally changed. We had people from Brentwood and Beverly Hills, Hancock Park and Hollywood Hills. We still get the Hancock Park people, but the others, especially during rush hour traffic, they will not come.
What was the space like when you entered? JS: It was all raw. We had to negotiate with Frank Gehry about the design, every inch. Initially the kitchen was the size of a closet and we got more and more space over time until we were satisfied. We signed the lease and did all the improvements, hiring Hagy Belzberg, who did the previous interior design (where Providence now stands). We built the whole thing out. When we opened there was a three day, 3,000 person extravaganza for the opening of the hall, and we opened right after. We were very busy in the beginning as a lot of people came here post-theater. But that dwindled down over the years because there was a hype about the place. Everyone wanted to be associated with the Hall. Now it's ten years old and the Hall gets criticized by everybody.
Who was the conductor when you opened here? JS: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Gustavo Dudamel came in 2009.
Did you change the concept from when you were in Hancock Park? JS: No, it was refined, fine dining, European-style, with seasonality. The chef changed. At the time it was Eric Greenspan (The Foundry), and then we had Theo Schoenneger, who's now at Sinatra in the Encore Las Vegas. You found pretty quickly that there's a difference in how people dined here. We had pre-theater on the weekend, we had early dining on the weekend at our old location. But here, people all came late because of the traffic. Shows start at 8 p.m. so a lot of people had to make curtain. We had to adjust speeds and the dishes.
Most fine dining restaurants don't have to contend with this, right? JS: No, most fine dining restaurants have no speed.
What do you think has been the main factor that's driven you to keep the consistency here? How do you feel about how fine dining has changed over the last ten years? JS: Why do we keep the quality? We believe in the quality, but the whole company was built up in quality. Fine dining has changed over the years. There are many other casual restaurants that people want to go to. L.A. has changed from a fine dining standpoint, as nobody wants to open a fine dining restaurants. I just gave an interview with David Myers and he worked for me for three years. He said the same thing, fine dining is out. All the old palaces like L'Orangerie are closed. No one wants to open a new one because price is a factor. The way people eat right now, younger people are much more mobile with all their devices. If they want to eat here, they'll check Yelp.
Do you want to keep this up or modify what you're offering here based on what fine dining is now? JS: You have to make adjustments. The clients change, we're going to be adding a new patio outside that Gensler designed for us that's happening next year. We want to re-open for lunch when the new Broad Museum opens next year. We could change the interior and make the menu more accessible, that's another thing, but we're not at that point. Definitely we want to make changes because you need to make changes.
When the Michelin guide first came out in 2008 in L.A. you received one star, what did you think? JS: I thought they're never going to last because in my opinion, we're so far removed from New York. When you're in NYC, it's almost the same distance to fly to Europe as it is to fly here, so they're constantly going back and forth. I didn't think they had the marketing to launch the guide and after six months, nobody talked anymore. It was a big splash and that was it. The Michelin star didn't help too much.
What about the four-star review that S. Irene Virbila of the LA Times awarded? JS: It helped business, sure, but to a very minimal amount. I still think we're at the same location doing the same thing. It doesn't appeal to a younger clientele. KW: I think all the Michelin star and the four-star review did was reinforce the quality and what we've always done at the restaurant. It didn't create a spike in business, it affirmed what we did and what we stood for. Especially for a pre-theater establishment. As for clientele, we do have a trend of younger clientele coming through the restaurant. As they get more interested in food and search different applications and devices, they really come to appreciate what fine dining is. Their approach is slightly different. What we offer becomes a continual sense of surprise and comfort for people. JS: We could never do what places like Eleven Madison Park do in New York. No one has a $200 base menu in L.A.
Tell me a little bit about the design of the interior. What did the previous restaurant look like and were you going for something new when you built out this space inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall? JS: The old Patina was a free-standing building. When we opened 24 years ago, we built it for $450,000, but in those days, people built restaurants for four to five million, so we built it for nothing. We renovated the old restaurant in 1998. It was a two-story building and the rooms are very small. They had low ceiling so we increased the ceilings there. We had four to five rooms with limited space. When we had a large open space here, we put two different private dining spaces, one larger room and one chef's table toward the front of the restaurant.
KW: The private dining room opens to the dining room. The curtain feel is supposed to remind one of the Concert Hall. The walnut is carved with a sensual drape of a curtain reflecting the theater that Grand Avenue represents.
Did Frank Gehry sign off on the interior? JS: We wanted to hire him originally but the price tag was a little too high for us. He was finishing the hall and didn't want to have anything to do with the restaurant, but he endorsed Haggie.
Why still do fine dining? You have all these restaurants and the group is named after this place. What is the purpose of fine dining? JS: I think it's an important element of the restaurant business. You have fast food, medium price, high priced. From my perspective, it's an education. When you go to a restaurant like this, the staff is very educated. They know everything inside and out on the menu, the wines. For examples, new wineries want to be in this restaurant, they know when they're on the list, they're able to sell them to other people. First of all, having a sommelier is a luxury, and the sommelier will tell you everything about the wine. Fine dining, maybe it's a little out of fashion in L.A. If you go to Japan, there are 350 or more places with Michelin stars. Over there, you can walk into 60 French restaurants and fine dining is hugely popular. Fine dining will come back here because younger people will get older, they don't need the music to blast. The environment can be more romantic and slow-paced, or conducive to conversation. These days, young chefs don't want to go into fine dining, but I think it's going to come back. Maybe in a year or two, this isn't working, we have to do something different. The patio will add to the casualness, as well as the traffic from the new Broad Museum. Downtown is coming back as well, which is absolutely fantastic. KW: I think in one sense, the restaurant is the soul of the company. Everything was a genesis from this, the commitment to quality and service is the same throughout.
What would you say Patina does differently compared to other fine dining establishments? JS: The food we serve here is based on European tradition. Right now we have game meats and white truffles in season. Pretty soon we'll have black truffles. That has never changed. That's what star restaurants do in Europe.
How do you feel about so many chefs that you've trained and how they have found success all over the world? JS: They all have to come and kiss my ring (laughs). I'm not at all like that, I'm very glad they've done well, and glad that so many people came out of our ranks. A few years ago L.A. Magazine published a tree of chefs that came from our restaurant. Without being pretentious, we had a majority of chefs coming from that tree. I feel very good about that and I think as I get older, I become more of a mentor for other chefs going into business. I give them the best advice I can give them. I hope they do well because they're the next generation.
Where else do you like to eat, outside of the restaurants you own? JS: I like Baco Mercat and Bar Ama, but I haven't been to Josef Centeno's new place, Orsa & Winston. I like Bestia, Ori Menasche does a great job. I go out very seldomly in Los Angeles because I travel so much. I like to go to Racion in Pasadena and Matsuhisa, which is incredible. I like Nickel Diner for breakfast. I go to Rivera often for lunch, as well as my own restaurants. I'll have a private lunch at Patina every once in a while. If we have a very special occasion, we'll do a special eight to nine course lunch with wine pairings at Patina.
What do you think your lasting legacy will be? JS: When I started, there were no square plates. Now, it's a trend. When this restaurant moved, there was a lot of new stuff we offered. When I started Patina, when I had another previous restaurant, we did stuff nobody did. I did a vegetarian menu before anyone knew what that was. Now people think they're brilliant when they have a vegetarian menu. I did whole lobsters using every different piece. We had a menu with four different items only for two people, like duck for two. We were so ahead with what was happening in L.A. We introduced many things from a design and service standpoint, we get the highest rankings in service. I think it's a total experience you have, from the moment you walk in until you leave. It's an environment you can talk in, you can interact. We are proud of whatever we have achieved over the past ten years. We've developed people in the front and in the back. For example. Walter Manzke's partner in the front, Christian Phillipo, worked with us for ten years. We're proud of all that because I think we really changed L.A. in many ways. We introduced good food to museums like Ray's & Stark Bar. I travel all over the world and I look at what we did, I think we did pretty good.
Would you ever move Patina again? JS: I think Downtown for the next fifteeen years is going to be the place to be. We have seven to eight different establishments in Downtown. Naturally Downtown is divided into the arts, business, and sports scenes, and I think it's the best place to be. The vision of this street that started fifteen years ago, with another Frank Gehry building going in across the street. Eli Broad thought that this street would be the one filled with buildings done by famous architects. All of that is going to help.