Editor's note: This piece has been slightly updated from its original publication in 2014.
No one would accuse Diep Tran of breezing through her five years as owner of Good Girl Dinette. The ambitious chef pushes plates of Vietnamese-style diner food in Highland Park, opening the doors to her first restaurant in the middle of some of the worst economic turmoil in American History. Still, five years in, Good Girl is going strong.
Today, the airy side street eatery is more than a local gem — it's a popular all-day destination for people looking to eat well in a comfortable space. Good Girl Dinette has been mentioned in The New York Times, Saveur and beyond, and weekend crowds continue to grow for Tran's inventive breakfast options and coffee from Jack Benchakul and his Cognoscenti coffee cart in the corner. Not that Tran is resting on her laurels; there's too much work to be done still.
How did Good Girl Dinette first come about? I spent 10 years doing social justice work, which I loved, but I think there was always a part of me that knew I wanted to have a second career, and I always knew that second career would involve food. I grew up in my aunt and uncle's restaurant. You'd recognize every single dish on the menu there, it's kind of just like the greatest hits. And they were very good at it, but I wasn't interested in doing the same thing.
Food, as a reflection of culture, is dynamic, it's always moving. So I thought about the type of restaurant that I'd want. In my life, I've never felt like I've had to follow a formula — which, I should say for business, it's probably better to have a formula. It's been foolhardy for me to actually do something different, in a way, because sometimes people can be delighted in having their expectations a little unmet, but sometimes people get super pissed. But if I wanted to follow someone else's rules, I'd go work for somebody else. I needed a place that sings to me.
I really love home cooking. Not that I'm not a chef, but I didn't grow up in any institutionalized culinary tradition. In Vietnamese the word for chef is đầu bếp, which means the head of the kitchen. You can say that about the woman who runs her own kitchen at home. But there's another word for chef, sư phụ, which means like master or teacher. I identify more with đầu bếp, and wanted a place that would reflect that.
What drew you to Highland Park? I grew up in immigrant neighborhoods, and I love the dynamics of that. It's not too manicured. I love that it's real working-class, because that's my community. It's like asking why you love someone. You just do.
It must have been a struggle to open in 2009, at the height of the recession. Yeah. I'd say the height, but it was really the depths of the recession. I mean, at some point people thought that we wouldn't have an economy. Yeah, it was real dumb [laughs]. My goal was always to open a neighborhood restaurant that serves sustainable cuisine, at a price point that is not out of reach. It could be an everyday experience for people, or an indulgence if you just got paid, depending on your economic bracket. I thought the economy could sustain that in 2007, and then it just crashed.
I really had to think about things. I knew that I could serve conventionally-grown foods at a price point that would work, but I didn't think I could do that personally. At the same time, I didn't want to price out anyone in my neighborhood, so we just started trying to really be smart about it, be real thrifty. We looked at the menu and tried to make things really homey, but also thrifty, like a great beef stew that also used a lot of vegetables, things like that.
I also wanted to be a just employer. I'm not going to charge $2 for a banh mi -- any place that does, someone along the way is getting cheated, and it's usually the workers. I had to tell people that our prices were going to be slightly higher than what they might be used to paying for the same stuff. So we'd better deliver on the food.
What's one of your highest points in the five years since you opened Good Girl? Running any business is a game of nerves. You have a few bad weeks, you're toast. I've bounced a payroll check. You feel like shit. You have to deal with these razor-thin margins, while still giving people an experience. They're coming in to be taken care of, not to take care of you. So the highs are high, but the lows are low. The highs are smaller stories. I have a lot of customers that come in with their kids, and I fed those kids in utero. Now they're going to pre-school. Or when the pie dough just works, or a dish comes out perfect. Those are the highs; they're more intimate.
Where do you think you fit in within the greater L.A. food landscape? We're a lot of things. On the weekend, we have people coming in from far away, out-of-towners -- and I include Westsiders in that. I know whenever I have to go to the Westside, it's like I gotta bring snacks, go with a friend. It's a long way. Mostly, I think most restaurants survive from the neighborhood love. We do too. We're actually in a great place right now, where we've had to increase staffing, things like that. It's been great. That's my five years — we survived, now let's thrive.
What does the next five years look like for Good Girl? More than anything, I want to not feel like I'm behind the eight ball. Be able to step back, really savor the stuff that's coming out of the kitchen, finesse things. It doesn't make me happy when things are just good enough. They should be beautiful. I mean, restaurants are life: things are going to be messy sometimes, but we can always do better. I want more of those moments where I set something down in front of someone that's so perfect, I just dare them not to fucking enjoy it.