Look out folks, it seems we’ve got our next new trend: the doner kebab. Sure, poke is still very much a thing (just like gourmet pub burgers and Korean-Mexican fusion food), but keen-eyed restaurateurs have already begun plotting the next great dining wave, and it’s now truly shoring up in Los Angeles.
First, to get this out of the way, doner kebabs have been around in one form or another for years in Los Angeles. The Turkish iskender kebap — similar to a Greek gyro in that it’s (usually) lamb meat seasoned and pressed onto a vertical spit and served with bread — and shawarma in general is by no means impossible to find, but is far from being as ubiquitous as in places like Berlin and London.
More recently, the Spitz franchise has worked a successful model of modern doner dominance, a German-style proto-Turkish pita/wrap creation that falls more closely in line with what you’ll find across Europe. They also do doner meat over french fries, salads, and lots of other non-kebab stuff, and now enjoy locations in Little Tokyo, Los Feliz, Studio City, Eagle Rock, and even San Diego and Salt Lake City.
Within the past year or so, a handful of new operators have come online to join the doner party. Among the more popular is Berlins, a true European operation (it’s run by Germans after all) that started in a strip mall on Third Street but has since grown to a second location on the Venice Boardwalk. Another recent option is Prime Cutts, also on West Third Street, which takes the backbone of a doner restaurant and adds on options for salad bowls, tacos, and other modern options that feel distinctly like Los Angeles.
And now there’s SpireWorks, a Westwood storefront hitting the same Turkish tropes as all the rest. They’re already so assured of success, in fact, they’re planning to expand right out of the gate into a second space in Eagle Rock — not coincidentally, the home of the first Spitz anywhere in the Southland.
So why are doner kebabs so hot right now? Basically these concepts are collecting a few different trends that are popular within the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, and making them work together under one roof. Plus there’s something very, very familiar about it all.
There's something very familiar about it all
First, consider the economics of opening a sit-down restaurant with full table service. The labor costs and square footage needed are big impediments to folks opening up first-time concepts, and will only become larger worries as minimum wage continues to grow to $15 an hour down the line — with no tipped minimum for front of house staff. Each of the above modern doner examples work a counter service menu, where guests order at the front and grab any seat in the house, letting a runner drop food just a few minutes later. Less staff, more efficiency, lower costs.
Los Angeles is also in the midst (and has been for more than a minute) of an infatuation with Middle Eastern cuisines of all flavors, especially anything licked by flame. Though the rotating spit of a doner kebab shop can’t recreate the power of a fresh pita pulled from a wood-burning oven like what you’ll see at Fig in Santa Monica, there is still something elemental about the meat and fire combination that even a takeaway kebab shop can offer.
Plus, doesn’t it all feel rather familiar? Los Angeles is a city born and bred on the al pastor taco, a Lebanese transport that found success in Mexico more than a century ago using pork instead of lamb and beef.
There’s really no barrier to entry for customers to have to learn about dishes or understand the process. Combine that with low overhead and a push towards the growing fast casual market, and doner kebabs seem primed for success in the LA restaurant market.
Will doner kebabs end up being bigger than poke though? That certainly seems impossible in these raw fish-saturated times, but anything is possible.