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Opinion: Why Vespertine Shouldn’t Top Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurant List

Plus why the Goldster doesn’t buy into the hype of out-of-town restaurateurs

White asparagus at Vespertine
Jeff Elstone/Vespertine

Last night, the LA Times released Jonathan Gold’s annual 101 best restaurant list, and Vespertine topped the rankings in its first year, just five months after opening in Culver City’s Hayden Tract under chef Jordan Kahn’s direction. Today, Eater editors discuss the ramifications of Vespertine’s number one ranking, plus the omission of many well-known, out-of-town restaurateurs who came to LA looking for gold, and not finding any (at least in their first year).

It’s Premature to Declare Vespertine the Best Restaurant in LA — Matthew Kang, editor

In this year’s list, Jonathan Gold allows newcomer Vespertine to leapfrog the consistency and greatness of first-rate LA institutions like Providence, which earned spot number two on the list, and Spago, ranked third. This leap of faith on behalf of Jordan Khan’s experimental new restaurant isn’t just surprising, it’s a bit misleading.

Based on an experience dining at Vespertine in late August, the restaurant offers a ground-breaking meal, indeed. But there are arguably fatal flaws: namely, some dud dishes and, in Gold’s words (!), “throbbing four-note” music that is tiring and difficult to listen to for hours on end.

Despite these imperfections, Vespertine might very well become the most influential, most important restaurant in Los Angeles within the next decade, or perhaps in half the time. It’s a pure vision of a talented, creative chef in Jordan Kahn who seems to have unbridled financial — and thus culinary — resources at hand. And Vespertine ultimately pushes a restaurant conversation that’s outside of the paradigm of the greats of previous generations like El Bulli, the French Laundry, Noma, and perhaps even Alinea. Those restaurants are either gone, in transition, or have been open for over 10 years.

Vespertine is easily the most ambitious, most compelling restaurant to open in Los Angeles in a generation. What Jonathan Gold might actually be rewarding, then, is Kahn’s artistic and culinary vision, and how successful Vespertine achieves them. When one reads Gold’s original review, it’s not exactly clear how much of the actual experience he enjoyed. But Jonathan Gold showed us last year that he’s willing to take risks on places if he sees them as ground-breaking or genre-bending restaurants. Shibumi showed up as the number two spot on his 2016 list (before dropping to number 12 this year) while Vespertine lands at number one after just five short months of operation.

Red Spinach at Vespertine
Jeff Elstone/Vespertine

Why? Because the Goldster wants to be a kingmaker. It’s what any publication or critic of authority wants to do. Plus, it’s a conversation starter. When Bon Appetit crowned Alma as the best new restaurant in America, it drove in traffic and made headlines.

Gold wants to be the first to declare that Vespertine is the future. In fact, by crowning Vespertine the best restaurant in Los Angeles right now, he’s saying this vanguard establishment is and will be the most definitive place to eat in the creative capital of the world.

That kind of statement will have certain implications and results: Vespertine will define the way chefs approach their craft for the next few decades. Its books will become international bestsellers. Vespertine will become LA’s first World’s 50 Best restaurant since Spago landed in at number 35 in 2004. This is what Gold sees, and he wants to be the first to say it was great. (NB: Besha Rodell gave Vespertine a very strong four-star rating last month.)

Yes, it’s hard to argue Vespertine’s trail-blazing ambition. But when critics make declarations like “this is the single best restaurant in LA,” they are vouching for the restaurant on behalf of their readership. They’re telling everyone to go and spend money at this place. The food at Vespertine, while compelling and truly otherworldly, doesn’t warrant this kind of attention just yet.

Instead, Vespertine evinces a kind of artsy stoicism, a stark bleakness that feels like it is pulled out of a slow-moving science fiction film. Gold even said that it’s the kind of experience that might drive some diners insane. But as with many artful ambitions, the line between madness and genius is thinner than it seems. Ultimately, diners need to know that what’s on the plate will be delicious and satisfying. And just because Gold declared this his number one restaurant does not affirm that.

The Goldster Does Not Buy Into the Hype of Out-of-Town Restaurateurs — Farley Elliot, senior editor

This year, Jonathan Gold’s 101 list seems to have a lot to say (or not say, as the case may be) about what it means to be an out-of-town chef coming to start something big in the city. It's a relatively strong recent trend — big names land in LA, cementing their cross-country legacy either with a new project or something familiar — but for the most part those places have landed with a thud, or at least a whisper.

Geoffrey Zakarian’s Georgie is not present on this year's list despite the price tag and tony Beverly Hills location, nor is Scott Conant’s The Ponte. Jean-George Vongerichten, one of the most celebrated international chefs of all time, won't find his pricey Waldorf Astoria palace of luxury getting love from J. Gold, either. Normally that might make sense in a year where the Times crowned some out-of-the-way local favorite as the city's best meal, but Gold has decided to bestow that honor onto Vespertine. Jordan Kahn’s out-there eatery is one of the most expensive meals in the city at the moment — so why go high brow, then leave off most of the rest of the expensive crop? Or, say, put fine dining talent magnet Melisse all the way down at number 38?

That's not to say The Ponte is the best restaurant in Los Angeles — it isn't. But the 101 is littered with casual Italian food, and even misses some of LA's better versions in places like Love & Salt. It just seems less like this year's lack of big out-of-town names is a true reckoning of what's good or bad, and more of a notice to the future of the city's dining carpetbaggers: Come here if you want, but don't expect the red carpet treatment. Those are reserved for taco trucks, strip malls, and deep Valley finds — unless you're Vespertine, I guess.


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