In the crazy world of LA’s restaurant scene, with high stakes investments and celebrity-backed ventures from out-of-town chefs, it’s always hard for the smaller player, the single chef-owner opening a place for the first time. This was the story of Shawn Pham, who decided to quietly close his first-ever solo project Simbal over the weekend after a two year run.
Almost immediately there was an outpouring on social media for the quick, unceremonious restaurant loss. I pondered long about why this kind of place closes after so much fanfare and love. I’ve been thinking about the reasons why it might’ve shuttered after just two short years of operation, from both my conversations with Pham himself to observations I’ve made after visiting the restaurant a few times. Here’s what I’ve come with, and you’re more than welcome to agree or disagree with me in the comments.
1. The location was challenging
Little Tokyo is supposed to be a pretty solid place to open a restaurant. Except that other than Lazy Ox Canteen and Spice Table (along with perhaps Toranoko), there haven’t been too many serious restaurants in the area that aren’t specifically casual or Japanese. All three of those restaurants are now closed, and places like Baldoria aren’t necessarily doing that well either. What’s the problem? Well, the area tends to support casual eateries just fine (and some pricier sushi spots), but most of the dining dollars end up in either Historic Core or Arts District. Little Tokyo has been left in the dust after early action in the late aughts.
It also didn’t help that Simbal was tucked away in an office building/parking garage/shopping plaza about 40 yards from the sidewalk, making it hard to spot from the street. The interior itself was pretty amazing, with a futuristic look that took advantage of the funky space. I’m hoping Pham got a plum deal from the landlord because very few concepts would really work in an address like this. To feel buzzy and filled, the place needed at least 75-80 people at any given moment, which I never really saw it achieve.
2. The food wasn’t amazing at the beginning but it eventually became some of the best in LA
The restaurant world, especially from a media perspective, requires constant change and adaptation. Simbal started out with this idea of a small plates free-for-all with a heavy Southeast Asian accent. The ideas were fun and well-executed, but the flavors weren’t necessarily deep. They weren’t craveworthy. And the pricing wasn’t that friendly, though by the end, costs were pretty digestible for most diners, with an easy-to-assemble coursed menu. But in the competitive restaurant game that is Los Angeles in 2017, you need to hit it out of the ballpark from the get go.
3. Simbal wasn’t built to be a neighborhood restaurant, but it wasn’t buzzy enough to be a destination either
The name of the game right now is to be a highly consistent neighborhood restaurant, or receive the adoration of food-obsessed diners from across the city. The best example of the first is Alimento or Pine & Crane on the Eastside, an eatery like Love & Salt or M.B. Post in the South Bay, or a spot like Tar & Roses on the Westside.
The best kind of destination restaurants in LA are obvious: Republique, Gjelina, Bestia, Spago, and A.O.C. It’s hard to figure out which part of that spectrum you’re going to be on, but Simbal seemed destined to be in the latter category. To get there, the food has to dazzle. Sure, early P.R. effort can help the cause, but in this case, the marketing effort just didn’t hit. Simbal wasn’t known for its signature dishes (the deconstructed banh mi salad or the oxtail congee) until later. Those killer dishes are the things that get the dining public talking, and drawn into a concept place like Simbal.
4. L.A. diners aren’t ready to spend money on fusion-y Asian cuisine
Sang Yoon’s Lukshon could be considered a relative success, Cassia has been a massive hit, and Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market has done extremely well. But places like POT, Sambar (to a lesser extent) and Pok Pok have all either closed or admitted to struggling along the way, showing that the bulk of LA’s diners aren’t willing to spend as much money on Asian cuisine, especially when compared to either French, Italian, or “New American” counterparts.
It’s not that it’s impossible to be successful serving new-fangled Asian cuisine, but unless it’s a completely traditional place (like Soban or Jun Won) or upscale Japanese (which Angelenos seem to have no problem shelling money out for), diners are loath to spend. It’s something David Chang even pointed out when he opened Momofuku Nishi in New York, where diners are happy to spend $25 on cacio e pepe at an Italian restaurant, but balk at spending an equal amount on Asian noodles.
I can imagine Simbal in its late form would’ve made waves in New York City. The place even looked like Wildair (actually, I think Wildair looked like Simbal), and the food itself was as dynamic and compelling as places like Olmsted, Estela, or heck even Momofuku Ssam Bar.
5. Parking was tough
When it comes to having a successful restaurant in L.A., you have to remove the biggest barrier of them all: parking. That’s why restaurants have to have valet parking, or access to easy parking somehow, or else they’ll suffer. Sure, ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft make it easier, but having an straightforward parking option in a challenging neighborhood like Little Tokyo is a must-have. Whenever I tried to visit Simbal, the parking situation wasn’t that apparent or intuitive from the street. It’s hard enough driving into Little Tokyo or Downtown if you don’t work or live in the area (especially from the Westside), but the discouragement of parking can be killer for any restaurant in L.A. I think it contributed heavily to Simbal’s difficulties.
6. Too many people cancelled or didn’t show up for their reservations
When I talked to the chef a few months back, Pham said that too many diners were cancelling their reservations or just no-showing completely. This is a major problem for which there’s no easy solution. A lot of diners still aren’t used to services like Tock or Resy, which promise to give restaurants a better way of managing no-shows. But for a place like Simbal, where there are already so many barriers, it’s too much to expect diners to jump through that hoop. Diners need to honor their reservations or else it’ll put one-off restaurants like Simbal in jeopardy.
Ultimately it’s difficult to really pinpoint why a restaurant closes. When I talked to Pham a few months ago, it seemed apparent that there were difficulties. I tried to do my best to highlight how great Pham’s cooking was, but it was almost too little too late. What he really needed was shot in the arms from more sources. Critics like Besha Rodell and Jonathan Gold could’ve returned and re-reviewed the restaurant. National publications could’ve shed light on Pham’s work. But in the end, Simbal couldn’t hold on. I hope Pham finds it in him to open another restaurant in a better location.