If you ever want to know what a group of happy Brits sound like, take a stroll along North Cahuenga Boulevard between Hollywood and Sunset on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll hear it. Nestled between those two streets is the restaurant, Birch. And amid the clinking of silverware and mingling of UK accents is the sound of expats tucking into one of their most beloved national dishes — the British Sunday roast.
It’s hard to explain to an American the significance of this meal. Imagine having Thanksgiving dinner every Sunday. It’s like that — sort of. A quick flick through a Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver cookbook may tell you the basics, what a traditional Sunday lunch consists of: oven-cooked beef, chicken, lamb or pork, with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, stuffing, and lashings of gravy.
But if you weren’t born across the pond you probably won’t understand how comforting this meal is for people like me — an Angeleno for the past 12 years but an expat far away from home.
“It’s as British as a red telephone box and a black cab,” says Caroline Feraday, a radio and TV broadcaster who moved to Los Angeles more than three years ago.
“It’s the traditional thing of all the family getting together on a Sunday. There’s real pride in the UK at being good at making a roast. If you can cook good roast potatoes you’re pretty much a legend among people,” says Feraday.
That’s probably why Birch has become so popular via word of mouth. We Brits are notoriously funny about our Sunday roasts. The potatoes have to have the right level of crispness on the outside, yet fluffy and soft in the middle. The carrots can’t be soggy or the peas mushy. And heaven forbid if you skimp on the gravy.
But the buzz around Birch is about more than the consistency of the food. Eileen Lee is the co-founder of the Facebook group Brits In LA, which hosts regular social events for expats. She has known Brendan Collins — Birch’s owner and chef — for about eight years, back when he used to work at the Palihouse hotel in West Hollywood.
She loves his version of Sunday roast. (She also raves about the one offered by Chef Ralph Johnson at The Pikey, a couple of miles up the road on Sunset.) But she says Collins has hit a particular sweet spot.
“Obviously he has loads of fresh veg — Brussels sprouts, peas, carrots, whatever,” Lee says about the Birch roast. “But I think it’s that it’s served family style.”
Diners who order the roast get a mound of Yorkshire puddings (popovers made from egg batter) to share. The meat arrives at the table on a platter with an abundance of potatoes, peas, carrots, and cauliflower cheese all ready to be dished out as though you’re at the dinner table at home with your family.
It has been a money-spinner for Birch, which is nearly two-years-old. Collins admits that Sundays were a bit sluggish for the restaurant up until ten months ago when he swapped his farmers’ market brunch for a family style roast. Mother’s Day in 2016 was the first time they did it.
“I didn’t want to do it fancy,” says Collins who offers diners a choice of roast beef with horseradish, chicken with sage and onion stuffing, or pork with applesauce. “I wanted to do it like something your mum would cook at home, but do it well.”
Today he says on most Sundays he serves his roast to 80 to 100 diners. The demand is so great they can get through up to 20 chickens, 375 Yorkshire puddings, three full sides of strip loin and tenderloin, and no matter how much gravy they make they usually run out.
The word that comes up a lot when I speak to Brits about what makes a Sunday roast special is “nostalgia.” But don’t be fooled into thinking that the expat community is full of whiney Little Englanders who grumble that they can’t find a decent cup of tea in this town. While expats may have a general consensus on what makes a good Sunday lunch, there is no stereotypical Brit in LA.
“There isn’t a norm,” says Dawn Bowery, a Laurel Canyon-based photographer originally from Wadhurst, a tiny East Sussex village back in the UK.
In 2014 she published a coffee table book California Dreaming: Real Life Stories of Brits in LA, featuring profiles of an eclectic mix of about 50 people.
“The professions, the things they’re doing are so different. I’ve got the boxer, the butler, the acrobats [in my book],” she says rattling off a few off the top of her head.
“They’re all so different but I do think there’s more of an entrepreneurial spirit. I know it sounds cliché but [LA’s] a place that people gravitate to for following their dreams.”
Lee from Brits In LA agrees. She says of her nearly 11,000 members: “They’re not typical. They’re unique. They’re all coming out for different reasons — always for a change, a better life.”
It’s the can-do attitude of the town that appeals, just as much as the weather and the natural landscape of the mountains and the beach. Within that setting, finding places where you can get an authentic taste of home is the cherry on top.
The Pikey’s Chef Johnson sums it up best by saying: “I think Brits acclimate to LA really well but they hold on to a few things.”
Back at Birch Collins enjoys cooking the roast just as much as his diners love to eat it. Sundays are supposed to be his day off but he comes into the restaurant because he wants to.
When he’s done serving others he eats the fruits of his labor with his wife Edith and their 10-year-old daughter Saffron.
He says: “It’s all about family and friends. Whether you do it at home or you go into your local pub to get it, [roasts are] where everybody kind of gets stuck in and enjoys it.
“It’s very quintessentially British.”
Birch is located at 1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood. The Roast is served from 12 to 4 p.m. every Sunday.