It’s a funny time for the Los Angeles restaurant scene. On the surface, literal dozens of quality restaurateurs, chefs, and line cooks are bearing down on the city with plans to open the next big restaurant — or bring a bit of their existing empire to the West Coast. Big-name players like the NoMad group (current holders of the world’s best restaurant ranking) or the team behind Cosme are coming, as is Daniel Patterson from San Francisco and just about everyone else with a tank of gas and a chef’s knife.
But internally, Los Angeles is a city in a restaurant struggle. Locals and longtime cooks will tell anyone that listens that there are, probably, too many restaurants in LA already, and having more on the way is only going to make things tighter for everyone involved. Los Angeles is also a $15 minimum wage town (come 2020), with high rents and a staffing shortage to boot. It’s harder to get access to as much of the same quality produce as before, and harder still to stand out on blocks that might offer half a dozen similar small plates restaurants with only slightly varying flavor definitions.
And then there is the media scene. Los Angeles has long been in the shadow of the impossibly large aura of LA Times’ Jonathan Gold, the world’s only Pulitzer-winning restaurant critic. Besides him, there are fewer than ten people making full-time money covering the food scene in LA, (two at the LA Times, two here at Eater, and a scattering of other players and freelance types around the city). And now Los Angeles just lost LA Weekly food critic Besha Rodell, one of only two full-time food critics in the city, and the only anonymous one who also holstered a star-rating system, unlike Jonathan Gold.
So what does the loss of a huge chunk of the critical food writing scene mean for Los Angeles? A lot. At a time when this big, dynamic, sprawling city is growing by leaps and bounds with hungry new diners and eager restaurant owners, the greater public is losing perhaps its most trusted current advocate in the industry. Rodell has never been afraid to lean in on the good and bad, giving places hell when she felt they deserved it and rightfully revering those restaurants that she just couldn’t get enough of.
What’s more: Restaurants respected her. The veil of anonymity matters to them in many ways as much as it does the dining public, even if Rodell’s signature Australian-by-way-of-the-South lilt occasionally gave her away. In a city with no Michelin guide, no attention from those world’s best lists, Besha and her pocket of stars mattered mightily to the hardworking teams that make this city run. There is validation in a positive review, even if those involved are likely to say publicly that the cooking and the customer is the only thing they focus on. And sometimes, like the awards shows tell us, it’s an honor just to be mentioned and reviewed by Besha at all, regardless of the outcome. Unless, of course, you’re Phillip Frankland Lee.
Despite all the back room hand-wringing and worries about restaurant density, there truly is no better time to be eating in Los Angeles than right this very second. Rodell helped to not only shape and define this current dining supernova, she also arrived at a time when much of the rest of the critical media scene was a kind of black hole, pulled ever-inward by an impossibly influential force in Jonathan Gold. There are others, like the wonderful Patric Kuh of LA Magazine, of course, but Rodell brought something new to the LA eating universe.
Cosme is still coming. Roberta’s is still coming. Tartine and Jonathan Waxman and Chris Bianco are all still coming, and Rodell will unfortunately not be around to give them her critical eye. The Olympics are coming too, along with a massive influx of money for transportation projects and airport renovations and big Downtown developments — all of which will help spur on even more growth, more eyeballs, and more travelers coming to Los Angeles to dine. They’ll be looking towards the San Gabriel Valley and towards restaurants like Vespertine, and countless untold places to eat that haven’t even been thought up yet, and there will be one less voice in the room to guide them through the right door.
The Michelin guide is (probably) coming back to Los Angeles too, though, and LA Weekly will announce a new critic and maybe the NY Times will figure out what it’s doing sending Pete Wells to the West Coast to review hamburger places and maybe everything will sift and shift back to a certain kind of stasis. But no matter who is coming soon, or when they get here, there is no Besha Rodell now, and that makes Los Angeles’s dining scene — at least momentarily — worse.
Matthew Kang, Eater LA Editor, on Besha Rodell’s departure:
Besha Rodell proved that a restaurant critic doesn’t need to have deep knowledge of a city’s scene to be able to cover it. Besha moved to L.A. from Atlanta and quickly showed that she had a fantastic knowledge of international cuisines, and could tell an amazing story of a place with just a few words. When I went to a restaurant multiple times and then finally read her review, it was like she confirmed my thoughts about it, just with better writing.
One wonders what the LA Weekly has done with all the money it makes from throwing food events like Tacolandia, The Essentials, and numerous other profit-generating endeavors that it couldn’t sustain a full-time restaurant critic. Perhaps LA Weekly simply held onto the position because of Jonathan Gold’s incredible influence when he was the critic at the alt-weekly publication.
While Gold remains one of the most eloquent food writers of all time, his ability to service the dining public through reviews pales in comparison to Besha Rodell’s work at the LA Weekly. Perhaps its due time the Michelin Guide returns to the city, so that LA chefs and restaurants have something for which to strive.
- Week in Reviews [ELA]