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Here Is What it’s Really Like to Run an LA Restaurant Inside a Museum

Restaurateur Soa Davies Forrest and chef Lisa Giffen discuss Audrey at the Hammer Museum

Lisa Giffen and Soa Davies Forrest of Audrey restaurant in Westwood, Los Angeles
Lisa Giffen and Soa Davies Forrest of Audrey
Audrey [Official photo]

Westwood is always considered one of the most difficult places to open a restaurant in Los Angeles, but Audrey, which opened earlier this year inside the Hammer Museum, is trying to buck the trend. Seasoned restaurant professional Soa Davies Forrest, who worked at Le Bernardin in New York City and Chateau Marmont locally, teamed up with Lisa Giffen (Blue Hill NYC) to bring a mostly outdoor, but thoroughly modern all-day restaurant inside the stories West LA museum.

So far, it’s been a hit with the neighborhood, both with hungry office workers and even penny-pinching UCLA students. Eater sat down with Davies Forrest and Giffen on a sunny mid-spring day to check in with the key members of Audrey, and discussed the difficulty of staffing in LA, expectations between the lunch and dinner crowd, and a hopeful uptick in that all-important summer business.

On Audrey’s opening somewhat wild opening situation:

Operator Soa Davies Forrest: “The opening was very good. We were terrified when we first opened because the weather was cold and rainy. We literally couldn’t open the patio for the first month. We thought, we’re never going to make this work. We were overstaffed too. Then the sun came out. And then we thought, where’s all our staff?”

Chef Lisa Giffen: “We had an elongated soft opening. The rain let us ease into the opening. We’re just finding our comfort zone and staffing right. We worked out all the kinks.”

On early adjustments from doing big events to transitioning to a normal service:

LG: “You don’t find the cook. You make the cook. You spend more time teaching people. We started with a good opening team, and had a few buyout events. We were able to streamline the menu and get comfortable before we opened the doors.”

SDF: “It took almost a year to open the doors, from initial concept to design and construction to finally hiring everyone. We didn’t know what to expect, but when we first opened we had all these private parties. Lisa was finalizing the menu in her home kitchen so we had to hurry everything up. We barely had any time to understand how to work in this kitchen. It was one of those situations where we were like, oh shit. We had back-to-back events with 1,200 people, then another when 900. It was just relentless. Finally we had a chance to get used to the kitchen in a normal service setting and figure out timing. We had our first friends and family on a Tuesday, then opened by Friday. That was a disaster.”

LG: “The cooks hadn’t even seen the dishes. It was a little bit of a shitshow. We don’t want that to happen again.”

Restaurant patio at Audrey inside the Hammer Museum in Westwood
Audrey’s patio inside the Hammer Museum courtyard
Wonho Frank Lee

On trying to appeal to many different kinds of diners:

SDF: “We have a broad customer base. We have everyone from students to high net worth individuals from Wilshire Corridor and Beverly Hills. We had a lot of different feedback that informed us on the pricing structure. We wanted to adjust the menu and adjust the timing. We figured out that lunch was super quick because everyone came in and once and left. We had this a la carte menu and we were like holy shit.”

LG: “At first had five people on the line every lunch. The first week we were like a cartoon, like bumper cars. Leading up to the opening, you try and predict and conceptualize how it will work. You can’t control a lot of things even if you pace reservations. You don’t know how people are going to work together. There are difficult people with different skill sets. There was growing pain, and you think, today wasn’t great. We had to make tweaks. There were certain dishes that were too complicated for lunch. We put a lamb meatball sandwich on the menu, and people were like, this is difficult to eat.”

On getting a tough review initial from The Hollywood Reporter:

SDF: “We had no idea when Gary Baum (from The Hollywood Reporter) came in. Maybe in the first month, during lunch. The things he complained about, the chicken sandwich and the soup, were on the lunch menu. He was disappointed in the plain chicken sandwich, but that’s our demographic. We are trying to feed the neighborhood. That’s what they want, and it’s our most popular lunch item. Sometimes you have to understand the demographic you’re trying to feed. Make sure they’re happy. There are a lot of college students and museum goers, and they want simple.”

LG: “The only thing I didn’t agree with him on was that. Everything else I could take on the chin. He mentioned the poor service, and that’s so not the case. That’s one of the things we get consistent feedback on, how wonderful the service is.”

On the hopeful as the year progresses:

SDF: “We anticipate more people this summer because of the programming and events in the museum. That’s when this courtyard is going to be busiest. We expect an uptick in volume and foot traffic. We’re so happy to have regulars now, and the list keeps growing. There’s a woman who comes in three or four times a week. She’s so happy that the restaurant is here.”

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