Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, and All Day Baby partner Lien Ta is working 16 hour days. Her Silver Lake restaurant isn’t as busy as she’d like, but that’s a common and recent complaint for most LA restaurant owners, who have limited capacity on patios, prohibited indoor dining, fewer customers, required protective gear, and continually evolving government regulations keeping them on their toes. After all, rent is always due.
One possible solution? Opening a second “restaurant” with a completely different menu on a next door parking area. In mid-October, Ta and her partners opened Helluva Time at the parking lot adjacent to All Day Baby in Silver Lake. It’s a weekend-only affair, where the lot converts into a charming al fresco spot. All Day Baby chef and co-owner Jonathan Whitener created an 11 item menu where everything is priced under $27.
Ta describes the new venture — she doesn’t know how long they’ll keep Helluva Time going — as a necessary one. She and her partners paid rent for March, but closed 15 days later. Without an ability to generate revenue from All Day Baby, she was unable to continue paying rent in full. Their landlord forgave one month, but the remainder were either partial rent payments, or none at all. Ta attempted to renegotiate lease terms, and did not pay rent when those talks failed. That was until Ta’s unexpected appearance on the national stage in August.
“I was fortunate enough to appear in the video at the Democratic National Convention, and that actually opened up a conversation. This reiterated a more frank conversation about our financial situation, and what we could honestly afford. Then it kind of dawned on me, I have nothing to lose, so I asked him to also let us use the space that’s been vacant the entire time we’ve been there and let us use it for an outdoor dining concept.”
This type of operation — where established LA restaurant owners transform an adjacent outdoor space into a new eatery — could be the latest trend in Los Angeles’s restaurant scene. Regional conditions are ideal with limited rain, mostly mild weather, and plenty of empty parking lots that are normally filled with diners or tourists. Combine these factors with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s outdoor dining Al Fresco program, and locals can find at least four outdoor dining spots that resemble Helluva Time, including Las Palmas in West Hollywood, Piazza Mozza in Hollywood, and Post Script in Venice.
In July, E.P. & L.P.’s owners reconfigured its former rooftop movie theater into a Mexican pop-up called Las Palmas. Like Helluva Time, Las Palmas co-owner Grant Smillie needed to figure out another way to appeal to customers in an unused outdoor space. But there’s an obvious question: Why not expand with an established and known menu?
“It might seem risky, but I actually think it’s riskier to try to replicate something that was existing in a dining room previously,” says Smillie. “Not every dish translates well to outdoor eating conditions and the comfort of an indoor dining space gives you certainty over climatic outcomes that you cannot get outside. We were able to design a new menu and offer something never before seen at the venue, and also manage guest expectations by calling it a pop-up.”
Chef Vartan Abgaryan and co-operator Paul Pruitt tried a similar approach in September, with their all-outdoor restaurant Post Script. Awash in white, green, and blue colors with a high covered tent, it’s an extension of the temporarily shuttered Venice restaurant Yours Truly, though it takes over the parking lot of The Brig. A wood-fired grill sits on one end of the festive tent where Abgaryan preps grilled meats and more, while a food truck serves as the plating and finishing area before arriving at the table.
Logistics can be a challenge as Las Palmas servers, expediters, and bussers trek from a second level kitchen to the separate rooftop area with plates of hot food and drinks. Helluva Time operates with a limited staff, only Ta plus two servers, and a bartender. She requires them to use the crosswalk and take extra care to look both ways.
The coordination can be tricky, but Ta describes producing Helluva Time dinners as a joyful process. “It’s actually really fun to see creativity in this way,” she says. “Even though it’s still very much a part of All Day Baby, it’s fun to introduce our [regular] guests to something else or appealing to a different kind of community and neighborhood.”
It seems easy to pass off outdoor dining pop-ups as a new movement, but it could be characterized as simply restaurants figuring out how to stay viable. Every single place was forced to adjust its business model during the pandemic. But Las Palmas’ Smillie does this regularly.
“We take that approach every year,” says Smillie. “You need to ever-evolve and elevate the offering. Nothing can be sacred, particularly your own ego.”
Ta hopes that Helluva Time can appeal to the community while introducing something new, albeit temporary. “We really wanted to play off this idea during this really strange time in our life right now,” says Ta. “And why not just do something totally off kilter and do something completely different? It’s fun for the guests, it’s great to see a different set of smiles again.”