It’s been almost three months since Pijja Palace opened for business on the ground floor of a Comfort Inn in Silver Lake. Sunlight streams through the restaurant’s large windows well into the dinner hour this time of year, setting the dining room’s blonde wood accents and pastel palette aglow. Tables are seamlessly arranged and rearranged again throughout service to accommodate both small and large groups. Everyone arrives ready to linger a while, huddling close to share lentil-battered onion rings, heaps of house-made pastas, and many, many hot wings. The game is on and projected across a dozen flat-screen televisions lining the walls, but that’s not why everyone’s here exactly. The dimly lit, sticky-floored sports bar of popular imagination is nowhere in sight.
Owner Avish Naran hangs at the expo window that connects the back of house to the dining room. As the kitchen headed by Miles Shorey fires on all cylinders, Naran calls out orders while overseeing the bisected restaurant. Brows furrowed but his body at ease, Naran has full view from his perch of diners tearing into crispy pizzas slathered in green chile chutney and delighting in chai whiskey sours served in frosty Delmonico glasses. If a party seems like it needs a little extra attention, he personally delivers their orders to make sure all is well.
The story of Pijja Palace follows the well-trodden heroic journey: Raised in the shadows of Dodger Stadium, Naran rejects the safety of a medical or legal career and instead follows a creative calling that sets him off on a path through the unknown. Naran’s yearslong quest — which zigs through college and art school, then zags to culinary and restaurant management schools, and acquaints him with sage consultants along the way — leads him to the realization that opening an Indian sports bar at the site of a former foot clinic on the eastside of Los Angeles is his ultimate calling. Battling parental pushback, neighborhood council naysayers, and complicated cultural expectations, Naran emerges from the rubble — donning an oversized T-shirt, mesh basketball shorts, and a fresh pair of Nikes, no less — to helm the most talked-about restaurant in Los Angeles. And the crowd goes wild.
The early success of Pijja Palace rests on Naran’s unwavering commitment to delivering a dining experience that no one really asked for. With its notoriously slim profit margins and sky-high failure rates, restaurants can sometimes play it so safely that the entire experience — from decor (mid-century by way of Joybird), to menu (a crudo or two, a few house-made pastas, and a large-format steak), and even the playlist (’90s hip-hop and R&B) — feels templated and tired. But it’s taken a 30-year-old novice restaurateur to shake things up in Los Angeles. While requiring diners to have faith in the vision along with food and fun can be too large an order for some restaurants, the crowds at Pijja Palace say otherwise. From Indian grandmothers to flannel-clad hipsters to dudes that just want to watch the game — everyone’s eating it up.
“There’s so much of the same shit in LA. You have to look at things differently, not only to succeed but to just have fun,” says Naran. “I’m not bound by any rules; my concept is where the hell I want it to be. I am projecting whatever I want to the public.”
Naran dreamed up Pijja Palace almost a decade ago while enrolled in the restaurant management program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Nearly all of the restaurant’s culinary and design elements, including its menu, cocktails, and typography, were hatched way back when and presented to classmates on neatly formatted slides. “I just wanted a cool new place where people could come in and really showcase food through the lens of an Indian guy who grew up in LA,” he says.
But before that, Naran focused on shaping his culinary skills at Napa Valley Cooking School and staged at upscale, Indian-inspired restaurants in San Francisco, like August 1 Five, Campton Place Bar and Bistro, and Rooh. “I was still in the mind frame of, like, I need to be at this level to cook great food,” he says. Though he tried to absorb as much knowledge as he could from the Indian head chefs, Naran ultimately grew bored with French-rooted formal establishments (“Doing tweezer food was so uninteresting to me”) and the same old interpretations of high-end Indian food (“Let’s do a butter chicken, but we’ll put the sauce under the chicken”). Though the magic of fine dining lost its luster, Naran’s passion for the familiar flavors he grew up eating, as well as his desire to open a restaurant, persisted.
Growing up in Echo Park within a multigenerational household, Naran’s mother and grandmothers filled the home with Gujarati cooking. “Both of my grandmas make great biryani that are completely different from each other,” he says. Commonly on the family’s dining table was rasa vari chicken (“a staple in a lot of Gujarati households”), dal bhat (lentils and rice), and khatta puda (“it’s like a sour fermented crepe”). Meals outside the home in Thai Town, the San Gabriel Valley, and Artesia solidified Naran’s love for good food served in casual rooms and his hometown. “I feel like in LA we have some of the greatest cultural food in the United States,” he says. Most notably, Naran found a kindred spirit at the Kogi truck. “Roy [Choi]’s like a huge influence to me. I’ve been eating Kogi since before I could even cook and it being a representation of him as an Angeleno through a Korean lens — that was so inspirational to me.”
When the lease for Sunset Foot Clinic finally expired in 2019, Naran’s father Dipak Patel reserved the space for Pijja Palace’s debut. (Patel owns the plaza on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Benton Way, including the two-story Comfort Inn that anchors the complex.) Even though owning and operating a restaurant is “no brown kid’s parents’ dream,” says Naran, “[my parents] always supported what I wanted to do creatively.” With the worst of the pandemic over this past spring, the restaurant opened to a trickle of curious diners at first. But soon, crowds began lining up at the host stand to scope out the new kid on the block.
“I view restaurants as an art project. I view myself as — this is such a douchebag term — a creative director,” says Naran. “I don’t think enough people look at restaurants as art projects and so as somebody who’s cooked and designed, I just think that they should be like immersive, like projects, like think tanks.”
Naran’s burning desire to bring a truly unique dining experience to Los Angeles has influenced every element of the restaurant. “I feel like every dish at Pijja Palace has a story,” he says. The extruded pasta served with a bright cilantro-mint pesto is shaped like a rickshaw as a nod to the popular mode of transportation in India. The tandoori spaghetti, with its charred limes and chiles, captures the smoky essence of the classic chicken dish. More Easter eggs show up in the dining room. The restaurant’s leather seats are stitched just so to harken the feel of brand-new baseball gloves. And look closely at the beer taps behind the bar to see the cricket bat handles, a subtle homage to the sport. “I feel like all restaurants should be [personal], so if you open some shit that isn’t like you, why did you do this?”
Naran’s wholly earnest, 360 approach to Pijja Palace’s food and feel is what resonates most with diners and keeps them coming back for more. Looking back on it all, it’s hard for him to recall that there was ever a time when his parents reacted like he had “murdered someone” when he expressed the desire to attend culinary school. Or when several chefs refused to sign on to the project upon hearing its seemingly outlandish concept. Or when the local neighborhood council was so hung up on the former foot clinic’s signage that they delayed the restaurant’s alcohol license by several months, seemingly out of nostalgic spite. But all that’s behind him now. “Nothing feels better than when you put your mind to something, make every move to bring it to life, and then people just get it,” says Naran. “Nothing’s been misunderstood.”