When Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener left their posts at Animal restaurant in 2014 and 2015, respectively — she managed the dining room at the time, while he served as the chef de cuisine — they planned to open a Vietnamese restaurant together called Tet-a-Tet. The pair envisioned a low-key jewel box serving dishes inspired by the Mexican American chef’s upbringing in Orange County’s Little Saigon, along with Ta’s Vietnamese heritage. When the space that they ultimately secured at the corner of 6th and Oxford in Koreatown dictated a grander, less intimate dining concept, Tet-a-Tet took a backseat and Here’s Looking At You was born. But beginning this Thursday, September 1, the duo’s Silver Lake diner All Day Baby will play host to an updated iteration of Tet-a-Tet at dinnertime. Ta and Whitener are hoping that the fresh menu, their most personal effort yet, will resonate with Angelenos and finally bring in the influx of evening diners that has eluded the daytime darling thus far.
With its easygoing menu of jam-slathered biscuit sandwiches, smoked longganisa breakfast burritos, and pastry case filled with cookies, pies, and cakes, All Day Baby has brought in a strong daytime crowd since opening in late 2019. Dinner service, which was first implemented a few days before pandemic lockdowns in March 2020 and relaunched last summer when Los Angeles’s COVID infection rates lowered and vaccinations increased, never really caught on. “For better or for worse, it’s so specifically a day restaurant,” says Ta. “I think it got that personality because it started out that way, and it was that way for so long.” While Ta briefly considered running the popular daytime menu through evenings, she didn’t think there was sufficient demand for it after dark.
Ta and Whitener tinkered with the dinner menu twice prior. Last summer’s offerings featured shareable plates of oyster pot pie and queso fundido. “I think our first menu was maybe a little too before its time,” says Ta. “It was small shared plates, maybe before we wanted to share plates at that point in the pandemic.” This past spring’s updated menu included individual portions and focused on comfort food: heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp cocktail, and dry-aged burgers. Still, the dinner crowd proved elusive. Ta attributes the soft showing to current economic conditions, particularly rising costs due to inflation. “We have to make more conscious decisions about going out to eat,” she says. “People really want to go out to eat, especially in a celebratory manner, but maybe not necessarily in a nice or nicer sit-down casual manner.”
After a series of incremental changes to boost All Day Baby’s bottom line, Ta and Whitener are ready for a complete 180 with Tet-a-Tet. (The name is a nod to Tết, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year holiday, and tête-à-tête, a meeting between two individuals.) Though Here’s Looking At You served deep cuts from Tet-a-Tet’s original menu annually for Lunar New Year, the concept largely sat idle in Ta and Whitener’s collective imaginations for the past six years. “I think this is kind of like redemption, you know? Finally having a space and somewhere to live, and me being able to express that food,” says Whitener.
Tet-a-Tet’s menu draws from Whitener’s formative years raised in Westminster, California. As a Mexican kid living in the heart of Little Saigon, the chef traded his mom’s milanesa tortas for classmates’ noodles with lemongrass pork at lunchtime. He often dined in friends’ homes where pots of canh chua (sour soup) brimmed with spongy elephant ears. The way Whitener sees it, a Venn diagram of Mexico and Vietnam would overlap in their histories of French colonization and culinary pantry full of fresh herbs, chiles, pork, and beef. “You take fish sauce away from Vietnam and pretty much we’re cooking with all the same ingredients,” he says.
Almost half of the Tet-a-Tet menu was previously conceived given its long gestation period, including the spicy beef salad, banh xeo (crispy turmeric crepe), crab fried rice, and imperial rolls. Whitener is particularly fond of the newcomers, like the oxtail stew that he calls “a mashup of pho and pozole” made with hominy, star anise, Mexican canela, and palm sugar. Clams come bathed in a fragrant yellow curry and garnished with Vietnamese coriander, while the fried red snapper gets a fish sauce-coconut caramel treatment. Pastry chef Thessa Diadem takes on che, the classic Vietnamese dessert, with a stout glass layered with lychee jelly, fresh and icy melon, tapioca, and coconut milk. Whitener plans to add crudos and sandwiches to the lineup once the opening menu is “dialed in.”
With its winding history and identity-rooted fare, Tet-a-Tet feels more personal for both Ta and Whitener. While the pair want to see All Day Baby reach its “full potential,” says Ta, it’s a wild mix of anxiousness and excitement awaiting the reception. “We always think about this, from every tiny or big decision that we make for both restaurants – what is it that we could make that would be unusual and craveable and special and something of an experience worthy of a trip to Silver Lake?” says Ta. “We think that this is it.”
All Day Baby is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tet-a-Tet is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are recommended.