Good food can be found just about anywhere in Los Angeles, including world-class sushi hidden in an office building basement, chef-driven fare served atop a Hollywood health club, and even diner classics piled high at an automobile dealership. The latest addition to the city’s idiosyncratic collection of restaurants tucked in unexpected locations is Zozo from chef John Sedlar. Sedlar, a specialist in American Southwest cooking, opens Zozo on Friday, February 2 inside an eclectic home decor store on South La Brea Avenue called Maison Midi.
Sedlar, who hasn’t operated a restaurant in LA since closing Downtown’s Rivera in 2014, has been an influential presence in LA’s culinary scene since the 1980s. His first restaurant, Saint Estephe in Manhattan Beach, better familiarized Angelenos with traditional Southwestern ingredients through the lens of nouvelle French cuisine, while his later projects that opened in the early 1990s, Bikini and Abiquiu in Santa Monica, drew from global cuisines and sensibilities. The late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold considered Sedlar “among the most inventive chefs in the world” at the time.
Following a two-decade-long hiatus running a catering company and serving as a brand ambassador for Patrón, Sedlar opened Rivera in 2009. The seminal restaurant impacted the city’s dining culture in significant ways during its five-year run, fueling the resurgence of Downtown LA as a dining destination and setting the standard for inventive cocktail menus, among other contributions. Sedlar earned a three-and-a-half star review from the Times’ critic S. Irene Virbila before closing the restaurant in 2014 and leaving Los Angeles for New Mexico full-time.
As the 6o-something-year-old chef was settling into retirement in his hometown of Abiquiu, New Mexico around 2021, only occasionally producing culinary events for the LA Plaza Cocina museum, his longtime friend and restauranteur Bill Chait (Tesse, Tartine Bakery) convinced him to open “one more restaurant” along with restauranteur-partner Jordan Ogron and chef-partner Raphael Francois (Tesse). “I stood up and sat up straight into attention,” Sedlar says, remembering the fateful conversation with Chait.
Sedlar, who now divides his time between Los Angeles and New Mexico, signed on to open Zozo, a word he defines as a “very metaphysical feeling” that pertains to fun, optimism, happiness, and color. The idea to open a full-service restaurant inside Maison Midi was originally dreamed up by Chait’s wife, Clija, and the store’s owner Mark Werts and his wife Amanda. “It’s kind of very fun,” says Sedlar. The space was formerly Cafe Midi, a casual spot serving breakfast, salads, tacos, and sandwiches.
Diners enter Zozo’s 2,500-square-foot dining and outdoor seating areas through Maison Midi or sister clothing store American Rag. The restaurant seats 80 diners inside and 40 more on the patio. While the dining room features a trio of long banquettes that can seat up to 30 people each, the more casual outdoor area is dotted with marble-topped tables fitted with umbrellas to provide shade. The restaurant’s most distinctive decorative element is the mural painted in front by artist T Mac that pays homage to legendary chefs Jean Bertranou and Patricia Quintana and the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived and painted in Sedlar’s pueblo of Abiquiu for a time.
Atop Zozo’s physical menu is a line explaining its culinary focus: “Shared explorations of cuisines of the sun, featuring Native American, French, and Hispanic flavors with global accents.” Sedlar recommends that everyone start with an appetizer of their own. The list of dishes includes snails paired with jamón ibérico, a winter salad with dragon fruit and cactus pear, and Sedlar’s signature tortillas florales served with silky avocado butter, among others.
Zozo’s main dishes, all served on “really large trays” and intended for sharing, says Sedlar, include scallops with “citrus vapor,” lamb with a chayote chutney, and turkey albóndigas ladled with a red chile pepita sauce. Desserts are determined by the kitchen based on how many diners will be eating it. “Our unique trays come and it has enough desserts. There are all kinds of classic desserts like tarte tatin, framboise with almondine, gateau Rothschild,” Sedlar says. To drink are globally sourced wines from Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Chile, South Africa, and more, along with cocktails from Heidi Wittekind, including the Barbacoa with mezcal and beef jerky garnish that veteran barman Julian Cox first served at Rivera.
The plating at Zozo will reflect Sedlar’s distinctive style. Since his earliest restaurants and up until Rivera, the chef has incorporated photos, imagery, and words as part of a dish’s composition. For example, the chile pasilla relleno at Rivera famously included a stencil of immigrants crossing the freeway using ground paprika. These “reflexiónes,” as the chef calls them, are meant to spark meaningful dialogue among diners. “For me, there’s nothing more fun than having wine and food and discussing serious subjects that are challenging,” says Sedlar.
Running Zozo is a dedicated team of 50 staffers; hourly wages start at $16.90 for front-of-house employees and $20 for back-of-house employees with tips pooled and divided evenly. All workers qualify for health, dental, and vision insurance, as well as 401K retirement funds after 60 days of employment.
In the decade since Sedlar last cooked in Los Angeles, he’s observed the dining scene veer more casual and Zozo will adapt to the current aesthetic with “light and easy” furnishings and “very casual table tops and tablescapes that don’t have linen.” The noise level is still up in the air since Sedlar prefers a quieter dining room while his partners favor “very loud music.” Zozo will introduce a more casual lunch menu aimed at shoppers and serve afternoon tea for the “ladies who lunch” crowd in the weeks to come.
“It’s a very odd time not just in the restaurant business but also the evolution of gastronomy in Los Angeles,” Sedlar says. “A lot of the formality from the time I left to the time I came back from New Mexico, it’s not there anymore, and it shouldn’t be there. It’s not the time for formality.”
Zozo is located at 148 S. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The restaurant will open for lunch starting February 27 and open Tuesday through Sunday starting March 2.