Capri Club is in California, but it may as well be Bushwick. Photo: Torre Catalano
Every New Yorker has heard the siren call of L.A.: Think of the weather, the laid-back attitude, the produce, the tacos, the space, they say. I’ve indulged. When I visit, I go native Eastsider: Life Force shots at Erewhon, pilates at Morph followed by big salads at All Time, Sundays gay drinking at El Cid, nights in with delivery chicken with extra garlic whip from Zankou’s — or Kismet when I’m flush. A lot of what I like to eat in L.A. has the loose, vibrant feeling of serendipity that often happens in trucks and strip malls: a dozen potato tacos at Atacor to be enjoyed with a beer at Footsie’s, cheesy marlin at Coni’Seafood, a breakfast bowl of knife-cut noodles at Hangari, crab curry at Luv2eat Thai. Even in the flat, barren cityscape, people can make magic with a wok and a gas burner. Yet, inevitably, even after weeks of unceasingly placid weather and superior agriculture, I crave home: the density and bother of New York and, within it, the theater of a New York restaurant.
On a visit to L.A. earlier this month, the weather was topsy-turvy: The city was like Portland — cold and gray with sporadic bouts of sunshine. Meanwhile, New York was trapped under a dome of wildfire smoke. I was visiting a friend who had just had a baby and was missing New York. When I arrived, we got dinner at Coucou, a French spot in Venice. We sat on the sidewalk next to a heater with a view of a Subway sign and ate an unimpressive hot dog. The restaurant felt like an impersonation of New York — like the Friends apartment. So I pitched an idea: What are the most New York restaurants in L.A.? This was an idiot’s proposal (any restaurant in L.A. is an L.A. restaurant), but the thought exercise tickled my transplant friends, because we all knew the feeling of a New York restaurant — Estela, Bernie’s, Claud — and how the very lack of space could create warm nooks and the possibility of wild, cascading nights.
Everyone had the same initial thought: Horses. Yes, the place with the dead cats. I had gone last year — before the public scandal. Honestly, I thought the food was fine, but the vibes were immaculate: cool, sexy, like I was ready to do crime. The old Ye Coach & Horses space has good bones — sturdy wooden beams converge into a pointed tavern ceiling, a front room with a long bar, and rows of straight-backed booths. That updated nostalgia is telegraphed as soon as you arrive: people languidly smoking in front of the façade painted in a jolting Yves Klein blue indicating a portal away from the gaudiness of Sunset Boulevard.
On a Sunday night, my friend Aja and I did a wellness check on Horses. The restaurant was busy but not insane. We had the option to sit in the back — the room the host called “the speakeasy” — and the breeze of an insider experience wafted in with us. By way of introduction, our waiter told us that there were no specials but there was a secret dish called Herman’s Pasta. Before we could ask, he said that Herman was a contractor who would request this pasta — baked shells in a spicy pink vodka sauce and sausage — for family meal. The dish was so good that it became an off-menu item. Did all of this sound suspiciously like counterprogramming that Horses lovably cherishes its employees and definitely does not serve them ground-up worms? Yes. Was it fantastic? Yes, and so was the endive Caesar and Vesper martini. Metal platters of Herman’s Pasta descended on tables all around us. Two people celebrated their birthdays with a smiling staff. One lonely girl was waiting for her friends. I asked if she had heard about the cats. “Cats?” The restaurant is called Horses.
On another night, I went to the Nobu in West Hollywood, New York’s most famous high-end chain restaurant. Of course, Nobu has always had a bicoastal, cosmopolitan pedigree: Japan-born Matsuhisa Nobu developed his skills in Peru before opening Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. Robert De Niro eventually convinced the chef to open Nobu in Tribeca (which has now moved further downtown to the Financial District), which eventually became a global empire with over 50 outposts including two in L.A. The four-quadrant menu — divided by hot and cold, classic and now — is reliably familiar. Sitting under the amber glow of wood and paper lanterns with a jittery waiter, you get the feeling you could be anywhere in the aughts.
The further east I went, the closer to East Williamsburg I felt. I stopped by for cocktails and snacks at Capri Club, an Italian-ish aperitivo bar in Eagle Rock that refurbished the space of a neighborhood red-sauce restaurant. The seating is first come, first served — including the big red semicircle booths inside as well as the spill of tables outside — which creates a chaotic contention for space (very New York). As I waited for a spot at the bar to open up, I sipped an earthy, amaro-tinted espresso martini and made friends with a fellow solo flier, Andrew Martin Scott, who owns a bookshop and gallery called & Pens in the neighborhood. We eventually snagged a pair of seats and struck up a conversation about food and art over fried pasta balls and fried fava beans — the latter should replace bowls of pretzels nationwide. Everyone, from the bartender who looked like a brown Johnny Knoxville (hot) to the women unironically wearing baseball caps and aviators indoors (not hot), could have been characters airlifted directly from Bushwick. Look up, and you’ll see a mural of a cloudy blue sky with baby angels wearing trucker hats floating above. Look again, and you’ll see a bespectacled Nicholas Braun (no, but actually).
All of this might be a way of pointing out that culture, particularly among the bourgeois creative class, has a way of homogenizing regardless of place. Mexico City, Copenhagen, Tokyo: Fancy is fancy. But fear not, a distinct L.A. vibe was still strong at Evan Funke’s restaurants Mother Wolf and Funke. There’s a surprising tackiness to both. Mother Wolf is a cavernous beige box that’s too brightly lit. Instead of actual tile or sculpture on the wall, there is wallpaper with tile and frieze prints, which gives it a tragic suburban quality. It’s big without feeling grand and expensive without feeling opulent. There were corny aesthetic choices at Funke, too, like a yellow neon sign that reads “The Last Great Adventure Is You” and, most disconcerting, a cook on display hand-rolling pasta inside of a gigantic glass box like some poor victim in You.
Both felt like tethers to New York restaurants — like Misi or Bad Roman — only colder and with less vision. I don’t know what hold this man has over the city, but as a vagabond critic with nothing at stake, I implore Angelenos to free themselves. No doubt his investors must love him for his ability to upcharge. The same menu items on Mother Wolf often appear in a more expensive guise at Funke — like ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms ($26), lamb chops dredged in olive oil ($70), and the mortazza ($30, a pizza pie folded around slices of mortadella that looks like a vagina dentata). An $80 branzino at Mother Wolf was $92 at Funke. “That’s the cost of feeling virtuous,” my friend Angela said as we ate the deboned fish at Mother Wolf.
The dinner at Mother Wolf was the lowlight of the trip. The sommelier, a ponytailed man who wears a shark pin and who my dining companions warned me once upsold them on half-glasses of wine, told us he works the entire floor. “They call me Sean the Shark,” he said. “I’m looking for baby seals.” We asked if we were the seals, and he laughed. He negged us into a $140 bottle of Champagne, because anything off menu would be out of our price range. We got a smattering of antipasti, pastas, and the $80 branzino. The food was mediocre to bad — a “throne built on mid pasta and lies,” declares another former New Yorker. One of his signatures, the tonnarelli cacio e pepe, was spectacularly clumsy: overcooked noodles swimming in pasta water. By 11 p.m., the restaurant had begun clearing out, and the lights brightened by several hundred lumens. By 11:30, a manager informed us we would need to leave soon as we were eating our dessert. He was right: It was time to go home.