Artful Dining in Three Acts

With pulchritude comes assumptions, most commonly and unfairly that LA has no culture.

Increasingly, our haute culture offers haute cuisine too—a perfect pairing that makes life in the City of Angels, well, heavenly. Here are three great ideas for dining when you’re ready for more conscious consumption.

Patina’s Perfection at Walt Disney Concert Hall
When Master Chef Joachim Splichal first left Melrose to boldly move his flagship restaurant downtown, there were many who had doubts. Now after nearly seven years of anchoring the downtown dining scene, Patina still sparkles.

There’s something stormy about Gehry’s stainless steel exterior waves that in turn emphasizes Patina’s sense of shelter within; tucked into these massive, shining curves is a restaurant that feels like a respite, a calm harbor of luxurious indulgence. And perhaps because contemporary dining in Los Angeles is all about either gastropubs, retro Americana homages like mac’n’cheese or fusion food served out of trucks, Patina’s formality seems suddenly refreshing.

I worked at Spago back when Lord of the Rings was first released, and I remember thinking that Wolfgang and Joachim were themselves like Tolkien’s twin towers; while these mentors have nurtured an incredible number of culinary talents, they’ve also cast huge shadows. When one becomes an empire and not just a chef, it’s important to keep the home fires and burners lit brightly. What Executive Chef Lee Hefter has done for Puck at Spago is what Patina’s current helmer, Tony Esnault, is also doing for Splichal—keeping them not just relevant but innovative.

I am always struck by Esnault’s integration of color and flavor. He’s a painterly chef for whom even humble vegetables become orderly art. No piles of steaming anything here for sloppy, family-style sharing. Every plate at Patina is conceived from start to finish. Each detail, from the amuse-bouches to the elegant tea service offered tableside, is considered, careful and conscious.

The wine program under Silvestre Fernandes has also never been better. He’s lined up a new “sommelier series” of winemaker dinners for 2011 that includes personal favorites of mine like Miura and Moraga.

And oh, the music. Patina offers several options for diners keen on those fantastic acoustics at the Disney Concert Hall. On evenings when the LA Phil performs, a post-theater seating is offered up to half an hour after the show. I am already checking to see if our nanny is available on March 11, when Gustavo Dudamel leads the LA Phil in a program that mixes Tchaikovsky with Shakespeare. Someone tell my husband that Valentine’s Day has no statute of limitations.

141 South Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles. 213-972-3331, patinarestaurant.com

Lunch at LACMA
I never planned to stay in LA, that’s for sure, so beware of dating a cute guy in the movie business or you’ll blink like me and it will be a decade, a house and two kids later–and you’ll still be in Los Angeles. I used to pine for certain elements of “my” New York, most keenly for long, cold afternoons spent at MOMA where my old boss, restaurateur Danny Meyer, later opened the Modern. Salt on the wound!

I was particularly excited to learn that LACMA, long a balm for my museum-deprived soul, is now getting its very own restaurant, compliments of the same Patina Restaurant Group team. Ray’s Restaurant and the companion Stark Bar debuted on March 4, and I cannot wait.

Named for Ray Stark, the legendary producer of films like Steel Magnolias and Funny Girl and a long-time LACMA trustee, this newest outpost promises to be fabulous. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, Ray’s Restaurant will allow diners to gaze at Chris Burden’s iconic “Urban Light” installation–that forest of vintage lampposts that is increasingly becoming LA’s signature cultural site. (That and the Hollywood sign, of course.)

Happily, Ray’s is going to offer lunch every day except Wednesdays. Now that we’re back in the stroller brigade, I am particularly thrilled that we can fit in a daytime dose of culture and head west before the traffic makes it untenable for our little guy. Executive Chef Kris Morningstar has done time at some of the city’s best spots, and it’s nice to see him get the chance to take center stage at this point in his career.

For diners who aren’t worried about the citizen in the crib, consider a late date at LACMA with cocktails served al fresco at the Stark Bar and small bites from Morningstar’s bar menu. You can argue about Anish Kapoor and feel so very hip as you lounge in mid-century modern splendor.

5905 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. 323-857-6180, patinagroup.com

Dinner With a View at the Getty Center
I once wrote that when God or Buddha come to LA on business, they stay at the Getty Center. Wouldn’t you? It’s quite literally above it all. While I sometimes get permission from the powers-that-be to park at the top of the hill, I actually prefer to take the tram up, as it’s a Bunyan-esque journey—for this progressive pilgrim at least.

Mr. Sexton took me on two not-so-great dates prior to our third at the Getty Center about a decade ago. He had me at the tram. We later hosted our engagement dinner there and even attempted to design our wedding cake to look like the Getty Center. Instead, it was a very tasty, $3,000 igloo, to be honest.

Most recently, we headed back up the hill to have dinner at the Getty for our little daughter’s fourth birthday. While I love picnics on the lawn, kids’ concerts and other daytime fun at the Getty Center, it offers unique magic in the evening. The exhibits were open late that night but were sparsely attended. The overall feeling is that they’ve kept the museum open just for your private enjoyment (or for your daughter’s special birthday treat, depending on how you spin it). We were also celebrating with my mother-in-law and her new gentleman friend; both lost spouses after nearly 40 years of marriage, and to find love again later in life is well worth some toasting.

I have long thought that Bon Appétit at the Getty is one of the better-kept culinary secrets in LA. The dining room itself is breathtaking on a clear night, with walls of windows showcasing the mountains. When we dined for the petite gourmande’s birthday, I was sorely tempted by the special tasting menu they were offering to complement an exhibit called Imagining the Past in France: 1250 – 1500. I loved this imaginative integration of food and art, even if it called more for mead than wine.

The cuisine focuses on local produce and purveyors, and the service is impeccable, warm but unfussy. No birthday candles are allowed due to that fire danger, but they kindly made sure our little diner had a special dessert and felt like the princess of the Kingdom of Getty. I am ready to swear fealty myself.

Upcoming events and exhibits I have on my radar include “Tea by the Sea” on Thursday afternoons, In Focus: The Tree and a survey of both early and modern photography in China.

1200 Getty Center Drive in Los Angeles. 310-440-6810, getty.edu

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