There are a few things you can always count on in a Leap Year: Presidential elections, the summer Olympics, and CITY Night, when Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken celebrate the first restaurant they opened together in 1981, City Café. On February 29, the Too Hot Tamales once again welcome back old regulars and new fans for the menu that pushed boundaries and put them on the culinary map.
“City Café literally had no stove when we opened,” Feniger recalls. “There was a hot plate, and a grill on the ground and a prep table in the back parking lot. The first special I ever ran was veal tongue with lobster sauce and sautéed pears. I made it on a hot plate. We were two years into it before the health department came by to say we really couldn’t do that.”
The first iteration of City was a little 39-seater next to L.A. Eyeworks on Melrose Avenue. Having trained in traditional French kitchens—Feniger at Ma Maison and then L’Oasis on the French Riviera, and Milliken at Restaurant D’Olympe in Paris—their original menus were peppered with classic fare like duck confit, cassoulet, brandade, and pot au feu. But things slowly got more global after the two chefs traveled around the world.
“I went to India, and we put a veg plate that was all Indian on the menu,” Feniger says. “Mary Sue went to Thailand, and we ended up with the Thai melon salad and a red curry. I had gone to Israel, so there were some Middle Eastern influences. All of a sudden we had Thai, Indian, and French dishes.”
In the 1980’s, food in L.A. was mostly French and Italian. Think: L’Orangerie, Campanile, St. Estephe, Valentino, and La Toque. Chasens was still open, and Michael Roberts’ trendy Trumps restaurant on Melrose was about as avant-garde as it got. City was new, fresh, and extremely gutsy. By utilizing new ingredients and techniques they picked up around the world, coupled with things plucked from a few local farms, Feniger and Milliken were unknowingly contributing to the way we’d all ultimately be eating today.
By 1984, they grew out of their tiny space and moved to bigger digs; they opened City Restaurant on the corner of La Brea Avenue and 2nd Street, which is now Graffiti Café. Feniger’s ex-husband was the architect (and eventually became Milliken’s husband). Their friends contributed artwork. It was colorful, both on and off the plate. Owning their own restaurants not only shaped them as chefs, but also as business owners and ultimately as food pioneers.
“In my 20s, I didn’t think working in French kitchens was limiting. I was learning,” Feniger says. “But when I took my first trip to India, it changed my life and how I thought about food. Suddenly I was aware of a whole different taste profile. I came back and put potato fritters and the veg plate on the menu. We realized there was this new world of not having to ask for permission to do something. We just figured out what we liked.”
The two closed City in 1994, but they continued exploring and bringing back inspiration from their travels to open more restaurants: Border Grill on Melrose and in Santa Monica, Ciudad, and eventually Susan Feniger’s STREET, her first venture without Milliken as a partner. In between, they did hundreds of episodes of Too Hot Tamales for the then-new Food Network and penned numerous books.
Today they still have Border Grill in Santa Monica, one downtown where Ciudad was located, two outposts in Las Vegas, and two fast-casual offshoots at LAX. And STREET is now Mud Hen Tavern, which Feniger co-owns with executive chef Kajsa Alger (who walked into City for a job when she was 16 and hasn’t left Feniger’s side since).
This year’s CITY Night menu includes a lot of favorites, and some dishes that would make it in on just about any menu today. There’s roasted black cod with horseradish, lime, and spiced sprouts; stuffed rigatoni with chicken fennel mousse and parmesan cream; lamb moussaka with pimento jus; Chinese short ribs with spinach and sesame; and, of course, the famous Indian vegetarian plate. For dessert: chocolate cupcakes, lemon hazelnut with lemon ice, and Indian pudding with bourbon sour cream ice cream.
Taking place on Monday, February 29, at Border Grill Downtown, dinner is $125 per person, and includes a welcome cocktail, live music from String Planet (with members from Freeway Philharmonic, who used to play at City all the time), and DJs. Call 213.486.5171 for reservations.