The tight, white clapboard interior of Fishing with Dynamite transports you to some New England lobster shack. Chef David LeFevre’s silky “chowdah”—a mirepoix of carrots and celery mingling with whole and minced clams—is authentic down to the slightly corroded tub for tossing your shells into. Crunching a house-made oyster cracker, you feel miles away from M.B. Post, LeFevre’s first Manhattan Beach venture, which happens to sit right beside it, a Subway sandwich shop dividing the two. What used to be a post office has been transformed into a rowdy restaurant, loud music bouncing off reclaimed wood as bacon-and-cheddar biscuits with whipped maple butter sit on the table alongside couscous that has been mined with pomegranate and Marcona almonds.
In June LeFevre followed up with another archetype. As steak houses go, the Arthur J isn’t insistent. There’s no tufted burgundy upholstery or bovine diagram on the wall, but it does seem to be geared toward offering the neighborhood a restaurant for special occasions, which is to say a venue where you can dress up a bit, grip a tumbler of booze with Mad Men poise, and pretend Ike’s still in the White House. Styled with tasteful conviction, the building is so midcentury plush that it’s an excuse to splurge. Deep curved booths and tables with gorgeous low-profile wood chairs fan out beneath a pitched ceiling fashioned from wood slats the color of saddle leather. The menu—heavy bond paper in MG roadster green with a gold band—invites you to roll the dice on whether to order a $32 skirt steak or the top-grade Wagyu at $36 an ounce.
The $30 flatiron steak is my favorite; darkened on the pulley-raised grill, the wet-aged Angus cut gains as much from the smoke as from the oak embers. LeFevre is good with a flame, but his tartare is impressive in its own right. Using top round to impart a meaty lushness (kitchens often go for slightly leaner tenderloin or filet scraps), he grinds it coarse to avoid reducing the flesh to the sort of spread that many other places favor. He serves it with salted rye toast points and pureed green peppercorns that have been dabbed around the perimeter so as not to overwhelm the beef. It was these tiny recalibrations of an old standard that really had me paying attention.
I’ve found myself doing that a lot in LeFevre’s restaurants since he established a beachhead in the South Bay in 2011. That’s when he teamed with Mike and Chris Simms for the launch of M.B. Post. Their grandfather, the original Arthur J, opened his first Ben Frank’s coffee shop on the Sunset Strip in 1952, making the leap from running the MGM commissary. The Simmses have stuck by the Kettle, their classic South Bay family restaurant (their French Quarter in WeHo closed over the summer), while incubating new ideas such as the wine-driven Tin Roof Bistro, which onetime Napa Valley Grille chef Anne Conness ran until she recently started Sausal in El Segundo. They know what they’re aiming for, and they do it well, but it wasn’t until they debuted the Simmzy’s minichain in 2009 that the duo seemed headed in a distinctly contemporary direction, offering a roster of craft brews to accompany reconfigured pub grub like a pulled pork panino.
With the Arthur J, LeFevre and the brothers have used a retro setting to modernize that most venerable of restaurant genres, the steak house, stitching in gastro touches to update the cooking of a different time without mucking it up. Consider the split pea soup, which is as much in the DNA of steak houses as the Caesar salad. A handful of airy chicharrones floats on milled dried peas that are earthy and redolent of ham hock. Rather than the standard sourdough roll, you’ll find billowing Emmental popovers served with a concentrated onion jam. Instead of settling for basic pilaf, the kitchen prepares Great Lakes wild rice so that it puffs up, finishing it with chicken stock, sage butter, and pecans. LeFevre even makes the mandatory wedge of iceberg worth the $13 tab, sharpening the creamy dressing with Danish Mycella blue cheese and scattering a layer of shaved hard-boiled egg on top.
I’m not saying every update is flawless. A mealy puck of Bananas Foster ice cream won’t transport you to the last time you had the original flambéed tableside at Brennan’s in New Orleans. But I like that they keep the focus on tradition without doing anything by rote. There’s just enough graham cracker under the mousselike pumpkin-infused cheesecake to recall the master recipe without weighing you down. Brought straight from the oven, a Monday-night French dip—chunks of prime rib crowded into a golden roll alongside a small bowl of rosemary-tinged jus—was sensational with a pint of Torrance’s Smog City pilsner. Far from being a halfhearted seafood option in a house devoted to red meat, the sea bream—cleverly deboned yet served whole with charred halves of lemon and orange—left me feeling closer to Hong Kong than to Hermosa as I picked the cheeks from the head and chewed on the crisp tail.
LeFevre first gained his reputation in L.A. as a seafood guy, cooking at Water Grill. A Wisconsin native, he trained in the demanding Chicago kitchen of Charlie Trotter and interned at Burgundy’s La Côte d’Or under Bernard Loiseau before landing at Water Grill when Michael Cimarusti left to open Providence. More than a decade ago, a winemaker friend in Napa introduced him to Mike Simms at Tra Vigne, where the younger of the two brothers had stepped away from the family’s hospitality business in order to train as manager.
They’re not the only ones who’ve helped create a restaurant culture in Manhattan Beach to match its lively bar scene. Darren Weiss has been serving hazelnut-dusted braised short ribs (best in the city, for my money) since Darren’s debuted in 2007. The Strand House occasionally hosts a popular guest chef series. Michael Fiorelli keeps the clamor going at Love & Salt with dishes like bone marrow, parsley, and bread crumbs spooned over cavatappi pasta. Sitting at the counter of Tin Vuong’s Little Sister, I enjoy watching the chef as he stuffs rice paper wrappers with crunchy taro root, stalks of fresh mint, and grilled pork. I still appreciate a local institution like Mama D’s, which hands out hunks of garlic bread to people coming up from the pier, but I’m glad to see the arrival of so many other options, including the Arthur J.
The place glows with its own kind of intimacy. A portrait of its namesake, natty in a pink sport coat, hangs by the entrance, a pair of well-worn wing tips outside adding a homey wink while prepping guests for the set decoration inside: Any formality you are about to encounter is just for fun, folks. This is one way the Arthur J nails that trickiest of things—tone. Perhaps some big shot will order the glass of bordeaux-blend Araujo for $60.50 (why the 50 cents, by the way?), but I prefer using three- and six-ounce pours to explore the deep wine list. In fact, over a couple of meals I was happy to dial back on the pricey cuts and investigate side dishes, which hum with LeFevre’s culinary curiosity.
The $53 New York strip is great, though splitting it three ways with friends was enough, considering everything else we ordered. The ribbon of crisp fat, redolent of those oak embers, proved the perfect foil for a salsa verde with a high note of basil. We also ordered roasted carrots with harissa-flecked yogurt, beef fat fries, and trumpet mushrooms. LeFevre has the crew minutely crosshatch the stems so that they better absorb a drizzle of demi-glace. The little we didn’t finish, the waiter—looking natty in a white shirt and black tie—boxed. Borrowing from a bygone service manual, he wrote the name of the dish and the date on the lid, just in case it got buried at the back of my fridge. There wasn’t much danger of that.
Best dishes: Emmentel popovers, split pea soup, grilled Treviso radicchio with dates, steak tartare, flatiron steak, whole grilled fish, trumpet mushrooms, wild rice with pecans
903 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach, 310-878-9620 or thearthurj.com
Drinks: Serious wine list, craft cocktails, and craft beers
Atmosphere: Updated old-school
Noise level: Just right
Kid friendly? No burgers here, but great steaks
Price range: $5 (Parker House rolls) to $148 (bone-in tomahawk rib eye)
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5-10:30; Thu.-Sat., 5-11
Parking: Metered street
Credit cards: All major