How Melody Went from Struggling Restaurant to Pop-Up Hot Spot

When business slumped, Eric Tucker scrapped everything and invited young talent into his Virgil Village kitchen

When husband-wife duo Eric Tucker and Paloma Rabinov first opened Melody inside an aging bungalow on Virgil Avenue in 2017, they had a chef, a menu, and a plan. But when the going got tough, they scrapped it all and went in a different direction, hosting up-and-coming cooks for a parade of pop-ups that have become a neighborhood highlight. In the process, Melody has become what a lot of wine bars aren’t: exciting.

“For me, when you go out to have a drink, to have a bite to eat, there are five things you need to hit: food, beverage, music, vibe, and service,” Tucker muses. “And a lot of places miss the vibe and music. Those are the two that really get forgotten, or people don’t really know how to achieve. And for me? I know that.”

Tucker is a former photographer and DJ who attended ArtCenter Pasadena in the ‘90s. After graduation, he shot photos for the Los Angeles Times and also spent time DJing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. That’s where Tucker first experienced the heartbreak of a failed business. Back in 2014, he co-owned a spot on Broome Street called Louie & Chan. Upstairs it was a traditional Neapolitan restaurant helmed by chef Pasquale Frola; downstairs it was a nightclub. Louie & Chan was the place Tucker always envisioned owning: a dark, sexy, communal space to experience both excellent food and music. It opened in November 2013 and it closed in May 2014. It was a tough blow.

“It was my dream. I spent a lot of money on it,” Tucker says. “I asked my wife what she wanted to do. Do you want to stay here or go back to L.A.? She said L.A., and so I came here and started to initiate the process of rebuilding. My whole goal coming back was to open a new place,” Tucker says.

What was it going to be? He didn’t care.

What he wound up finding was an old house in Virgil Village that was previously home to Guatemalan restaurant Amalia’s. He hired chef Hunter Pritchett, and they developed both brunch and dinner menus. When it opened, Melody was a straight-forward restaurant: vegetable-focused, seafood-centric, French coastal cuisine. It didn’t connect.

“We were going down the can hard,” Tucker recalls. “We were down to essentially $3,000 dollars in our bank account after paying people. And my wife and I said fuck it, we got to let people go. Let’s pay them, and let’s let them go. Let’s run it as a wine bar with pop-ups. That’s our only hope.”

melody wine bar
Melody opened in 2017 in an old bungalow in Virgil Village

At the end of 2018, Tucker and Rabinov had to strip down Melody to zero food cost. They couldn’t afford a staff. For eight months, they ran front of house themselves. And the kitchen? They were rewarded when they put their faith in young talent.

Chefs like Phert Em and her fun, modern take on Cambodian food have found a consistent slot at Melody. Currently you’ll find garlic roasted chicken with sesame butter cream and chile oil, as well as an heirloom tomato crudo with pineapple vinaigrette, gooseberries, thai basil, and toasted rice powder. At Melody, the chef is in total control. “When they come in here, it’s their kitchen,” says Tucker. “I don’t tell them what to do.”

For Em, it was where she had her first public pop-up in 2019. “Melody allows chefs the space to be creative with their menus,” she says. “You get the flexibility to set your own prices and quantities. The kindest people work there.”

Eric quickly started attracting more and more pop-ups, and customers became drawn to the idea of being turned on to new, exciting, and largely undiscovered food in L.A.

“Full blown creative freedom,” says Adam Contreras of the pop-up Radburg. “Definitely an incubator for Radburg. Always dreamt about doing a sandwich or a burger pop-up. So, I took a leap of faith and left the restaurant hustle.” Contreras worked at Forage, Wolfdown, and Sqirl before striking out on his own with creative takes on American classics, like a Hamburger Helper-style stroganoff with tteok, fried shallots, and oyster mushrooms.

“We rarely go for the hype pop-ups,” says Tucker. “Typically we bring in people that aren’t well known. It gives these kids that want to cook a chance to leave that corporate, heavy-handed job that they might never escape.”

VZLA, which serves Los Angeles-inspired Venezuelan food, takes simple sweet corn on the cob and tops it with miso butter, goat cream cheese, chives, and shichimi togarashi. La Sorted’s serves expertly crafted brick-oven pies and focaccia sandwiches. You could go to Melody three nights a week and have three different explosive experiences.

The pop-up dining wave might seem like a trend, but for Melody it was a survival strategy—and keeping things fresh just keeps working. “Every restaurant copies each other. Why do we do that?” Tucker wonders. “Make something unique. Have an attitude. Have a point of view.”

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