Michael’s, the Launching Pad for California Cuisine, Faces an Uncertain Future

Amid the shutdown, the son of founder Michael McCarty reflects on the realities of running a beloved restaurant

The thought running through my head, as my dad and I raided our restaurant’s wine cellar after Santa Monica implemented its COVID-19 stay-at-home measure, was: at least there’s toilet paper. I grabbed three rolls for myself and gave the rest to the prep cook vac sealing and pickling what little provisions were left from the weekend. There wasn’t much, as we’d cut ordering by 75 percent the week before. Loading up on a few bottles of golden balsamic vinegar courtesy of our executive chef, Brian Bornemann, I had a feeling we weren’t looking at two weeks of social distancing. “Better grab the good shit,” my dad said. “2015 Cahors?” “Fantastic!”

My father, Michael McCarty, started Michael’s, his restaurant in Santa Monica, 41 years ago, when he was 25, with my mother, the painter Kim McCarty. His restaurant in New York City, also called Michael’s, is comparatively youthful at a mere 30 years old. Michael’s served as the springboard for an uncanny number of celebrity L.A. chefs: Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Roy Yamaguchi, Sang Yoon, Ken Frank, and Brooke Williamson all got their start here. Trained as a chef in Paris, Mike was hyper and enthusiastic, Armani-suited, talking to every guest about the inspiration behind his food—clean, cutting-edge, a California twist on French nouvelle cuisine—the walls of the restaurant resplendent with California modernist art curated by my mother. Decades before farm-to-table, Mike worked with local farmers to plant French heirloom seeds and even had his own duck farm with Jean Bertranou, his mentor from L’Ermitage. Michael’s promoted the first digitized wine list—produced on a supercomputer the size of a room by a mad scientist named Phil Reich—and was the first to offer seating in a lush outdoor garden and waiters dressed in Burberry ties and pink Ralph Lauren outfits instead of tuxedos. Depending on your point of view, Michael’s is an overrated piece of history or nothing short of the birthplace of modern American cuisine. However you lean, the restaurant has been difficult to kill off no matter who the executive chef was at the time.

Michael’s served as the springboard for an uncanny number of celebrity L.A. chefs, from jonathan waxman to nancy silverton and mark peel.

Before the shutdown in March, Michael’s had survived fires, recessions, riots, the ’80s, earthquakes, 9/11, both Bushes, and almost the entire first term of Donald Trump. Mike is a master at reinventing his restaurants. During the 1994 recession, on the brink of closing Michael’s, he did a sweep of his head management and brought in 22-year-old Sang Yoon as chef (now of Father’s Office and Lukshon) and David Rossoff (formerly of Mozza, now at Hippo) as general manager.

Chas McCarty at Michael’s during the shutdown

Dan Busta

Michael’s survived for the next 14 years, but the 2008 recession leveled its business. Five years ago I came in and cleaned up a heavily coke-snorting staff in a dead-empty restaurant. I beat the shit out of my already severely compromised body by running the floor every night (I was born with a spinal cord injury and deal with severe chronic pain). I figured out how to run a restaurant with very little experience. I had uneasy conversations with cooks and managers and waiters who couldn’t pull their weight, and got chewed out by my fair share of old-guard diners. Night after night, getting yelled at for not being a tapas restaurant or not having brussels sprouts. Learning when to back down and take the heat and when to tell someone they can’t sit in the garden on a Saturday because they made their reservation that afternoon and every school in the city just graduated. Saying, “Yes, I know, we’re all friends of Michael.” I came to understand that if a staff member had a weak point, it was my fault as their leader. I experienced epiphanies out of sheer exhaustion while driving back to Echo Park in the middle of the night, hallucinating faster platings and easier service techniques and smiling wide when I finally cracked the expediting problem that was destroying the nights service. I spoke to everyone—friends, partners, coworkers, parents—about quitting to take care of my body, then talked myself into saying the answer lay in finding the right team. If we had the right chef and right manager, I wouldn’t have to beat myself to a pulp. The problem was, chefs and managers were increasingly hard to find and at most lasted two years before they burned out or opened their own place. Even with my dad as my partner, I never could find stability, and I never could quit.

I stayed because I had worked very hard to create a place I enjoyed being at, with people I enjoyed being around and cared about—I had known many since I was a kid. The cooks taught me kitchen Spanish, how to peel beets, and how to hold three plates. In my twenties, our staff taught me how to run a restaurant, and it troubled me knowing my employees could make more money somewhere else. Often if felt like our neighborhood didn’t catch our message, favoring factory chain takeout instead. Whenever I confessed this to a staff member, they said, “Why? I like working here. Most people are assholes.” There was at least some form of acceptance in the shared sentiment.

The vibe of the place kept me: sitting outside, in the insanely overgrown garden, the Cy Twomblys on the walls and actual good music playing in the background and not in your face, watching people sit for hours talking and enjoying their food; the team I had worked so hard to put together never quite nailing every move but every second performing better than the previous; every talking head at the restaurant personable, but never too many words. The majority of the nights something went wrong: the internet blew out, or some hothead wanted to bring in nine bottles of $14 gas station wine and didn’t want to pay corkage. But we sprinted forward to high publicity, near profit, and praise from our previous chef, the very inventive and talented Miles Thompson, before finding a balance of Cal-Mediterranean with Brian. The only thing I had failed to do was to regularly get the guest count up to at least 100 every weeknight—we were in a sleepy neighborhood. Finally, the week before the COVID-19 closure, we had gotten it there.

We had found stability. My team had made Michael’s a destination restaurant one would want to eat at every night. This coronavirus was a different beast, though. It was going to bleed us out and forever change dining in every city across the globe.

Two weeks before the shutdown, we saw our numbers plummet from 240 guests to 40 the following Saturday.

The news alone of the pandemic had a massive impact on guest count and profit. Two weeks before the shutdown, we saw our numbers plummet by 80 percent, from our highest dinner count of the past nine months—240 guests—to 40 by the following Saturday. I had the staff wearing gloves and went heavy on the sanitation for their protection as much as the guests’, but it felt like we were fooling ourselves. I was waiting for the city to call the shots just so we could stop hemorrhaging money and putting our staff at risk. When the mayor called it, I was relieved. We furloughed all of our employees, including myself. We advised the team to get on unemployment as soon as possible. The last two weeks had already cut their tips in half. Jorge Romero, a food runner I have known since I was six years old, asked me what he should do: “I don’t want to panic, Chas, but should I stock up on groceries?” I wondered how it came to be that in the absence of appropriate presidential leadership, I was now the go-to for advice in a pandemic. Julian Adame, our general manager, canceled the internet and phones before he locked the door behind him. He was a godsend of a manager—I almost cried when we’d hired him the month before. I’d worked for five years to find the proper team for the restaurant. Now they no longer worked for me. All my dad and I had was a big empty room with a rent check due.

At our managers’ meeting the day before, we had groused about restaurants being expected to reopen at 25 percent capacity. We all laughed, as I’m sure every other restaurant team did, both out of sheer nervousness and at the presumption of those who think restaurants print money, when in reality most restaurants can’t break even while operating at 100 percent capacity. Factor in a $15 minimum wage for front-of-house employees, high city and state taxes, increasingly expensive sustainable and guilt-free product, Trump’s wine tariffs, workman’s comp, repairs and maintenance, and best of all, incredibly expensive metropolitan rent. Asking restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity, like it’s a favor, just doesn’t make sense. As Mike put it, “Talk about beating a dead horse.” We sighed. About a million dollars a year in sales—just enough to pay our rent—comes from private events. With all of our weddings and large gatherings canceled for the year and customers demanding their deposits back, we just sat in silence.

McCarty and his young staff  in the restaurant’s early years—the minimalist decor, cordial service, and fresh, innovative California cuisine would be emulated by restaurateurs around the world
The original Michael’s team poses in the restaurant’s garden—Jonathan Waxman, who later opened Jams in New York; founder Michael McCarty’s New York Michael’s became the canteen for Manhattan publishing swells; Mark Peel met Nancy Silverton in the Michael’s kitchen before they opened Campanile and La Brea Bakery; Ken Frank today runs the Michelin-starred La Toque in Napa

We struck down the possibility of staying open for takeout even though Brian had whipped up a three-page “to-go” menu in about six hours. Julian signed up the restaurant for delivery services, all of them mandating a 30 percent chunk of the sales for themselves. Calculating how many roast chickens we’d have to sell just to cover the hourly grill cook while risking his health and, by proxy, that of his family, we said, “Fuck that.” The grill cook is already the sacrifice of the restaurant. Laws that prohibit sharing tips with back-of-house employees allow a cook’s pay to be capped at 20 bucks an hour; most cooks work doubles to support their families and never take vacation time. There’s a common saying that your restaurant is only as good as your grill cook, but, of course, you can’t run a restaurant with just one cook, even in a pandemic. Mike wisely added, “It goes against the point of keeping people safe at home if we’re calling them in to work.” The majority of our front-of-house employees are tipped, so they’d make more on unemployment with the $600 weekly stimulus than from any measly job we’d be able to provide one or two of them fishing out bags of cappelletti with house-smoked salmon roe to some guy excited to eat cold pasta when he got home.

My head raced to the most panic-inducing part of all this. Documented workers would be fine if they were capable of receiving unemployment insurance. (After about six weeks of furlough, 80 percent of my employees, including myself, still hadn’t received checks, but would eventually.) Undocumented workers, and it doesn’t help to fool ourselves into thinking they don’t exist, make up a significant portion of food service employees. In 2017, it was estimated that 37 percent of America’s small-restaurant owners were immigrants, while 22 percent of food service workers were foreign-born—more, I imagine, in California. These were the people who would be forgotten by the country and treated with disdain. I spoke with a DACA recipient, unsure if he could go on unemployment, as he expressed fear of dipping into the savings he’s accumulated since he was 16. DACA recipients can technically apply for unemployment insurance, but the majority of foreign-born workers do not hold any status at all. We set up a GoFundMe campaign and called our attorneys to see what could be done. California finally passed a motion to acknowledge that undocumented workers exist in the midst of a pandemic.

COVID-19 is just another testament to the truth of the restaurant industry. Unless you’re a Bestia or a République or one of the other successful restaurants you can count on one hand, it’s not the ’80s and you can’t make a killing anymore. If your place hits a grand slam with a scallop dish that everyone steals after you publish the recipe in a cookbook, no one will ever pay you royalties. With business as usual, a restaurant owner is just surfing on blind luck for a couple of breaths until the chef or manager quits. A few nights of low guest count because of a Dodger game or a debate are enough to push you into debt. All these years we’d been curling our toes against the edge of the cliff. Coronavirus pushed us off. Maybe it’s good to see that after years of working so hard and confusing stress with security, we’ve been kidding ourselves all along. Ask any dishwasher or busboy—they’ll say that’s a lesson they’ve always known.

Dan Busta

When the city ordered us to shut down Michael’s, I collapsed and so did my dad. It was the vacation we had both dreamed of and dreaded, and it was creepy. No alarms tripping in the middle of the night and no pipes blowing out. No lost soul fresh from a bender to babysit. Just the bureaucracy of trying to get an SBA loan, which was a job and a half in itself. I had spent five years trying to make the restaurant work and to support my employees who looked to me for a living because they believed me when I said I was bringing in a chef or a manager who would move the place forward. I had bled myself to do whatever I could for the restaurant. Now I couldn’t do anything for anyone anymore if it wasn’t safe outside. All my farmers were down 80 percent, slaughtering their pigs because it was cheaper than feeding them. I checked in every week with the vulnerable members of my staff. Everyone was fine, bored, and eager to get back to work. The relinquishing of responsibility, by global collapse and by force, is a weird thing. The news never got better, but the upside was that the average person started to understand how hard it is to run a restaurant because so many restaurant owners have finally come out and confirmed it.

Amid the thrill Mike and I felt in looting the remains of our restaurant’s stock—an oddly cathartic experience I can only imagine is the same as smashing a guitar after playing a great set with it—we both silently assumed that the restaurant would probably be there when we popped out of this. We had no reason to take the thought seriously, as we didn’t own our real estate, had no corporate or financial backing or even money left of our own, and I definitely didn’t trust the Trump administration to properly bail us out or handle the pandemic responsibly. But we are crazy people—restaurant people through and through—and even though Michael’s had not made any money in ten years, we just assumed we’d be back because it’s the only thing we know how to do. As I piled my notebooks and work clothes, along with a pack of nylon gloves, sherry vinegar, and a few bottles of mezcal into the trunk, a strange rush overtook me from the past two weeks of chaos, and really my past five years trying to make this place work. Whatever sweeping sentimental thought I had was interrupted when Mike walked by, chuckled out loud at the trunk, and said, “It’s lookin’ like LaGuardia on a bad day!

RELATED: The Amazing, True Story of How Nancy Silverton Became a Living Food Legend

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.