When NYC Restaurants Come to L.A., Chefs Have to Spice Things Up

When East Coast eateries head West, certain tweaks need to be made
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For years the restaurant world has been divided over a contentious subject: Who has the better food scene—New York or L.A.?

Increasingly it’s a moot point. In recent years dozens of NYC restaurants and restaurant groups have come west, and more are coming soon this fall, including Momofuku’s Fuku and a new project from the guys behind Williamsburg’s hipster pancake house, Sunday in Brooklyn. But restaurateurs say there are key differences between how diners in each metropolis eat out, and they’re tweaking their establishments accordingly. “There has to be a cultural adjustment—cities have different energies,” says Dushan Zaric, cofounder of New York cocktail bar Employees Only, which opened in West Hollywood in April of last year.

It’s not just a matter of vibes, however. It’s a matter of taste.

“L.A., I think, has a cleaner palate,” and, given California’s green bounty and health focus, “it’s obviously a little bit more vegetable forward,” says Alex Muñoz-Suarez, CEO of Fuku, the fried-chicken concept from David Chang debuting in Santa Monica this fall. Formerly the president of Momofuku, Muñoz-Suarez also worked on opening Majordomo—Chang’s first L.A. entry—in Chinatown in January 2018. For that venture, he says, the chef created his menu to “really serve the California palate.” In New York, people tend to like food that’s “a little bit more rich” and “Eurocentric.” Muñoz-Suarez also thinks Angelenos handle spicy fare better, and the new Fuku will serve an exclusive “incredibly hot” bone-in, cold fried-chicken dish seasoned with ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, and Szechuan peppercorns.

At the NoMad, which opened downtown in early 2018, about 90 percent of the menu is different than the Big Apple original. Chef de cuisine Rudy Lopez says that’s because “people like to eat simple [here]. … If it’s not in a tortilla, they freak out.” In contrast, New Yorkers “like to be wowed.” When the NoMad first opened on Olive Street, the menu featured a signature dish from NYC, a decadent roasted chicken with foie gras, truffles, and brioche stuffed under the skin. After California’s foie gras ban went into effect earlier this year, Lopez reimagined the bird, and it’s now stuffed with lemon, Parmesan, and bread crumbs. “It’s a lot more popular,” says Lopez of the newer, brighter dish.

Another apparent passion of Angelenos is sharing food on social media, according to Jason Strauss, a partner in the Tao Group, which opened Tao and Beauty & Essex in Hollywood in 2017. He notes that a photogenic Ferris wheel of desserts at B&E has been particularly popular here. “In L.A., more than any other market, there’s a need for an Instagram moment,” Strauss says.

Insta-fodder aside, getting people to order an after-dinner treat here is more challenging than elsewhere. The NoMad’s Lopez notes that in New York, the restaurant has an extensive pastry program, while in Los Angeles, there’s less need for resources devoted to carbs. The desserts he does have on the menu tend toward the fruit driven and are very straightforward—no fancy conceptual stuff. “When people try to deconstruct things, L.A. people don’t like it,” he says.

Not surprisingly, nearly everyone says New Yorkers drink more—and they tend to favor whiskey and gin when they do—while West Coasters opt for tequila and mezcal, but there are also differences beyond what people order. Angelenos do most of their eating between 7 and 9 p.m., while their East Coast counterparts chow down later. “In New York, I sell steaks at midnight,” says Zaric, who adds that he gets far more reservation no-shows in L.A. than in other cities. “It’s very frustrating,” he gripes, attributing the behavior to Angelenos making multiple reservations and being more interested in celeb encounters.

Jud Mongel, co-owner of Five Leaves, a Brooklyn favorite that migrated to East Hollywood in April, says he hasn’t noticed a huge contrast between his new customers and the New York hipsters he serves. He says the main distinction, and the reason so many places are coming west, is the variety of beautiful locations for potential eateries. In New York “all [the spaces] look the same; it’s the bottom of a five-story walk-up for $15,000 a month,” he says. “I just get so excited by the available properties in L.A.”


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