It started with Chop Daddy’s back in October. Everyone nodded their head in mourning, said something to the effect of, “Oh damn, I totally meant to try that place,” and kept doing what they were already doing.
Then Bottlerock went down. For a wine bar that has you order Cab Franc from an iPad, it was always awkwardly close to Menchie’s frozen yogurt next door. A kid covered in fro-gurt once pressed his face against the window and stared at me while I was drinking for an alarming period of time and it weirded me out so much I never went back. There are other drinking holes within walking distance from my apartment. No tears were shed over Bottlerock.
Native Foods and Which ‘Wich closed down in the spring. But those are both big chains, and with Chipotle and Yalla and Pieology already nearby, Culver City didn’t need anymore corporate-casual (corp-casj) spots. Restaurants come and go, especially in downtown Culver City where rents are high, so none of these were surprises.
But then the surprises came. Lyfe Kitchen, which had been open for three years, always seemed full, and was a favorite of Wilmer Valderrama’s (a very important factor) called it quits.
Picnic L.A., a hyped-up lunch counter that was the brainchild of L.A. food world all-stars, opened in December and closed in July. An investor from Lemonade, a managing partner from Top Round, and a chef from Red Medicine could barely keep this place alive for more than six months.
East Borough, the Vietnamese transplant from Orange County, closed down for good just this week. Jonathan Gold raved about their food in a 2014 review, and there was a point when East Borough was packed, but over the last six months I never saw the place more than half full. Their pho baguette—a ridiculously good banh mi/French dip/pho hybrid—will go down as one of my all-time favorite dishes in the city. That said, I only went there twice in the past year, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why I didn’t go more. It could be that parking sucks, or that this part of Culver City feels like Downtown Disney, or that I’ve just grown too comfortable eating sandwiches at fast-casual spots where you never have to tip or make eye contact with servers.
Sāmbār, too, is dead. Chef Akasha Richmond, whose eponymous restaurant has been a Culver City staple for almost a decade, announced that she would be tearing down her Indian spot and building an Italian one from its ashes. “We eventually realized that the concept was far too niche for the neighborhood and our local diners,” she told Eater LA.
Eight restaurants within a quarter mile radius of one another have all closed down in the last year. Eight! That’s nuts.
Everyone talks about the impending restaurant apocalypse: How, one day, rising rents, wages, and food costs will simply price restaurants out of existence. And for the full-service places with huge overheads like East Borough and Sāmbār, that’s likely the case. (Although there’s also the shitty reality that people undervalue non-Western food, which, if you had any doubt about what Richmond meant by “niche,” there you go).
But salad-forward places like Lyfe and Picnic L.A. should be turnkey homeruns in any part of the city. You can’t go anywhere with the word “Green” in its name between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. without waiting in a long line for your bowl of lettuce, and ditto goes for any Lemonade location. Still, they couldn’t keep the doors open.
So why now? And why Downtown Culver? Part of it might be the fact that other parts of Culver City are coming up. You have the new Platform development in the east with restaurants like Loqui, the Cannibal, and an incoming Sweetgreen. And then to the West, you have Hatchet Hall, Lodge Bread Co, and Maple Block killing it, not to mention places like Phorage and Kogi Taqueria in nearby Palms. There might just be too many restaurants of the same caliber and not enough people to spend money at them.
Obviously there are still a ton of successful restaurants in Downtown Culver City. Honey’s Kettle is a fried-chicken institution, Akasha seems to have a stable dining base, and Rocco’s is always packed with people watching baseball and putting down $7 Coors Lights.
But the restaurant scene’s complete and utter volatility makes me afraid for the current places, and especially for the future ones. Whenever I walk by Hanjip during lunch on the weekends and see only one table full, I worry they’re going to be the next one to fall. Whenever I hear of a new spot opening up in Culver City, like Bäcoshop, chef Josef Centeno’s sandwich concept that’s opening inside the old Chop Daddy’s space, I’m scared that I still won’t go.