Culver City is in crisis. No, Jeopardy! didn’t announce that they’d stop filming there, thus deposing de facto mayor Alex Trebek. It’s the restaurant scene—it’s going through a little bit of a meltdown right now.
Despite its walkability and overwhelming pleasantness, high commercial rent prices and tons of competition have always made Downtown Culver City a shaky restaurant market. Anyone who remembers Fraiche, or Ford’s Filling Station, or Le Saint Amour, or Santa Maria BBQ Company remembers big restaurant closures in the past, but this year we saw at unprecedented nine restaurants shutter within a quarter mile radius of each other. East Borough—gone. Sambar—gone. Chop Daddy’s—gone. Our sense of security—gone.
Just as an ecosystem comes back stronger and healthier after a wildfire—soil chemistry renewed, watershed revitalized, native species encouraged to return—so too will Downtown Culver City. Maybe. Who knows, really? But if it does happen, these are the new restaurants that could be responsible.
Josef Centeno’s take-away version of his flagship restaurant, Baco Mercat, will be taking over the old Chop Daddy’s space. Bacoshop will be serving a bunch of different variations on his proprietary flatbread sandwich, the baco, as well as bacorrito, which is a baco/burrito hybrid, in case you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how words work and failed to make that connection. Bacoshop has the best chance to save Culver City. There is a severe lack of delicious, casual, non-chain lunch options in the downtown area. There’s the perennially disappointing Cerveteca, and Honey’s Kettle is great but one person can only eat so much fried chicken. Other than that, what do you have? Tender Greens? Yalla? More like Nahhh-lla, am I right? (I’m not proud of that). Centeno is going to be injecting some fresh chef blood into the area, and hopefully everyone can unite around his William Wallace rallying cry: “GOURMET FAST-CASUAAAAAAALLLLLL!”
This is a huge wildcard—and wildcard restaurants are the best kinds of restaurants. No one knows what the hell is going to happen with Ramen Roll, and that’s exciting. Check out this roster of people behind it. First you have Adam Fleischman, who founded Umami Burger and then followed that up by trying (and spectacularly failing) to get us to eat chocolate-flavored chicken. He also wrote an e-book devoted to helping people succeed in business and life through the power of something he made up called Continuum Physics. Then there’s chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, who was last in the news for pleading guilty to serving whale meat at his sushi bar in Santa Monica and was sentenced to two years probation. And then the third piece of the puzzle is Andy Gavin, co-creator of the popular PlayStation series Crash Bandicoot and self-described “unstoppable entrepreneur.”
It reads like the cast of characters from a restaurant-themed Guy Ritchie movie, and his movies always end in fireworks, so you should be excited for Ramen Roll. According to Gavin in a press release, there will be “a sushi bar, ramen bar, and table spaces patrolled by iPad wielding staff.” They’re calling Ramen Roll “fine-casual,” and it will be decorated with murals by a surrealist street artist, and I’m super confused by all this but also super jacked up on the promise of the unknown. It’s either going to save Culver City, or it will reduce it to ashes. Ramen Roll will take over the shuttered Picnic LA spot. Picnic LA used to make salads or quinoa or something.
AR Cucina used to be called Sambar. Sambar used to serve Indian food, whereas AR Cucina serves Italian food. They say every neighborhood needs a good Italian restaurant. I would say every neighborhood also needs a good Indian restaurant. But since the surrounding area already has great Indian food with Annapurna, Mayura, and Samosa House, and there’s not a ton of great Italian in the area, this conversion makes total sense. The food at AR Cucina is damn good, too. It’s unpretentious but thoughtful, it’s not egregiously overpriced, and they have one of the best lasagnas I’ve ever had. Screw it, its the best lasagna I’ve ever had. And every neighborhood needs a good lasagna. This is not a restaurant that can save the neighborhood single-handedly, but it is going to provide a solid tentpole for others to build around it. Italian neighborhood joints are the unsinkable ships of restaurants.
Like AR Cucina, Cava Grill will not be Culver City’s messiah restaurant. Also like AR Cucina, Cava will be an invincible rock, except from the fast-casual side of the equation. People are billing Cava as the Chipotle of Mediterranean food, but that’s inaccurate, seeing as Chipotle is a pandering dumpster fire that lost all brand credibility and relentlessly tweets about dicks. Cava is like the Sweetgreen of not-salads—it’s all shiny and bright, the food is high-quality, and they have a bunch of healthy teas and fruit waters instead of a soda fountain, which is the new hallmark of a successful fast-casual restaurant. Cava is the antithesis of failed chain spots in Culver City like Which ‘Wich and Daphne’s. Cava is the future. It is taking over the old Native Foods space, where they made vegan food that wasn’t great.