August 31 2017

Finding Gold on the Sunset Strip

Los Angeles-Table Talk
Legendary Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold is sitting in a booth at Alma at The Standard on Sunset Boulevard wearing suspenders and eating avocado toast. Gold has been a regular of this part of Sunset since Bobby Pyn (aka Darby Crash) of the Germs wrapped his body in licorice and peanut butter in a bygone club that was just down the street. Since then, he’s won a Pulitzer for food criticism, become the subject of a documentary film, City of Gold, and convinced a nation that Los Angeles is the greatest eating city in America. We sat down with the voice of authority on LA’s gastronomic scene to hear about his many days and nights on the iconic stretch.  

The Standard
THE STANDARD: What do you remember about the Strip growing up in LA? 
JONATHAN GOLD: When friends of my parents would come to town in the ’60s, they would drive them to the Strip to see the hippies. Later, when the punk rock thing hit in ’77, the Whisky was always the place where you wanted to go.
 
Was there a late-night scene where people would go after the Whisky? 
The people who were in bands wouldn’t necessarily be eating on the Strip unless it was the Rainbow. You could probably still wake up a member of Guns ‘N’ Roses and Faster Pussycat by whispering the words Rainbow pizza and see bliss come across their eyes. And everybody hung out at Ben Frank’s [now Mel’s Diner] at all hours after shows, but Canter’s on Fairfax was a much more evolved scene. So much of the thing about eating on the Strip is that you don’t have the imagination to not eat off the Strip. 
The Standard

Right, but some of LA’s greatest restaurants were on the Strip. Scandia closed in 1989, but people still talk about it like it was one of the greatest restaurants in LA history, and Spago started on the Strip. 
Scandia was one of the great LA restaurants of its era. At this point, it’s hard to think of Swedish and Danish food being chic, but it managed to be. During the first restaurant boom in the ’80s, the big Sunset Strip places were Le Dome, which was a pretty serious French restaurant, and Nicky Blair’s, where you’d go for steaks and Italian food. And you had Spago, obviously, which managed to leverage the supremely showbiz-y location with the actual upscale demographics of the hills just above it. Spago did more to change the American restaurant than any other restaurant in the 20th century at least. 
 
What do you mean by that?
In LA, it wasn’t until Wolfgang Puck that you had some idea who the actual chefs were. Spago opened as a place for chefs to drop by after hours with pizzas and pastas, and it became popular beyond his dreams because people liked going to a restaurant that had great food but was casual. They didn’t have to dress up or do pretentions things. It had wood fire at the center of the restaurant, but grilling was considered vulgar in restaurants of a certain class then. I hate the phrase, but it’s probably the place where casual fine dining was born.  
 
Celebrity seems to have always been intertwined with the Strip.
There have been celebrities involved with Sunset for as long as it existed and it’s always been a place where people pursue their private pleasures, so it’s not really any different than Preston Sturges opening his place in the ’30s. I remember Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel where you could take your aunt visiting from Toledo, so she could see the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island.
The Standard
So let’s fast-forward to now–you’re driving down the Strip in your truck. Where are you eating?
Obviously, I go to Night + Market more than anything. Bar Marmont is always a brilliant place to take people, and I think it’s nice that the Alma guys are doing what they’re doing. I’m old enough to remember when The Standard was an old-age home—back then, you would often see the runaway crowd mingling on the street with people in walkers. 
 
There are a lot of things that go against the idea of having great restaurants on the Strip, but there is this magic to it, right? If Los Angeles is a place where people come from all over the world to reinvent themselves, then the Sunset Strip is almost the exact center of that. You can come here as a teenager from a small town in Pennsylvania and two years later you’re a rock star and you’ve never left this 20-block zone. One would hope that the same thing would happen with restaurants, and it certainly did in the case of Night + Market, but there is always the idea of possibility—that the guy who set up a place selling grilled meat ends up being the Gaucho Grill with a thousand locations. 
 
But if you keep driving east on Sunset you can find more of the indie restaurants that you’ve been championing for decades. If people are willing to go past the edge of the Strip on Sunset, where should they be eating?
Jitlada is on Sunset and at this point it’s sort of acknowledged as the best Thai restaurant in town; it has really spicy, really focused southern Thai cooking. Zankou is on Sunset, which is an Armenian roast chicken place that spawned a chicken empire. And The Griddle is sort of a remarkable place—you go there and the pancakes are the size of picnic tables and you look around and almost everybody you see works on television in one way or another. There are probably more recognizable young actors per square inch at The Griddle than anywhere else in Los Angeles.
Photographer
Shelby Duncan
Writer
Gillian Ferguson
Illustrator
Lauren Allik