My husband’s birthday was coming up. As it approached, I kept coming up with ideas. “Surf and Sand in Laguna?” I asked, as he passed me in the hall. Nothing. A few days later, “Malibu Beach Inn?” Nada. A week later, I added what I thought was a fresh idea, “Ojai Valley Inn?” Still, no response.
These are MY ideas of what to do on a birthday. We usually end up at a beach somewhere because, well, we should do something, right? Then, with less than a week until the actual date, he reminds me that it’s HIS birthday. What?!! Incredulous. And now he’s thought about it and really wants to go to Photo LA, the annual photo show, which is no longer held in Santa Monica, but at the LA Mart, downtown.
DOWNTOWN? But there’s no beach. I needed a few moments to come to terms with this. “Okay,” I peeped. He said let’s get a room for the night and check out all the hipness we keep hearing about downtown. He mentioned the Standard Hotel. But I remembered everyone, meaning my son, talking about the Ace Hotel. My husband took charge and booked it. I think he feared I would switch it behind his back to a beach hotel. He said restaurant reservations were up to me. He thinks of that as my territory. And, well, it usually is.
I went straight to Open Table to book the place I had been dying to try -- Bestia. I keep hearing about it from everyone. Dying to try it, but not enough to make the drive downtown. The first reservation that popped up anywhere near our date was at least six weeks away. WHAT? I asked my friend Denise, who lives in a loft near there, how and when to eat at Bestia. Denise said it isn’t her area of expertise but she would look into it. Not waiting, I called them.
Does anyone use a phone anymore for anything? Is everything online? I was put on hold. Not just any hold. DMV-style hold. Time-Warner Cable-type hold. For a restaurant? A robotic voice intoned: “You are 10th in line. Your wait is approximately 12 minutes.” Jesus. As the time drew nearer to me being second, then first in line, I was developing performance anxiety. What if I can’t speak? What if the phone suddenly goes dead? By the time the operator picked up, I had my speech prepared and I jumped in fast with, “I’ve tried to get an OpenTable reservation. Is there an off-hour that we might come in and sit at a community table without a reservation? What if we come in right when you open? Will there be a line--?” Poor woman. She stopped me. She told me to back up and tell her the date and time I was interested in. I did. She happened to have a spot open. It was like I’d won the lottery. I found the phone call to be so rewarding that I was now looking forward to our new adventure -- heading east, not west.
We made our way downtown on a Thursday, which is a big traffic day in L.A. So is Monday through Wednesday, and every weekend, beginning Friday. And yet, I survived. We checked into the refurbished Spanish Gothic style Ace hotel, formerly the United Artists building. And what a room. The hotel is old and charming, and to be honest, much more interesting architecturally than any of the beach hotels I’d suggested.
I’m happily looking around the spacious digs when my cell phone buzzes frantically. I’m late getting to it and miss the call from Bestia, wanting us to confirm our reservation -- and you know what that means, don’t you? “You are ninth in line. Your wait is approximately six minutes.” Which actually turns into nine. When they finally answer, she is about to put me on hold and I quickly scream, “NO!! I’m confirming and need to get right off!” That done, we hang a sign on our door –- wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Instead of Do Not Disturb, it reads NOT NOW. My husband said that when he was younger, a lot of girls he dated wore the same sign.
Can I please tell you how worth the Bestia phone hassle was? First things first. Because we don’t know our way around, we got there with plenty of time to spare. So, we had a quick coffee at Stumptown; and now it’s my favorite coffee. I had them grind me a bag to take home. So there’s that.
And then there was our perfect birthday meal. My husband’s a bit of a mind reader when it comes to my taste preferences, so he knew without asking that the Chicken Liver Crostino on the menu would be something I’d order. We split the chicken liver with chives, marjoram, aged balsamic and sea salt right down the middle, and to be honest, it was so satisfying that I didn’t need to eat anything else. Here is what I said after the first ridiculously wonderful bite: “This is SO good that if we were at a wedding, and this were being passed around in small appetizer-sized bites, I’d stand near the kitchen and grab ten of them off the tray.”
Next, we had the Persimmon Salad: whipped burrata, scarlett frill, pea tendrils, pickled shallots, aged balsamic. Another perfect dish. And we also shared a bowl of Butter Poached Lobster: chanterelles, kabocha purée, pea tendrils, aged, balsamic, cocoa powder. I guess I could have passed on dessert, but we shared and loved the Frozen Meyer Lemon Custard Tart: graham cracker crust, brown sugar whipped cream. Although, I had my eye on the Coffee & Donuts: spiced chestnut zeppole, whipped cream, coffee ice cream. I plan to try it next time. Another dish I made a mental note of was the Grilled Whole Branzino: herb salad, castelvetrano olives, marjoram, shaved carrots.
In the morning while I slept, making more use of the NOT NOW sign, my husband made his way to another spot we were told to try for its rumored “best in all of LA” croissants. The Bread Lounge. I was leery because we live just steps away from Maison Giraud which has, hands down, the most brilliant buttery-on-the-inside, flaky-on-the-outside French croissants this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Having to live up to that is simply impossible, but I understand how people are loving the Bread Lounge croissants. They are a bit too bready inside for my taste, but close to great.
We had fun at Photo LA and discovering the hip new scene downtown. Next year, I may let him decide what to do on his own birthday again.
Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.