Lured by a combination of year-round sunshine, favourable financials and California's notoriously infectious "make it big" optimism, a growing stable of adventurous Australian food industry types are trying their luck in Los Angeles.
New Yorkers had a first taste of proper Aussie hospitality after a handful of Melbourne-style cafes started appearing in the past two years. Now folks on the West Coast are getting their turn, as industry players from Melbourne and Sydney start to plot their moves in LA.
So what's the big lure, and why now? California's cheap labour costs are driving the trend.
We hear it time and again from food service operators in Australia – labour costs are a killer. Here, staff costs typically chew up at least 30 per cent of a business' total running costs (closer to 45 per cent on public holidays). But in sunny California (labour laws change state-by-state in the US), business owners can expect to trim that to about 22 per cent, allowing for a considerably more generous profit margin.
Though he makes a point of paying his staff well above the local average, TV chef Curtis Stone – who has lived in LA for close to a decade – says the lower labour costs meant that he had the creative freedom to open the kind of restaurant he really wanted to open, without having to scrimp on staff. "The food we do here requires a lot of production," he says of his acclaimed Beverly Hills restaurant Maude, which opened in last year. "During any given service we might have almost as many staff on as we do customers. In Australia that would be totally impossible."
Positioned rather inconspicuously along a retail-heavy strip on South Beverly Drive, Stone's intimate 36-seat restaurant (his first foray as a restaurateur – and yes, he's on the pans) is booked solidly, several months in advance. And although the concept of a seasonal, multi-course, prix fixe menu is one that's largely unseen in LA – even Stone admits he took a risk with it – it's had a remarkably warm reception from locals and critics; scoring love from NY critic Ruth Reichl and last year picking up LA Weekly's award for Best New Restaurant.
Step inside the dining room as an Australian and there's a real sense of familiarity; Aussie accents in the kitchen, Stone's grandmother's heirlooms lining the walls. As you take a seat at the open kitchen, things feel even more familiar; you could almost be in Smith Street or Flinders Lane. There's an aesthetic to the food, an approach to the produce and an energy to the service that you don't find elsewhere in LA, or indeed the US. It's a mod-Oz thing and a thing that is gently weaving its way into the LA dining consciousness.
According to one regular local diner we spoke to when visiting Maude recently, "There's such attention to detail in everything they do; the menu, the food presentation, the wine matches – everything," he gushed. "Right down to the soap in the bathrooms. You just don't see that here [in LA]."
Across town in West Hollywood, in what will deliver an even bigger dose of the "mod-Oz thing", Melbourne duo Grant Smillie and David Combs (with a team of partners, including Aussie model Ashley Hart) are putting the finishing touches on their multimillion-dollar project, mod-Asian restaurant EP and adjoining rooftop bar LP. With former Longrain Sydney chef Louis Tikaram in the kitchen and Melbourne design team Projects of Imagination (Chin Chin, Supernormal) in charge of the fitout, the multi-storey venue is likely to be the closest thing to real-deal modern Australian hospitality the US dining public has seen.
On our visit, Smillie took us up to the empty rooftop with its sweeping views of the Hills and the iconic Hollywood sign. What was then an unremarkable construction site is now – according to LA food bible Eater – poised to become "the hottest new restaurant and lounge in town" when it opens in a few weeks.
In true LA/Entourage style, Smillie and Combs have included in the brief daybeds, valet parking and a secret entrance for smuggling in A-listers. Ambitious? Absolutely. But they don't call it the "City of Dreams" for nothing.
"If you're going to do something in LA you had better do it well," says Smillie. "This is why we've gone for the dual pillars of Louis [Tikaram] driving the food, and Projects of Imagination on design. Between them, they are at the leading edge of Australian cuisine and design."
Head three kilometres east over to the slightly less ritzy Fairfax Village, and you'll find Melbourne specialty coffee guru Mark Dundon (Seven Seeds, Brother Baba Budan et al) working on his next new venue, Paramount Coffee Project on North Fairfax Avenue.
With his young family in tow, Dundon relocated from Melbourne to LA last year, and the new business – due to open this June – has him teaming with partners Russell Beard and Ping Jin Ng, with whom he owns sister venue, Paramount Coffee Project (PCP) in Sydney's Surry Hills.
Dundon says the breed of great cafes that we take for granted in big Australian cities doesn't really exist in LA – not yet, anyway. Angelenos will typically either drink gallons of terrible filter coffee over a decent brunch, or line up for a generic big-name takeaway brew, but the holy combination of top-quality specialty coffee and equally top-quality cafe fare in a space that looks good and encourages folk to linger is still largely untapped territory.
"I think LA has some great coffee and food, however they don't have them in the same format we do. Melbourne is very unique and we are very lucky [to have such an environment]," Dundon said from his home in LA recently.
"We've got the opportunity to worry less about the financial issues [of setting up and staffing a cafe] and just concentrate on what interests us about coffee and food."
Smillie agrees that the money side of things allows for a kind of freedom that doesn't exist in Australia, "The lower labour outlay allows for a much better service model, because we can increase the amount of staff we have in the venue," he says. And with LA restaurants typically catering to a larger volume of guests (100-plus covers), there's a serious need for plenty of hands on deck.
Though exchange rates aren't quite what they were 18 months ago, Smillie remains optimistic, "When we started looking at this project we were in party mode with the dollar at parity or thereabouts. We now laugh about 'the Aussie peso' over here. However, once the revenue starts to flow in and you are earning US dollars, it means that we'll be in a stronger position long-term from a financial standpoint."
212 South Beverly Drive Beverly Hills, California 90212
603 N. La Cienega Boulevard West Hollywood, California 90069
Paramount Coffee Project
456 North Fairfax Avenue, Fairfax, California 94930