Downtown Torrance, with its lonesome, sun-dappled streets, antiques shops and meter-free parking, is nothing like downtown Manhattan Beach, with its sexy ocean views and beach cruiser culture. However, as part of the South Bay, both areas have something in common: a puzzling lack of upscale dining.
The culinary winds of fortune may be shifting, however, with the opening of former Water Grill chef David LeFevre's M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach and a restaurant called 1321 Downtown Taproom Bistro in Torrance, opened by a new restaurant development group called MOD and helmed by chef Greg Paul, formerly of the Oaks Gourmet in Hollywood.
Also, hovering on Manhattan Beach's watery horizon come August, is the promise of a beachfront restaurant called the Strand House with a menu by consulting chef Neal Fraser of Grace and executive chef and former Gjelina cook Travis Lorton. The 6,000-square-foot restaurant is the work of the Zislis Group, which has met with success in the area with ventures including Shade Hotel and Rock'n Fish.
And it was only a little more than two years ago that South Bay restaurateur Guy Gabriele revitalized his 30-year-old Manhattan Beach bistro, Café Pierre, by hiring chef Rémi Lauvand, whose résumé includes opening Michel Richard's erstwhile Citrus at Social Hollywood. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila gave Café Pierre 2.0 a glowing review. Though Gabriele says the restaurant still isn't as busy as it would be if it were on the Westside, he takes heart that others in the area are now attempting more adventurous cookery as well.
In fact, if early reactions to M.B. Post and 1321 are any indication, the area — long underserved by name chefs — may be in store for a bit of a boom. The demographic is decidedly affluent — Torrance's median household income is nearly $60,000, Redondo Beach's approaches $70,000 and Manhattan Beach's is just over $100,000. And most involved in the South Bay restaurant business agree that residents are looking for more than what they currently have.
"We never thought that the South Bay wasn't ready for the type of food we wanted to do," says LeFevre on a recent weekday afternoon while sitting at one of the long, wooden communal tables inside M.B. Post. "Although it didn't hit us until about a week before the opening how busy we were going to be. People down here have been very loyal. They are almost as excited as I've been."
Indeed, the restaurant is packed nearly every night, and it holds the feel of promise that comes with the start of an exciting new movement. If LeFevre can pull this off, it's almost certain others will follow.
His menu features farmers market produce; housemade bread, bacon-cheddar buttermilk biscuits, pretzels, mustards and olives; as well as a smart, tapas-style menu of ambitious dishes including New Zealand hiramasa with avocado and puffed bamboo rice; asparagus with poached Jidori hen egg and wild mushrooms; and buttermilk-marinated organic fried chicken with lemon-rosemary ranch dressing. Then there are the cocktails: smooth, fresh creations featuring housemade syrups, juices and gastriques.
If LeFevre has put his soul into his cooking, he has put it into the décor as well, which he guided every step of the way. Custom ironwork, walnut cutting board tabletops, lots of reclaimed wood, old mailboxes and an electrified beach cruiser bicycle above the hostess station elevate rustic chic to rarified air. In other words, the kind of relaxed and breezy beach setting you wouldn't find at a fine-dining restaurant in, say, Brentwood.
Which is pretty much the idea. People in the South Bay often drive to L.A.'s Westside to indulge in a fine meal, says Mike Zislis, head of the Zislis Group. So with the Strand House, which is across from the Manhattan Beach Pier, he plans to "morph a bit of the Westside into Manhattan Beach, but not go too far into the Westside because, if you go too far, people resent it."
That's not to say that the South Bay doesn't have good restaurants that the community loves. For example, Chez Melange in Redondo Beach has been around for nearly 30 years and dubs itself an "upmarket bistro, cocktail lounge and gastropub," and Gabriele has another restaurant in Redondo Beach called Zazou, which features Tuscan cuisine.
Still, Gabriele says he opened Zazou with an ambitious menu but had to "take three steps back. You want to be innovative, but you have to be sure that you don't lose a part of your clientele."
To that end, the Strand House will feature a New American menu that consulting chef Fraser says "won't be as rustic as M.B. Post but something that fits the space. It's a very small community. I definitely think people are primed for more than they have."
With tourists flocking to the coast, rent is often too high to make fine-dining concepts financially feasible.
"It's amazing that there are almost no restaurants down here on the beach," says Zislis. "The fact that my partners bought this real estate — a four-story restaurant right on the beach — is amazing. Not only does it not happen in Manhattan Beach, it doesn't happen in the South Bay, period."
In addition to a downstairs lounge for dancing and a subterranean wine-cellar dining room, the Strand House will feature third- and fourth-level dining patios with ocean views.
"Rock'n Fish draws from Marina Del Rey to Palos Verdes," says Zislis. "I just want to cast a little bigger net. It's such an incredible view, I think people will drive a little bit farther for it."
And maybe Manhattan Beach residents will no longer feel the need to drive as far to eat.
Barry Fisher, a produce exporter who has owned a Manhattan Beach gourmet fresh fruit and vegetable market called Grow for five years, says that over the years he has watched his customers really get into the idea of fresh, locally sourced produce. "That's changed dramatically since we first opened," he says, adding that demand has allowed him to branch out to offer fresh produce home delivery to the area.
And feeding demand is what these new restaurants are all about. Particularly in the case of Torrance's 1321 Downtown Taproom Bistro, which, apart from a mainstay called the Depot and a smattering of Asian and Mexican restaurants, is operating in a remarkably underserved area.
"Right now it's a sleepy area where businesses just shut down if they aren't busy," says MOD founder Max Schlutz, formerly of the glitzy Domaine Restaurant Group, which opened restaurants such as 25 Degrees in Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. "Now that we're here, the antique shop down the street is staying open until 9 p.m. and the coffee shop around the corner is getting more business."
To be successful in Torrance, the group behind 1321, including owner Steven Torres and his brother Brian, the marketing director, have focused on a hyper-local angle to draw in the community and make it feel that 1321 is its home base. The Torres brothers grew up in Torrance, and Brian, who is also recruiting local music acts to play in the bar, has peppered the cozy, dark-wood-accented restaurant with black-and-white pictures from the Torrance Historical Society featuring the city's first graduating high school class, its first train and a prominent portrait of town founder Jared Torrance.
Chef Greg Paul's menu of Latin-flavored comfort food with adventurous edges includes braised oxtail enchiladas; barbecued lamb ribs with sherry reduction; "downtown meatballs" with Creole cream; and juicy, house-ground burgers. There are also 16 craft beers on tap, including offerings from Stone Brewing Co., Green Flash and Dogfish Head.
The idea is to deliver a swank dining experience without a huge price tag in an area that appreciates it. If 1321 proves successful, MOD, which stands for "manage/operate/develop," hopes to open new concepts in other areas with similar needs.
"Downey, Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, Old Town Tustin, Arcadia, words you don't generally hear in the restaurant business," says Schlutz, who says he's been a part of opening too many high-concept restaurants in places "people want to vacation," only to see them brought down by high rent and a finicky public with too many choices.
The locations he's looking at now are "not poor areas or unsophisticated areas — just places lacking upscale food."
South Bay restaurants: Chez Melange, Strand House and more.
1321 Downtown Taproom Bistro: 1321 Sartori Ave., Torrance, (310) 618-1321, http://www.1321downtown.com
Café Pierre: 317 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-5252, http://www.cafepierre.com
Chez Melange: 1611 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach, (310) 540-1222, http://www.chezmelange.com
Grow:1830 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-2904, http://www.growtps.com
M.B. Post: 1142 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-5405, eatmbpost.com
Strand House: 117 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-7470, thestrandhouseMB.com