As the hostess at First & Hope, the new downtown supper club, looks over her reservation book, I can't help noticing the bunch of bananas tattooed on her arm. Somehow, that cheerful yellow bunch coupled with her dramatic pearl gray evening gown says it all. First & Hope is retro with a sly wink, more playful dress-up than dogged revival of a supper club from the '30s or '40s.
The brainchild of owners Terry Brewer and Parker Martin, First & Hope (named for its address across the street from Disney Concert Hall and designed by Jeremy Ingram) sports a look that's grown-up and sophisticated. And despite the oddball location on the inner corner of a strip mall, with the help of a Southern-accented menu from an L.A. newcomer, a svelte bar and a separate cabaret room, the partners have pulled it off. In First & Hope, they've updated the supper club as a venue for pre-theater dining and late-night meals.
The hostess leads us to our table at a high-backed banquette furnished with printed velvet pillows, her hips gently swaying, the train of her gown trailing behind. The room is lighted by chandeliers that look like giant Art Deco diamond earrings turned sideways. Our male server is wearing a white shirt and tie — and cuff links. Women servers are outfitted in short ruched gowns, like all the uniforms, the work of Allison Leach, assistant costume designer for the TV series "Mad Men." That somehow figures.
The mood and the setting calls for cocktails, and First & Hope takes them very seriously. When owners Brewer and Martin decided to open this spot, one of the first people they brought on the team is mixologist Aidan Demarest, former director of spirits at the Edison.
He's gone back to the books and tweaked classics such as brandy Alexander and Pimm's cup, and given them a modern spin. I'm thinking they just may be better than the originals ever were, because he's sourced his ingredients so carefully.
The Champagne mint julep is a poem to the South, served in a silver beaker with a silver straw to find your way through the bouquet of fresh mint on top. It's sweet, it's bubbly (Charles Heidsieck, in fact), it's everything cool and soothing in a glass, perfect on a sultry summer night.
The Seelbach cocktail is new to me, but I think it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Created at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Ky., in this iteration it's a heady blend of Woodford Reserve bourbon, orange curaçao, bitters and a touch of Champagne. Pale coral in color, it matches the orchids on the table.
How very soigné. And a fine prelude to supper at First & Hope. The chef, Shelley Cooper, is a Memphis native who has worked in South Carolina and Florida. This is her first opportunity to create a menu of contemporary comfort food with a Southern edge, and she's having fun with it, working up whimsical presentations and coming up with quirky names for her dishes.
Before your first dishes arrive, she'll send out an amuse such as a tiny steamed potato on a puddle of Green Goddess dressing along with a plate of homemade crackers and some old-fashioned pimiento cheese.
I enjoy the Southern touches, including fried oysters, crunchy on the outside, shivery on the inside, embellished with a little sweet hot bacon BBQ sauce and, oddly but kind of deliciously, celery with blue cheese. Popcorn shrimp and grits is actually a couple of jumbo shrimp in a cream sauce dotted with tasso ham and popped corn on a bed of creamy — and I mean creamy — white grits.
She's taken on the mac 'n' cheese, serving it three ways. Order them individually or as a flight of three. My favorite? The conchiglie (shell-shaped pasta) with Cypress Grove goat cheese and nubbles of popped corn for crunch. But the version with Porter beer cheese and rye croutons came a close second.
Backyard garden salad revels in California's great produce with a miniature colander of crudités — ramps, fava beans, baby carrots, morels and more — next to a loose salad of pea shoots and perky lettuces. There's a pitcher of Green Goddess dressing with that lovely tarragon tang for dipping the crudités or dressing the greens
Looking around, it's hard to believe we're anywhere near a strip mall. But that's part of the appeal. First & Hope is another one of L.A.'s surprising addresses, this one like slipping down the rabbit hole in time. It's also one of the few restaurants where it feels right to rummage in your closet and dress up. And that in itself is something to celebrate in these times.
Large and extra-large plates include Cooper's "picnic basket" of two pieces of dark gold buttermilk-fried chicken, some of the best to be had in L.A., with a red potato salad and swatches of beer-braised collard greens.
Meat 'n' potatoes doesn't sound too inspiring, but the filet mignon is a beautiful piece of meat and comes with ingenious slices of stuffed potato fried to a golden crisp. The burger is appealing, too, a mix of ground chuck and chorizo on a sesame bun, and comes with fried green tomatoes and house-made tater tots with a creamy center.
Of course, with any new restaurant, there are glitches. One night, friends reported the kitchen ran out of a number of items. The portion sizes are sometimes off, either too stingy as in the dull trio of vegetables or dauntingly large as in the otherwise terrific Moonshine meatloaf laced with gin and a little foie gras.
And a few dishes just aren't very good, such as the uninspired pot roast or the crabmeat Justine pot pie, which isn't a pot pie at all, but a narrow tower of crab gratin crowned with a lid of French toast.
I suspect it's a case of too many ideas and trying to do too much at once. Bottom line, though: Cooper can cook when she's not getting away from herself, and she has something vibrant and new to offer L.A.
Desserts from pastry chef Samantha Choi are trippy and almost guaranteed to increase your waist size. The Porky Pig banana split puts bacon in the banana ice cream and lavishes it with jalapeño hot fudge and caramel pork rinds. It's not bad, but it's more of a sideshow attraction.
I'd go with the LAPD Doughnut Shake Down, doughnut holes stuffed with Boston cream pie filling to dip in dark chocolate and served with a strawberry milkshake topped with frilly strawberry cream. Or the sweet little lemon meringue beehive, a coconut macaroon topped with velvety lemon curd and a toasted marshmallow beehive. And as for the homemade crackerjacks, what can I say but that they disappeared in a flash, down to the very last kernel.
With its proximity to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, First & Hope would seem to have its customers built in. Park once and walk across to the theater or concert. But it's also a place to spend an entire evening, starting with cocktails in the bar, dinner and then music in Fedora, the cabaret.
The team behind First & Hope has taken a chance that the unique concept, classy cocktails and innovative Southern-accented comfort food will appeal to diners tired of the same old same old. I think it's going to pay off. Nicely done.