Op-Ed

Post & Beam's well-seasoned restaurateur, Brad Johnson

He has cut the ribbon on some flashy restaurants in his native New York and in Los Angeles; now his foray into L.A.'s best-known black middle-class neighborhood gives him food for thought.

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a restaurateur and the owner of Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / June 18, 2012)

Foodies tend to move like flocks of birds, swarming a chic eatery, and then — swoop — off to the next. One of their newer perches in Los Angeles is in a part of town that hasn't had much of the food spotlight. Post & Beam opened on New Year's Evein Baldwin Hills, an area with as many economic ups and downs as the hills and canyons that give the neighborhood its name. Restaurateur Brad Johnson has cut the ribbon on some flashy restaurants in his native New York and in Los Angeles; now his foray into L.A.'s best-known black middle-class neighborhood gives him food for thought.

What's with the name? Fork & Plate I might expect, but Post & Beam?

"Post and beam" is one of the oldest forms of architecture, and was revived in mid-century. There's a lot of that around here — Ladera Heights, View Park, Inglewood. I love that period and the whole idea of form following function and simplicity. I'm a child of the '50s. I still have my dad's Eames chair.

Your dad was in the restaurant business too.

This was cause for amusement whenever I had to fill out an application with my parents' name and occupation. My dad's name was Howard Johnson, and I'd put, "Howard Johnson, restaurateur," and people would be, the Howard Johnson? And I'd say, yeah, the Howard Johnson but maybe not that Howard Johnson.

He purchased a restaurant in Manhattan in 1972, the Cellar, from a gentleman who thought the clientele had become too black. It was at 95th and Columbus. It was typical bistro food — chef salad, shrimp scampi, French onion soup, very hip in the '70s. My dad had a lot of charisma and had really good taste; he was the first African American clothing salesman for Paul Stuart. The restaurant became a real landmark for the African American community. That's where I grew up and started as dishwasher, busser, bartender. He said, "You have to earn some money, son!"

I went to college and studied hotel and restaurant management. I had a basketball scholarship at U Mass, and they happened to have a really good program.

So, Amherst then. Are you an Emily Dickinson fan?

No — Robert Frost!

What kind of food did you eat growing up?

My mom is Italian, my dad African American. He died five years ago. They grew up in Hartford, Conn., and worked at the same department store in the early 1950s. They risked a lot to say hello, much less hold hands and go out on a date.

We ate a mix of my mom's food, which is lasagna, all those Italian staples, and the food she learned to cook from my dad's family from Georgia. Wonder Bread, iceberg lettuce, fried chicken, spaghetti — the basics. We were very much an American family of the '50s and '60s. My mom still cooks the lasagna she made when I was 10. She works our host desk Mondays and Tuesdays for lunch; kisses and hugs everyone who walks through the door.

When did you strike out on your own in the business?

[A restaurant called] Memphis, on the Upper West Side, with New Orleans-style food. We had no name out front because we ran out of money. Gael Greene, the New York magazine restaurant critic, mentioned in her review that limousines were double-parked down Columbus Avenue in front of this place with no sign, and we thought, great, let's stick to that! I decided to give L.A. a try, so I came here in '89.

How did you start here?

Debbie Allen and Norm Nixon were friends of mine. I played basketball against Norm when he was at Duquesne. Before I moved here, they said, "We'll help you find investors." Elie Samaha, the producer, and I became partners at a nightclub [on Sunset] called Roxbury in 1989.

Then I did Georgia, a Southern restaurant on Melrose, and Norm and Debbie were partners of mine. BLT Steak [in West Hollywood] opened about five or six years ago, at the old Le Dome location on Sunset. Before that was the restaurant on the top floor of [what was] the Transamerica building. I opened a bar at the Venetian Hotel [in Las Vegas], which is still in operation.

You're a restaurateur but not a chef yourself?

I cook a little at home — turkey burgers, really, really simple stuff. I'm not going to pretend.

Restaurants are very iffy propositions. Some restaurants go on for decades, like your father's. Others seem doomed from the moment they serve the first meal.

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