Ding ding. The tinny chime of a twice-tapped service bell — the analogue silver dome once used to summon hotel desk clerks — pierces the din of the packed 50-seat dining room as Drake’s “Fake Love” pounds from the speakers. Chef Jonathan Whitener, impossible to miss with his towering height, shouts one word from the kitchen: “Scallop!”
A server races across the floor to pick up the plate and then disappears behind the wall of people filling every seat at the bar to deliver it. More chimes, another shout and soon an order of scallops arrives at our table. They’re the small, sweet, bay variety, a winter treat from the Gulf Coast, arranged in a pool of gently smoked soy sauce brightened by yuzu juice. A slurry of passion fruit pulp and seeds glosses the cluster of pink-beige scallops. Elements of the flavors suggest ponzu, and the whole dish seems to riff on a Peruvian style of ceviche, but it’s a pleasure to eat without any context beyond its own deliciousness. Tart and citrusy and salty, it pairs smartly with a mai tai given unexpected depth from house-aged Jamaican rum.
I sip my drink while gazing around the room at the unblushing curios that define the space’s decor: blowfish taxidermy; two stuffed oryx heads glancing away from a picture window that looks out onto one of Koreatown’s densely commercial blocks; and a portrait of a Christlike figure sporting a rainbow flag kaftan.
Lien Ta, the front-of-house virtuoso and Whitener’s business partner, whizzes by and notices me staring at the art.
“Nice to see things returned to their rightful place,” I say.
She looks around and her eyes, above a black mask, flash equal cheer and weariness. “Yup, we dug everything out of storage,” she says. “Glad they didn’t get lost.”
The entirety of Ta and Whitener’s restaurant Here’s Looking at You could have vanished forever as one of the pandemic’s countless casualties. And yet here it is, reopened in January in its original location after a 17-month hiatus. Its comeback is no out-of-the-blue miracle for its owners: They had to weigh nearly two years of back-rent, debt and responsibility to employees against the wager of customers returning nightly to one of the city’s quirkiest, most ambitious havens for modern Angeleno cooking.
Considering the obstacles, though, the return of HLAY (as it’s called by most everyone who knows the place) still feels like an act of grace for its enthusiasts, me among them.
Ta and Whitener met while working at Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal. Three years later they opened HLAY in a corner space on West 6th Street and South Oxford Avenue that had previously housed a restaurant devoted to cheesesteaks, and a psychic reader before that. Ta had envisioned a small bar serving a menu centered on Vietnamese flavors. What they ended up creating was something far more broadly idiosyncratic. A reductive description like “global small plates plus brainy cocktails” doesn’t convey the improbable, thrilling combination of ingredients that Whitener grafted with skill and imagination. Scorched shishitos served in a bowl over creamy tonnato dusted with powdered huamei (Chinese preserved plums)? Unorthodox, wonderful and perfectly Los Angeles.
Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch designed the original bar program, a collision of tiki updates, martinis stained purple-blue with violet liqueur and a wild fizz employing Angostura bitters, mango nectar, coconut cream and aquafaba. The blaring hip-hop and tight, in-it-together seating navigated by upbeat servers kept pace with the culinary energy.
HLAY’S scrappy, scrunched brand of creativity was not designed to withstand COVID-19. Ta and Whitener tried, as they scrambled to also sustain All Day Baby, their second restaurant that opened in Silver Lake in late 2019. There was no possibility for outdoor dining at HLAY. They held taco pop-ups, reluctantly joined the delivery apps, and tempted with burgers and takeout cocktails. They sold T-shirts and donated the proceeds to the NAACP. Business stalled while expenses piled up.
“We are closing Here’s Looking at You,” Ta posted on Instagram on July 8, 2020. “For now. On paper, this is temporary. But, of course, you don’t need us to tell you that life is super-duper uncertain right now.”
Ta and Whitener’s landlord urged them to sell the restaurant. A low-ball offer came in and then lingered too long in escrow; after nearly a year, during a hopeful moment in early June 2021, all parties agreed that HLAY deserved another shot at life. The duo planned quietly for months and announced its resurrection in November. Ta set up a GoFundMe page for the restaurant that eventually raised over $85,000. The dining room, with its abstractly Midcentury Modern vibe, was reassembled. Health concerns and staffing shortages due to the omicron variant pushed the reopening back from mid-December to early January.
The starting food menu — pared to a dozen or so in-flux dishes, roughly half the number of options in early 2020 — largely draws on previous favorites. It’s a heartening act, disappearing again into the high-acid, full-throttle creations that could come only from Whitener’s mind and hands: The salt-and-pepper frog’s legs cut with lime juice and splattered with salsa negra. The smooth swoosh of whipped chicken liver swiped with crusty bread and a few drops of smoked maple syrup. Steak tartare channeling Korean galbi, potent with chile and tamari and mellowed with egg yolk. The chopped broccoli salad with its separate, immaculate mounds of nuts, seeds, pickled ginger, sliced jalapenos and tiny popcorn; stir it together into an earthy, crunchy, avant-garde party snack.
A hefty rib-eye gilded with fermented radish butter returns as the baller splurge. There are reds from the Loire or Rhone to drink with it; they’ll taste grown-up and grounded after an opening round of mai tais or bourbon laced with sweet potato liqueur and crowned with toasted marshmallows.
Are the tomatoes sprinkled with frizzled lap xuong and splashed with bagna cauda — one of Whitener’s most-missed signatures — out of season and a little cottony? Do I wish I could have caught the tangerine-scented duck confit, with the crackling skin that looks so hypnotic in social media pics but is always sold out whenever I try to order it? Small qualms are insignificant when there is so much to celebrate.
Whitener has an ideal counterpart in pastry chef Thessa Diadem. Her desserts at HLAY, as at All Day Baby, stretch notions of spice and degrees of sweetness without tipping into absurdity. Her warm, chewy chestnut mochi bathe in muscovado caramel and coconut cream with a finishing shower of crushed halva. So many layers of texture and flavor. Same with a frozen cloud of pear soda foam, dotted with sorrel granita and hiding avocado leaf gelée and tapioca pearls soaked in fermented honey milk. It sounds aggressively vegetal, but the final effect is one of restraint, and the combination is soothing and head-clearing.
It makes sense for the team to glance back at the near-past when reorienting to the present. I’m excited, though, for a taste of what’s next at HLAY. We’re in a time when many of the conspicuous new restaurants in Los Angeles are opening in hotels or are part of international chains and well-funded restaurant groups. They have their place: They provide jobs, and they feed people familiar foods that are easy to swallow in a prolonged era of uncertainly. But the soul of dining in Los Angeles resides in leaders like Ta and Whitener. Their kind of will to survive engenders the freshest ideas, the most provocative meals and the truest insights into bettering the business of restaurants.
How often do we get a second chance to cherish something we were certain had left our lives for good? In his 2019 book “Becoming a Restaurateur,” for which he chose HLAY as the primary subject, former Los Angeles magazine restaurant critic Patric Kuh notes a 2005 Ohio State University study that found 59% of restaurants fail within the first three years. The industry is brutal. So make a reservation and show up for it. Take in the hopeful look in Ta’s eyes as she shows you to a table or bar seat. Order the shishitos. Have a second Angostura fizz. That a restaurant this small and this vital has fought its way back into the world should feel like a triumph for all of us.
Here’s Looking at You
3901 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 568-3289, hereslookingatyoula.com
Prices: small plates $6-$22, larger meat and fish dishes $33-$120, desserts $13
Details: Dinner Thursday-Monday 6-10 p.m. Full bar. Credit cards accepted. Valet and limited street parking.
Recommended dishes: shishito peppers with tonnato and huamei, sprouted broccoli salad, uni panna cotta, frog’s legs, roasted chestnut mochi