The traffic in Los Angeles is every bit as horribly tangled as the opening scenes of La La Land make it out to be—it can now take an hour or more to get from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica, and that has an effect on restaurants.
Restaurants such as the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Valentino and the California cuisine pioneer Michael's helped make Santa Monica a foodie destination. Though both restaurants are still worthy of attention, owners say it's harder to entice people across town now.
Michael McCarty recently completed a radical change in Michael's, with a new chef and a trendy menu of shareable plates. I liked much of what I ate there, but the wine list, once a trove of classics, has shrunk. "It's aimed at locals," McCarty says. "We're a neighborhood restaurant now. A lot of people who live nearby have become regulars."
"Traffic is probably at its worst in L.A. now, and is only deteriorating each year," says Valentino owner Piero Selvaggio, who recently welcomed chef Luciano Pellegrino back from heading the kitchen at their Las Vegas restaurant. "The [new] Metro system was supposed to help from downtown L.A to Santa Monica and vice versa, but it's only useful if there is a football game at the Coliseum."
"Yes, neighborhoods are in now. Valentino in this picture has always been an anomaly. The wine program has been our strength as we compete against this trend."
"The 405 is the dividing line," says Christian Navarro, president of Wally's, the fine wine shop on L.A.'s west side. He's referring to Interstate 405, the broad artery that separates Santa Monica from the rest of western Los Angeles.
A larger fracturing of Los Angeles into smaller and smaller enclaves keeps people in their own neighborhoods. It's a boon for small, family-owned restaurants, enriching L.A.'s mix of cuisines tremendously. But it's also made the neighborhoods more insular.
"We live in Santa Monica," says my friend Marshall Mintz, a lawyer who loves to dine out. "During the week, there is no way we will venture east. The weekends are not as bad but we no longer even think of eating in Beverly Hills."
When Wally's opened a second location in Beverly Hills in late 2014, complete with a snazzy bar and restaurant featuring the dazzling food of David Féau, Navarro expected his customers from the original store in Westwood to come check it out. They did not.
"Most people who walked through the door had never heard of Wally's," he says. "I'm three miles from the other store. They didn't know we were there." The new Wally's has been successful enough to lead to a third store opening later this year in Santa Monica, with a restaurant.
More than ever, visitors to L.A. should choose accommodations closest to what you plan to do. To avoid late afternoon and early evening traffic, consider dining late. It's easier to get reservations too.