Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Downtown Culver City: The Good, the Bad, and the Sterile

When I moved to Palms I didn't realize that I'd be moving two blocks away from the giant Disneyland of restaurants that is downtown Culver City.

After exploring quite a few of them I've found a couple gems and a couple duds, but mostly I'm left with the impression of general sterility all around.

Some thoughts on "the Good:"

Ford's Filling Station - I think this is the best of the bunch. Ford's has innovative pork-centric cuisine with a nice clear theme. The space is well done without feeling too over-conceived. Avoid the pricier entrees and share a bunch of smaller plates, charcuterie, and flatbreads with your friends.

Bottle Rock - Stellar wine selection and good simple food makes up for high by the glass prices and friendly but inattentive service.

Ugo Wine Bar - A new direction and a committed young wine buyer have kept things moving here at this Enomatic-driven wine bar. Great happy hour with complimentary salumi. Call me old-fashioned but I still prefer sitting at the bar and having a glass of wine over machine-dispensed one ounce tastes, but it's a good spot to take friends.

S&W Country Diner - Heavy, hearty, and harried service. Great farm-style breakfasts in the heart of studio country. Pretty damn inexpensive too.

And on to "the Bad:"

Akasha - The epitome of over conceived. Nice space but too much going on and the food, while good, doesn't live up to the competition at that price range. Sit at the bar, have an organic pilsner, and enjoy a beautiful space.

Starbucks - I don't have anything against it (except for that guy in shorts, torn white t-shirt, and headphones mumbling to himself while rocking back and forth in a chair for a half-hour) and in fact go here a whole lot. I just don't like that it's the only coffee shop in downtown, unless you want to be trampled by toddlers out with mommy at Akasha's attached cafe. They're screaming for a Peet's.

Pacifico's Mariscos - I'm not one to pay much attention to health inspector letters, but Pacifico's definitely earned its "B." Besides shitty produce and bizarrely executed dishes, they also do that weird "hey let's have a sushi bar too even though we're ostensibly a Mexican place" thing. Bad service. Bad food (except for the fish tacos, which were great). Just bad.

Taqueria La Ballona - You know, maybe I just wasn't in the right mindset, but I was left feeling dirty and violated after eating my chimichanga.

My big complaint with Downtown Culver City overall is every place (except for Pacifico's and La Ballona) feels very clean, sterile, and high-concept. I sort of feel like every restaurant is a Cheesecake Factory or something in Downtown Disney or the Universal City Walk. This is unfortunate because they are largely independent restaurants with excellent food and excellent chefs. I just don't really feel welcomed or at home in any of these restaurants and they all lack any distinctive character.

I don't think this is a Los Angeles-wide problem. Lucques is warm and inviting. So are Grace and BLD. I like Father's Office quite a bit, also Vinoteque and Bar Pintxo. Even Robata Grill, part of the Sushi Roku family, has more character than most of the restaurants in Downtown Culver City.

I know this is entirely subjective and probably largely unfair of me. I'm just trying to figure this out.

Maybe it's because this is an entire strip of restaurants that largely date from after the explosion of the Celebrity Chef era? A time where selling a concept was more important than selling a product, even at the highest echelon of restaurant? It's not one or two spots in a neighborhood with many older restaurants, it's a place where new restaurants are popping up monthly and there are still empty storefronts.

I associate being sold a bill-of-goods with chain restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe, not quality independent ingredient-driven restaurants, so it's an odd juxtaposition.

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