Dining in the Clubs

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally published in LA CityBeat 2006

The Packards and Deusenbergs used to roll up to the Trocadero and Cocoanut Grove, dropping well-heeled socialites for an evening of the best food and entertainment LA had to offer. The big bands and the big plates of steak, seafood, or pasta were just part of a great night out.

Fast forward six or seven decades and things are different – and it’s not just that the cars are Porsches and Beamers. The meal and the music generally happen separately, and it’s a rare place that even tries to provide quality in both categories. Those who really enjoy good food and live music might wonder why they have to compromise.

Part of the problem is that good chefs value a working environment that is very different from the club scene, a clientele of regulars who give feedback and help shape the menu. That can happen in a place where the music is mere background, something you’ll either enjoy or endure while concentrating on your meal. You’re there for the food, and you’ll be there no matter who’s playing. The problem is that if you’re really there for the band, you probably won’t return to that venue until that band is back, or until another act you like is on stage.

Bruce Duff of the Knitting Factory in Hollywood observed the problem firsthand. “We had a specialty chef here back when we opened, and the food was amazing. Everybody that tried it liked it, but the dining area was still only half-full most evenings. We were even open for lunch, with no entertainment. Almost nobody stopped in for a bite, even though we were a great value, because they just didn’t think of us as a restaurant. Everybody who ate here was already coming to the show.”

I ate at the Knitting Factory in those early days, and the food really was excellent – Chef Lawrence Maltese was a veteran of La Cachette and other fine restaurants, and he had put together a menu that was a work of art. The critics raved, but the room stayed half empty. Eventually someone in the accounting department calculated how much revenue that space could make if it was turned into a lounge, and the fancy menu was axed.

Local club veteran Duff wasn’t surprised. “It’s the same pattern other places have followed – The Roxy, Troubadour, the Whisky – they all go through periods where they upgrade their food, but mostly they revert to having a basic menu after a while. The Whiskey used to have a hilarious menu with all the dishes named after bands – nuts and chips was called Devo, the big steak was a Van Halen. They still serve some kind of food, but last time I was there, you had to ask for the menu. It certainly wasn’t an integral part of the experience.”

The only reason many places serve food at all is that they have to in order to host all-ages shows, and most clubs expect to lose money on the kitchen or break even at best. The floor space that accommodates four people eating at a table will accommodate at least ten standing and spending money on drinks. Nevertheless, a few clubs maintain a higher standard of cuisine than strictly necessary. Duff mentioned Safari Sam’s as a nightspot that serves a good meal, and I’ve had very good food at The Mint despite the recent departure of their star chef. It was a rare pleasure to relax over my meal and enjoy the show rather than grab dinner with one eye on the clock, and it’s an experience I wish I could have more often.

Part of the problem might be that people have such low expectations of food at rock clubs that they never consider the possibility of eating in one. Jazz clubs, world music venues, and other places that feature music associated with a region have an edge in this department.

“When you think of rock club food, what occurs to you – a burger and fries?” asks Jordan Elgrably of Club Fais-do-do. “We have all kinds of music, but a New Orleans theme, and people associate New Orleans with both food and music. It gives us an advantage over other places, because over a third of the people who come here for shows eat here too. We have a 21 rating from Zagat, and we could survive as a restaurant. We have regulars, which few other music places do.”

It may be significant that some of the other successful music spots that serve food also have a theme –regional Americana in the case of Hermosa’s Café Boogaloo or Stevie’s in Encino. In the case of Genghis Cohen it’s a rather odd theme, but a theme nevertheless. The nightclub serves New York style Chinese food but has never featured Chinese music, which is probably a good strategy given the likely audience for Chinese opera on Fairfax. A theme is, however, no guarantee of excellence, as witness the mediocre food at House of Blues, which certainly has the budget to attract better chefs.

When it comes right down to it, great food in any club must be a labor of love, a sign that the management really wants to provide a high quality overall experience and is willing to spend an inordinate amount of time on something that will probably make only a small profit compared to more bar and lounge space. It may pay off in the longer term, as diners who love music and music fans who appreciate a good meal decide to go out more often, but it’s a trend that takes time to show up, and not all club owners will have the vision or patience.

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