Although I was still fairly new to food writing, I knew most of the biggest stars: Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Barbara Tropp, Nancy Oakes, Wolfgang Puck, Joachim Splichal… I had interviewed most of them over the phone, but I had not dined in their restaurants. I excitedly made a list: Spago, Michael’s, Patina, Chez Panisse, Stars…
“Hold on,” said the boss. “Go to some of those places for context if you want, but don’t dwell on those guys. I want you to go find out what the younger chefs are doing.”
I started over. I desperately craved the boss’ approval. Our office was cutting-edge but the internet wasn’t yet a thing. Any connection to the outside world still required telephones and old-fashioned networking and research. We maintained a well-stocked library of important publications from around the country. For the next few days I devoured every California restaurant review or article I could find from Gourmet, Esquire, GQ, Saveur, Los Angeles magazine, the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. I spent hours on the phone talking to Puck, Splichal, Tropp and others, each of whom had a story to share about a protege branching out on their own.
The boss popped his head in again, and I feared he was pulling the plug.
Instead, he said, “Take someone with you. You’ll taste twice as much that way.”
I picked up the pace. I called to make reservations. In Los Angeles: Vida, Modada, Rockenwagner, Campanile, Spago, Abiquiu… In San Francisco: Rubicon, Aqua, Flying Saucer, Hawthorne Lane, Vertigo, The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton… I had a budget of $700 a day. I think my boss had failed to spend the staff’s travel budget for the year, and if we didn’t use it, we’d lose it. Hence this last-minute assignment. Little did I know at the time, but the magazine was about to go through some big changes, and that boss was on his way out the door.
Although still fairly new to food writing, I knew most of the biggest stars: Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Nancy Oakes, Wolfgang Puck… I had interviewed most of them, but I had not dined in their restaurants.
My dearest friend Todd, a college buddy from Dallas, met me at LAX, and we made our way to the rental car office. The magazine’s in-house travel agency had booked a convertible for us to drive up the coast. I envisioned a red mustang. But when we got to the rental counter, the agent handed me the keys to a yellow Chrysler Sebring. Todd looked at me in horror and silently mouthed, “No!” The Sebring is a pussy car. We both knew it. And why would anyone paint a car that color? I demanded something better.
As we rode out of the lot in the yellow Sebring I told myself, “Well, at least it’s a convertible.” I had bigger things to worry about. Every meal for the next two weeks — sometimes four meals a day — was already plotted on a paper map, which I’d been unfolding, studying and refolding for days because I was not born with a natural sense of direction (understatement). This trip was the opportunity of a lifetime for a budding food writer, and my career was on the line. The clock was ticking.
We drove two blocks from the airport before traffic lurched to a standstill. California gridlock was everything I expected it to be and worse. I grew up eating TV dinners while watching programs like “CHiPs” and “Emergency!” I was currently addicted to “Melrose Place.” But none of that prepared me for the endless tangle of onramps and overpasses to the 405 and 101 freeways. This was a generation before GPS navigation, so our adventures around Los Angeles were filled with bewildering three-car-yellow left turns (“Go! Go! Go!”) and more missed exits than we could count. By the second day, our map was tattered and unreadable. Thankfully I had a secret weapon. I had just purchased a Nokia mobile phone, but roaming plans back then were outrageously expensive so I told myself I would use it only for emergencies.
I made my first emergency call from the car in route to dinner at Vida in Los Feliz, which had been one of the toughest reservations of the week. We were hopelessly lost. One wrong turn led to another and our joy ride found us cruising through a dusty neighborhood east of downtown where cars sat on cinderblocks and pit bulls enjoyed a good chase. I pulled over so we could reorient the map. “Gangsta’s Paradise” thundered from a boombox on a nearby porch where a huddle of tough-looking dudes in baggy jeans studied our every move. They probably weren’t dangerous, but our imaginations ran wild. We were pussies in a Sebring with the top down in the wrong neighborhood and we needed directions. “Just drive!” Todd kept saying as he fiddled with the map. I pulled out the phone and called the restaurant.
“Exit where?” I had the phone’s antenna fully extended, yet I could barely hear or comprehend Vida’s hostess as she patiently tried to give me directions. “Silver what?”
After a vexing maze of dead ends and u-turns, I somehow navigated the yellow Sebring back onto the freeway and within a few minutes spotted the Silver Lake exit. We weren’t as deep into the barrio as I imagined. We inched our way up Hillhurst Avenue and swerved into Vida’s valet, which was a frenzy of fast cars and high fashion. It looked like the entrance to a velvet-rope nightclub, not a restaurant. We were 30 minutes late, but the staff waved us in as if we were somebody important. We sat down and a waiter welcomed us with hot towels. I ordered a whiskey.
“Exit where?” I had the phone’s antenna fully extended, yet I could barely hear or comprehend Vida’s hostess as she patiently tried to give me directions. “Silver what?”
During an extended break from college, I had thrown myself headfirst into the ’80s club scene in Austin and Dallas (the latter where Todd had managed the door at Starck Club and Empire), so I considered myself somewhat fashion-savvy — until this moment. Surrounded by LA’s Eastside hipsters, I saw myself as shockingly conformist. I deeply regretted my latest shoe purchase. I sensed people mocking my preppy blue blazer. I surmised the only reason they let me in was because I was an editor. (Luckily I hadn’t told them I was merely a “junior” editor. The magazine’s name, not mine, carried clout.)
Whereas I felt naively confident in my still-new Chicago orbit, I felt as if I had just been pushed into the deep end of Los Angeles. I understood why my boss wanted me to come here.
I downed my whiskey and focused my attention on steamed mussels scented with lemongrass, which arrived in what looked like one of those tinfoil Jiffy Pop pans. I distinctly recall a dish named Okra Winfrey. I remember peanut butter and chocolate for dessert. I was in awe of the whimsy and humor of this chef, Fred Eric, in his early 30s, roughly the same age as me then. He was obviously so much more confident in his career than I was in mine. I still had so much to learn. I had worked in some of the finest restaurants in Austin before graduating college, rising through the ranks from busboy to headwaiter to sweat-equity partner. And at the magazine in Chicago I dined out constantly for work. I loved Austin. I loved Chicago. Yet Los Angeles existed on a whole other level.
I was instantly in awe of the creativity in this city, not just the cooking but the way restaurants captured the whole circus of dining out, a wonder that grew stronger the following night at Modada in West Hollywood. The chef was Sam Marvin. His restaurant was far more glamorous than Eric’s but equally wild and no less rebellious. What both young chefs had in common was the previous tutelage of Joachim Splichal, chef of Patina, an outrageously expensive restaurant on a surprisingly derelict stretch of Melrose Avenue, where we would also dine that week.
Modada resided on the ritzier end of Melrose, hiding among the designer shops like a clandestine bunker for culinary esthetes. Large copper doors with bronze dragons for handles opened into a cryptic dining room with ochre walls, starched tablecloths and patent leather booths lit by candles. Fishing lures dangled from the chandeliers. The customers here, older than the hipsters at Vida, were dressed as if headed to the ballet. I felt less conspicuous but still questioned my sartorial choices. I coveted Todd’s ascot but knew I couldn’t pull it off myself. We ate dishes with names like Green Eggs and Ham and Dali Lobster. My lamb was served three different ways on a single plate, something no one in Chicago was doing in 1995 but would become a huge trend in the years that followed. I hadn’t seen anything quite like this in New York or Boston, either, the only other cities that my boss had thus far sent me to explore. LA thrived on a nervous energy like nowhere I had ever traveled before. I think Angelenos were still skittish from the Northridge Earthquake a year prior. And the riots, now several years removed, still weighed heavily on everyone’s minds.
Todd and I ate more food that week than we had ever eaten in our lives. We ate duck pizza at Spago above the Sunset Strip. In Santa Monica, we ate crab soufflés at Röckenwagner and, later that night, caviar and tamales at Abiquiu. In Beverly Hills at lunchtime, we nursed a bottle of champagne and nibbled on smoked sturgeon on the terrace of Barney Greengrass. At a still newish restaurant called Campanile, we luxuriated for hours, enjoying cheese and wine until they ran us out around midnight. We returned to our hotel, Chateau Marmont, to soak up one last nightcap on the veranda.
The Chateau was a legend in decline. It was one of the most expensive hotels in LA, and one of the highest rated in the latest edition of the Zagat guide (an indispensable tool for savvy travelers back then). One of my senior colleagues, whom I idolized, suggested I stay there. “It’s where everyone stays,” she insisted. “You’ll love it. It’s the real LA, unvarnished. There’s nothing else like it.”
Shrouded behind a dense wall of ficus on a hillside overlooking the hubbub of Sunset Boulevard, it had the aura of an old mansion whose eccentric owner had died and left the front gate unlocked. Although recently purchased and revamped by New York hotelier André Balazs, the hotel’s heyday had long since withered. The floors creaked and windows didn’t shut properly. Lightbulbs flickered. Tables wobbled. The hallways smelled of cigarettes and air freshener. But the beds were comfortable and the service friendly. Sitting in a rattan chair in the dimly lit courtyard surrounded by palm trees, basking in a late-night breeze perfumed with citrus blossoms, I smiled and wrote postcards. “Wish you were here,” I scribbled. “I love this city.”
As I lingered in the lobby one last time in the morning, my feet curled up on a velvet sofa, sipping coffee, my fingers blackened with ink from reading the morning paper, I spotted my first celebrity — something I’ve never been good at. “Is that…?” I whispered to Todd, tilting my head toward a handsome young man who looked like an inconsequential TV actor whose name I couldn’t put my finger on. I convinced myself it was him even though I knew it probably wasn’t, but I was determined to recognize someone famous before leaving LA.
“It’s not, but don’t turn around,” Todd said softly.
He shouldn’t have said that. I nearly broke my neck spinning it so fast. Sitting three feet away was Keanu Reeves. No mistake, it was him. We made uncomfortable eye contact. The look on his face told me he thought that we were talking about him. I panicked. “We should go,” I said to Todd.
While the valet stuffed our bags into the trunk, I phoned Julia Child in Santa Barbara to tell her I was heading her way. We had met at a writers’ conference in West Virginia two years prior. She had taken pity on me when she saw me sitting alone at dinner. She was among the last to arrive for the gala reception. Every table in the room had a seat saved specifically her, but she made a beeline for my empty table and joined me. “Why are you sitting by yourself?” she asked, plopping herself down with great satisfaction. She could have chosen any table, spoken to anyone. The room was populated with famous food writers, and she knew most of them while I knew none. Now that she had chosen her seat at my table, a frantic game of musical chairs ensued. My table filled up in an instant. During dinner she repeatedly wiped her mouth with the tablecloth instead of her napkin because, “Oh my goodness. They look exactly the same, don’t they?” We laughed a lot and became fast friends. She was 82. I was barely 30. She and I dined together in Chicago several times after that. “Let’s go somewhere fun. You pick the place,” she would request when she came to town.
I called her now from the land line at Chateau Marmont to ask where Todd and I should eat in Santa Barbara, and to see if she might join us.
While the valet stuffed our bags into the trunk, I phoned Julia Child in Santa Barbara to tell her I was heading her way… and to see if she might join us for lunch.
“Oh, I would love to join you, Mr. Johnson,” she said. She always called me Mr. Johnson because I still struggled to address her as anything other than Mrs. Child. I think it tickled her to call me mister. Fair is fair, she said. “But I’m on my way to Boston, so I can’t join you today” she told me. “Go eat at Citronelle. You will love it. Michel is in town.”
She was referring to chef Michel Richard, the chef/owner. This offshoot of his groundbreaking Citrus in Los Angeles was the first of several Citronelles. Todd and I dined on faux caviar made from couscous that were painted black with squid ink, plus “porcupine” shrimp wrapped with shredded kataifi dough. I sorely wanted to take an extra day or two and explore Santa Barbara, its beaches filled with half-naked college boys and downtown’s tidy Spanish revival architecture. But that wasn’t in the cards this trip. We were merely passing through.
We sped north with the top down, singing along to The GoGos and Poi Dog Pondering, meandering through miles and miles of strawberry fields and pistachio orchards. Not knowing any better, we bypassed San Luis Obispo and bunked overnight in Morro Bay. We checked into a shitty “waterfront” motel that made me long for the musty, smoke-filled hallways of Chateau Marmont. Waterfront my ass. We could smell dead fish but we couldn’t see the bay. “Did you pick this hotel,” Todd asked. Embarrassingly, I did. The travel agent had taken care of LA and SF, but I was on my own for the coastal segment in between. Booking a hotel before the advent of the internet was a tricky thing, and the boss had vetoed my request to stay one night at Ventana in Big Sur. “Save your money for San Francisco,” he said. “You’ll need it. Don’t waste too much time or effort getting from Los Angeles to San Francisco. There’s nothing good to eat along that route anyway.”
By “good” he meant “trendy” and “newsworthy,” the James-Beard-type places, which is what I was there to discover. And sadly he was right. He was always right — I dreamed of young editors looking up to me one day the way I looked up to him. Aside from Citronelle, dining along the coast proved utterly unremarkable. I was starting to wish we’d just flown between the two cities. Todd and I were both seriously hung over most of the drive. Of course I didn’t know enough then to stop for barbecue in Santa Maria. And the wine country between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles hadn’t yet become a destination in its own right. We blew out of Morro Bay early the next morning to catch a sunrise tour of the Hearst Castle before continuing up the coast. The guide told us a story about how William Randoph Hurst liked to ride horses into the valley below the castle, but he always had an assistant follow on a horse behind him with a land-line telephone and a quarter-mile of cable coiled up on the saddle just in case someone needed to make a call. I wondered if that was true. I had never contemplated that much wealth before.
We checked into a shitty “waterfront” motel that made me long for the musty, smoke-filled hallways of Chateau Marmont. Waterfront my ass. We could smell dead fish but we couldn’t see the bay.
Cayucos, Big Sur, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, Pebble Beach… the beauty of this stretch of coastline took my breath away. I had to pull off the road a couple of times to give my knuckles and the poor steering wheel a rest. We stopped for fish and chips somewhere around Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the waitress said, “Look, you can see the whales!” But I could never catch sight of them. I wondered if it was just a con to coax us into lingering longer, spending more. We paused briefly in Half Moon Bay to watch the surfers at Mavericks. I no longer cared what anyone thought about the Sebring. I was in awe of the California sunshine and palm trees, the steep cliffs and crashing waves, the tanned bodies, the salty tang that hung heavily in the air.
A thick fog swooped upon our car as we climbed the final bends of the Cabrillo Highway toward San Francisco. We sealed the canvas roof and blasted the heater. As we rolled into the Tenderloin, I strained to keep my eyes focused on the street. I didn’t expect San Francisco to be so gritty or the hills so steep. I wanted to open the car’s top so I could gawk at the architecture, which felt important, like it had stories to tell — different kinds of stories than LA’s. It was cold, the air milky and wet. The sidewalks dripped with mystery and misery, of money and decay. My pulse raced with excitement. It never occurred to me then that this neighborhood’s spiral into drug-infested iniquity was only just beginning. Every city has its dark side, and I had just checked into San Francisco’s.
Our hotel, the Four Seasons Clift, towered above Geary Street. Except to my disappointment it was no longer the Four Seasons. Apparently Four Seasons had dumped its interest in the property months before my booking, and it was now called Four Seasons, a Grand Heritage Hotel. It felt more heritage than grand, but it was a significant upgrade from the Chateau and a welcome respite after that wretched brothel in Morro Bay. Plus it had a fabulous old bar. We hauled our luggage to the 14th floor. When I opened my room’s curtains, the city lights glistened like phosphoresce behind a thick, murky mist.
After a too-quick drink at the stunning Redwood Room bar, we jumped in a cab and headed up the street for dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Nob Hill, where the sidewalks were cleaner and the chef, Gary Danko, had just won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, California. It was the first time I ever ate rhubarb in something that wasn’t my grandmother’s sour pie. The chef paired it with foie gras, something else I hadn’t eaten much of at the time, and it was the velvetiest thing I had ever tasted. I marveled at the ease with which Danko weaved together ingredients and flavors from around the world — Morocco, Italy, India, Thailand, Japan — creating a tapestry that seemed more illuminating than exotic. I was glad I brought a tie. I felt less conspicuous, more accepted in San Francisco than I had in Los Angeles, oddly.
As the days went on, I began to realize why. It had nothing to do with the way anyone dressed — fashion in SF pushed the extremes on both ends. But I felt seen here in a way I had never allowed myself to be seen before. The nonchalance with which gay couples held hands in restaurants or in public surprised me. Todd and I were both gay but not a couple. In Chicago I lived in a neighborhood called East Lakeview, known as Boystown. It was the city’s sprawling gay ghetto (although “ghetto” was a misnomer; it was the fanciest neighborhood I had ever lived in). Compared with San Francisco, East Lakeview suddenly felt conservative. I had never seen such easy acceptance and expression of same-sex love in a circumstance that didn’t involve a parade. In restaurants, girls flirting with girls, boys with boys. At the bar (and not a gay bar), whispering in each other’s ear. I had only been out for a few years. I came out as gay very publicly in Texas by writing an editorial in my college newspaper at Texas State shortly before graduating and moving to Chicago. That editorial prompted death threats, a terrifying physical assault and a visit from the FBI.
To say it was liberating doesn’t do justice to the depth of emotion I felt about my introduction to San Francisco. And it wasn’t just the LGBT diversity that triggered something new inside me. It was the way people ate. Walking two blocks in any direction of the Clift, I noticed a Chinese restaurant, Moroccan restaurant, Thai restaurant, Vietnamese restaurant, Japanese restaurant, Persian restaurant, German restaurant, Jewish deli… restaurants that my magazine or the James Beard Foundation hadn’t really taken much interest in yet. I sank into the realization that my life in Texas had been stiflingly sheltered. For the first time I now recognized just how homogeneous the north side of Chicago really was, even though it was exponentially more of a melting pot than Texas. Come to think of it, my colleagues at the magazine, while all very liberal and far more diverse — Polish, Irish, Italian, Greek, Jewish — than anywhere I had worked before, were maybe not as different from me as I had imagined.
First LA. Now San Francisco. California made me want to see the world and educate myself about other places. People. Foods. Cultures. It awakened a wanderlust I’d never known. I wanted to ditch my itinerary and explore more of San Francisco, but our time was limited. (When I got back to Chicago I immediately began work on a series of in-depth articles about global cuisines, diving deep into the study of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Italian and more. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that travel could become part of my niche alongside food. My journey since then has taken me to 37 countries on six continents, hungry for the journey as much as the food itself. There is still so much to see.)
The next few days were filled with a completely different style of cooking than what we saw in Los Angeles. Fusion still ruled, but the effect felt more purposeful, more calculated. Whereas LA shunned structure and barreled headfirst into chaos, San Francisco embraced tidiness. Whereas LA taught me about new ingredients — lemongrass, green papaya, Meyer lemons, abalone sashimi — San Francisco seemed more intent on proving its collective mastery of technique. San Francisco was the yin to LA’s yang. I sensed a citywide maturity, a furious quest for precision, even with the younger generation. Traci Des Jardins had just won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef. Her cooking at Rubicon — I remember scallops with a delirious flurry of black truffles — was every bit as masterful as Danko’s, even if it wasn’t half as cerebral.
I was perhaps most eager to dine at a restaurant called Aqua, whose new chef I had recently interviewed for a story about America’s up-and-coming talent. His name was Michael Mina, and he wasn’t even 30 years old yet. He was thrust into the top spot after Aqua’s original chef, George Morrone, got fired for being naughty and subsequently split town for Miami. It was Mina’s first time to helm a kitchen, but he was a perfectionist whose maturity behind the stoves belied his age. We ate extraordinary tuna tartare and wild-caught swordfish. What I remember even more, though, was the professionalism of the dining room staff, many of whom were even younger than Mina. I felt instantly at home there, even though this struck me as a place where millionaires dined and I could barely afford rent.
The next few days were filled with a completely different style of cooking. Fusion still ruled, but the effect felt more purposeful, more calculated. Whereas LA shunned structure and barreled headfirst into chaos, San Francisco embraced tidiness.
The week was just getting started. At Hawthorne Lane, we ate lamb tartare and steamed shrimp, the latter plucked from a fish tank in the dining room. We ate Dungeness crab with cellophane noodles at The Slanted Door. We slurped oysters at Vertigo in the Transamerica pyramid tower.
If San Francisco had anyone like Fred Eric or Sam Marvin in the ’90s it was Albert Tordjman at Flying Saucer, the last stop on my tour. The restaurant was situated on a filthy corner of Guerrero Street — a no-man’s land on the outer fringes of the Mission District. Most well-heeled San Franciscans had considered this neighborhood out-of-bounds for decades, until this place opened. Flying Saucer was cramped and spunky and uncomfortably humid. Flames licked up from the stove in an open kitchen. A metallic flying saucer dangled from a beet-red ceiling. With only about 10 tables and everyone squeezed elbow-to-elbow, the dining room felt like it was on the verge of riot, impossible to hear what anyone was saying. It reeked of marijuana and cocaine. Everything about this place was mutinous and delinquent. It was completely unhinged and liberating. It was so un-San Francisco. Or was it? I had so much to learn about this city.
Like Danko, Tordjman collected flavors and techniques from every corner of the world, except his ideas didn’t fit neatly together the way Danko’s did. He cooked foie gras in a smoker. He stuffed shrimp into bread pudding. It was like Cirque du Soleil on a plate, a full-sensory deluge that forced everything out of equilibrium. Duck potstickers with papaya. Braised oxtail tucked into puffed pastry. Pistachio-crusted lamb chops stacked like Jenga blocks. I gleefully inhaled every bite.
We decamped to The Clift one last time, my head spinning as I looked across the skyline, the city twinkling brightly on a moonless, cloudless night. California was everything and more than I expected. I would fly back to Chicago in the morning, going straight from the airport to my cubical at the office. Over breakfast with orange juice and Champagne, I wrote one last postcard, this one to myself: “I’m definitely moving to California someday.”
In 1999, several years after these events, I relocated to San Francisco. I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 and migrated to Orange County in 2012. This is my memoir of those first moments in California as I can recall them today, pulling equally from old notes, past articles and faded recollections. It’s possible I might have rearranged a few details, but everything told here is exactly how I remember it.