July 25, 2013
When Benice Became Barnyard
I walked into Barnyard with a chip on my shoulder.
Barnyard is the new Venice restaurant from Chef Jesse Barber. It's very New Venice: farm-to-table food, hot chef with even hotter resume (Tasting Kitchen, French Laundry), local beers, wines that appear on no wine Apps, and of course a dedicated spouse carrying some part of the load (in this case, Celia Barber is the GM).
It's decorated in an Urban Farmer aesthetic-- a lot of wood and metal, but very clean, with plenty of air and space. If you're nostalgic for the old Smith and Hawken store on Beverly Drive, you'll feel right at home. We have come a long way as a culture, from when "barnyard" implied flies, manure and horsesweat, to "Barnyard" evoking an upscale, conscientious eating experience. Can Calvin Klein's "Barnyard Pour Homme" be far behind?
I liked Barnyard. The look, the food, that local beer, the tattooed waiter who seems to read more food blogs than I do. My only problem with the place was this: Memory.
I was 20 when I met Helen. I was sub-renting a studio apartment in Jim Morrison's old building on Horizon (every building nearby claimed to be Jim Morrison's old building) when I walked into a storefront just across Pacific Ave, The sign above the window said "House of Teriyaki Donuts." Inside a young Korean woman was working furiously, trying to communicate with her Latino cooks and her rock star wannabe waiter. The menu had a section for teriyaki, a section for breakfast, and, as a side order, donuts. It turns out Helen did not invent the teriyaki donut, she just ran out of room on her sign.
H.O.T. as it was called offered a breakfast special: 2 eggs, hash browns, veggie bacon, toast and coffee for $2.99. At those prices, I saw a lot of Helen.
But the money wasn't even the most amazing thing about H.O.T. The food was. The cook was an older Latino named Francisco who had worked loyally, for years, at a previous Venice institution, the Layfayette Coffee Shop at 1219 Ocean Front Walk. Lafayette thrived in the '50's and 60's, serving old Jews and Beatniks sardine sandwiches for 75 cents and its exotic "Hawaiian Club House"-- ham, pineapple ring, cheese-- for three bits as well. I would put Francisco's poached eggs right up against a French Laundry sous vide egg any day. And his hash browns were crisp-dry on the outside, moist on the inside, with edges so crunchy you could use the loose shards as toothpicks.
I liked that the same guy who cooked for Ginsberg and Morrison was cooking for me. I liked the groggy, post-high, post-sex, post poetry-jam, post-parent's money crowd that sleepwalked into the place, dining long and groggily as Helen bustled about, refilling coffee cups, whsipering good morning, taking orders. H.O.T. sustained a lot of souls.
Eventually Helen expanded to a new location, just a bit south, and H.O.T. became H.O.T II, then Benice. The name fit: it seemed to be Helen's entire philosophy. She was always just...nice.
The new place was like the old place, just bigger. Helen added avocado to the menu, and more soy meats, and I think at one point she dropped the donuts. I had married by then, and then had kids, and our family became regulars. My wife and I could chart our age by our orders there: first it was eggs and hashbrowns and coffee and donuts. Later it was one egg, a side of tomato, avocado and dry toast and decaf. Our kids started with chocolate milk and syrupy French toast, and eventually were ordering coffee and veggie burgers. While we waiting for our food, we played table football, with the jelly packets.
One day my son went out and bought one of his first meals with his own money. When he told me he ate at H.O.T. II, I thought I could hear the angels' chorus singing "Sunrise, Sunset." I almost cried.
Then, about a year ago, I heard Benice was closing. That weekend we ate a final breakfast there. Helen wasn't tearful-- she told me she was just tired. All those refills. All those orders. Enough.
She said she couldn't believe how tall our kids were-- she always said that-- and then we just said goodbye. Instantly, I missed the place.
A while later, Barnyard appeared.
What can I say? Barnyard is everything we want our restaurants to be-- thoughtful about food, careful with ingredients, casual but serious.
We ate Yellowtail Crudo, spiced with mustard seed, sparkling fresh and local. The grilled bread is also local, a tall stack served with a strawberry compote and fresh butter. The fish of the day was sea bass, perfectly poached and served with avocado and a light cilantro and chili-inflected sauce. Barber also serves what he calls Pilota. The only pilota I've seen is a kind of risotto with pork and butter and cheese, but Barber makes his with fresh tomato, peas, and pecorino, with a balsamic-rich stock. It's high-end vegetarian comfort food.
All this food, for four, with a couple glasses of wine, cost $189. It's not expensive for what it is-- you'll pay the same for that quality anywhere in L.A.-- but, newsflash, in the New Venice, a meal for $2.99 is as easy to find as a home for $299,000.
Now here's where I mourn the memory of things past: the way Helen greeted every guest as they walk in (Barber? He's that quiet dude in the kitchen). I miss a place I can pop into without thinking twice, knowing it will just hit the spot, nothing fancy but good and cheap. I miss seeing the parade of locals, because everyone, from the homeless panhandler to the surfer chicks to the walk-street producer, could afford Benice. I miss Francisco's poached eggs. I miss being able to think back all the way to Lafayette Cafe. I miss the endless refills.
Mostly, I guess, I miss watching my kids grow up.
NOTE: Barnyard is not kosher. But it is Foodaism-recommended.