In my sixty years of observing the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, I have never before seen a new restaurant open its doors right on the heels of a favorable full-page article in the New York Times about its owner (and, incidentally, without once mentioning its food!) The story, headlined "In L.A., a Restaurant Contender Elbows In," details how Craig Susser, the long-time manager of a legendary Italian celebrity joint in West Hollywood, Dan Tana's, recently left there after the 75-year-old owner sold it (supposedly for $6 million!) to someone else (a Croatian countryman of his). And, in opening his new place, Craig's (8826 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, (310) 276-8900), on the south side of the avenue at N. La Peer between Doheny and Robertson), 45-year old Susser has gathered up many of the favorite and famous clientele of his old stomping grounds in the process. Hard feelings on ol' Dan Tana's part? I wouldn't be surprised. But what did he expect? He is reputed to have promised to sell it to his long-time maitre d'. But, hey, if the price really was $6-7 million, paid by a woman named Sonja Perencevic, Craig really got off easy. I've been eating sporadically at Dan Tana's since he opened in 1964 next door to my music hangout, the Troubadour. And have never stopped complaining about the hit-or-miss quality of the Italian food... although the (expensive) steaks are passable, especially the Dabney Coleman Ribeye.
Craig told me that he began working as a waiter at Tana's 23 years ago between nonexistent acting gigs, as well as tending bar on a weekend shift, then becoming maitre d' and manager eight years ago. One of my long-time readers, billionaire Gary Winnick, emailed me that "Craig is a very talented guy, and will succeed because he understands the marketplace and, most importantly, his customers. That's why they keep coming back." Gary invested in the restaurant, so I don't know if his judgment is impartial, but he is a very hip guy so I kind of trust his acumen. He also alerted me to several dishes which I tried when my ex took me there for my birthday.
Located in the former premises of Doug Arango (which then became Melrose Bar & Grill before closing), they have nicely redecorated it, from the Regency striped awning to the ebony-black door, with booths of "Cadillac/Tiffany blue," according to decorator/architect J. Scott Charles, a Tana regular who offered to help in the process, finding a genuine mahogany bar for the front. When I asked Craig who was the chef, he said, "His name is Robert Sarstadt, and we have worked closely to deliver upscale American comfort food, with a nice balance between indulgent favorites and health-conscious options." He went on to say that the menu is quite different from Tana's, with the only similarities a handful of selections... the Caesar ($12), Chicken Parmigiana ($24), Chicken Cacciatore ($24), New York Steak ($44) and Whitefish ($34), either broiled plain or sautéed in lemon butter sauce.
We discovered that it is a really nice mix of comfort foods... think Meat Loaf ($24), served with mashed potatoes and gravy; Homemade Pizzas, thinnish crust. I would avoid the rather spicy Buffalo Wing ($15) and opt for the delicious Arugula Prosciutto ($17), or get a half-and-half. My sterling waiter, Armando, whom I recognized from his 14 years at his own place, Café Carrera, was very helpful in recommending some diner favorites. I started with a regular American Salad ($12), but quickly went to the Ahi Tuna Tartar ($17), one of the best versions I have had recently, chopped not too fine. Winnick had recommended the Heirloom Burrata ($16), which actually was sliced heirloom tomatoes topped by a big scoop of fresh burrata. (Drizzle a little olive oil and a dash of of pepper to pep it up.) Gary had also recommended Honey-Truffle Fried Chicken ($27), which Craig said was the most popular dish on his menu. Sorry, guys, it was a bit too sweet for my taste, so I recommend you go for regular Fried Chicken ($24), a deeply crispy version which we loved. Craig had remembered a dish he first had when he started eating out as a kid, and it has proved to be one of the most popular on his menu... an eight oz. Filet over Blue Cheese Ravioli ($42). I have always made known my disdain for the filet cut, just a chunk of beef boring after one slice, but the proprietor tells me that fat-conscious diners want it. Rather, go for the succulent 14 oz. Ribeye ($38), served with his fabulous fries. My dining companion, Lorna Berle, loved the next entree, the Barbeque Ribs ($26). I agreed, deeply done until the meat fell off the bone (into an eager mouth), with those amazing fries. I suggested that they serve a side dish of BBQ sauce to dip them in. I must mention the side dishes... especially the Jalapeno Creamed Corn ($12). Since I grew up eating canned creamed corn, and love it still, I was in heaven over this plentiful portion of fresh-off-the-cob kernels with a hint of pepper. And a bowl of Mac 'n Cheese ($10), even better the next day at lunch.
I'm going back Friday night for a dinner with my doctor, and have already staked out a selection of dishes... Dungeness Crab Cakes ($18), two pastas... Cavatelli a la Vodka ($24) and Linguini with Clams ($24), a bowl of the Cioppino ($44, gasp!), with its clams, shrimp, crab leg and white fish. I have had several of its fine desserts... recommend the deeply favorable Cappuccino Ice Cream ($10; perhaps from Dandy Don?), and the wonderful Bread Pudding ($12). Pass on the Banana Foster ($12) over a chocolate waffle...and get another cappuccino ice cream or a slice of Apple Pie a la Mode ($10). The wine list is deep, smartly chosen, somewhat pricey but with several gems there. Cocktails are well made, and my Bombay Sapphire martini came in a chilled glass, always a good sign.
I can well understand why Craig's has become an instant hit... lots of celebrities every evening, along with a raft of affluent friends from the Tana nights. And a smart, savvy proprietor who is constantly striving to improve what is already working beautifully. Mention that you read about it here when you call for a reservation... it may help. Then again, it may not.
Craig's is open nightly for dinner; lunch may come in late spring, but the room is available in the daytime for private parties.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.