How Providence Improbably Beat LA’s Fine-Dining Odds
Ten years in at the Los Angeles stalwart.
“There are always milestones or events that you’re working towards, and so time just flies,” says chef Michael Cimarusti, sitting at the bar of his 10-year-old Los Angeles restaurant Providence. Sitting next to him is Donato Poto, the upscale destination’s famously affable co-owner and general manager. “You look back and I remember the opening and what it was like — and even the planning stages — like it was yesterday, but I think that’s also a function of getting older. Time just flies by so quickly.” “I think we are not old,” Poto cuts in. “We are grown up.”
Providence is a roomy Hollywood restaurant known for its seafood-focused tasting menus. This is true fine dining, with white tablecloths, plush chairs, and service that puts guest comfort above all else. It is, as Eater LA describes it, “an easy choice for a celebration or special occasion.” Sitting on a storied piece of property, Providence is a testament to Los Angeles’s past — and its commitment to fine dining is something of a rarity in the city’s present and future.
FINDING A PARTNER
Poto and Cimarusti first met while working at the Water Grill — a beloved downtown Los Angeles seafood restaurant. Cimarusti was executive chef for six years; Poto was a senior manager. Cimarusti describes working with Poto as a meeting of like minds. “It was a great restaurant, and they hired me to turn it around into a place that was serious about food, serious about service, and upheld very high standards. They hired Donato for exactly the same purpose. I was in the back of the house, obviously, and Donato in the front, and we definitely clicked immediately.”
When Cimarusti first had the idea to branch out and do his own project, he didn’t initially reach out to Poto. He had been planning to open with someone else “who didn’t seem like the best fit.” But the two bumped into each other at the farmer’s market in Santa Monica, and Cimarusti told Poto his plans. The rest, as they say, is history.
Poto and Cimarusti’s partnership is grounded on their shared hospitality background. Before they met at Water Grill, both of them had more than a decade of fine-dining experience. For Cimarusti, it was his time spent in top-notch kitchens like L’Arpege in Paris, Le Cirque in New York City, and Los Angeles stalwart Spago. Poto had been a staple in the Los Angeles scene since the late ’80s, and he spent over a decade managing Primi and Valentino. After Water Grill, Poto was the opening general manager of Bastide — a high-end French restaurant that was then the LA Times‘ only four-star restaurant. “I come from a very European-style background, worked in fine-dining restaurants, many French restaurants in my past,” says Cimarusti. “To find somebody like Donato who has all those old-school skills that are very difficult to come by nowadays, no matter where you are, whether it’s here or New York, Paris or Rome — you just don’t find people that have that rigid, old-school upbringing in the front of the house.”
THE OPPOSITE OF A CURSED SPACE
Regarding that chance farmer’s market run-in, here’s how Cimarusti says it went down: “I ran into Donato at the farmer’s market in Santa Monica on a Wednesday morning and I said, ‘Look, I have a lease that I’ve been working on and it’s for a very well-known place.'” That’s putting it modestly. Providence occupies something a legendary space in Los Angeles restaurant history.
In 1970, Belgian expat Paul Bruggemans opened Le St. Germain at 5955 Melrose Avenue. For 18 years it was one of the city’s top restaurants, serving an upscale menu that leaned continental. Writing about its closure in 1988, critic Ruth Reichl described Le St. Germain as “one of the city’s most influential restaurants”: “Le St. Germain wraps itself around you as you walk in the door, enclosing you in the sort of luxurious intimacy you just don’t find much anymore… This is an old-fashioned restaurant that caters to your every whim.”
In 1989, chef Joachim Splichal bought the space and opened Patina. (Colman Andrews had been running rumors in the LA Times reporting the end of St. Germain was nigh.) Splichal, who was back in town after cooking at prominent New York City and Chicago restaurants, made Patina’s opening a blockbuster one. Reichl again, writing for the LA Times in 1990, argued: “It was a meal I would have been happy to have eaten anywhere in the world. It was a meal that made me proud to live in Los Angeles… Today Patina is turning out the sort of food that you’d expect from one of the best young chefs in the country.” Like Le St. Germain, Patina was upscale and, per Los Angeles Magazine, “elegant and uncompromising” and “conceded nothing to the city’s casual ethos.” Patina was the flagship for what Splichal would turn into the very major Patina Restaurant Group in the 1990s.
Cimarusti had reached out to Splichal for advice on finding the right real estate deal to open his own place. They had an unexpectedly secret meeting: “We go to a coffee shop, we meet. He goes, ‘Look, there are too many people. Everybody knows I am walking in the door,’ because that’s where he lives and he’s a very well-known chef. He’s like, ‘We can’t talk here. Let’s go to my house.'”
Splichal had every reason to be secretive: He had bombshell news. “He said, ‘I am moving Patina downtown to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I want to know if you’re interested.’ I was like, ‘Of course, I am interested.'” 5955 Melrose Avenue wasn’t just a historically lucky restaurant address, the building itself was in top shape. Cimarusti explains: “[Splichal] had just put a money into the building and it was a fine-dining restaurant. It had a great kitchen. We worked out the lease, and I told Donato about it at that point.” Poto adds that since Patina had an overhaul in 2000, he and Cimarusti didn’t need to bring in architects or touch the exterior of the restaurant. They just needed to update the interior, which they did with the help of Cimarusti’s wife Cristina. “We went into an already great space, so we felt like we had to carry on this legacy,” recalls Poto. But if the space was charmed, the opening year, in retrospect, was not.
LOS ANGELES IN 2005
Before considering the state of Los Angeles restaurants in 2005, first consider some major changes that had rocked the dining scene in 2004. Chef Alain Giraud was replaced by Ludo Lefevre at Bastide. Poto also left that restaurant in 2004. Meanwhile, Cimarusti gave his notice at Water Grill. 2005 would see more disruptions: Wolfgang Puck’s Granita closed, as did Four Oaks and Le Dome.
But that same year also saw the debut of some longstanding LA institutions. Jonathan Gold unveiled his first-ever 99 Essential Restaurants list for LA Weekly (its spirit now lives on his 101 Best Restaurant lists at the LA Times). 2005 was also the year Providence debuted, and when Cimarusti and Poto opened their doors on June 17, they didn’t know they would be fighting against a tidal wave of closures (the LA Times counted 15 in mere months) and a sea-change in dining habits, where guests were increasingly drawn to more casual venues.
“At that time, fine dining still had a good presence in Los Angeles,” Poto recalls. “Culinary schools were not out there yet, doing their job with marketing and bringing in new kids. TV shows, Food Network was not as prominent. There weren’t really many young chefs that were actually opening their own restaurants as it’s happening today.” Poto and Cimarusti list some names that defined the upper echelons of Los Angeles dining in 2005: Bastide, Spago, Water Grill, Sona, Melisse. There were others, too.
“When we opened, I didn’t know what else to do,” says Cimarusti. “I cut my teeth in restaurants like this and I never had any aspirations at any point in my career to do anything but a restaurant like this: where comfort was important, the service was very important, and [so were] the caliber of ingredients and the level of preparation.” Poto and Cimarusti stuck with their vision for creating the best restaurant they could make. “We went into it without really considering: What does the market want, what does Los Angeles really want?,” Cimarusti says. “We didn’t know shit about that.”
That’s not to say that Cimarusti and Poto weren’t aware of the risks of doing a fine-dining restaurant that year. “We didn’t think about the cost,” Cimarusti says. “We didn’t think about whether or not it would find an audience. It’s just like, ‘This is what we have been working [toward] for the last, in my case, 15 years’… That was it. That’s what we knew and didn’t care if there were several fine-dining restaurants that were on the verge of going out or maybe had already gone out. It wasn’t even about that. It was probably not a very wise business decision, to be perfectly honest.”
PROVIDENCE UP AND RUNNING
Cimarusti and Poto recount the usual highs and lows of getting a restaurant open. One thing they both remember fondly is staffing.”We didn’t put in any ads in any newspaper. People were actually coming and asking us, ‘Whenever you open, I want to be part of the team,'” recalls Poto. “That’s due to our background, how long you’ve been working in the city, how many people you’ve been meeting, and how much they want to work with you. That goes a long way.”
“We opened with a great team,” Cimarusti says. Some of those team members, like Tristan Aitchison, followed Cimarusti from the Water Grill. Aitchison, on the team since day one, is now Providence’s chef de cuisine. There are others, both front and back of house, that have been at Providence since opening day. “After 10 years, that’s another great feeling that you have. You feel responsibility towards those people, because they are always looking at us as an example and what we are teaching, it’s a legacy,” Poto explains. “It proves it that after 10 years, we are still going strong.”
Following months of recipe testing, Cimarusti had created a massive a la carte menu and two tasting menus. After friends and family, his quickly adapted his plan. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Holy shit, we can’t do all that. We’ve got to cut back.’ We went down to one menu and some daily specials, and a smaller a la carte menu.” Today, the Providence menu features multiple set tasting menus and an a la carte lunch, but it’s constantly evolving.
Cimarusti tells a revealing opening night story: “I remember having this great menu and working so hard to get that document together, all the ideas and hard work that went into it. Then, I remember the very first order that came through, the ticket machine was for two green salads, which were not part of the menu. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Then, whatever else they ordered, I don’t even remember. But it was great, it was exciting.”
As the Providence team found their footing, the accolades started rolling in. Michelin created a 2008 Los Angeles guide, with Providence debuting in the guide at one star. The following year the restaurant secured a second star, along with fellow powerhouses Urasawa, Melisse, and Spago. Michelin stopped producing Los Angeles guides after that, but in 2010 Providence earned a three-star rave from LA Timescritic S. Irene Virbilia. She wrote: “At five years, Providence has come into its own, driven by Cimarusti’s sensitive and exacting cooking. Almost 15 miles inland, the kitchen at Providence is consistently turning out the best seafood cooking in Los Angeles — and some of the best in the country.” Today, the restaurant is a staple at the upper levels of Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants List, taking top spots in 2014 and 2013. The restaurant is also a perennial member of the Eater LA 38.
But for Cimarusti and Poto, the work at Providence never stops. “I am happy to say that I feel like the restaurant has continued to evolve and I don’t know that we’ve done our best work yet,” Cimarusti says. “There is always some new project to tackle. It’s an old saying, but the moment you stop moving forward is the moment you start to fall behind and I fully believe that.”
There have been some major changes within just the past year. Last spring, the restaurant closedfor pretty extensive interior renovations. There was also major staff turnover. “Suddenly, you’ve got to bring in three or four new people and get them up to speed as quickly as you possibly can, without having it be detrimental to the level of food or service that people have come to expect from us,” says Cimarusti. “It doesn’t ever really feel like just another day at the office.”
THE FUTURE OF PROVIDENCE
Cimarusti and Poto did eventually go casual with their hit West Hollywood restaurant Connie & Ted’s, which opened in 2013. They have plans to open Cape Seafood and Provisions, a seafood market stocked with sustainable fish and prepared goods. The project marks their first foray into retail.
But at Providence, they’ve stuck with their fine-dining roots — white tablecloths, tasting menus, and all. “Today, people don’t mind sitting in a louder restaurant, with wooden tables, with music that is louder than it should be. They don’t mind to eat with silverware that is not silver. They don’t mind to sit in chairs that all look different,” says Poto. He speculates that the “chef-driven” small restaurants of today’s Los Angeles are in part due to “how much it costs to run a fine-dining restaurant, because you need to have fine china and silverware, and everything else that goes with it.”
Even so, he and Cimarusti say they will keep the focus on hospitality, comfort, and sophisticated fare at Providence. “Even guests are telling us there isn’t really any much left in LA of this caliber,” Poto says. These guests have either picked up on the major closures over the years in the fine-dining space (Fraiche, Rivera, Campanile, Gordon Ramsay at the London, Hatfield’s, Sona, just to name a few) or they’ve simply noticed there aren’t many options for that kind of experience. “You can go every day to any great restaurant, but if somebody is looking for a special-occasion restaurant for a business meeting place, where they want to impress somebody, when somebody is coming from out of town… It’s a very difficult question to answer: ‘What is the best restaurant in the city and why?’ Fine dining, I think, gives everything to a guest, from service to comfort to good lighting, great food and everything else. And not everyone wants to do that.”
But still, according to Cimarusti, there’s an appetite for fine dining. He sees his clientele getting younger by the day, and a good balance of first-time customers and repeat visitors. And 10 years later, he still finds it easy to work with Poto. “We don’t really disagree on much. In terms of our professional relationship, we both still have the same goal, which is just to make the restaurant as good as it can possibly be.” When asked to look ahead 10 years, both Poto and Cimarusti agree that they’ll never do a second location of Providence. It is, increasingly, one of a kind.
Source: LA Eater