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Why Alma in LA Is Going Tasting Menu Only

Photo: Official

Alma in downtown Los Angeles, Bon Appetit's best new restaurant of 2013, has become the latest ambitious culinary establishment to effectively abandon choice. Starting in mid-April, chef Ari Taymor and his partner Ashleigh Parsons will serve just a single tasting menu. The cost will be $95 per person. BOOM.

Alma won't offer its five-course, $65 option anymore, so this will be a PRICE HIKE for fans of that shorter menu. For others, the single menu format will be a PRICE DROP from the current $110 tasting. Optional wine pairings will run $55, so a fully-loaded dinner date for two, after tax and tip, will run $387.

How will diners react to the new format? Will vegetarians still be accommodated? Will Alma ever introduce a service charge? For answers to those questions, and more, Eater turned to the 28-year-old Taymor. Here's what he had to say:

Why are you moving to a single menu?
We would always struggle with having two different experiences at the restaurant, whether it was an a la carte menu and a tasting menu, and then now where it was a shorter tasting and a longer, more involved one that featured more of the products that we'd grow, and the resources that we'd be able to get foraged, or from our friends who were raising animals for us.

We would always struggle with having two different experiences at the restaurant.

We found that the people who were having the best experiences at our restaurant were those getting the longer menu, and we found that some of the frustrations that people were having kind of tended toward the shorter of the two menus.

What were those frustrations?
I think that when you get a five-course menu, it's not that far off from a traditional three-courser. You know, you're getting some snacks, four savory, and a dessert, but I think the portion sizes with that menu structure can kind of throw people off. While they may be satisfied toward the end of the meal, I think the perceived value at five-courses with two three ounce pieces of protein versus one six-ounce piece of protein was a little bit more challenging and we got a little bit more pushback on that.

I think what people want, if they're going to go into the tasting menu at all, is a more intimate, more-involved experience. Even at the entry-level offering for $65, that's not how much you pay. It's closer to $110 after tax tip and wine per person, and that's a really serious night out, and we do take that really seriously. That's a lot of money for somebody to spend just going out to eat. So we're going to decrease the amount of covers that we do to be able make it right when we do this. So we're not going to be as quite as loud, quite as boisterous of a restaurant. But I feel like we're going to be able to focus and give people the experience that they're really paying for.

How fewer many covers will you be doing?
We're going to do 10-12 covers less per night ... We'll put people at a table for close to three hours if they want. I do understand that kind of backlash, where you go out to eat a tasting menu, and you're there for like three and a half or four hours, which is fine sometimes, but not really enjoyable all the time. So we can usually get people out if they want to be out in close to two hours, even with a longer tasting menu.

12_2012_ALMA-10.JPG[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels 12/12]

How precisely are things going to change from the longer $110 tasting menu you're offering now?
It's not going to change a lot. It's going to be pretty similar to that menu, structurally and length-wise. I just felt like we could make money on our end, with it being a little bit less expensive, and it would be a little bit more approachable at that price.

Are you able to accommodate vegetarians?
We've always had a vegetarian tasting menu. We also accommodate pescatarians and gluten-free diners. It's LA, so, we really have to be cautious about dietary restrictions, because they'll run the gamut here.

Can you do the vegan thing?
We can get pretty close. It's challenging to use absolutely no butter. But we can get close to 80% vegan most of the time.

You say you're going to keep the wine pairing price at $55; that's a lot less than what you'd pay in New York or San Francisco.
We're as focused as we can be on trying to keep prices reasonable. I understand that nothing is really reasonable when you're charging this much money to eat. But we're doing our best to keep the accessibility of our restaurant kind of open.

I feel like a fixed service charge is definitely the way to go, though I think we're maybe a year or two from going down that road.

Last November, you stopped offered an a la carte selections. What was the reaction to that move?
It was actually really positive. I was pretty nervous just because LA tends to be a bit of a fickle town about restaurants. We'd gotten to a point where we were doing close to 90-100 covers a night, so at that level we could only offer a certain amount of tasting menus.

And we had gotten to a point where every night we were selling out and selling out and selling out. And it just felt like that was the experience people were asking for. And so in order to do that we just had to shift our focus. At that point we did 30 less covers a night at least. And so it's not really so much the money aspect of it; it's about really being able to provide people the best experience. My own ability to conceptualize food shifted; it used to be easier for me to do large format entrees, and over time that just became more and more challenging.

What are your thoughts on supplements?
I feel like the price we are charging allows us to buy anything that we would want to buy and give it to people. We've been using truffles. For us, we kind of just think about it responsibly. Does this make sense for us to use? And if so, we just have to add it to the price of our food. Personally, I have no problem with them. I went to Saison and I got their truffle pairing. I've been to other places and ordered supplements. It doesn't upset me. It just doesn't make sense with the style of restaurant we have here.

And some say charging more for supplements can make dinner an overly transactional experience. Take Thomas Keller's Per Se, where sometimes every option on the menu can involve an added charge of $40-$175.
I think that stylistically that makes sense for Keller; it's just such a singular experience. It's just this old-school vibe. It kind of fits his personality, this overwhelming sense of luxury. You know you feel like when you're going out, it's like those scenes in the movies where you're just throwing money up into the air and letting it rain down on you.

Have you been to Per Se or The French Laundry recently?
I've never been; I would love to. I've wanted to go to The French Laundry for a long time; I grew up in Northern California but I've never got a chance. I really wanted to go when [Benu's] Corey Lee was there. And since I've been in New York, it's just never worked out. I've just heard it's one of those crazy once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

12_2012_ALMA-29.JPG[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels 12/12]

It's also worth noting that Keller was an American pioneer in adopting a European-style gratuity policy; all of Per Se's prices are reflective of a service charge, so no additional tipping is necessary. What are your own thoughts on mandatory gratuities?
I'm a big fan of fixed tipping. We have started to explore it intellectually, but we haven't really started thinking about how to put it into practice. It makes sense for us because we have our kitchen doing a good amount of interacting with the guests. They run a lot of plates. They'll sometimes clear as well. So we kind of have a situation where the front and the back are interacting. And then just from a financial standpoint, [it would be nice to] to be able to compensate our cooks properly, to be able to look into giving benefits, and that kind of stuff that I think a lot of guests don't think about.

For us, that's one of our priorities, to think about. How can we structure this so it's financially sustainable for us, but how can we also look toward making this a real workplace, in the same way that startups immediately look to providing benefits for their employees. And I feel like a fixed service charge is definitely the way to go, though I think we're maybe a year or two from going down that road.

Is that because you're still a young restaurant? Or are you still intellectually working through the ins and outs of that?

I feel like we've got a lot of proving to do before we can continue to dictate the way people spend their money in our restaurant.

I think we're just trying to explore how people would react it it. It's definitely a bold move. I know that [The Restaurant at Meadowood's Chris] Kostow can do that because he's so established and he's been doing such an amazing job for so long, that people are gonna go there, and they're going to understand why they're going there. And for us, I feel like we've got a lot of proving to do before we can continue to dictate the way people spend their money in our restaurant. It makes me feel uncomfortable enough to dictate at the level that we're doing it. So until I feel that I've earned it a little bit more, I don't want to be shunning so many hard and fast rules.

One of the unique things about California is that it's one of the few states without a tip-credit. That means you need to pay waiters the full state minimum, which goes up to $9/hour in July, rather than the federal-tipped minimum of $2.13/hour. Do you believe the California system is better way to compensate waiters, or it is an unfair burden on the restaurant?
It's a little bit of both. I think the model that I would love to adopt one day would be: One fixed price for the full experience, and then the front and the back of the houses are on salary that's more or less equal to the position that they hold ... That's the model I'd love to adopt, really giving people incentives to grow within the company.

How's business in general?
We're busy. We were really busy from August on. We're only taking reservations about a month ahead, because we found that with taking reservations 2 and 3 months ahead, we'd have an inordinate amount of cancellations or no-shows. So now we're only 30 days out. People can still grab a same day reservation during the week, weekends are a little bit trickier, but it seems like it's gotten to a good place, where we can take care of the neighborhood, and people who want to book ahead and take a trip out here, they can also do that.


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Alma

952 Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90015

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