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Building a Blockbuster Restaurant, One Tile at a Time: The Story of Republique in LA

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Welcome to Made & Crafted, a new series that explores distinctive restaurant and bar design.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

It took chef Walter Manzke and his kitchen crew eight hours to unload 5,000 tiles, 12,000 board feet of Yakal wood, and miscellaneous pieces of wrought iron from a 40-foot container shipped from the Philippines to Los Angeles. These were the raw materials that now shape Los Angeles restaurant Republique — which opened late last year — from floor to ceiling. Why the Philippines? Manzke operates two cafes in Manila and importing the building supplies was more cost effective than shopping domestically in the US. But you'd never know it from looking at Republique.

An Unexpected Opening

The multi-faceted stunner of a restaurant, café, bakery, and wine bar — co-designed by architect Osvaldo Maiozzi and contracted by Dan Barling — was thrust into the spotlight last November when OpenTable mistakenly permitted early table reservations at Republique. Manzke and his team, including wife and pastry chef Margarita Manzke, were not prepared to serve customers. Construction was ongoing and employees had yet to be trained.

"OpenTable for some reason went live and we ended up with 50 reservations per day a month out."

Says Manzke, "OpenTable for some reason went live and we ended up with 50 reservations per day a month out." I had written a post on Eater LA after noticing that Republique was accepting reservations, and in the blink of an eye diners started booking tables. Instead of calling OpenTable and asking them to cancel the seats, Manzke decided that within five days, when the first table was reserved, he would open.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

So he came up with a story. As part of Republique's soft launch, the restaurant would serve 50 people per night. Four days later he christened his virgin kitchen by preparing an investors dinner, also the first and only night of employee "training." The very next day he opened to the first lucky 50; his second night ever working the kitchen. As someone who was in attendance at that dinner, had Walter not told me, I would have never known.

The History of 624 S. La Brea Avenue

It's impossible to talk about Republique and not reference the curious origins of the building in which it resides, as well as the iconic restaurant and bakery it replaced. According to Manzke, Charlie Chaplin built the Spanish-influenced brick structure, with its gothic arches and distinctive blue and yellow Spanish mosaic tile water fountain, back in 1928 as an office space. He's not sure whether Chaplin ever completed the building, but through a divorce settlement it eventually went to Chaplin's ex-wife. At some point it changed into a shopping mall and also sat vacant for a time.

Charlie Chaplin built the Spanish-influenced brick structure back in 1928 as an office space.

Around 1988 Larry Silverton, father of reputed Los Angeles pastry chef and queen of all breads Nancy Silverton, bought the building. He scooped it up on a whim. Nancy Silverton founded what is now the famous La Brea Bakery, a retail and wholesale operation that sells La Brea Bakery-branded breads at grocery stores across the country. But, as its name suggests, it all started right here on La Brea in the space Republique's pastry area now occupies.

As the story goes, Nancy had found another location for her bakery concept, but after her father stumbled upon 624 S. La Brea Avenue and spontaneously bought the property, La Brea Bakery's fate was sealed. And so too was the fate of Campanile, which Nancy opened with then husband Mark Peel in 1989, taking over most of the historic building.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

Manzke is aware that people have and had attachments to the entire building at 624 S. La Brea Avenue. Following 23 year of operation, Campanile shuttered after service on October 31, 2012, which is when Manzke and restaurateur/partner Bill Chait moved in. Learning of the loss, LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote a piece in which he explained Campanile's culinary value:

"It is hard to overstate Campanile's contributions to American cooking. It wasn't the first fine restaurant in the country to operate with a grill at its heart, but it codified the style, as well as the practice of reinterpreting simple dishes — steak and beans, Greek salad, fish soup — with first-rate ingredients and chefly virtuosity."

Unfortunately, over the years, Campanile had failed to evolve with the dynamically improving Los Angeles dining climate. By 2012 dozens of young, inspired chefs were serving their version of New American California-style farm to table cuisine. With so many exciting restaurant options, Angelenos began to pick new over old.

Charlie Chaplin's Tiled Fountain

The defining design element of Campanile was Chaplin's original Spanish tile water fountain. Silverton and Peel turned it into a central dining room attraction when they expanded the building's façade into what previously served as an outdoor courtyard. Silverton says the fountain "was a draw for families to bring their kids in for brunch" because "they were always running around the fountain."

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

When Manzke took over, he knew the importance of maintaining the fountain, but he couldn't figure out how to keep the piece in its current position. The floor dropped by almost a foot near the fountain, and leveling the floor would mean mostly covering the fountain. Plus, it was awkwardly set in the middle of Campanile's dining room.

He ended up having to dismantle the sides of the fountain and refire the tiles in a kiln to separate them from the cement.

Since Chaplin built the fountain as an outdoor attraction, Manzke decided that he would move the piece from its original location and return it outside, where Chaplin had intended it. But to get the fountain outside didn't prove an easy feat. Manzke ended up having to dismantle the sides of the fountain and refire the tiles in a kiln to separate them from the cement. Using a crane, Manzke was able to move the center of the fountain, and once outside he reassembled the sides.

A Family Affair

To say that Manzke and Chait had big shoes to fill would be an understatement. When Manzke stepped foot in Campanile toward the end of 2012, he knew immediately that he wanted to honor the building's past with a contemporary spin: "My goal was to maintain, restore and respect as much of the original building as possible. I wanted it to feel and look as though it was all built in 1928 and we moved a new modern kitchen into the original building." He didn't love Campanile's original aesthetic because it felt very 1980s, so he and Maiozzi worked to bring back as much of the old building as possible. That meant tearing through plaster, which Manzke himself did with tools in hand.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

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Not only did Manzke personally break down walls, he built much of the furniture now found within the restaurant.

Not only did Manzke personally break down walls, he built much of the furniture now found within the restaurant, along with his father Walter Manzke Senior and brother Cliff Manzke. His cousin Karin Loglisci in New York designed the restaurant's logo and menus. More ways to save dollars.

Walter's father, a retired engineer in the aerospace industry, offered to help construct several of the tables located in Republique's rear dining room using the Yakal wood imported from Thailand. He also built the wooden bar stool tops found in the main area by the bar; Walter's brother did their metalwork. Also, the two knife block tables near the bakery oven are original from Campanile days, though Walter's father built a new base for each.

When it came to assembling his bar, Walter felt that his contractor didn't understand exactly how he wanted it to look. So, Walter decided to fashion it himself. He crafted Republique's sizeable wooden bartop using wood leftover from construction at his parents' house in San Diego, with help from GM Christian Philippo.

Frequently one will find bronze-topped bars at French bistros, but to warm up the space Walter chose the atypical match of wood on top and bronze on bottom. In effort to again save a few bucks, he sourced damaged, returned brass sheets from a friend who owns a metal recycling business in Alameda to cover the front lower portion of the bar. He also used the brass on the bathroom stalls.

A Sushi Chef Turned Designer

While so much of Republique was a family effort, those main communal tables spanning the length of the restaurant are by District Mill Works in the Arts District Downtown, as are many of Republique's other tables. Yet one of Walter's favorite pieces of all is the twisted wrought iron lighting fixture hanging in the center of the dining alcove by the bar designed by a local chef.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

Mike Wilson is a Japanese sushi chef who used to work at the now defunct Hump restaurant at the Santa Monica Airport. This is the place that was shut down in March 2010 after undercover agents revealed the chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto was illegally serving the endangered Sei whale on his pricey omakase menu.

Wilson worked at the eatery prior to its shutter, though when The Hump closed, he couldn't find work and became interested in building furniture. He bought a house in Echo Park and started to erect pieces for his home, though he eventually sold the place and relocated to Austin. He since launched Mike Wilson Design where he continues to build furniture and more, and as a friend of Walter's he designed that custom fixture. He also created similar fixtures hanging in the rear dining room. Other lights, like the singular bulbs in the bar room, are by Big Daddy's Antiques on La Cienega and were made from Campanile's repurposed pipes.

Casual Fine Dining

Through and through, Republique is a fine dining restaurant that lacks pretense. It's dressed in smart and stylish, though informal, clothes. The restaurant is devoid of white tablecloths and overpriced plateware, and the silver is recycled from Campanile. Republique uses the typical white napkins found at restaurants like Spago (Walter isn't keen on those dishcloth napkins that have become such a trend), and his stemware is by Schott. It's important to drink good wine from a nice glass out of "respect for the winemaker who generally put a great deal of effort to achieve a certain level of quality and usually intend their wine to be served in a certain glass," Walter explains.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

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A social experience up front and a slightly more private and traditional setup in the back.

Wine bottles are repurposed into water vessels and hang on a vintage rack (also from Big Daddy's Antiques) in the middle of Republique's entryway. Candles sit in Mason jars. At some point, Walter hopes to buy better glasses and better plateware — maybe some Heath Ceramics pieces — for prix fixe dinners.

If you check out an old photo of Campanile, the restaurant's dining room ran perpendicular to La Brea, spanning the length of the building and not expanding out to the side much. In an effort to offset the lengthwise feel, Walter started looking at the space crosswise. That's how and why he chose to open up the kitchen and bread baking area — also to display that $70k oven! — and build the bar across.

He also wanted to flip the switch on Campanile's layout, which originally would overflow to the somewhat disconnected back room. In order to incentivize patrons to dine in the previously unpopular rear room, he chose to fill the front dining area with slightly uncomfortable perched tables and stools, and position more comfortable regular chairs at two and four tops in the rear dining room. With this layout, he created two distinct dining atmospheres. A social experience up front, thanks to the bar and communal tables, and a slightly more private and traditional setup in the back.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

Regardless where one sits, Walter's charcuterie boards are a main attraction. Have you ever been at a nightclub and witnessed the procession of scantily clad girls carrying bottles of Champagne with sparklers to a high roller's table? Believe it or not, Republique offers a comparable experience on a restaurant level. Wooden boards up to 10-feet long decorate walls in the bakery. Walter has been making these charcuterie boards since around 2005 when he worked at Cantinetta Luca in Carmel, CA, crafting more during his Church & State days, bringing them from restaurant to restaurant, where they finally landed at Republique.

If enough people are dining, that 10-foot board comes out, requiring two or three servers to carry it through the restaurant.

Two boards are the same size, and the rest are totally different. All are made from scrap wood Walter procured from his father. When a large group orders a charcuterie board, Walter arranges the bread and meat spread on one of the planks. If enough people are dining, that 10-foot board comes out, requiring two or three servers to carry it through the restaurant. Having experienced this service recently, I can assure you every patron will stare in awe as a 10-foot long charcuterie board sails past. There might not be naked girls and sparklers, but if you're lucky, Manzke will head the procession and include a bright spread of his best cured meats.

Still Changes To Come

Republique is still a work in progress. While most of the ground floor is finished, the mezzanine is still coming together. On the second floor are two semi-private dining rooms and a smaller space in between which will likely house just one table for bigger groups.

After spending three hours with Walter on a Sunday evening and listening to him explain Republique's birth, it amazes me that such a beautiful restaurant was orchestrated on a minimal budget, partially due to the generous helping hands of family and friends.

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[Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]

Most of the restaurant's construction funds went to the kitchen and plumbing; after acquiring the space Walter learned he would have to replace pretty much all pipes, drains, and vents, which explains why he had less to allocate to aesthetics. It's equally impressive that such a talented chef is also design savvy and handy enough to himself build many of the pieces that define his own restaurant.

Republique, in the truest sense, is a labor of love. A homespun operation headed by one of the city's most beloved and talented chefs, which took over one of Los Angeles' most historic buildings and iconic restaurants. Luckily the property fell into the right hands, and the love story of 624 S. La Brea continues.

· All Made & Crafted [-E-]
· All Restaurant Design on Eater [-E-]
· The Road to the 38: République in Los Angeles [-E-]
· Inside Republique, a Magnificent New French Experience [-ELA-]

Republique

624 South La Brea Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036

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