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20 Years In, How Lucques Helped Shape LA Dining

Chef Suzanne Goin and restaurateur Caroline Styne talk partnership, growth, and what it takes to create a true institution

On Tuesday, September 25, chef Suzanne Goin and her business partner, restaurateur/sommelier Caroline Styne, crossed a milestone together that few in the restaurant industry experience: The LA restaurant they opened together turned 20. “It’s flown by and it felt like an eternity,” says Styne, who this year earned a James Beard Award for her work at Lucques and at the duo’s subsequent restaurants, like AOC and Tavern.

In their 20 years in business together, Goin and Styne have seen huge shifts in the industry and in their home city. Through it all, Lucques has been a grounding presence both to them and to diners. “I feel like when I walk in the door here, some things just don’t ever change, and that’s what I love about this place,” says Styne.

It doesn’t hurt that Lucques was ahead of the prevailing winds of contemporary restaurant culture. From the get-go, Goin directed her attention to California’s produce. She incorporated Middle Eastern flavors and techniques long before that became de rigueur, as in a lamb kibbeh-nayeh that’s been on and off the menu for years. She earned a regional James Beard Award for her work at Lucques in 2006, and then the Outstanding Chef award in 2016. In the restaurant’s ninth year, LA Times dining critic S. Irene Virbila summarized the chef’s point of view this way: “It’s Mediterranean filtered through a California sensibility, sensuous and direct. Goin doesn’t cook with an eye on fashion. She just cooks.”

That holds true today — and both Styne and Goin in large part credit the restaurant’s endurance to their lack of concern for trends. Styne offers up foam as an example. “[When] everything had foam on it, Suzanne would look at me and go, ‘I am not doing foam. What’s wrong with me?’ I said, ‘Because you don’t do foam. You are right to be doing what you do or not.’ [She] always questions [herself] when new things come about. We are just going to do our thing; we are good at that.”

The style and service was another element that proved to be ahead of the curve. Beginning with their quest to find a space that felt residential amid a city of new construction, Styne and Goin did not want to make the type of fine dining restaurant that they saw at the time. Styne crafted a style of service instantly recognizable to today’s diners, but a bit of anomaly in 1998: “I always wanted the service here to be proper and correct but not stiff, so finding people who have a strong conviction about what they’re doing but not so much so that they are pretentious. I’m looking for warmth and passion,” says Styne. “I always try to impart on everybody that it’s about the restaurant. It’s not about me. It’s not about Suzanne. It’s about the restaurant. Not to be culty, but we’re all here for this purpose, and that shared love of what it is.”

This steadfastness of vision for both the service and food is perhaps the greatest takeaway as they look back on 20 years of serving Los Angeles diners and visitors. “It’s not about trends or about what people want,” Goin says. “It’s about [how] we are really following our hearts about a space that we would want to be in, food that we would want to eat, the way that we want to be treated, how we want to experience an evening.”

Why do you think this restaurant has had so much staying power?

Caroline Styne: A lot of it has to do with the confluence of what happens here. Obviously, Suzanne is an insanely talented chef, and her food has really resonated with people... I also think that this building has a really special quality. It has so much character, and it’s so unique compared to a lot of restaurants that just go into an empty shell. The spirit of it has a lot to do with it. We have had people coming in here from our first weeks of being open. It’s an experience in their lives, and I think that there’s this sense of home for people.

Suzanne Goin: We have been able to connect with a lot of people on our staff, find other like-minded people, and build this family which then keeps generating more of the same. The DNA keeps doubling. We have our initial crew that worked with us; they are sort of believers, too, and we all have a similar ethos or similar passions, similar connections.

There are so many great restaurants in LA, so many new things, and so much happening. I think that there is something really nice about something that has been here for a while. It was definitely a feeling that even when we opened, we wanted it to feel that way. I remember back then, we kept looking at spaces, and they would take us to places in mini malls next to Blockbuster videos. We were like, “No, no, no. We want something that feels like it has been here and that feels grounded or part of the fabric of LA.”

I think part of our success was not trying to anticipate what people want and not trying to hook onto a trend or a movement, and more really doing what felt right to us. People feel that. Even if they don’t know that they’re feeling it, they feel that connection.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you two become partners?

CS: I was a manager at a restaurant for Sean MacPherson here in LA. I had been doing that for four years. I was getting ready to open my own restaurant, but I didn’t have a chef, and I didn’t have anybody who was going to head up the back of the house... I guess I thought that I was going to do it. Suzanne was working at Campanile at the time. She was the executive chef there while Mark Peel was on an extended sabbatical.

We had mutual friends that conspired to introduce us. They each knew that we wanted to open restaurants, but we didn’t have that counterpart. The two of them, even though they only knew one half of the equation, had a really, really strong sense that the two of us would get along and that we would be a good partnership. So, these woman hounded us until we would meet. We canceled appointments and flaked. We just never got together, and finally I got a call at work one day and they said, “Okay, you are meeting Suzanne at 9 o’clock after work at the Pearl on La Brea. Just be there, don’t flake, and we can leave you alone.”

And so we went, and I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, I should be networking anyway. I don’t know why I’m in my little bubble. I should get out there and meet people.” And we hit it off immediately. We started going out, we always called it dating back then. I’d pick her up and talk about restaurants and our vision.

SG: Like turn the plates upside down.

CS: Definitely. You’re like, “Do you like this floor?”

We just had a very, very shared vision. It was bizarre. Everything Suzanne said was completely what I was thinking. Everything that I was saying was on Suzanne’s train of thought.

SG: I also feel like it doubled what we both would have done. I think that I would have done a much smaller restaurant.

I was already actively looking. Mark [Peel] and Nancy [Silverton, co-owners of Campanile, where Goin worked] knew that I had a plan. I was a little bit further down the road. I had a business plan, I had an attorney, and I was searching. When we met... It’s actually funny, because it was sort of the same thing when I met my husband: We very quickly moved in together. I’m generally a cautious person. But it’s a little bit like when you know, you know.

It didn’t feel good at the time, but it took us 18 months to find a place.

CS: In hindsight, that’s not that long.

SG: There were a couple deals that almost happened but fell through, but it was good, because it gave us [the experience of] going through that hardship together. It was good practice or a good test for our relationship. Figuring out how to work together happened in that [process].

How’d you find the space? What made you sign on the dotted line?

SG: When I was working at Campanile, Nancy Silverton came in one day, and she was like, “Oh, I ate at your future restaurant last night.” Bizarre.

We came over here. We walked in. It was a gay bar at the time, but you could see...

CS: ...the bones.

Tell me about opening night.

SG: The days leading up, I was a total emotional basket case. We have a really big walk-in, and I pulled a prep table in the walk-in. I put a parka on, and I prepped in the walk-in. I could not handle being around people or sensing what was going on. My sous chef Corina [Weibel] was the only one who was allowed to talk to me. She would come in the walk-in and show me... like, “Do you want it cut like this?” or “Will you taste that?” I literally hid out in the walk-in.

Another thing I remember is right before service I would have to shoot a half a glass of wine. I had been a chef at two places, but there’s something about when it’s yours. There’s nothing to hide behind. It does feel like you’re standing naked in front of the world. I had all the doubts going through my head, of people going, “Why does she think she should have a restaurant?” That’s why I had to hide myself.

And then actually once service got going, it was great, because it was really busy. We did 75 people the first night. It was a lot. I’m good under that type of pressure. It was more the anticipation pressure that was killing me.

CS: I remember I used to get the worst stomachache before service. Every night. It went on for months actually.

When did you start looking around and think, “Yeah. This is our place. I’m just coming to work,” and when did you feel like when you got into the groove?

CS: Have we gotten there yet?

SG: I would definitely say at least six months or something.

CS: We got our review in the LA Times, and that blew everything up.

SG: That was back in the day when it was like one review that mattered, and when it came, it was make or break, basically.

CS: I remember we had that one really great Saturday... our first really great Saturday night where everything came through the kitchen beautifully, we maximized our seating, and I was like, “Okay, so this is our perfect night. I’m going to base our reservation map on this night for the rest of eternity.”

How did the recession affect the restaurant? Did you have to make any sacrifices or cut backs?

SG: Oh yeah. That’s definitely been part of the path.

When we opened, rent was $5,000 a month.

CS: The rent was really inexpensive. Labor was not as crazy expensive as it is right now. Expenses were manageable.

SG: I didn’t even do a real food cost. I would be like, “this generally costs this amount,” and then we opened, and at the end of the week, there was money left over. It was like, “Okay. We must be doing something right.” I don’t mean that we didn’t do food cost, it was just much more generalized and not as tight. It was way more rudimentary.

CS: You know actually we really started to buckle down on our costs about four or five years in — I mean really start getting detailed about every expense.

About four years into it, we opened A.O.C. and we robbed ourselves of our customer base a little bit, because honestly back then the dining population was not nearly what it is now. Back then, there were four or five restaurants in town, maybe six, and we were all fighting for the same 500 customers. Now, the dining population has grown in sync with the number of restaurants, but back then, it was a really limited number of people that were coming out. When A.O.C. opened, we kind of cannibalized ourselves. We realized, “Okay. We need to actually tighten up, and really pay more attention to what we’re doing. It’s not as easy as it was.”

I feel like all restaurants do that. It’s like there’s the newborn restaurant, the cute little thing. Then you know, five, six years in, you’re not new anymore. It’s a strange adolescence where you need to assert your identity.

SG: And do more, actually. People have asked us what’s the secret to having a 20-year-old restaurant, but I think a lot of it is: Opening a restaurant’s really hard, but it’s actually easier than keeping a restaurant going for 20 years, because there’s the excitement. The new is exciting: Not that it can’t be exciting for 20 years, but you have to have that commitment to keep working at it and not lose interest.

So what are the ways you keep yourselves accountable for relevance and creativity this many years in?

SG: I think it’s an inner drive. I remember my mom used to say to me when I would be in writer’s block or whatever: “Just do something you did five years ago. No one’s going to remember.” But, it’s pushing yourself inside to do something different, to try to think outside of that, and take in more influences, and some of those influences can also be the people that I’m working with, which is great. It’s pushing yourself to not let up.

CS: And also, finding good people that are like-minded that share the passion, and allowing them to do what they do really well. That feeds the whole operation.

SG: It’s hard to be the only person feeding it. Exactly.

I’d love to hear more about how LA has or hasn’t changed since you opened in these 20 years.

CS: Obviously the restaurant scene has changed dramatically. I remember we used to be the black sheep city of America: There was San Francisco and there was New York. LA was really under-appreciated in terms of the talent that we had here. I literally credit Top Chef and all these Food Network shows with giving the culinary arts their due in the public forum, and creating an interest, and bolstering the entire culture of dining in LA.

I think something Suzanne has always known, but a lot of people never took on, was how lucky we are to have the produce that we have here: You were farm-to-table, before the farm-to-table thing happened. A lot of it has to do with that, too. Other chefs and young people around the country are getting excited about the idea that, “Oh, being a chef is actually a really exciting, artistic and rewarding...

SG: Doable...

CS: ...thing to do.” You’re not just a cook. The idea of being a cook is actually a really great thing.

SG: But, I remember when we were looking to open spaces... I had been a chef at this little place in Boston that was 28 seats. Before I met Caroline, that’s what I was looking to do. It was actually very hard then to find a space like that; storefront spaces. I don’t think that would have happened. The city wasn’t ready for that yet. Now, there’s much more open mindedness to all different levels of restaurants.

It’s funny: When we first opened, we were the weird one, because we didn’t really fit the big dining palace, the more formal, the more fine dining [mold]. We’re going to have big service, and we’re going to have good food, but we’re going to be casual compared to what everything else was then.

And that’s just the way it is now.

CS: We have a more diverse group of people that live here now, too: all these chefs and people moving from New York and from around the world congregating in LA, which is so funny. If you’d ever mentioned to all these New Yorkers back then about moving to LA, they’d roll their eyes. No way. Now it’s actually the place everybody wants to be.

How have (or haven’t) awards played into that? You both have won James Beard Awards, but it does seem that generally LA is very overlooked. I’m also thinking about how Michelin came and went. To what extent do awards matter to you, and how do you feel like that being the truth of awards in LA has impacted life at Lucques?

CS: [Michelin] didn’t get it.

SG: They just didn’t understand what LA was about. Maybe that’s not their thing to understand. I don’t know if that’s changing, but they’re looking for their Michelin thing. That’s not what LA is about. They came here, totally didn’t get it, and then packed up and left. I don’t think they explored the way that you would now. They were more, “How does it fit into this model?”

CS: Jonathan Gold was our Michelin guide.

SG: Jonathan Gold was definitely the one who cracked open the whole thing.

It’s funny, the awards. We’re getting closer. We’re getting more nominations. It’s a matter of time. It’s so funny when you read about it being bad now. Like 10 years ago it was barely... a California nomination was always San Francisco. And then, I remember by the time you got to the last four Beard Awards, it was like New York, New York, New York, New York.

CS: You start going, “Okay. Well, we’re not winning yet.” Obviously, the awards are amazing and cool. I think it will be more satisfying if more LA restaurants would win. There’s so many talented chefs that get overlooked. It’s frustrating, and then you realize, “Okay. It’s not all about the award.” A lot of the voters are on that side of the country, so I don’t know. It’s so hard.

SG: It’s also because the media component, how present are you in people’s minds and how hot are you in that moment. It’s all been good to us, and helped us in terms of national recognition and guests that come in from all over the country, which is great.

In the last 20 years it has definitely helped both to have a real strong local following, and then have [the national crowd]. I think the cookbooks help with that, too. They help people know the food or know me from the books even if they’ve never been here. When they come out, they want to come here.

It’s a thing we always preached to the staff about service. We have to deliver a level of service or type of service that draws people back, so when they’re figuring out where they’re going to go out to dinner tonight, there are five new hot places to go to, and there’s [us].

That’s interesting. I have felt sometimes when restaurants become an institution, where its like, “We’re going to be here forever,” then you’re treated like they’re going to be there forever. You, the customer, don’t really matter that much.

CS: Yeah, that’s the worst.

SG: That happens when restaurants are new, too. Remember we had that manager?

CS: Oh my god.

SG: Somebody wanted to sit at a different table, and he’s like, “Listen. You’re lucky to be here. We’re packed tonight.” We were like, “Okay. Bye.” I always preached from the beginning: I hate going to restaurants where they make me feel like I’m lucky to be there.

CS: We’re lucky they’re here!

SG: Why sit there feeling that way? People should feel good. We’re actually really lucky to have them here. We need to let people know that, too.

How have you maintained and nurtured your partnership over 20 years? It’s remarkable.

SG: I feel very lucky. I always say that I feel like we’re restaurant soulmates, because not only do we have shared visions, but we have very shared attitudes towards things.

It’s like a marriage. It’s a relationship. Everyone goes through their great times, and their not-great times, and it’s all about how you treat each other in the not-great times, like every marriage.

It is also corny, but it’s communication. Over the years, we’ve had lots of, “Well you thought, I thought you.” Addressing it head on. It sounds silly, but it’s all in the details. It’s not really magic... but [about] respecting each others’ domains, but then also being willing to listen to the other one.

CS: And being friends.

SG: And being friends.

CS: And actually honestly caring about one another.

SG: Helps, yes. But, it’s funny, because we were business partners first. It’s not like we were friends who decided to open a restaurant. It happened the other way.

CS: A lot of people do it the other way, and then their friendships fall apart, because their friendship wasn’t meant to be based in a work partnership.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.

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