In January 2008, three friends opened Roberta’s, a Brooklyn pizzeria with huge ambitions and no utilities. A New York magazine write-up in 2010 paints a scrappy portrait of those early days: No heat or gas in the dead of winter, the interior studded with space heaters and banged-up community tables, stews and porchettas prepared at home and warmed in toasters. The beacon was the pizzas, fired in two blistering-hot ovens and “heretically creative,” according to an early New York Times review.
The artists and musicians drifting into Roberta’s Bushwick neighborhood at the time, newcomers who could afford to spend a few extra bucks on weird pizza with too-clever-by-half names (Chicken by the Sea), embraced the restaurant, which resembled their own unheated studios and illegal rooftop parties. Roberta’s embodied the shitty, DIY, back-to-the-land-in-a-post-industrial-building aesthetic of the aughts, which manifested in everything from dumpster pools (as I recall, surprisingly refreshing) to backyard chickens. It was created by a subculture of young, largely white urban transplants facing grim economic prospects, as the recession scented the air like smoke, then burned through everything. This mood was boiled down to the word “hipster.”
Young chefs of that era cooked food that was both unconventional and nostalgic: Ugly carrots in pickle jars and bulgogi tacos and pizza topped with spicy honey all promised a rough-hewn, hand-crafted experience, rebuking the generic and gilded and mass-produced. But building a food movement in unheated buildings and sweltering food trucks takes a toll — sell out, or burn out. Most chefs have chosen the former, if they made it that long.
In September 2018, the second location of Roberta’s opened in the center of Platform, a succulent-lush open air mall in west Los Angeles. The Platform bills itself as the future of retail, and maybe it is. In an interview, co-owner Joseph Miller explains his goal is to create a space where LA culture hounds can find a precisely curated collection of stores, both national brands and local one-offs. Instead of having to drive from modernist coffee shop to seasonal California restaurant to minimalist boutique, at Platform they all reside in one place. And by owning the whole complex, Miller and his co-owner David Fishbein can control the mix over time, and avoid the runaway rents that turn trendy streets into blighted, brand-saturated stretches.
Is their approach basically the benevolent philosopher king model of real estate? “If it’s us, yeah,” Miller says. “We’ve struck a good balance between commercial viability and interesting stores and being good for the neighborhood.”
At lunchtime on the Roberta’s patio, the LA crowd wears business casual and cult streetwear while their small, engaging dogs whine under tables. Inside, two wood-fired ovens rage, and a fridge packed with ducks and steaks huddles in the corner, looking a little old-fashioned. The bar is terrazzo; the chairs are pastels of pink, blue, and yellow; a swooping wall is bedecked in concrete breeze blocks — a local LA touch! The fluffy, tangy pizza crust, kissed with char, supports a layer of raw chicories, which are a touch wet. A Budweiser is $6, but it is a local beer, brewed in Van Nuys. At the edge of the complex, an elevated train streaks by, an avatar of the new, 21st-century Los Angeles.
Eating fancy pizza outdoors in the winter is very seductive, especially if there’s a suggestion of public transportation nearby. But a midday sparkling rosé loses its luster when you accidentally make eye contact with someone on the Sweetgreen patio across the way. Despite Miller and Fishbein’s commitment to including local shops, the experience at Platform is one of brands. Pacific blue straws from the Blue Bottle Coffee bob by; a woman in a floppy hat and skinny overalls pumps a sample Aesop dispenser. Spandex-clad SoulCycle devotees march past the bright yellow Monocle store. A white guy in a T-shirt featuring Tom from MySpace walks into Roberta’s and says, “This isn’t like going to the one in Brooklyn.”
That the legend of Roberta’s, which didn’t have gas for its first 14 months of existence, would end in the literal shadow of a boutique fitness business is distressing. But more interestingly, and uncomfortably, at Platform, Roberta’s fits right in. Alongside a wine bar, a taqueria from a Tartine alum, and a rooftop restaurant whose outdoor heaters resemble a bonfire at night, Roberta’s LA sells high-quality, genuinely delicious food to an enthusiastic customer base. And yet the fact that the pizza is good, and the service is friendly, only makes the experience more uncanny.
Maybe the discomfort is, more than anything else, one of recognition. In a Robb Report story about the new Los Angeles location, Roberta’s co-founder Carlo Mirarchi likens opening in a West LA mall to growing up. The people I once floated with in a dumpster pool have probably gotten professional degrees and full-time jobs (or full access to their trust funds). Over the past 20 years, children of the suburban middle and upper middle class moved into cities, seeking vibrancy and diversity after bland and segregated childhoods spent… wasting time at the mall. But suburban values, and money, followed us — and drove the engine of gentrification, embodied in the ’00s craft food culture, which was damningly white. The Merlot-swilling ’90s suburban lifestyle wasn’t dismantled by backyard chickens and pickles. Its children grew up into yuppies with better pizza.
And that pizza, once so singular and special, is increasingly ubiquitous. In New York, there’s frozen Roberta’s pizza, and another location forthcoming in a Williamsburg development (Roberta’s remaining owners have been trying to sell out for a bit now). And while Roberta’s may have defined bougie pizza in New York, Los Angeles is the nation’s capital of pizza heresy (enter California Pizza Kitchen). Why arrive from Brooklyn to become a high-end mall pizzeria in a city that defined mall pizza? Or import Bushwick cred to Culver City, when in nearby Venice, Gjelina — which also opened in 2008 in a neighborhood defined by artists — serves a wild nettle pizza, fire-roasted radicchio, and fashionable wines by the glass? (There’s an Aesop in that neighborhood now, too.)
Miller says the Roberta’s team joined Platform because of a longstanding, personal relationship — that he and Miller believed in them, and their story, forged in the big Brooklyn cultural moment, and wanted to support whatever they did next. From the diner’s perspective, however, this personal connection is obscure. Instead, the qualities that made the original Roberta’s important — the sense of risk and improvisation and novelty — are lost amidst the succulents, reducing an influential restaurant to a pretty good meal. It’s not unpleasant! Gjelina’s reservations are impossible, and parking, and ugh, so why not have pretty good pizza at the hipster mall? There is definitely parking: The most Instagrammed element of Platform — “Platform” being the word for technology that serves you everything and is responsible for none of it — is the oozing, technicolor mural by Jen Stark sliding down the four-story garage.
Beyond convenience, I’m not sure what Los Angeles is getting by having its very own Roberta’s. And as developers partner with out-of-town chefs to open splashy high-end restaurants, banking on an authenticity tied to New York or San Francisco, I worry the city’s restaurant culture is losing out. Even if these restaurants arrive because of genuine personal connection or enthusiasm, it’s still creating an eerie sameness amongst big cities that were once much more distinct. “I haven’t been inundated with people who just need a little break,” Miller says, of why most of his tenants are more established. “That’s my dream, to find those people.” (He invites said local dreamers to contact him.) No matter where the breakdown in the system is, however, it remains that lots of small, independent restaurateurs-to-be can’t afford the rent, and LA’s developments are filling with familiar names. Roberta’s fits right in at Platform because it is not a homegrown restaurant — it’s a brand. Which is wild, because the main promise of restaurants like Roberta’s, in their wood-fired shipping container smelly chicken glory, was not to be brands.
Maybe the problem stems from an error of thinking. In the ’90s and ’00s, the main sin of brands was to offer generic, shitty versions of pleasurable things, or so we thought. Starbucks, Bath & Body Works, and Pizza Hut were just not very good, therefore, Blue Bottle, Aesop, and Roberta’s to the rescue. I bought this argument, but here I am, back at the mall and kind of mad about it. It turns out our brand-saturated, unequal food culture won’t be fixed by wood ovens and heritage grains; expansion is facilitated, or even necessitated, by the industry’s brutal economics, which reduce food to a commodity even after we’ve spent a decade building it into an art.
To think that most pizza just wasn’t nice or unique enough was a damning opinion to have held. Especially because Pizza Hut has its own greasy, chemical thrill, and in Los Angeles, I miss the tomato pie of my Philadelphia childhood. Maybe my heart sinks sitting on the patio at Platform because I see an array of restaurants designed precisely to cater to me, and they do. In their reflection, I don’t like what I see.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.