The term “California cuisine” has always been a moving target. In the 1970s, California chefs gained national attention for their laser focus on seasonal produce, global cuisines, and for lots of grilling, but despite the emergence of some clear figureheads, like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, the food never really coalesced into a consistent ideology. For years, some chefs refused to acknowledge that “California cuisine” even existed.
But even without a clear definition of the food on the plate, diners then and now harbor an image of California dining. The concept conjures a place more than a flavor: a table on the patio or by the pool, surrounded by desert plants and minor celebrities, a glass of wine glinting in the ceaseless sunshine. And increasingly, restaurants, both in the state and elsewhere, design their spaces to evoke this scene.
“Architecturally, I think every restaurant should be transportive,” says Erling Wu-Bower, chef and co-owner of Pacific Standard Time, a restaurant that promises to bring “the warmth and bounty of California to downtown Chicago.” That comes through in PST’s lofty white and wood-beam ceiling, light-wood chairs and soft gray banquettes, lights hidden in gentle ceramic fixtures or accented with warm brass, textured plaster walls, massive windows, low dividing walls and unobtrusive see-through bar, and tumbling plants strategically enlivening concrete elements.
California wine bar Coast and Valley in Brooklyn, achingly chic deli Californien Echo (named for LA’s Echo Park) in Paris, Café No Sé in Austin’s South Congress Hotel, Montreal’s health food-focused restaurant called Venice, and daytime counter-service spot Muchacho in Atlanta all have the same vibe; the same clean, textured white walls; the same light-blond woods; the same leafy green plants. These restaurants don’t serve the same food or clientele, and they range in size and opening hours, but they all conjure the same place through common aesthetic elements.
Jeremy Levitt, co-founder of NYC-based design firm Parts and Labor, rhapsodizes about California’s beautiful landscapes, architecture, seafood, and vegetation. “It all flourishes out there,” he says. “People automatically make a connection to that. And people who live out east all feel connected to that.” At Pacific Standard Time, the team channeled that bounty through natural light and plants. Wu-Bower opted for philodendrons, ficuses, and monsteras, all native to warm climates, if not California specifically. Design director Danu Kennedy points out subtler touches, like beamed ceilings and plaster walls to evoke a 1970s Malibu ranch home, as well as breeze blocks that recall Palm Springs hotels of the same era.
These elements divide the cavernous space without interrupting the airy, open vibe, but Kennedy also says they contribute to a residential theme, helping diners feel especially welcome in homey little pockets throughout the restaurant. (While this isn’t a direct reference to California cuisine progenitor Chez Panisse in Berkeley, domesticity is key to both restaurant concepts. Waters has said she opened the restaurant in a former house in 1971 to offer refuge from the era’s political turbulence, creating comfort with furniture and tableware from flea markets.) Compared to Waters’ vintage furnishings, PST appears sleek and even cold. But the elegant, minimal furniture and decoration still conjure home, at least aspirationally, for many modern diners.
Coast and Valley co-founders Stephanie Watanabe and Eric Hsu go a step further. The couple transplanted art (a print by Julie Elliott of SF-based skincare brand In Fiore, photos of LA by Michelle Mishina, a small watercolor of LA palm trees) from their own living room to the restaurant, along with their own plants and even pieces of their home altar (a maneki-neko, crystals, incense). “There’s an aspect of connection, of community, of feeling uplifted, that carries through in the design,” Watanabe says. She’s especially proud of a communal table, inspired by the one at Nopa in San Francisco, where strangers become tablemates and occasionally new friends.
Coast and Valley is bright, clean, and open, with muted colors and plenty of space to breathe. Distractions are kept to a minimum. Watanabe says the design calms diners, especially harried New Yorkers besieged by stimuli. “People walk through the door and their shoulders drop three inches,” Watanabe says. “That’s how it feels when you’re sitting on the sidewalk in Venice and the breeze is blowing through your hair and you’re sipping a glass of wine and just hanging out.”
The Venice fantasy Watanabe describes and the platonic Malibu ranch home that runs through PST make clear that “California style” could more accurately be described as “Southern California style.” “When we talk about California, the style we’re talking about is really specifically Los Angeles,” says Cal Poly Pomona art history professor Alison Pearlman. From the ’40s through the ’60s, American and European architects like Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, and Rudolph Schindler constructed houses from Venice to Malibu that incorporated California’s vibrant ecosystem and natural light. These homes would inspire generations of the city’s designers, influencing both residential and commercial projects.
Much of the creative energy, Pearlman says, came from Venice, where architects like Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Michele Saee inspired collaboration among architects, artists, and restaurants. Josh Schweitzer, who designed notable spaces like City Restaurant, Border Grill, and Campanile, credited these architects, especially Gehry, for paving the way for a generation of young, experimental restaurant designers. In Inside the California Food Revolution, chef Joyce Goldstein further argues LA designers were more creative than their peers in San Francisco because they didn’t feel beholden to legacy restaurants. Unlike SF venues like Stars and Hayes Street Grill, which emulated establishments like Tadich Grill and Jack’s Restaurant, Angeleno designers saw a city of gas stations and warehouses where they could play.
In the late ’70s, as the New York Times would note a decade later, a “cafe society” emerged at Venice restaurant West Beach Cafe, where architects, artists, and other tastemakers gathered daily. There, owner Bruce Marder stripped the walls bare and displayed work by local artists, making the space feel like half beach shack, half gallery. The interior appeared simple, but as the Times picked up, Marder’s deliberate minimalism created an unhurried atmosphere where artists and patrons could idly graze and chat from morning till night.
Rose Cafe opened nearby the following year with art and natural light to rival West Beach, as well as lots of plants (both on tables and painted on walls). While the scene at Rose Cafe was considerably less refined than West Beach, it perpetuated the cafe’s reputation as a community space, catering to Venice’s local hippies and surfers. Pearlman argues West Beach’s all-white, art gallery aesthetic, combined with Rose Cafe’s laid-back bohemia, formed the “genetic code” of today’s minimalist, feel-good style.
Goldstein credits LA’s obsession with glitz and glamour for sparking the ensuing trend across the city, as owners sought to capture buzz by elevating diner experience. The aesthetic spread east in 1980 to restaurants like Trumps on Melrose, where Michael Roberts refurbished a gas station with art and succulents. In 1982 Puck introduced Beverly Hills to Spago, which recalled airy midcentury Case Study Houses by the Eamses and Neutra. Puck seated guests inside in Eero Saarinen-like patio chairs and covered the outdoor space in AstroTurf, merging interior and exterior. Schweitzer’s City Restaurant followed in 1985 in a converted carpet warehouse on La Brea where servers dotted tables with brightly colored tableware, not unlike the pastel plates seen everywhere now. Diners can still experience the original aesthetic firsthand at Santa Monica mainstay Michael’s, which Jonathan Gold recognized in 2017 as a time capsule from 1979. Michael McCarty famously decorated with artists like Ed Ruscha and Charles Garabedian, hanging works in the open dining room and even on the patio, where the art still rambles down right into the foliage.
With their casual approach to fine art and fine dining, these breezy restaurants challenged the oppressive, dark European establishments that once ruled the American restaurant scene. “Tired of receiving condescending and pompous treatment in the bastions of haute cuisine, diners wanted a more relaxed environment with friendly service,” Goldstein writes. Today’s California restaurants emerged from another overly serious chapter in American eating, characterized in pop culture (accurately or not) by Brooklyn hipsters, dark wood taverns, gluttonous meat temples, and hushed speakeasies. As the magnetic pole of influence flipped from Brooklyn to LA, diners gravitated toward lighter dishes and bright attitudes. Goldstein’s description of ’70s-era influencers fits well with California restaurants of the 2010s: “The new restaurants served up both good food and fun.”
The modern revolution began to take shape in 2011, less than a year after Instagram launched. Sqirl led the way, capturing social traffic with ricotta toast, which popped against the restaurant’s minimalist decor. It was followed in 2012 by Cafe Gratitude’s Venice location, which bore little resemblance to the 2004 San Francisco original thanks to Wendy Haworth, who outfitted the new restaurant with bare white walls, midcentury floating shelves, and succulents.
Then came Alma, which clinched the top spot on Bon Appetit’s Top 10 list in 2013 while utterly confusing editor Andrew Knowlton. “To be completely honest, the first time I ate there, I had my own doubts about the place,” Knowlton wrote at the time. “It resembles a temporary gallery space more than a bona fide eating establishment (chalkboard wall; simple wood finishes; a long open kitchen ... behind bouquets of flowering herbs and tiles doubling as plates.”
When chef Jason Neroni took over Rose Cafe in 2015 and renamed it the Rose, he brought on Studio UNLTD to update the space, bringing the trend full circle. The firm gutted the restaurant, hung plants from the ceiling with ’70s-inspired macrame, and installed work by local artist Craig Stecyk.
Soon the trend spread beyond the state’s borders and across the internet. Watanabe sees it all the time on design blogs, on Remodelista, and in Architectural Digest, but she doesn’t believe it’s necessarily representative of California; online, it looks more like a fashionable any-place. Pastel tableware mirrors sun-bleached SoCal but also acts as a neutral backdrop for Instagram food pics. Exposed rafters evoke Malibu ranch homes but could just as easily reference other trendy getaways, like a Tuscan villa or South African winery.
Restaurant owners are drawn to the aesthetic because it seems easy and cheap. “You’ve got wipeable surfaces, sturdy ceramic dinner plates, succulents on the table that don’t require a lot,” says design historian Maile Pingel. At the same time, they can obfuscate the sticker shock of $25 grain bowls with an aura of escapism and refined minimalism, arguably more essential than ever to avoid the ire of today’s news cycle.
Meanwhile, certain aspects of California design simply don’t work elsewhere. Fiddle-leaf figs, for example, have become iconic decoration for California-style interiors, but they tend to become temperamental in cold weather (the result: a lot of dead plants). Pre-existing architecture in many cities also causes trouble. Watanabe and Hsu had to search high and low for a Brooklyn space that could support the big windows they needed.
Wood may be the most telling design element. Jeff Guga, a protege of Gehry and a two-time Beard design finalist for Kismet and Jon & Vinny’s, both in Los Angeles, has become well known for his use of wood in restaurants. He explains that wood functions differently in LA than other cities. The natural light that floods Venice cafes is golden year-round, pushing designers toward unobtrusive light wood that will support that natural glow. In the Midwest, Guga explains, light turns cold and blue in winter, so owners should use warmer wood like cherry to counter the depressing effect.
Specific types of natural wood are important too. Guga outfitted Kismet with walls of poplar streaked with green due to a defect called cucumbering. The green eventually fades to brown over many years, allowing the interior to grow and change alongside the culinary program. It’s the sort of detail that designers elsewhere miss when they choose generic light wood to fit a California caricature.
At its best, homogenization causes confusion. Dimes in New York has inspired countless odes to its playful California vibe — only, restaurant co-founders Alissa Wagner and Sabrina De Sousa hail from New Jersey, and they don’t claim California as inspiration. At the same time, the restaurant Sunday in Brooklyn looks more typical of Santa Monica than its own New York borough.
At its worst, ambiguity encourages chefs to ignore the cultures that repopularized California cuisine. In the 1970s, chefs believed LA had no traditions — culinarily or architecturally — so they filled the void with new ideas. Today the city has re-emerged as a hub of innovation; this time, it’s not white chefs driving conversation, but immigrant communities. While Wu-Bower and Neroni energetically credit LA’s diversity for their menus, Pingel points out that not everyone is so conscious of California’s melting pot. “These California-style restaurants are serving food they think is Californian,” she says. “But California cuisine is so rich, varied, and complex, with so many different cultures from Asia and Mexico.” The California aesthetic is based on a muted palette, perfect as a background on Instagram but devoid of heritage or defining character. Mellow tones and distraction-free spaces anesthetize customers, never challenging them to consider the cultural origins of their food, or the people cooking it in the kitchen.
Restaurateurs have successfully channeled California ideals into unique, thoughtful restaurants in and out of the state, but it requires serious effort not to fall back on stereotypes. Over the last few years, California, and not just LA, has begun to set the national culinary tone. Los Angeles is influential in a way it hasn’t been since the 1980s, with Japanese, Mexican, French, Middle Eastern, and Italian restaurants all gaining due recognition for their impact on dining trends there and across the country. The city and the state are poised to establish a new, lasting legacy as one of America’s culinary destinations. California-style restaurants can help or hurt that effort, not only in the ways they represent California in their food, but by how they present it in their dining rooms.
Nicholas Mancall-Bitel is a food and culture writer based in NYC and LA.