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Why the Heck Is London’s Most Important Restaurant Opening in an LA Mall?

Eater’s Digest unpacks the iconic British nose-to-tail pioneer’s unusual stateside move

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The exterior of St. John
The exterior of St. John

Anthony Bourdain once called St. John the “restaurant of his dreams.” The London restaurant, which has long been considered one of Britain’s most influential and the birthplace of the modern nose-to-tail movement, confirmed this week that it’ll be opening its first location outside of the country — in a Los Angeles mall.

The Platform, located in Culver City, California, is a shiny new development filled with millennial-bait brands like Lululemon and Van Leeuwen ice cream. Brooklyn favorite Roberta’s has also opened an outpost there, bringing a copycat version of its Bushwick original to west LA.

The St. John move, a seemingly out-of-left-field development first reported by Eater London, comes hot on the heels of the iconic restaurant’s 25th birthday. Opened in 1994 by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, St. John has expanded a number of times within London. A bread and wine bar, a now-defunct hotel in London’s Chinatown, and a bakery all bearing the St. John name grew out of the original, but the influential brand has never successfully made the leap outside of London’s sprawling borders.

Adam Coghlan, editor of Eater London, says the team has tried and failed to open in New York in the past, making the move to Los Angeles even more surprising. But, Coghlan says, the commercial opportunity presented by the Platform must’ve been too good for Henderson and Gulliver to pass up.

Still, it raises the question: Can an iconic hometown hero open outside of that home and still be wonderful? St. John’s name can be transplanted, but can its soul?

To find out, Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen called up Coghlan and Eater LA’s Farley Elliott on this week’s episode of Eater’s Digest.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts.

Below, a lightly edited transcript of our interviews with Adam Coghlan and Farley Elliott.

Amanda Kludt: Daniel, the biggest story of the week, kicking off the show with it. St. John, the iconic London restaurant is opening a branch in a mall in Los Angeles called The Platform.

Daniel Geneen: So much to unpack there.

Amanda: This blew my mind a little bit. St. John has not expanded outside of London, ever. It’s a 25-year-old restaurant. I think the first time I went to London as an adult, it was the restaurant that was on my list. I had to try really hard to get a reservation. It was super, super exciting to eat there. I go back every single time I go to London.

Daniel: Really?

Amanda: Yes.

Daniel: I think if you look at smaller cities that have a prominent restaurant, you know Montreal has Pied du Cochon, and Joe Beef actually, and funny enough, they’re kind of similar. If you look at a smaller city that has a restaurant that is important and the weight and how synonymous that city is with that restaurant is equal to how much St. John, as a name, matters to London-

Amanda: Which is a very big city.

Daniel: London is obviously a huge city.

Amanda: Yeah.

Daniel: Can you, off the top of your head, come up with a bigger restaurant, important restaurant to an important city moves to LA? The only one I can think of is like if Noma was opening in LA. That would be just as big. There’s a lot of like-

Amanda: Sure, there’s a lot of restaurants I could, but have they in the past? No.

Daniel: But ones that you wouldn’t expect.

Amanda: No, and I think it’s really important.

Daniel: It’s the biggest transplant ever.

Amanda: It’s huge and St. John is so cool. It’s so cool. And they are opening in The Platform. Longtime listeners of the show will know that The Platform is not cool. It’s cool in this... It has the veneer of cool. It’s basically a mall, an outdoor mall, where the curator of this development picked a lot of quote, unquote, “cool brands”.

Daniel: Right.

Amanda: So you walk around it and as a yuppie millennial type, you see like, “Oh, there’s a Roberta’s, there’s an Asos, there’s a Soul Cycle, there’s a cool ice cream shop. There’s a really fancy organic nail salon,” that you can’t even walk into.

Daniel: Yeah.

Amanda: It’s just annoyingly all mushed together and it takes away the originality of some of those brands like Roberta’s. I had a pizza at Roberta’s there earlier this year when I was in that neighborhood and it was great, but also made me sad. Anyway, that’s enough of us talking about it. I think we should call up the expert, Adam Coghlan, Eater London editor, who broke the story.

Daniel: Broke it?

Amanda: He broke the story. The LA Times, I think, had the scoop or had the story and then Adam got it out about an hour before they did.

Daniel: Do you love that?

Amanda: I do.

Daniel: That’s some old fashion Eater grit.

Amanda: Adam, where are you joining us from?

Adam Coghlan: I am joining you from a very nice new hip cafe in East London.

Amanda: Ooh, what’s it called?

Adam: It’s called The Factory.

Daniel: Wow. What’s the weather like?

Adam: Oh, it’s been biblical today.

Amanda: So first up, tell us what is St. John, for people who aren’t super familiar with this restaurant?

Adam: Wow. I’d say it’s probably the most famous and most influential British restaurant in terms of how long it’s been open, how sort of universally adored it is really, and also critically, how many important and influential chefs have gone through its kitchen. And not just chefs though — front of house, maitre d’s, etc.

Amanda: Can you talk a little bit about Fergus Henderson?

Adam: So Fergus is an interesting character. He was not a chef. So it opened in 1994. Fergus Henderson is a trained architect and he sort of just got into cooking and opened St. John with a guy called Trevor Gulliver who had run this kind of bar restaurant in London and got to know Ferguson. Together, they did this thing.

One of the reasons it became so big was because they were so well connected with the art world. It became the hangout for the young British artists. Tracy M. and the Chapman brothers, those kinds of characters. So it became like the hip place in the mid-’90s and late ‘90s, and then has evolved ever since really. It’s still really cool.

Daniel: So Adam, now that you’re making bold proclamations like saying it’s the most influential London restaurant. Would you say it is the most influential restaurant in the nose-to-tail movement as well?

Adam: Probably, yeah. I think one of the things I would say about the whole nose-to-tail shtick, that’s an extremely kind of neat marketing strap line in a way. And I think particularly for American audiences, that’s the thing that kind of has caught on. And yes, he’s written books that that’s the name of the book and that is definitely the philosophy. But I think, as is often the case, the story is much more rich than nose to tail.

Adam: St. John’s has the best cheese on toast in London, it serves the best green salad in London. It’s the most interesting place to eat seafood. It’s like people think that you go to St. John and eat pigs nose and —

Daniel: Pigs tails.

Adam: Yeah. And you do.

Amanda: You do.

Adam: Yeah. But it’s only, to me, it’s a part of a much bigger and more interesting story about what they’ve done with food.

Daniel: That’s interesting. So you feel like the message or the understanding that people outside of London and outside of England have of St. John’s is solely rooted in that idea of nose to tail or whole animal dining-

Amanda: It’s reductive.

Daniel: It’s reductive, and it’s not how you guys there consider it?

Adam: I don’t for a second deny that that is one of its critical influences and a huge pillar of their philosophy. But I think there is more to it. I talk about it myself as a British restaurant. It is a British restaurant. It’s also basically a French restaurant. It’s also basically an Italian restaurant.

That’s another interesting kind of facet of this story and how this story has evolved in the mythology around St. John’s has caught so many people’s attention. It’s a fascinating sort of case that in so many respects. There’s so much about the culture of it that’s like Southern European and yet, it’s got this sort of reputation of being an old British working men’s kind of pie restaurant in some respects. It’s very urbane actually, very urbane.

Amanda: So they are celebrating their 25th anniversary this week. Can you talk about how they’ve expanded within London over the last two decades?

Adam: Yeah, so it’s a bit of a mixed picture really. They opened in ‘94 in Smithfield on the edge of the big meat market. That was one of the reasons why they kind of opened there. They then in 2003, I think it was, they opened St. John Bread and Wine, which is personally my favorite. Often the menu is more interesting, a little bit more creative. They actually opened a hotel which closed after about three years. It really was not a success.

Amanda: Do you know why at all?

Adam: I think the location was problematic. The thought process of the whole project was kind of perhaps a bit rushed. They’ve now opened a standalone bakery in Common Garden. So I have this theory that their thing, whether or not Brexit happens, the thing that will save the London restaurant industry and food industry in general is bread and wine, because people just seem to always want that and people are going to need sustenance and they’re going to need to drown their sorrows.

Amanda: So with this Los Angeles expansion, why do you think they’re going to LA and why The Platform specifically?

Adam: It’s so weird. I honestly did not believe it when I first heard it. I think they’ve been presented with an exciting commercial opportunity. I also think, despite the fact that there’s this sense, and I thought it myself, that it would be a much better fit in say New York, which is much more like London. I kind of feel like, based on what I was saying earlier about the fact that it’s so French and Italian in so many ways, that the southern European nature of Los Angeles versus what I think of as New York as more Northern European.

I don’t know. It sort of seems to fit in a way and I think they’ll be able to do some exciting things with produce, given their kind of architectural past and kind of connection to the art world and sort of adjacent fashion worlds and hip scenes. I can only think that that sort of kind of factored into their thinking. I presume it’s just a box. They can do really whatever they want.

Daniel: When you say that it’s an exciting commercial opportunity, what do you mean by that?

Adam: So I think they want to make some money. Trevor, Trevor Gulliver, Fergus’s business partner, who I get the impression is very much leading this project, he’ll have calculated the numbers and realized that LA is a food city either is very, very, very exciting and that he thinks that they can do well. The power of the brand is serious. I think it’s a boon for LA to be honest.

Amanda: Adam, thank you so much for spending the time with us.

Adam: Thank you for having me. Great to talk to you guys.

Daniel: So now that we’ve heard about St. John from the London side, how else could we conclude the story without hearing what’s going on on the ground in Los Angeles? We have none other than Farley Elliot, Eater LA. Farley, break this down for us.

Farley Elliott: So yeah, obviously you guys have talked to Adam. St. John is a seminal restaurant for London and it was a really big surprise that the place was managing to come to not just Los Angeles, but Culver City, which is traditionally been a little bit of a bedroom community for folks who worked elsewhere. It’s been booming in the past couple of years. Amazon is putting studios in there, Sony, it’s got a lot of development projects. It’s where Vespertine is. So it’s a big get for the area and everyone’s really excited.

Daniel: Hmm. Do you have any sense of how LA scored this deal?

Farley: You know, my understanding and some of the reporting I’ve seen elsewhere, is that the developers who own the Platform Project, which we’ve talked about on the podcast before, is a sort of modern play place for well-to-do millennial adults. They also own a big project in downtown called The Row, which is a much more massively scale urban development. And the St. John’s folks got taken over and wined and dined and they thought about putting a place in there before backing away. And so The Platform was actually a secondary option and a little bit of a surprise in that regard.

Daniel: Interesting.

Amanda: Do you think it’s going to be a huge success?

Farley: You know, I’m curious about it. Los Angeles is a pretty particular dining town. We’re not the scene that traditionally cares about all the big names. David Chang is popular and he’s got a show on Netflix and Major Domo obviously does well, but Nomad has sort of famously struggled here. Andy Ricker got sent out of town. So I’m curious as to how much the average diner actually knows about St. John. But I do think that this is a type of dining that we don’t see that often. It’s very European. We’re going to put bone marrow on things, we’re going to make it really, really rich and exciting and sort of lavish times. I’m hopeful that people can come and find their voice at this restaurant and really enjoy it.

Daniel: Mm-hmm.

Amanda: What’s your take on The Platform as a dining experience?

Farley: It’s funny. I’ve said this before, but it’s the only place I think that a sort of actually looks like what you thought it was going to look like when they first started talking about it. There’s a lot of young folks hanging out in front of a Sweet Green with laptops and Roberta’s from Brooklyn is there turning pizzas and they’ve really come alive and become a sort of go-to destination.

It’s not the traditional place that you would think a lot of people from outside Los Angeles are coming to open. For example, Girl on the Goat out of Chicago was opening in a warehouse-y sort of space down in the Arts District, but if they can find the right push, I think that St. John can really make an effort to change the demographics of that neighborhood and get people excited in a way that they been before. So I’m certainly rooting for the whole thing.

Daniel: Mm-hmm. Were you pumped when you heard this? Not that we need to wade into the New York versus LA debate because obviously it’s been trod over, but it feels like a pretty big win for LA, especially if you are a big follower of the food world.

Farley: Yeah, I think in thinking about it in terms of: We got something that New York or even Vegas didn’t get, or even the San Francisco for that matter — that’s pretty great. And I think the ability to pull in a name that is so universally known by a certain type of dining set is a really big deal for the city. I am surprised that St. John didn’t end up in New York City first, but as they’ve said, they like to kind of buck convention a little bit, so why not do it in Culver City, of all places?

Daniel: Yeah. Well, Farley, thank you so much calling in. We appreciate your time.

Amanda: Thanks, Farley.