Lingua Franca sits along the Los Angeles River. It’s one of the hottest tables in LA, offering views of wildlife alongside elegant salads, beef cheeks braised in root beer, and heaps of matchstick fries. Bringing a sophisticated and fun touch to simple food isn’t new to owners Peter and Lauren Lemos, though. Blocks away from the restaurant sits the shipping container that launched the team’s Wax Paper, which since its opening in 2015 has become a favorite takeout spot for inventive, quality sandwiches. Lingua Franca is almost an extension of Wax Paper, but as a more ambitious, sit-down restaurant. The latter couldn’t exist without the former.
After finding a following with their sandwich shops and casual lunch counters, restaurateurs and chefs around the country are now opening full-fledged, and in some cases, more formal restaurants: Wax Paper opened the “new Californian” Lingua Franca. The team behind New Orleans’s Turkey and the Wolf, known for its fried bologna sandwiches and good vibes, has opened Hungry Eyes, a full-service, ’80s-themed restaurant with cocktails. Italian hoagie slingers Grazie Grazie in DC begat Grazie Nonna, serving red-sauce classics under chandeliers. In New York City, there’s the HiHi Room, a restaurant devoted to the flavors of the Mid-Atlantic from fun sandwich godfathers Court Street Grocers, and the team behind Spiral Diner in Fort Worth, Texas is opening Maiden, a vegan tasting menu spot.
Five or so years ago, for many restaurateurs, opening a sandwich shop was a way to bring fun and creativity to their work. According to Mason Hereford, when he, Colleen Quarls, Nathan Barfield, and the rest of the team opened Turkey and the Wolf in 2016, each of them had recently been a sous chef at a higher-end restaurant. “Turkey and the Wolf was our way of getting away from all the things that we had been doing for years ... We kind of wanted to try to not only work less hours, but do it our way.”
Opening a restaurant is never easy, but opening a casual place is often a lower-cost way for restaurateurs to establish themselves. Wax Paper allowed Peter and Lauren Lemos to bring the skills they learned in fine dining kitchens to a venue with a lower price point. It was also “a way for us to get our name out there and start to create something that people knew us for,” Peter Lemos says, instead of toiling away behind the scenes.
When Amy McNutt opened Spiral Diner, a vegan diner and bakery in Fort Worth, in 2002, a lunch counter was a lower lift than a more formal space. “It felt like the best way to introduce a Texas crowd to vegan dining was by making it a diner, making it very familiar and comfortable, something that wasn’t going to freak anybody out too much,” she says.
But now, diners are increasingly interested in experiences, whether that’s still a reaction to lockdown confinement or because TikTok has put a renewed focus on visiting restaurants for the vibes. “I think people are looking for maybe something a little bit more special and a little bit more elevated. And food is such a big part of people’s lives too ... the customer’s expectations are so much more elevated,” says Peter Lemos.
With their sit-down restaurant Grazie Nonna, Casey Patten and Gerald Addison “talked about a concept where a lot of the core philosophies from quick service sandwich shops ultimately apply,” Patten says. “How can we build something that’s casual but fun?” Patten had already found success with sandwich shop Grazie Grazie, and according to Addison, the goal was to get people to make Grazie Nonna their weekly regular spot in just the same way a sandwich place might be. That led to a balance of the casual and upscale — Italian comfort classics, served with cocktails and romantic lighting.
For McNutt, the success of Spiral Diner also helped prime her community for a fine dining vegan experience. “We’re definitely not the only [vegan] place anymore, which was our goal,” she says. And now that she no longer has to educate diners on the basics of veganism, McNutt can get more inventive. “[At Maiden] we can really take our time not only creating the recipes, but in the presentation and plating and preparation. I keep joking that it’s grown up Spiral, because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve grown up, and this is just something that I find there’s a need for.”
Mostly, these chefs are reapproaching fine dining with new eyes. According to Hereford, Turkey and the Wolf chef Phil Cenac wanted to expand into dinner service at a higher price point, and whereas first the team took their fine dining skills and applied them to stuffed sandwiches, now the reverse is happening at Hungry Eyes. “We took some of those ideas about what you can get away with in irreverence and fun, and tried to reapply them to those ingredients and styles of service that we had been working in years prior,” Hereford says. “We want to be able to use those same ingredients like sweet breads or raw beef for tartare, but we still want to serve something that’s altogether playful and makes you smile.”
This is how it should be. As more people than ever understand, there is no one way for food service to look, no one standard of quality. There are lessons to be learned in every corner of the industry. The next time you sit down for dinner, you can think to yourself, maybe this was all inspired by a great sandwich.