Gwen at lunch
It’s the place to be at 12:34pm on a Wednesday…
Author’s note: Gwen is redesigning it’s lunch service starting at some theoretical point in 2018, so I thought I’d publish this piece that’s been lurking in my unfinished stories for a while. I’d say I wrote most of it in the late summer of 2017, and the rest of it after a memorable New Years Eve.
It’s been a year and a chunk since Curtis and Luke Stone opened Gwen, their second fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles. The restaurant that (still?) wants to bring Michelin stars back to Los Angeles and also wants to be your friendly neighborhood butcher shop is around the corner from my house. When Gwen opened in 2016, it was the most exciting thing to happen on our humble stretch of the Sunset Boulevard since David Bowie performed at the Hollywood Athletic Club in the 90’s. I’m kidding, of course. We also have the Hollywood Christmas parade.
Gwen in the day is defined by Gwen at night. My husband and I have been going back to the restaurant as often as we can afford, which means one birthday or the other. The meat is phenomenal, end of story, full stop, don’t let the giant cow rib hit you on the way out. And there’s always one other dish on the menu that you mourn while you eat it, because it’s never going to happen to you in quite that way again. In August, it was ocean trout with buerre blanc aoli, and a razor-thin slice of pumpernickel shaped like it could fly. This is food so good you want to yell at it. Also in August, we sat at the Chef’s Counter in the back, which was only possible because the Chef was not in the kitchen.
Whether the Chef is in the kitchen defines a great deal of one’s evening at Gwen. Stone has two Los Angeles restaurants, so he’s always not at one of them. And no matter how much the chandeliers glitter or how beautifully the Waygu melts on your tongue, a restaurant defined by its chef, sans chef, is a 4th grade birthday party that the popular girls have shunned.
Author’s note: Maude is undergoing a reboot, possibly based in the above dilemma.
Gwen at night suffers from an inevitable and inescapable case of “over-the-shoulder-itis.” Who’s that dining next to us and what movie were they just in? What’s that terrine and is it on my 10-course tasting menu? (Sadly, no.) Who the hell can afford to order a steak that big? And if the Chef is in, everyone in the restaurant takes part in “The Craning Neck Waltz.” If you don’t take care, the man can become more interesting than the meal.
“Over-the-shoulder-itis” isn’t limited to the customers. The young chefs, executing the same dish over and over, have the eyes in the back of their head trained on their boss. This is expected in a restaurant that’s trying really do something, but at Gwen you also feel that same nervous energy in the front of the house. Food arrives with precision, they have their dance down like ice skaters on a frozen lake in the moonlight. But for some reason it feels like they’re never talking to you, they are accomplishing you. Ever been to a party at CAA? This is how Gwen feels at night. This is what means to be “internationally known.” This is what television does.
And this is why I love Gwen at lunch.
Gwen at lunch
Gwen at lunch — it’s the time when the restaurant comes closest to fulfilling its promise as a friendly neighborhood place. It seems open almost by accident, which is my favorite feeling in any eating establishment.
Earlier this year, they experimented with opening as early as 8am, when you could sneak in for coffee and a monkey bread, as the delivery trucks rumbled outside. The counter staff was bleary-eyed, but relaxed. No one was looking over their shoulder at 8am, if only because Luke Stone was outside, washing piss off the corner of the building. (Welcome to Hollywood, mate.) But I noticed the 8am crew was also there at 8pm, and so it didn’t surprise when the restaurant began opening at 10am on weekdays.
Gwen at lunch is an absent-minded affair. Natural light streams in from Sunset Boulevard, filtered through the shrubbery that protects the restaurant from the reality of Sunset Boulevard. The bar looks like a closed-off section of Disneyland. The kitchen orbits are slower, and in a little space between the counter and the fire pit, the pastry chef churns out stellar sandwiches in her spare time. (Which is how much time, exactly)? The dining room is lightly populated by construction guys in shorts, music executives from Delicious Vinyl, and the occasional passel of elderly tourists, one of whom kept asking me for water at the table. (I got her the water.)
These are all people who know a damned good sandwich when they taste one. The meatball sub fills a part of you that you didn’t know was empty. The grinder is as good as you would expect from a bunch of butchers. And my love for the tuna fish sandwich is as profound as it is unexpected. (It has to do with being a Subway sandwich artist. And you don’t want to know.) I had never considered the possibility that slabs of rich butter belonged in a tuna fish sandwich. Now I consider it often, especially when I’m at my desk at work crunching on dry ramen. (Not as awful as it sounds, but close.) On the rare day when I’m home from work on a weekday, that tuna fish sandwich is my first and only thought.
The line at the counter is a motley mix of freelancers in expensive sweatpants, nurses in scrubs from a nearby medical center, and the random delivery guy from Postmates. It is not fast. It is not organized. Anyone who works the register at Gwen always looks like they know they should be hacking up a cow, but they can’t until they swipe your card and get you that iced tea.
But then again, no one asks you if you’ve been to Maude. (No, by the way, because the “over the shoulder” conditions in Beverly Hills are only for the very brave or the very rich.) No one tries to sell you the wagyu beef upgrade — it’s just there in the butcher counter, waiting for a special someone. And they’re always good for a refill on that iced tea.
And often as not, the chef is indeed in. Is it possible to leisurely barrel around your own restaurant? That’s how Curtis Stone walks around Gwen at lunch — like a surfer on the highway who sees a set rolling in from the deep. In the door, out the door. Up the stairs, down the stairs. Swing by the meat locker and straight on ’til Gwen in the evening.