When it first opened in 2011, I noted that in my sixty years of observing the restaurant scene in Los Angeles I had never before seen a new restaurant open its doors right on the heels of a favorable full-page article in the New York Times about its owner (and, incidentally, without once mentioning its food!) The story, headlined "In L.A., a Restaurant Contender Elbows In," detailed how Craig Susser, the long-time manager of a legendary Italian celebrity joint in West Hollywood, Dan Tana's, left there after the 75-year-old owner sold it (supposedly for $6 million!) to someone else (a Croatian countrywoman of his. He was reputed to have promised to sell it to his long-time maitre d'.) And, in opening his new place, Craig's (8826 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, (310) 276-1900), on the south side of the avenue at N. La Peer between Doheny and Robertson, valet parking $10)), the then-45-year old Susser had gathered up many of the favorite and famous clientele of his old stomping grounds in the process. At the time Craig told me that he began working as a waiter at Tana's 23 years ago between nonexistent acting gigs, as well as tending bar on a weekend shift, then becoming maitre d' and manager eight years later. One of my long-time readers, billionaire Gary Winnick, had emailed me then: "Craig is a very talented guy and will succeed because he understands the marketplace and, most importantly, his customers. That's why they keep coming back." I know that Gary invested in the restaurant so I don't know if his judgment was impartial, but he's a very hip guy so I kind of trusted his acumen. He also alerted me to several dishes which I tried when I went there my first time.
Since then, I have been to Craig's dozens of times, and quickly realized it had become the hottest restaurant in the city of Los Angeles, probably the hardest reservation (apart from Totaraku, the elusive Japanese steakhouse on Pico). Last night I took my friend Ron Salisbury, the owner of the El Cholo chain of topflight Mexican restaurants, to Craig's for dinner. This experienced restaurant maven was astonished at the sight.....the three-deep bar scene all night, the packed dining room, the general air of fun, buzz, careful management....and after we ate a tableful of classic dishes, the high quality of the food coming out of Chef Kursten Kizer's kitchen.
Located in the former premises of Doug Arango (which then became Melrose Bar & Grill before closing), they had nicely redecorated it, from the Regency striped awning to the ebony-black door, with booths of "Cadillac/Tiffany blue," according to decorator/architect J. Scott Charles, who helped in the process, finding a genuine mahogany bar for the front. When I recently asked Craig about his menu, he replied: "We have worked closely to deliver upscale American comfort food, with a nice balance between indulgent favorites and health-conscious options." He laughingly went on to say that the menu was quite different from Tana's, with the only similarities a handful of iconic selections... the Caesar ($15), Chicken Parmigiana (with spaghetti marinara, $29), Chicken Paillard (with arugula salad, $26), a 14-0z Prime New York Steak (dry-aged, with broccoli, $51) and Whitefish ($40), either broiled plain or sautéed, over summer succotash with lemon beurre blanc.
Weldmans Honey-Truffle Chicken ($30) is still the most popular dish on the menu, Southern-fried, with truffle honey, mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. Sorry, guys, it is a bit too sweet for my taste, so I recommend you go for the Roasted Rosemary Chicken ($30), which we all love. It's chicken and pork sausage roulade, au jus, and veggies. My ex raves about the BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($29), served with french fries and cole slaw. I agree, they're deeply done until the meat falls off the bone (into an eager mouth), with those amazing fries. (She gets them with the sauce on the side, a really bad idea.) Last night Ron went for the Filet Mignon ($50), an 8 oz. hunk of prime beef served with bleu cheese ravioli in a demi-glace. This is a dish which Craig had remembered when he began eating out as a kid, and it has proved to be one of the most popular on his menu. (I have always made known my disdain for the filet cut, just a chunk of beef boring after one slice, but the proprietor tells me that fat-conscious diners want it.) Rather, my steak preference here is the 18-oz. Prime Rib-eye, on the bone ($53), served with compound butter and those crispy fries. For burger fans, there is a whopper called Big Al's Cheeseburger ($20), cheddar and American cheese on a Portuguese bun, with onion jam, bacon, mayo, arugula, spicy pickles and fries. Nowhere in this city is a better burger to be had at a better price.
Over the past four years we've discovered that it is a really nice mix of comfort foods... like homemade pizzas with thinnish crusts. I am kind of addicted to the Three P's ($18) one, pepperoni, pepperoncini peppers, parmesan, mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce. (Even Vito's can't match this for taste and price.) Colorado Lamb Chops ($53) and Scallops ($40) served over risotto are other favorites. I would avoid the rather spicy Buffalo Wings ($18) and opt for the delicious Heirloom Tomato Burrata ($17), arugula, tomato, burrata, baguette, prosciutto topped with balsamic dressing. (Drizzle a little olive oil and a dash of of pepper to pep it up. A wonder.) My sterling waiter, Frank, like all the servers there, was very helpful in recommending some dinner favorites. It was he who recommended a dish called Chicken Velasco ($29), Casamegos tequila-jalapeno jus, brown rice), unusual.
Last week I started my dinner with a regular American Chopped Salad ($15), but quickly went to the Ahi Tuna Tartar ($19), one of the best versions I've had recently, not chopped too fine I must mention the side dishes... especially the Jalapeno Creamed Corn ($13). Since I grew up eating canned creamed corn, and still love it, I was in heaven over this plentiful portion of fresh-off-the-cob kernels with a hint of pepper. And a bowl of Mac 'n Cheese ($13), even better the next day at lunch. Half-and-half, potatoes and onions, a must. I'm going back Friday night for a dinner with my woman friend, and have already staked out a selection of dishes... Crab Cakes ($19), two pastas... Orecchiette Truffle Boolognese ($29) and Jerry Weintraub's Spaghetti Clam Show ($26), after a bowl of the Cioppino ($48, gasp!), with its clams, shrimp, crab leg and white fish in a spicy red garlic broth. Kiss me first. She is vegan and there are several such dishes on the menu, including a Warm Quinoa Salad ($25) and Spaghetti Squash Primavera ($26).
I have had many of its fine desserts... recommend the deeply favorable Cappuccino Ice Cream ($10), the wonderful Bread Pudding ($12). Pass on the Banana Foster ($12) over a chocolate waffle...and get another cappuccino ice cream or a slice of Apple Pie a la Mode ($10). The wine list is deep, smartly chosen, somewhat pricey but with several gems there. Cocktails are well made, and my Bombay Sapphire martini came in a chilled glass, always a good sign.
I can well understand why Craig's became an instant hit... lots and lots of celebrities every evening. More big names here than any other venue in the city. Last night I was seated in a booth next to George and Jolene Schlatter, and the expansive "Laugh In" producer winked at me as we exchanged mouth-smacking grins. Management under Tommy and Peter is so smooth it's effortless. The smart savvy proprietor is constantly striving to improve what is already working beautifully. Mention that you read about it here when you call for a reservation... it may help. Then again, it may not. I suggest that you just call way in advance.
Craig's is open nightly for dinner but the room is available in the daytime for private parties. Their lunch take-out business is enormous and offices all around use them midday.
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