Food & Drink

In a City of Spectacle, Tableside Service Has Long Played a Starring Role in LA’s Dining Scene

Dashing gauchos shave sirloin straight from swords at Brazil-born Fogo de Chão. Bananas caramelize in a flaming pan of brown sugar, butter, and rum at old school Pico Rivera restaurant Dal Rae. Caipirinhas coalesce in a liquid nitrogen swirl at The Bazaar by José Andrés. More LA restaurants are pairing flavorful foods and drinks with dramatic flair by modernizing classic tableside service.

Tableside service is not new to Los Angeles. Just flip through To Live and Dine in LA, Josh Kun’s book that tells the city’s story through vintage menus. For example, Scandia, which thrived on the Sunset Strip for 42 years before closing in 1989, served specialties like lammesadel, “young filet of lamb, roasted and prepared in the Scandia way, carved and served at your table.” Scandia’s “Viking Sword” sounds even more dazzling: a “large brochette of broiled breast of turkey, small Chateau-Briand, center of a smoked pork chop, tomatoes, and mushrooms served on a flaming sword.”

French gastronomy historically embraces showmanship. Take the pressed duck, a specialty of the Seine Valley in which the carcass of a roast duckling is compressed in a silver dome-covered press in order to extract its blood and marrow, which are then reduced with cognac into a sauce and served with the breast and legs. Dave Beran serves duck à la presse at his new Santa Monica restaurant Pasjoli. Walter Manzke prepares a version with torte Gibier and sauce Rouennaise at Table 500, Republique’s new tasting menu experience. 

Duck à la presse is fashionable again, but not novel for LA. To Live and Dine in LA includes a 1950 menu from Paul’s Duck Press Restaurant, which Paul Della Maggiora ran in what is now the DTLA Arts District.

Chef Josiah Citrin first encountered duck à la presse at legendary Parisian restaurant La Tour d’Argent, an experience that still informs the tableside service at his LA. restaurants. “I enjoy the training and skill that one must have to do this in front of the guest as well as the interaction and excitement it creates,” he says.

On the lighter side, Citrin currently serves tableside Caesar salad at Dear John’s in Culver City and Coast in Manhattan Beach. And at his soon-to-be-reopen Mélisse in Santa Monica he’ll serve whole fish fileted, rack of lamb, and bone-in ribeye, all tableside. 

Of course, French restaurants don’t own tableside service. Sushi and robata (char-grilled skewers) have long been popular Japanese theatre as well. Shabu-shabu lets customers “swish swish” proteins, vegetables, and noodles in bubbling pots. Okonomiyaki, savory pancakes, sizzle on tabletop grills.

Chinese dishes also command attention, whether that means Peking duck carved tableside at places like Meizhou Dongpo or mesmerizing “noodle dancers” that whip dough to a frenzy for Hai Di Lao hot pots. LA also has a plethora of interactive Korean “barbecue” restaurants.

Chef Joshua Skenes recently expanded “sea-life focused” Angler from San Francisco to LA’s Beverly Center. His signature starter riffs on caviar and blini in a unique interpretation. Servers spread banana pancakes with banana peel butter tableside and top with California white sturgeon roe that’s cured in barbecue salt, wrapped with banana leaves and warmed on the wood-burning hearth. Skenes designed this luxurious finger food to be eaten by hand.

LA also extolls old school “American” tableside dining traditions. At Lawry’s The Prime Rib, a meaty restaurant that dates to 1938 on La Cienega’s Restaurant Row, staff hand-carve prime rib from stainless steel carts and serve spinning salad made with dressing poured from the heavens into rotating bowls.

The iconic Pico Rivera restaurant Dal Rae, which dates back to 1951 (1958 in its current location) serves Caesar salad, Chateaubriand, rack of Lamb, and steak Diane tableside. But the restaurant also plays with fire. Their Banana Flambé, Grand Marnier Supreme and Cherries Jubilee desserts debuted in 1967. Nowadays Lorin Smith runs Dal Rae with brother Kevin, who appreciates how table service enables the restaurant to deliver more personal attention, making for a more exciting dining experience.
 
Some vintage versions of tableside have aged better than others, but as Angelenos know, tableside service has never truly gone out of style.

This story supports the inaugural 100 Course Meal. The elaborate gastronomic adventure that artfully merges theatrics, technique, and flavor will be held at Downtown LA’s Hudson Loft on December 6-8. The event has officially sold out, but you can still enter for a chance to win a pair of tickets to this unforgettable dining experience.

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Joshua Lurie is a Thrillist contributor.