‘Everything in its place’ at Hermosa Beach’s Baran’s 2239
Baran’s 2239 in Hermosa Beach has become one of the most desirable reservations in the South Bay. How do they stay on top?
by Ryan McDonald
On a recent Tuesday evening at Baran’s 2239 in Hermosa Beach, the first table to pay their bill was not the first table to be seated, nor the second, but the third. Judging by wisps of their conversation, they were three friends, one of them in town on business. They were open to their server’s suggestions — their first choice of chardonnay was possibly more “minerally” than what they had in mind, he told them — and they proceeded steadily through wine and shared plates. Altogether, they were in the restaurant for barely an hour.
The first guest to step through Baran’s doors that night, a woman, sat by herself at a table near the restaurant’s northwest corner until her male companion arrived. They grazed on barramundi and Brussels sprouts at a pace closer to snacking than savoring, as though procuring the dishes involved nothing more than walking from the sofa to the cupboard. They had arrived with the sun still high enough to cut through the marine layer, and left in the dark of a night threatening rain, arms linked and laughing easily.
Since it opened two years ago, Baran’s has become perhaps the most desirable reservation in Hermosa, and has helped define the South Bay’s culinary renaissance. Heaps of positive reviews, including this publication’s, have praised its inventive menu and warm ambiance. It is now sustained by both devoted regulars and a growing number of food pilgrims from other parts of California and the nation. Last year, Frank Bruni, a political columnist for The New York Times and the paper’s former restaurant critic, tweeted, “This place rocks. One of LA area’s best.” Social media fervor ensued. The buzzy momentum has relieved the do-or-die-stress of a young restaurant, only to replace it with the challenge of seating everyone who wants to come.
Last month, I spent a night observing the cooking, serving, eating and drinking that happens at Baran’s in an effort to understand what makes a restaurant successful in an industry notorious for thin profit margins and a high rate of first-year failures. Co-owners Jason and Jonathan Baran and executive chef Tyler Gugliotta, also a partner, still exhibit the hunger of a startup, but feel a bit of license to dream.
“It’s awesome how many people still say they have never heard of us. We’re full, but it’s exciting to know how many people still havent’ been here,” Jonathan said.
On the one hand, running a restaurant involves the same sort of calculated decisions about timing, inventory and branding as any other business, and Baran’s makes them exceptionally well. For example, in an effort to differentiate themselves when even vending machines are being touted as “farm-to-table,” the restaurant recently began a partnership with a Palos Verdes Peninsula farm. On the night I was there, the red Russian kale from the farm was probably the most frequently ordered dish.
But, unlike running a warehouse or a factory, much of the critical information is a permanent mystery. Consider the non-linear order in which the parties on that Tuesday night entered and exited. None of this was evident when they set foot inside. And particularly at a place like Baran’s, asking someone how long he or she plans to stay would pierce the veil of romance that elevates dining above mere filling up. A meal passed with an eye on the clock provides about as much charm as taking a number at a deli.
Running a restaurant is a balance between professionalism and artfulness; it is part hedgehog, part fox. And, as anyone who has ever worked in one will tell you, it is harder than it looks.
George Orwell’s first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” recounts his time as a plongeur in the dining room of a haute Paris hotel. To this day it provides some of the best journalistic descriptions of restaurant work:
“By its nature it comes in rushes and cannot be economised. You cannot, for instance, grill a steak two hours before it is wanted; you have to wait till the last moment, by which time a mass of other work has accumulated, and then do it all together, in frantic haste. The result is that at meal times everyone is doing two men’s work, which is impossible without noise and quarrelling. Indeed the quarrels are a necessary part of the process, for the pace would never be kept up if everyone did not accuse everyone else of idling. It was for this reason that during the rush hours the whole staff raged and cursed like demons.”
Orwell’s book remains a revealing look at how restaurants function — many restaurants, that is, but not Baran’s.
The Space to Be
It’s practically a requirement for restaurant critics to comment on the oddity of Baran’s location, in a strip mall on Pacific Coast Highway. A writer for LA Weekly began his highly favorable 2016 review by remarking that, having failed to make a reservation on his first attempt to eat there, he found himself admiring dinner service from in front of the Purple Haze Smoke Shop to the north, and had to settle for Lebanese rotisserie chicken at the joint to the south.
Jason, Jonathan and Gugliotta say they love the space, and that they did not develop the concept for the restaurant until after they saw it was available. Like just about everything else at the restaurant, Baran’s appearance is the work of its close-knit crew. They either did things themselves, like the painting, or they found help through friends and family. Their plumber was recommended by Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge.
The restaurant is laid out east-to-west. A sturdy set of double glass doors and large windows face the highway. A sliver of ocean peeks through in the distance, over the crest of Sixth Street . A four-stool bar faces the dining room and stores wine bottles and glasses. Two- and four-person tables line the north and south walls, while a large communal table dominates the middle.
Jason and Jonathan estimate that three-quarters of their business during the week comes from reservations, and the figure rises above 90 percent on weekends. Seating them all, along with leaving room for the walk-ins, can be a dizzying challenge.
“If someone shows up 15 minutes late it really throws the whole thing off,” Jason said. There is the somewhat rare instance, Jason admitted, when a no-show works in their favor, as when a table lingers unusually long. But trying to predict when this will happen is as dicey as betting on who won’t show up at all. “And we’re so small. If someone makes a reservation and doesn’t show, it costs a lot.”
Long before the first table cloth is laid, every restaurant must decide how much space to devote to the eating of food, and how much to its preparation. For high-rent markets, it is not unusual to cram the kitchen into as little space as possible, in order to allow for a greater number of diners up front. In the South Bay, navigating the kitchen of a busy restaurant can feel like a spelunking expedition: hot, narrow and crowded with obstacles.
Baran’s made a different calculation. Gugliotta, who has cooked in well-regarded kitchens throughout Southern California, said Baran’s has a higher ratio of kitchen-to-floor space than any restaurant he has worked at so far. Committing this much square footage to the back of the house reflects the emerging view of food quality that Baran’s embodies. Where once fine dining meant eating apart from the sweating and grunting needed to make it, “open kitchens” visible to patrons are now common. At Baran’s, the kitchen is not quite visible, but it is impossible to hide: the sound of the dishwasher’s side-spray hose occasionally emerges, like a hissing snake, during quiet moments in the dining room.
The benefit of the large, open kitchen is that it is easier to put out the food. The downside is the crew is reminded, everyday, of how much more business they could be doing.
“That kitchen, we could possibly handle another 30 to 40 seats,” Gugliotta said.
Mise en place
At the rear of Baran’s dining room, tucked between the server’s kitchen entrance and an oversized chalkboard with illustrations of the beer offerings, is a bookcase with glass doors. The authors are all chefs, among them Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain.
White, an Englishman and the youngest chef ever to garner three Michelin stars, was the original culinary “bad boy.” He demanded impossible hours from sous chefs, stormed into the dining room to rage at difficult customers, and bullied to the point of tears a young Gordon Ramsay, now host of “Hell’s Kitchen” and a noted restaurant grouch himself. Bourdain hosts “Parts Unknown,” on CNN. Along with Orwell, he cites White as an influence in his “Kitchen Confidential,” a memoir that pulled open the swinging door to the inner sanctum of a chef’s life. Bourdain described a world of questionable cleanliness and Dionysian excess, recalling at one point how, while cooking at a posh New York restaurant, he dispatched Puerto Rican busboys to score heroin.
It is hard to imagine two personalities who would be more out of place at Baran’s. It was 9 p.m. before I saw Jason take a sip of wine, and sheepishly at that, when it was offered by a customer who had brought a bottle and decanted it at the table. The place is far from dull, but it hums along with a quiet functionality.
Inside the kitchen, the three sous chefs and a dishwasher stand in a rectangle, with executive sous chef Corey Cryer in the middle. Cryer eyed the progress of each dish. Unlike many restaurants, in which the ticket rail is suspended at eye level, Cryer has it at waist level, to the side of a cutting board. (This improves sightlines and seemed to encourage eye contact.) Each sous chef is constantly announcing what he is doing. Times are called out with surprising precision, and most statements begin or end with the word “chef.” (“45 seconds on that kale, chef.”) The repetitive, almost mundane level of communication evoked the road crew scenes from “Cool Hand Luke.” (“Takin’ ‘em off here, boss.”) Not coincidentally, to handle matters like music and temperature, the kitchen has embraced Amazon’s virtual assistant, which one activates by continuously invoking the name “Alexa.”
But it works. I heard no raised voices or groans about a finicky order. Good-natured ribbing is constant. (“I can see I’m never hanging out with you again, chef.”) Gugliotta attributed the lack of drama to the work that goes in before a customer sets foot in the door.
“The crew is here prepping for about five hours before service starts. It’s all about mise en place, ‘everything is in its place,’ organized,” he said.
Among the items Baran’s make on-site are the sausage and focaccia bread, two things I frequently saw heading out of the kitchen. This level of readiness, though, does not come cheaply. Prep time to produce that quality of food translates to some 20 hours of wages before the restaurant even opens — money that must be paid regardless of whether a single customer walks in the door. Along with the ever-present risk of spoilage, it’s part of the complex calculus of financing a restaurant.
Keeping this ledger was especially strained during restaurant’s first few months, which were slow. Whole evenings passed with only a few tables, and what visitors they had were often friends or family. Despite the considerable pressure to reduce costs, they stayed firm, reflecting the confidence they had in their work.
“We didn’t change the quality. When things are slow, that’s something you’ll see a lot of people do, cut back,” Jason said.
“Actually, we did the opposite,” Gugliotta interjected. “We got nicer stuff. We tightened everything up.”
Time at Last
Both regular customers and employees referred to the “family” atmosphere of Baran’s. The word can border on meaningless in the restaurant industry, but feels earned here. Along with Jason and Jonathan, their sister Jenna works their full time, and their other brother, Jeff, occasionally busses tables, as do Jason’s wife and Jonathan’s girlfriend. Gugliotta has known Cryer for 20 years, and his other sous chefs for more than a decade.
The culinary connections stretch across generations. Gugliotta’s father worked as a chef, and a family link helps him secure the coveted produce of Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi. The number attached to the restaurant’s name, 2239, comes from the Colorado Boulevard address of Jonathan and Jason’s grandparents’ Pasadena restaurant, The Brotherton’s Farmhouse, which ran for half a century before closing in the ‘80s.
Growing up in restaurant families has given the crew not just competence, but reverence for the work they do. In the little spare time Jonathan has, he teaches restaurant management at Rolling Hills Country Day School. The goal of the course, he said, is “opening students’ eyes to everything it takes — to the fact that food doesn’t just come out.” And although his pupils are middle-schoolers, he acknowledges that the rest of the population has plenty to learn.
“The hospitality industry has such of a cloud over it, that, ‘You’re a server or a bartender or you’re a cook, that’s a part-time job, it’s not a career.’ And I think that’s a misconception. Front of the house, back of the house, they’re all careers,” he said.
Jonathan said that the image of the industry is gradually shifting, something he credits to the rise of the celebrity chef, and the bureaucratization of large restaurant groups. But it is also bound up in the increasing scrutiny people — especially wealthy people — give to their food.
When he is on the floor, Jonathan has a habit of pointing out features of a dish as he drops it off at a table. At first this can seem odd: the food is already there, and it is too late to influence the diner’s decision. Seen again and again, though, it becomes clear that he is guiding the customer on what to savor, the way a museum docent points out little-noticed facets of a painting.
But even as we obsess more and more about what goes into our mouths, fine dining is shedding the aristocratic frills of its haute and haughty past. Thirty years ago, at a place with food of Baran’s quality, cooks would don toques blanches and the waiters would stalk the floor in white jackets. Today, Jonathan and Jason scurry about in black v-necks. Gugliotta and Cryer wear ergonomic aprons they designed themselves. And, critically, customers can order chicken wings.
Behind both of these trends is a breaking down of the physical, socio-economic and, in many restaurants, linguistic barriers that divide the front of the house from the back.
“There’s usually animosity between the two,” said Jason, who has worked in restaurants throughout the South Bay. Everything about the way Baran’s is set up depends on that not being the case.
“We all hang out outside of work. And if we need an extra pair of hands, everyone is willing to come back and do whatever,” Gugliotta added.
On a busy evening, this means communication and constant travel between the two realms, a stack of small plates for sharing dishes always in hand. Jonathan would go back and forth to the kitchen to explain, in surprising and sentimental detail, information he had gleaned from his talk with a table. It was a process repeated over and over, but not quite automated: a bit of mystery and guesswork remained.
“It is a first date? What are they doing here? After the first few bites, I get a sense of it,” Jonathan said. “I know how long it takes to make each dish. What I have to figure out is how long it’s going to take to eat.”