Gjusta (Los Angeles, July 2016)

Gjusta, which opened in Venice in October 2014, is one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles but it’s not exactly a restaurant (and its name isn’t on its exterior). What is it then? Some combination of a deli, a bakery, a salad bar and a cafe. In addition to faux-anonymity, it offers that unique contemporary American mix of high prices and lack of comfort: gourmet food from bespoke ingredients with prices to match, but in a space that takes pains to present a non-polished, even rustic appearance.There is limited counter seating inside and a bunch of mismatched tables and chairs are strewn around a roughly covered patio that is connected to the parking lot. Service is minimal. You order and pay at the counter and if you’re sitting outside, as we were, someone will bring you your food but you shouldn’t expect them to check in on you after; if you want water, or cutlery, you get up and go inside and get it yourself.  

And if the restaurant doesn’t want to proclaim its name on the street, the menu has no fixed cultural identity either: there’s a lot of smoked fish and cured meat, yes, but there’s also banh mi, pozole verde; the bakery features bialys but also hemp nori bread; and so on. Nonetheless, it was ranked #2 in Bon Appetit’s 2015 edition of “America’s Best New Restaurants“, the local press has been strong as well, and it’s already very beloved of the foodie set.

It is also a controversial restaurant (or whatever it is). It is owned by the same people who operate Gjelina on Abbot Kinney (Gjelina is named for the owner’s mother, Gjusta for his aunt) and it has become a flashpoint in the neighbourhood’s discourse over gentrification. Which gentrification, it must be said, is at this point a fait accompli. 16 years ago I lived not very far away from Gjusta, a little further down 3rd Street/Avenue, right on the edge of Santa Monica and Venice and you don’t have to drive around very much in Venice now to get a sense of how changed it is, how much more sleek and shiny. As someone who hasn’t lived in Los Angeles since 2003 it’s not really my place to get exercised about all this and so I will say only that while change is inevitable it is also more welcome if it brings fewer assholes with it. And while good food is always welcome—and Gjusta serves very good food—there’s no denying that the combination of Gjusta’s aesthetic and its prices is a pretty decent allegory of what Venice is now.

If you’re just blowing through town, however, with no particular sense of place or history, you may not care very much about all of this and may only want to know what the food is like. First you’ll need to know how to find it. It’s actually quite easy: from the beach go up Rose, turn right on 3rd and it is pretty much exactly where 3rd hits Sunset Ave. You’ll see a nondescript white building with a parking lot adjacent: that’s Gjusta. Or follow Google Maps’ directions to Gold’s Gym, walk around to the rear parking lot and it’s across from it on Sunset.

As for what Gjusta looks like and what the food we ate was like, I invite you to “walk” through the slideshow below and then scroll down for my opinion on the matter of whether the fuss is merited or if the experience merits the price. (Please excuse the quality of the pictures—I only remembered to reset the white balance of my camera after we were done eating.)

So, what was it like? Well, as you will have seen above, we really liked the food. The porchetta melt was excellent as was the anchovy toast; the bread was consistently excellent across the board. I’m not any sort of expert on smoked fish but I really liked the sardines and gravlax. As far as the flatbread goes, the bread again was excellent, the topping was less of a standout. But, on the whole, very good indeed, and we barely scratched the surface of what they offer. All that said, I was a little taken aback by the total when it was announced to me by the cashier. We paid $70 with tax and tip. Even though the prices for most things were on the menu I hadn’t really been paying close attention and certainly wasn’t expecting to pay $70 for sandwiches, two pieces of flatbread and three small bits of smoked fish. (I should also add that flatbread is not on the menu and must be pretty expensive for us to have gotten up to $58 or so before tax.)

Is $70 too expensive for what this is? That’s a tough question to answer. On the one hand, the ingredients are top-notch and the execution is great. On the other hand, if I pay $70 (and that’s on the low end of what most people’s meals here seem to come to) I generally am not looking to eat a meal centered on sandwiches (however high the quality or however generous the portion) or small bits of smoked fish. And by the $70 mark I’d be fine if somebody got me my water or at least came by with a jug to refill it; I’d certainly like to see my table wiped down before I asked someone to do it. Frankly, even though I’d recommend trying it once if you haven’t been, and especially if you really like this genre (or these genres) of food, I can’t see us going back on our next trip. Even though I’d like to try more of their food, at that price there are many other places I enjoy a lot more.

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