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Ray’s and Stark Bar at LACMA: Smart Casual

If one were to describe the dining atmosphere at Ray’s and Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, it might be best to borrow a term from corporate America’s dress-code lexicon – “smart casual.”  

And if one were to describe the working relationship between Ray’s – the official name of the restaurant part – and Stark Bar, it might be “individual togetherness,” like a happily married couple who nevertheless maintain different last names. 

Ray’s and Stark Bar – the two names seem always to be used in tandem – was opened two years ago by the Patina Group, which already had a working history with LACMA. The facility was named in honor of the late Hollywood producer Ray Stark (The Way We Were, Steel Magnolias) and was gifted to the museum via a foundation grant by Stark’s daughter, LACMA Board of Trustees member Wendy Morrissey Stark. The space – which has open vistas inside and out – was designed by architect Renzo Piano, who also designed the museum’s famous Resnick Pavilion. 

The museum itself is located in the heart of the city along a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard known both as the “miracle mile” and “museum row.” One of Los Angeles’ most-famous landmarks, the La Brea tar pits, is just a few steps away. Altogether, the museum consists of seven buildings spread over its 20-acre campus which house a collection of about 100,000 art objects. Almost a million people visit annually. “We have around 60 seats in the lounge area,” says Ray’s and Stark Bar general manager Martin Riese. “Depending on the time and the season, we’ll do 120 to 220 covers for lunch and perhaps 160 for dinner on a Friday night.” (Museum catering and special events are handled through a separate Patina unit.)

Casual Difference

When Patina took on the task of crafting a new restaurant and bar for the highly regarded and well-known LACMA (or “Lack-Muh,” as it is generally pronounced), it was no stranger to providing fancy food services for cultural institutions. According to Patina regional director Reza Samadi, the group has food services operations in about 60 different performing arts venues, including the Grand Tier restaurant in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Patina is headed by restaurateur Nick Valenti and Chef Joachim Splichal, and Samadi says that Patina installations are “typically a fine-dining concept, usually classic or French fine dining.” The group’s corporate purpose statement proclaims, “Patina Restaurant Group was founded on the belief that culinary excellence is an art form, per se.”   

But from the beginning, Ray’s and Stark Bar was meant to be somewhat different than most Patina facilities. “The feeling at the time we were planning Ray’s and Stark Bar,” Samadi says, “was that in this location and with these demographics – about 20,000 people within a square mile of the museum – we wanted something a little more casual, as well as something that would be healthier and more seasonal.” As a result, Samadi says that, unlike other Patina locations, “There are no linens on the table, and we have an evolving menu. Ray’s and Stark Bar was about breaking the rules without breaking standards.”

Fresh and Seasonal

Executive Chef  Kris Morningstar is a native of Southern California, but was educated on the East Coast before returning to Pasadena to graduate with honors from the California School of Culinary Arts in 2002. Subsequently, he worked at One Pico, A.O.C., Opaline and Grace as well as Patina’s Meson G. before opening Ray’s and Stark Bar in 2011.  

“When we opened, it took me only a couple of weeks to realize that we wouldn’t have a lot of involvement from corporate,” Morningstar says, and so the team started building its own food program. “We try to keep everything seasonal,” says Morningstar, who has a small garden on the museum grounds just outside the kitchen. “We’re not sustainable, but we keep a lot of things growing back there. I try to have things that grow easily or are hard to get or are too expensive,” he says. To further carry out the farm-to-table restaurant concept, Morningstar also works closely with an outside local buyer, Kerry Clasby of the Intuitive Forager, who is herself somewhat of an institution. 

“She knows all the markets and is a really good shopper,” Morningstar says. “She’s bought some of the most amazing apricots and kiwi fruit that I’ve ever tasted.” As a result of this diversity of produce, he says, “We don’t try to keep the menu in one standing form. Besides, the chefs like to work with new things, and I talk with the sous chefs when we are in the process of adapting a dish. We will ask ourselves, ‘What protein or what vegetable haven’t we used?’ Something on the menu changes pretty much daily.” The restaurant menu relies heavily on preparations utilizing its wood-fire oven and grill.  

The Ray’s and Stark Bar menu begins with snacks (including special olives and cheese plates) for $8 to $20 and garden-based appetizers, that may be as simple as shishito peppers in salt and olive oil or as complex as beets with blackberries, confit duck gizzards, frisée, crunchy buckwheat and house-made ricotta. The appetizers are all under $15. The heart of the menu is a plethora of pizzas and pastas ($16-$19), although neither are simple fare. Pizzas may have such ingredients as hen of the woods mushrooms, fennel pollen and roasted bone marrow, while representative pasta dishes include chitarra with squid ink pasta, mint, serrano chile, opal basil and bottarga as well as cavatelli with cauliflower, anchovy, chile, garlic, bread crumbs, parsley and Grana Padano cheese. There are also small plates (sweetbreads, Chesapeake Bay soft shell crabs) at $20 and under and large plates (bronzino, pork belly) at $28 and under.

Mood Drinks

The same philosophy of tweaking recipes and of being fresh and seasonal also applies to the bar. “Our bar program is pretty much the epitome of seasonality and fresh ingredients mixology,” Samadi says. “We have a garden, and we use it. The staff makes syrups and infusions from herbs, and the juices are fresh squeezed. Everything is made from scratch at the bar as it is in the kitchen, and the bar program is meant to run parallel with the kitchen.” Morningstar adds, “If we have fresh pea greens in the garden, they will probably appear in a cocktail and on the menu.”   

Cocktails ($11 to $16) might include “Night at the Museum” (Caprock organic gin, Aperol, Lillet blanc, fresh rose geranium), “Silk and Gators” (Logis de la Mothe Cognac V.S., Apostoles 30-year palo cortado sherry, Punt e Mes, Fernet Branca Rinse) and “Ray’s Swizzle” (rum, freshly squeezed lime juice, pineapple syrup, blackberry and orange).  

Beverage manager Brad Stewart says he likes the fact that the bar is not typified by one type of drink. “We sell a lot of wines by the glass, but we also sell a lot of cocktails and beers,” he says. “It depends on the time and the mood of the customers.” Both Stewart and sommelier Paul Sanguinetti prefer serving wines made by local and small producers as much as possible.

Management is also excited about Ray’s and Stark Bar’s new water program, a recently launched pet project of Riese’s. “We started with 20 different waters from 10 different countries,” he says, noting that he got the idea when he was working at a one-star Michelin restaurant in Berlin, where he eventually built that water program to 40 different offerings.  Of course, whether it’s the restaurant or the bar, operating in a museum environment has challenges and opportunities that free-standing restaurants don’t have. “Being in a museum certainly has its benefits with its many visitors,” Morningstar says, “but when museum is dead, we tend to be dead as well.”

Community Building

Consequently, the restaurant continues to evolve as management seeks to, as Samadi puts it, “build a community.” The lunchtime crowd, he says, is “somewhat captive, but we have to be more creative, more-successful at dinner. Now, I think we have finally crossed the line in appealing to the local residents in building a community.”   According to Samadi and his staff, there have been several elements to this build. Although the restaurant was opened with two separate food menus – one for the dining room, one for the bar – it was eventually decided they should be merged into one menu to blur the lines between the two entities. “While we still stage the food, we also encourage sharing foods,” Samadi says. “It’s like a community supper.”  

The Ray’s and Stark Bar staff is dressed in “jeans and Converses,” he says, and is urged to interact with customers as part of the concept of “breaking the rules, while not breaking the standards.” Morningstar often comes out to chat with the guests.  

As a result, Riese says, “I think we are in the process of creating something special. On Fridays and Saturdays, especially, our lounge is always packed. It’s becoming a destination restaurant.” Like most restaurants, Ray’s and Stark’s Bar loves repeat customers, and Samara notes that one person has shown up to see what’s new about “400 times in the first two years!”  Thus, Ray’s and Stark Bar reflect the museum they serve. Both institutions have great patrons in the classical sense – people who support them with donations and their intellectual contributions – but also great patrons in the customer sense – people who walk through the door time after time in search of both something reassuring and familiar but also something that is exciting and different.

 

Night at the Museum cocktail

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