(Originally published August 15, 2014 on Examiner.com).
Traveling daily from the South Bay to Venice on Vista Del Mar back and forth between Hudson House to an earlier venture Beechwood (now Sunnyspot), chefs Nick Roberts and Brooke Williamson learned about the Playa Del Rey neighborhood. After selling their interest in Beechwood at the end of 2010, this husband and wife team opened their restaurant Tripel at the start of 2011 in this community.
Operating in this community helped them better understand what Playa Del Rey needed. Nick and Brooke also watched another group remodel a building nearby into what was Tower 42 just down the road from The Tripel. Shortly after opening Tower 42, the two partners who did this remodel split up. Nick and Brooke knew that the remaining partner in the business wasn’t the restaurant guy, so Nick and Brooke thought they’d just ask if the remaining partner would be interested in selling the space, and they made a blind offer. The remaining partner accepted this offer and shortly thereafter Tower 42 closed after only seven months of being in business.
In the middle of May, this year 2014, what was Tower 42 re-opened as Playa Provisions with four concepts under the roof of the seven thousand square foot space. Chef Williamson noted, “Each of the four different concepts are named differently because of what their focus is. ”Dockside” sounded like a seafood restaurant to us, and it faces Dockweiler Beach which is where that name came from. King’s Beach is the meaning of Playa Del Rey. King’s Beach is the cafe. The bar is “Grain” which is self-explanatory and the same with “Small Batch”, which is the ice cream concept’s name because they make the ice cream in small batches and rotate the flavors.
When Nick and Brooke took over the space, they had these concepts of what the location should be in their heads already. Plus they felt these concepts could all be housed under one roof. They hoped they knew what the neighborhood needed from being down there already with Tripel. But they said they could never really know what people want, so instead they brought to the table, with their concepts, what they both felt the area was lacking. The concepts compartmentalize the building into different areas that service different day parts: breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, and cocktails. So Playa Provisions is open all day.
Further defining what they were trying to achieve, Chef Williamson noted they wanted the space to be “casual enough so that people felt they could come off the beach and have a casual breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or roll in for an ice cream cone.” But in addition to being “very comfortable and casual …at the same time be the kind of place you wanted to go for a special occasion or go to take your friends or parents to.” They also “wanted it to be family friendly because there are a lot of families in this neighborhood.” So they moved the bar from its previous location where the prior owners had it so families could come in with their kids and get an ice cream without feeling like they were in a bar. Parents and children don’t see the bar. So the concepts are oriented very specifically for different times of the day. With the food, Brooke continued, “we wanted it to feel kind of nostalgic…food you would have seen on a menu fifty years ago in a seafood restaurant like the fried sand dabs and clams casino. Very classic dishes focused and accessible for your mind to wrap around but done with really good quality ingredients plus a few twists.”
Moving the bar, and creating the cafe entailed some new floor sinks and plumbing, but for the most part the renovation of the building from Tower 42 into Playa Provisions was a “deep cosmetic” one. The prior operator invested a lot in the building’s infrastructure including new exhaust, make-up air, and hvac mechanical systems as well as electric upgrades, and a grease interceptor. Nick and Brooke added windows, new finishes, and furniture but were able to utilize the kitchen almost as is aside from adding an ice cream maker, a new prep top and a couple of freezers.
With an emphasis on quality, Chefs Williamson and Roberts source their products from wherever they can get the best and freshest ingredients. This is especially true with their seafood. They use a specific supplier for their oysters who guarantees that they get the freshest oysters within 24 hours of harvest delivered straight from the airport. For other seafood, they use other suppliers like American, and I.M.P. Different items comes from different suppliers with the emphasis again on getting the best of any item from whichever supplier can supply it. When it comes to seafood, Nick and Brooke also place an emphasis on sustainability. They’ve partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium and their seafood watch program so they make a point of following Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guidelines.
Chef Williamson said, “We’re not the cheapest restaurant in the area, but the goal is to give people the quality and the experience not the feeling that they’ve been ripped off. We’re giving people high quality Dungeness crab, lobster, and scallops. You should be able to order two or three items and feel very satisfied.” Chef Roberts, noting how they eat, added “we eat four to five dishes and share everything because we like to eat and taste everything and that’s how we were hoping the menu would be instead of just this is my food…hands off.” Almost seamlessly Brooke continued, “A lot of the dishes we’re meant to be ordered with other things…the two fish dishes- the salmon and the cod- are meant to be great by themselves as a meal but [you can] add a side to them as well, more a la carte.”
The menu is going to be seasonal with the sides and with the proteins what is most available. So you’re going to see some changes but there probably isn’t going to be a full seasonal menu change. A lot of the dishes on their menu are not necessarily seasonal with all elements on the plates but components will change. The chicken, for example, is served right now right now with grilled peaches. But when the peaches are no longer in season, that chicken dish will come with something else
Regarding the menu in general, Chef Williamson concluded, “I think our menus now more reflects how we want to dine these days. I think we really appreciate fine dining and are in awe of what some people can do with food but, on an everyday basis, we really just want to enjoy what we’re eating and that’s the experience we want to give to our customers.”
Since the menu is very seafood heavy there are a lot of light bodied, crisp, high acid, floral wines on the wine list including some very interesting off the cuff bottles like a sparkling grenache plus some red wines that go really well with seafood. Brooke said, “It is very hard to find good red wine that is spectacular with seafood.” They also thought it was important to have someone on the floor who can talk to the customers about specifics because nothing that’s on their wine list is anything you can walk into a retail store and buy. Though Nick came from a wine family, he rebelled, and enjoys beer much more. Brooke, on the other hand, after dating a sommelier early in her career became very interested in wine. Plus she felt in order to become a well-rounded chef she also needed to know more about wine. She put together the restaurant’s wine list.
At Dockside’s bar, the cocktail emphasis is more fruit sour focused, whereas at Grain, the night time bar in the back of the complex, classic more aromatic cocktails highlighting whisky are the emphasis. Bar finger food that pairs well with whisky also is part of Grain’s separate menu. A completely different menu that includes bar items like fried quail served in a waffle cone, crispy chicken skin with deviled egg on top, scotch eggs, and a charcuterie plate as well as a cheese and charcuterie plate. According to Nick, Grain’s the place you want to go when you’re not in the mood for Dockside or where you may go at night after dining at Dockside. At Grain you may also get Dockside’s menu. So you can come on different days or nights of the weeks and have different experiences each time that you come.
As Brooke stated, “maintaining customers is a very different from getting first time customers.” When asked if they already have a lot of customers returning, Nick continued, “oh definitely because of Tripel down the street, so it’s a small neighborhood. We see a lot of the same people throughout the week. And Brooke added, “We see a lot of the same people every day. This neighborhood is very tight. Everyone in this neighborhood talks. We love that and there are definitely people who came here and said that I prefer Tripel and you know what, enjoy Tripel!” Brooke also noted that “there is a couple whose balcony overlooks our parking lot and they actually said to me last week that this place is like going to a party every day.” Brooke continued, “It’s like going to a local hang out where you’re always going to run into somebody you know and chat.” In addition to the locals, the restaurant has also gotten a lot of new customers from both the South Bay and the Venice Beach areas especially those patrons that use Vista Del Mar to commute between these two communities who’d rather stop in for a drink and quick bite rather than sit in traffic.
Playa Provisions’ husband and wife team first met in a kitchen in Brentwood when Brooke, the executive chef, hired Nick as her sous chef. So their relationship started as a professional one that only after a year working together evolved into a romantic one. Now they focus on different things, Currently at Playa Provisions they’re the ones who create the dishes and develop the menus, so they’re some times on the line experimenting. They’re also traveling to their other restaurants making sure everything is being done to their standards. This includes tasting food so it is what they envisioned and training new employees so these new employees learn their standards.
When they make their separate rounds of their locations, Tripel, Hudson House and Playa Provisions, they focus on different things. Brooke looks at things one way, and Nick another way. Having this additional perspective is what Nick believes makes them stronger. Logisitically they divide up responsibilities because it simply doesn’t make sense for them both to do the same thing at the same time. They have things that are their respective responsibilities, but sometimes those responsibilities change as well.
Sharing some of those responsibilites with their staff has also allowed them to grow from one location into multiple locations. Brooke noted, “Part of me has trouble letting go and…when I went to go shoot top chef I had to let go. I was gone for seven weeks and Nick was a single father in control of both of the restaurants [Tripel and Hudson House] so he was forced to let go a little bit too. So we had to put our faith in the people we felt could handle it and things turned out pretty well so it kind of gave us the confidence to feel we could let go a little bit and move forward.”
So loosening the reins a little bit and putting their faith in great people like their chef de cuisine Chris Houlihan has made it easier for Chefs Roberts and Williamson to expand. Regarding expansion, Brooke stated, “To not move forward until you feel you’re ready and your other establishments won’t suffer. We’ve known people who have expanded real quickly and people who have never expanded. I think we have done it in a process and that process has unfolded very well for us.”
Playa Provisions is located at 119 Culver Blvd in Playa del Rey, CA. Please check their website for their hours of operations and to make reservations. Please also follow them on facebook and twitter.