Shall I be frank? In the Before Times, Here’s Looking at You was not a first tier choice for me. A New American eatery with “creative small plates” and “tiki-inspired handcrafted cocktails” sounded like a dining concept generated by a dystopian millennial AI, not my idea of a fun, somewhat upscale meal in Koreatown. Still, the restaurant—most commonly abbreviated as HLAY (pronounced “H-lay”)—had its evangelists. It was a proud product of L.A’s pop-up to brick-and-mortar pipeline, and could trace its roots to the now-closed Unit 120 in Far East Plaza. In time, HLAY garnered plenty of accolades from food media and a dedicated following. Though never a full-blown superfan, I derived a certain joie de vivre from the restaurant’s existence. The fact that chef Jonathan Whitener’s globally inspired dishes were beloved by so many diners meant plenty of people shared my fairly Angeleno sensibility of what constitutes good food.
Now, after what seemed like a permanent pandemic closure and a miraculous, crowdfunded reopening, Whitener and co-owner Lien Ta have—against all odds— reopened the Koreatown cult favorite, their first project before Silver Lake’s All Day Baby, which focuses on American comfort food. The industry-wide tightening up of menus has served HLAY well, and the curated selection of now-signature dishes, like the salsa macha frog legs and galbi-like steak tartare, hits every note that restaurants that play it safe just can’t. You’ll find a few specials here and there, but the core offerings alone make HLAY worth a visit, at least once. One new savory menu item, the uni panna cotta, is indispensable. Morsels of ikura and crispy wild rice dot its surface, for memorable pops of salt and texture. The flavor of sea urchin blankets the entire custard, maximizing the impact of the pricey ingredient. It’s a clever, pandemic-weary dish, capable of packing maximum excitement in the space of one (takeout-friendly?) small bowl.
In the time since the independent restaurant’s initial July 2020 closure, L.A.’s dining scene has tended to bifurcate into two highly polarized camps: tiny, in-the-know pop-ups and impeccably designed, hospitality group-backed restaurants. Unlike the former, the team at HLAY actually has all of its affairs in order when it comes to service and kitchen prep, an aspect that makes all the difference amid the frustratingly long waits for food, limited item availability and general YMMV experience you’ll find at L.A. pop-ups. Unlike the latter, Whitener’s razor-sharp cuisine actually achieves the culinary cutting-edge. Like few others, HLAY manages to capture the best of both extremes. The menu’s genre-bending nature makes few concessions to crowd-pleasing, and Angelenos who love citrus, aromatics, wasabi and other expertly applied ingredients from the global pantry are richer for HLAY’s cautiously triumphant return.
With its heartwarming underdog story and a prominent front-of-house presence like Ta, who co-founded the industry nonprofit RE:Her and has spoken out several times on behalf of independent restaurants, a meal here is inextricable from the overarching narrative of a small business’s unlikely comeback, especially one run by a woman of color. After all, context is important, and where one puts one’s dollars matters beyond what ends up on your plate. But unlike a restaurant generated by a dystopian millennial AI, the “creative small plates” and “tiki-inspired handcrafted cocktails” at the post-lockdown Here’s Looking at You have soul, thanks to its entirely human team that’s constantly trying to do better—and often achieving much more than that.
The vibe: A tiny 50-seat restaurant in an Art Deco-style building with eclectic, vaguely tiki-inspired decor. With less than 10 seats for walk-ins at the bar, Here’s Looking at You is a snug fit for most diners, and thus best suited for groups of two or four. Reservations are recommended, but not required.
The food: Razor-sharp, globally inspired small plates with all the ingenuity you’ll find at pop-ups minus all the operational snafus. The menu, per their website, “evolves nightly,” and a few items might run out, so manage expectations accordingly. Standouts include the huamei shishito peppers, salsa macha frog legs, uni panna cotta and the duck confit. For dessert, order the delectable roasted chestnut mochi, made by All Day Baby pastry chef Thessa Diadem.
The drink: A seasonal tiki-ish cocktail menu with names that wink at the restaurant’s team members and HLAY’s Koreatown roots, plus wine (sparkling, orange, rosé, white and red) and beer. With fresh garnishes and pellet ice, the cocktails by Danny Rubenstein are refined and impressive enough for dates. No individual recommendations, just spirit preference-based vibes.
Time Out tip: Save yourself the hassle of parking in Koreatown and go for the $8 valet off Oxford Street.