When Alice Waters, the original trailblazer of seasonal farm-to-table cuisine, announces new California-based restaurant plans—her first-ever in L.A.—you pay attention, even if you typically roll your eyes at the elitist implications of Chez Panisse, the chef's influential Berkeley eatery. For over 50 years, the iconic Bay Area restaurant has inspired countless chefs and food activists, spurred a more conscientious generation of predominantly white, upper middle-class consumers and helped establish what is now called California cuisine. Along the way, naysayers have spurned her unforgiving, all-or-nothing approach to environmental sustainability and Chez Panisse's genre-defining cooking style, whose singular emphasis on high-quality produce often comes at the expense of the bold, global flavors embraced by younger, more diverse chefs, particularly those in Southern California.
An illustrious (and slightly divisive) track record like that might be hard to follow for anyone, even Alice Waters, but 10 months after opening, Lulu in Westwood has found its footing. Under the helm of David Tanis, a Chez Panisse alum and New York Times food columnist, the open-air restaurant in the courtyard of UCLA's Hammer Museum has firmly established itself within the L.A. restaurant scene as a serene, slightly upscale daytime eatery perfect for artsy students, museum visitors and healthcare workers. As of June, when Thursday to Saturday supper service first launched, the space also doubles as a pleasant, if unexciting dinner destination for a largely older Westside locals' crowd. With produce sourced from small-scale organic farms practicing regenerative agriculture and sustainable artisan touches at every level, Lulu strays little from the principles of Chez Panisse—a simple and delicious approach that fits the L.A. museum dining niche surprisingly well.
Little has visually changed from the actual space's short-lived stint as Audrey: Lulu still features local artist Jorge Pardo's striking indoor-outdoor orange lanterns (now part of the Hammer’s permanent collection) and bubbly interior tilework. A long wooden table just past the host stand now houses bowls of fresh bounty from the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, which Tanis—who can often be seen bouncing around tables at Lulu—typically visits weekly, among others. Exact market availability determines the lunch prix fixe and à la carte dinner menu’s ever-changing offerings, though an à la carte all-day menu provides more consistent items geared to museum visitors, like an eggplant “banh mi” focaccia sandwich. In the summer, Tanis is likely to go full-on tomato mode, while fall menu staples might lean towards Swiss chard, pomegranates and tiny orange mandarins.
Overall, the resulting meal might be borderline snoozy compared to L.A.'s buzzier newcomers and vibrant classics, but Lulu cuts through the noise and constant churn of novelty within the city’s dining scene simply by doing what Chez Panisse and its imitators do at the very best: market-driven, upscale-casual fare that is as much about the ostensibly greener process involved as the final product in front of you. Many of the restaurant’s dishes, like an olive oil-walnut cake, read so simple you could make them at home; sometimes, you literally can, via the hundreds of recipes Tanis has published on New York Times Cooking.
Still, the excellent execution of mainstays, like the delicious chocolate pavé with chantilly cream, and the chef’s playful interpretations of seasonal produce make Lulu a worthwhile destination for any diner who appreciates a less convoluted path to culinary pleasure, not just the built-in fan base that accompanies Chez Panisse, Waters, Tanis and the Slow Food Movement as a whole. Consumed in the peaceful urban oasis of the Hammer's inner courtyard, a lightweight meal here is a source of relaxation, nourishment and delight—a winning combination for any casual L.A. eatery.
The vibe: The tranquil indoor-outdoor courtyard of UCLA’s Hammer Museum, where museum-goers, area students and healthcare workers convene for an upscale-casual lunch or dinner.
The food: A $45 prix-fixe seasonal lunch menu, alongside à la carte offerings; a fully à la carte seasonal dinner menu. Exact items vary depending on what's available at the farmers’ market, but fare typically leans towards the vaguely French, Italian and Mexican dishes that make up contemporary California cuisine.
The drink: Artisan espresso drinks and teas (including an herbal tisane), a pricey but delicious farmer’s market soda, plus a California-focused wine list and full bar.
Time Out tip: Don’t skip out on dessert while dining at Lulu; the simple, elegant sweets are one of the restaurant’s consistent strengths.