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Lulu, Alice Water’s Los Angeles restaurant, charms amid faults

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On the top floor of Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, people amble through the galleries in silence, their eyes gobbling up the Orientalist arches of Moreau’s “Salomé Dancing before Herod” and every cloth ruffle in Rembrandt’s portraits. Downstairs, patrons are invited to take a dip in a heart-shaped hot tub, a fully-functioning installation by the artist Tita Cicognani, challenged to feel their germs rubbing against other people’s germs. 

At Lulu, the museum’s restaurant in an open-air atrium, patrons focus their aesthetic, visceral hunger on wooden platters of Parmesan; chaotically geometric, Kandinsky-like arrangements of green beans and tomatoes; berries affectionately cradled in whipped sabayon like plump newborn babies. This is Alice Waters’ nearly year-old restaurant, her first-ever project in Southern California, with New York Times Cooking columnist and longtime Chez Panisse chef David Tanis and chef de cuisine Luis Serra leading the kitchen. And it’s just as much of an installation, an expression of its milieu, as the hot tub and Rembrandts.

Outwardly, Lulu appears completely different from its aunt in Berkeley, that 1970s icon distinguished by its Arts and Crafts building, hammered copper fruit bowls and vintage French movie posters. Lulu’s setting feels well-suited for the pandemic, for one thing. An entire ecosystem of large potted plants, native landscaping elements and actual trees in the indoor-outdoor restaurant space fills the otherwise sterile museum environment with life. When you’re eating there, it makes you feel like you’re sitting in a clearing in Griffith Park, having just unpacked a spread of charcuterie and bean salad from a handwoven picnic basket. Oh, and look, a cute squirrel has just delivered a sachet of sun-warmed berries and nuts to you because it loves you.

Top: Guests enjoy dinner on the outdoor patio of Lulu, a restaurant in the Hammer Museum created by David Tanis and Alice Waters. The menu at Lulu changes daily depending on which items are in season and available from local farmers (above). 

Top: Guests enjoy dinner on the outdoor patio of Lulu, a restaurant in the Hammer Museum created by David Tanis and Alice Waters. The menu at Lulu changes daily depending on which items are in season and available from local farmers (above). 

Amanda Lopez/Special to The Chronicle

As at Chez Panisse, where Waters once wrote out the daily menus in precise script, there’s commitment to all things slow-paced and artisanal at Lulu, but in different, even more rustic forms. The food is cradled in bowls handmade by ceramist Shoshi Watanabe, their unglazed outsides pleasantly rough to the touch. Shelves above the bar are wrapped in abstract sewn cloth patterns, their pressed hems visible against the thin, backlit fabric.

The first thing you see as you walk into the space is a long table featuring three pedestals of produce overflowing with grapes, pluots that glitter like gems, and flame-colored bell peppers. It’s an artist’s statement that tells you everything about the soul of this place. The grapes are real, of course; but it seems like if you capitulated to desire and thrust your hands into the bunches, a suited guard with a walkie talkie would power walk over and tell you not to touch the art. At its heart, Lulu holds that same feeling of reverence for California cuisine that’s distinguished Chez Panisse for more than 50 years.

All told, this new incarnation is much more accessible than its sibling restaurant. The price points at both lunch and dinner are lower: At Chez, a four-course dinner is $175; at Lulu, the three-course supper prix fixe is $65. (Hammer members are also entitled to a 10% discount.) Menus, written by Tanis, change daily to reflect whatever lovely ingredients have come in.

Fresh produce on display at Lulu. Los Angeles, CA Sept. 24, 2022.
Fresh produce on display at Lulu. Los Angeles, CA Sept. 24, 2022.
Amanda Lopez/Special to The Chronicle

Pasta with zucchini and squash blossoms, an a la carte dish found on the dinner menu at Lulu. Los Angeles, CA Sept. 24, 2022.
Pasta with zucchini and squash blossoms, an a la carte dish found on the dinner menu at Lulu. Los Angeles, CA Sept. 24, 2022.
Amanda Lopez/Special to The Chronicle



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