Los Angeles. A sunny afternoon in February. On a day like today there could be nowhere nicer. So proclaims Massimo Bottura, the celebrated Italian chef. He is even talking about moving here. “I told Lara I’m not returning,” he says, apparently ditching his wife in Modena. She needn’t be worried. Bottura is flying back to Italy tomorrow. But I can see what he means. From this balcony overlooking Rodeo Drive the world looks dreamy, a vista of palm trees and blue sky.
It’s the day after the Academy Awards and Bottura is hosting a lunch at the Gucci Osteria in Beverly Hills, the second restaurant in his collaboration with the fashion house. The first opened in Florence in 2018 and already has a Michelin star. A third is scheduled to open in Tokyo’s Ginza district this December. This latest incarnation sitson the rooftop of the Gucci store on Rodeo Drive. The parquet-floored lobby is covered with ornate glade-print wallpaper with golden stars on the ceiling; the restaurant itself, an intimate space that seats 50, is split into two: a dining room lined with cherry-red banquettes, and a terrace with wicker chairs and a retractable roof.
At the time of my visit, the restaurant is yet to open to the public, but has already played host to celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Saoirse Ronan, Dakota Johnson and Iggy Pop, who attended the launch party. The food, presided over by chef Mattia Agazzi, is pure Italian, with an emphasis on fish (from Santa Barbara) and vegetables (from Santa Monica farmers’ market) and a flair for presentation. Take the insalata di mare, a masterpiece of construction like an orchid rising out of the plate. Shavings of celery and red and yellow beetroot form a canopy over the pinkest of pink prawns, baby squid, razor clams and scallops, with tiny cubes of beetroot and apple nestled beneath like seeds. The more playful “risotto camouflaged as pizza” is a creamy-white carnaroli rice dish topped with a tricolore of tangy, sweet cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, and a sprinkling of caper powder to suggest the flavour of charred pizza crust. As for the tortellini with Parmigiano Reggiano cream, I smell it long before it reaches the table, so tangy and swoonsome is the cheese. In a preview of how Angelenos might receive this dish, a fellow diner pops her second lactase tab despite Bottura’s assurances that the Parmigiano Reggiano cream is both cream- and lactose-free.
As a phenomenon, fashion restaurants tend to raise certain questions. “Do fashion people even eat?” is one that plays to old stereotypes. But the question is irrelevant – even if they don’t, they like to go somewhere nice to not eat. Another quandary is, “What do you wear to a fashion restaurant?” Visiting Thomas’s Café at the Burberry store on Regent Street, do you dress up in Burberry? If so, which era? Christopher Bailey or Riccardo Tisci? This perhaps misses the point: what’s important is not what you’re wearing on the way in, but what's in your shopping bag on the way out.
Others get hung up on the food implications, such as “what makes a tagliatelle an Armani tagliatelle?” But why be so literal? As food critic Frank Bruni remarked, “Food, fashion: it’s all one pampering splurge.” In other words, as long as the food contributes to the luxury experience, does it matter? At the Armani Ristorante in New York, expectations are largely met by a menu of understated Italian dishes, such as spaghetti with baby squid and sea urchin, and risotto with black truffle. There are even desserts, because fashion restaurants are fitting destinations for special occasions. And if you can’t order Piedmont hazelnut mousse on your birthday, when can you?
Armani now oversees over 20 bars, cafés and restaurants around the world, topping a list of fashion brands that have successfully moved into food. Notable is Prada, which acquired the Milanese bakery Pasticceria Marchesi 1824 in 2014, then opened a second in London. 2015 saw the unveiling at the Fondazione Prada in Milan of another spot, the Wes Anderson-conceived Bar Luce, inspired by the city’s landmark cafés. These beautifully designed venues are an ideal hook for younger customers: since consuming pastries in exquisite surroundings is pretty much what Instagram was made for, the marketing takes care of itself – the icing on the brand extension cake.
Tiffany is also onto a winner with its Blue Box Café on Fifth Avenue (temporarily closed while the store is refurbished). A bright, airy space clad in the brand’s signature robin’s-egg blue, it’s an enticing concept because so many people have an emotional attachment to that flagship branch. If they didn’t pick out their engagement rings there, they watched Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly pull up outside and gaze through the windows while polishing off a croissant and coffee in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That’s really what people come here to do: breakfast at Tiffany’s. Though, I should say, the restaurant also serves lunch and tea. Meanwhile, a Blue Box Café just opened at Harrods in London with a similar menu and some homegrown variations, such as a crab muffin with Cornish crab, Barber’s Cheddar rarebit, pickled shallots and radish. We wait to see if the concept translates, because as far as I know Audrey Hepburn didn’t breakfast at Harrods.
With four restaurants, Ralph Lauren has been another success story, particularly the Polo Bar in New York, whose launch in 2014 was a case study in generating buzz. The design was appealingly clubby (wood panelling, aged-leather banquettes, racehorse oil paintings), and the menu simple but pricey (a corned-beef sandwich, $22). Most importantly, the clientele was A-list and the waiting list long. This brings us to the heart of the matter: fashion restaurants should be exclusive places where you go to see and be seen.
In that sense, the Gucci Osteria in Beverly Hills is off to a flying start on the back of Bottura’s reputation alone. His three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena has twice topped the World’s Best Restaurants list and has a waiting list to match. Over lunch, Bottura scrolls through selfies he took with celebrities at last night’s Oscars parties: Elton John, Scarlett Johansson, Bradley Cooper, Snoop Dogg… “They all ask for a table in Modena. I said to Brad Pitt, ‘How can I get you a table? I couldn’t fit the King of Sweden in.’ I heard George Clooney tried two times.”
Few fashion restaurants have put such emphasis on their chefs (the newly opened Louis Vuitton restaurant in Osaka, Japan, under chef Yosuke Suga is a notable exception). Bottura is an old schoolfriend of Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri, so when Bizzarri was looking to install a restaurant at the Gucci Gardens in Florence, Bottura was a natural choice. The chef agreed not so much out of schoolboy loyalty, but because he recognised a shared vision with creative director Alessandro Michele, whose contemporary reworking of the Gucci archive reflects his own critical approach to traditional Italian cooking.
But why Beverly Hills? Bottura remembers being shown around the store a couple of years ago, when this floor was just a storeroom, and immediately jumping on the phone to Bizzarri to suggest a restaurant. “Then I asked everyone in my restaurants, ‘Who wants to go and work in Beverly Hills?’ and they all put up their hands,” Bottura says.
He is at his most effusive (and this is one effusive Italian) when complimenting his troops, who he insists take credit for everything. When they all file out at the end of the meal to take a bow, they make for a stylish bunch, the female chefs in Gucci turbans and everyone in Gucci clogs – just as they should be.