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How Los Angeles changed the way we eat out

Chef Wolfgang Puck.
Chef Wolfgang Puck.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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When you go out to a nice restaurant, you probably expect a cool modern space and a lot of choices on the menu. If the restaurant is particularly high-end, maybe the chef has even been on T.V.

Well it wasn't always that way. Andrew Friedman is the author of "Chefs, Drugs and Rock and Roll." He said that if you went out for a so-called nice dinner 40 years ago, it meant just one thing.

That almost always meant that you were going out for a French meal, and it probably meant that you were dining out on a very similar menu -- duck a l'orange, cassoulet, very standard-issue French cuisine.

Then, in the 1970s and 80s, the way we go out to eat began to change, and Southern California played a big role in that shift, Friedman said.

There were young Americans being drawn to kitchens, creating plated dishes that were unique to them. It started to make cooking seem like something expressive and something personal, something that might make you kind of well known or put you on the cover of a magazine... I think Los Angeles, in terms of how open minded it was, was definitely on the cutting edge. Some of the most inventive food was happening [there].

Friedman laid out some of SoCal's biggest contributions to the food world and the chefs behind them.

California Cuisine 

Before the cooking style had even been given a name, California cuisine was being pioneered by a lesser known SoCal chef. Bruce Marder may not be a household name, Friedman said, but perhaps he should be.

Marder had the technique and the inventive California spirit to create food with a wide range of influences, Friedman said. At his restaurant California Cafe, which later became the West Beach Cafe, Marder was trying it all, from salads to salsas, and his duck tacos became the stuff of legend. Now California cuisine has come to mean a lot of things, but it can be defined as a lighter cooking style with a diverse list of dishes, Friedman said.

Multi-Cultural Menus

When Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken started City Cafe in L.A. in the 1980s, they had a more traditional French menu, Friedman said. However, the two women quickly branched out from that. They would travel to different countries and bring back their favorite dishes to serve in their restaurant, Friedman said. Feniger and Milliken were ground breakers with their eclectic international menu that put Mexican street food next to Indian samosas.

L.A. was also one of the first cities where chefs were opening multiple restaurants with different styles of cooking, Friedman said. Marder, for example, followed up his California cuisine-focused West Beach Cafe with a modern Mexican venture called Rebecca's Restaurant.

Restaurant Design

Modern art on the walls, outdoor seating, and the open kitchen are all design trends that started in SoCal, Friedman said.

Michael's Santa Monica played a big part in changing how restaurants look, not just how they cook, Friedman said. Michael himself wanted to move away from the stuffy, fine-dining image so he dressed his waiters in colorful Ralph Lauren uniforms, not black ties and put half of his dining room outside.

Celebrity Chefs

Now we're used to seeing chefs on T.V., Friedman said, but when Wolfgang Puck starting making regular appearances on Good Morning America, it was a novel idea.

Puck has a great personality, Friedman said, but he was also an incredibly talented chef and his skills in the kitchen were what made him famous. He first job was at the French Bistro, Ma Maison, which he helped turn into a Hollywood hotspot in the 1970s. Puck then went on to start his first flagship restaurant, Spago, which became the start of a culinary empire.