Here is a recent article I wrote for Culinary Trends Magazine. In this piece, I featured a topic that many food-industry professionals and night owls (including myself) are quite familiar with – the practice of late-night dining. Enjoy!
Late-Nite Dining Caters to Chefs & Discerning Diners Alike
by Mika Takeuchi
Desirable late-night dining options have always been a part of life for those living in cities like Manhattan, Hong Kong or Madrid; but here on the West Coast, choices have been a bit more limited. Fortunately today, more and more high-quality restaurants are embracing dining after-hours and keeping their doors and kitchens open for the discriminating food-seeking night owl.
Nocturnal noshing is no longer limited to the 24-hour coffee house or multi-national fast-food chain. After-hours grub seekers are now being treated to abundantly more pleasing and favorable selections than the typical witching hour fare of the standard drive-thru burger or greasy spoon platter of hash browns and over-buttered toast. Upscale restaurants are serving up seasonal, top-quality ingredients, offering menu items suited for the sophisticated palates of the hungry epicure and refined tastes of the restaurant industry crowd. Visits to local farmers’ markets, in addition to products from upscale purveyors, are common for chefs gathering ingredients for innovative dishes catering to the late-night bon vivant.
Experimenting with exotic ingredients and unusual combinations
Chef Jordan Kahn of Los Angeles’ Red Medicine, lists his top five, must-have nighttime cooking ingredients as “fish sauce, limes, sugar, chilies and pork fat.” And he knows a thing or two about paramount pantry staples having cooked in some of the most highly-respected kitchens in the world, including both Per Se and The French Laundry with Chef Thomas Keller and Alinea with Chef Grant Achatz. His restaurant, Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, serves until 2 a.m. and is a regular hangout for other local chefs. “The individuals that come in for late-night dining typically come for different reasons than they would for dinner,” says Chef Kahn. He also finds that “getting serious food after work at a modest price point is attractive to many chefs.” Some of Red Medicine’s crowd-favorites include “the Brussels sprouts with caramelized shallots, vermouth, fish sauce and puffed prawns and the chicken dumplings with caramelized sugar, pork fat, lemongrass and confitures.” Chef Kahn finds inspiration from a “vegetable or fruit from the farmers’ market, a wild patch of herbs, a dish at 4 a.m. in K-town, a song, a painting …anything.” Chefs are exploring the freedom to express themselves through their cutting-edge offerings. “The late night diners are typically restaurant industry people, so they tend to have an easier time ordering dishes that would otherwise be considered ‘less approachable,’” says Chef Kahn.
At Mr. Pollo, a hole-in–the-wall gem in San Francisco’s Mission District, Chef Manny Torres Gimenez is garnering a fan base for his creative South American cooking. It’s an often familiar sight to see a number of local chefs stopping by following dinner service for his low cost, yet high-quality arepas, lavender-crusted lamb rack or shark tartar. Guests are drawn to his special menu items, including on one such evening, goat loin with Douglas Fir. Although Mr. Pollo seats visitors until 11 p.m., there are many evenings where Chef/Owner Torres Gimenez is preparing food until 1 or 2 a.m. due to the demand.
Agedashi Tofu at Aburiya RAKU, Las Vegas
Late-night cravings, first-rate ingredients
At ultra-popular chef’s haunt and former James Beard-nominated Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas, Chef Akira Endo serves up top-notch Japanese cuisine until 3 a.m., six days of the week. Their location is off the busy Las Vegas Strip, but the restaurant still manages to pack diners in until the wee hours. Chef Endo and team make their tofu in-house, making it no surprise that one of “the late-night favorites is the agedashi tofu.” Another coveted creation at Raku according to Chef Endo is the robata skewers because people can eat light before they go home after midnight. As for the sought-after grilling on their acclaimed robata grill, Aburiya Raku imports “binchotan” charcoals from Japan. “Binchotan emits substantial far-infrared rays to cook ingredients thoroughly without burning them and the active carbon created by far-infrared rays brings out the full flavor of the ingredients.” This attention to authenticity and quality makes it is no wonder why diners are clamoring for Raku’s robata specialties, past hours many restaurants, even bars, are closed.
A short cab ride away from the healthy cravings of those dining at Aburiya Raku, are those early-morning grub seekers on the Vegas Strip with a hankering for something a bit more caloric and indulgent. At Munchbar at Caesar’s Palace, the after-hours favorites include “aged cheddar munch house nachos, tiny grilled cheese sandwiches with creamy tomato dipping sauce, southern fried popcorn chicken, chili cheese waffle fries and anything pork,” says Executive Chef Seis Kamimura who oversees locations in Las Vegas, Nevada and Bellevue, Washington.
Time for bed (for most), Time to eat (for restaurant professionals)
Servers, sommeliers and chefs customarily dine after 11 p.m. – the habitual time when they are just getting off work. While most nine-to-fivers are tucked tightly into bed, snoring away, the restaurant industry folks are just getting ready to eat their initial post-work meal. And they aren’t just craving a tiny midnight snack.
Following an often grueling evening of feeding and serving guests in their own establishments, restaurant professionals are craving their own “breakfast of champions” or rather, breakfast of night owls sort of meal. Ideally, it’s a spot to unwind and relax subsequent to their often hectic work days, where they can coincidently catch up with peers and sample other’s experimental dishes and drinks. Late-crowd-pleaser Nopa in San Francisco serves dinner seven days a week until 1 a.m. It’s not uncommon to hear a chef or sommelier from one of the Bay Area’s many restaurants saying they’re grabbing an infamous grass-fed Nopa Burger with a bowl of hot soup and a glass of wine on their way home from work.
Nopa’s Chef de Cuisine, Alejandro Rodriguez credits their late-night popularity to the fact they serve “great food, wine and drinks and the space is cool and big. It’s a place where you can run into your friends from other restaurants, or a place where you can get a good meal after a show at the Independent or elsewhere…but it’s so crowded after 11 p.m. almost every day”. Although Rodriguez confirms their burger as the “most popular” late-night dish, he also credits Nopa’s flatbread and pork chops, fried items like French fries and sardines, and seasonal items as big sellers.
In the kitchen, Chef Rodriguez feels that “inspiration comes first from seasonal ingredients and following our philosophy of not messing up with the ingredients if they’re great the way they are.” Like many other chefs, Nopa’s Rodriguez also finds personal inspiration from dining at his peers’ restaurants. As for peers dining at Nopa, Chef Rodriguez says, “industry professionals like to eat our chicken or steak, and something we only have once or twice a week like livers, headcheese and of course a really rare Burger.”
Another West Coast after-hours spot with a cult-like following for a gourmet burger is Father’s Office in Southern California. With two locations, Chef Yang Soon’s upscale gastropub is always packed and full of energy. The Office Burger with caramelized onion, bacon, arugula, gruyere and Maytag blue cheese with a side of ala carte sweet potato fries with roasted garlic, Cabrales blue cheese and aioli is on plenty of Angeleno’s late-night to-do lists. And despite their strict “no substitutions” policy, business is always bustling.
To feed or not to feed (the night-bites crowd)
Munchbar’s Chef Kamimura, with restaurants feeding patrons until 4 a.m. on certain nights, says that “in general, customers are more food savvy and they dictate a lot of what goes on the menu.” This makes perfect sense since staying open is ultimately about the bottom line. “Sales and feedback is where we come up with some ideas for new items. If we like something we give it a shot and see the response,” says Kamimura.
From the look of these successful late-night operations, feeding the after-hours diner is a niche market with an already built-in pack of just-off-work restaurant employees and the hungry nocturnal crowd.
To stay open beyond regular hours, or not, is a question only a chef and restaurant owner can determine for themselves. But witnessing the successful trend and packed houses of those currently offering this option, it may be just the step to set your establishment apart. Serving after typical feasting hours is certainly an option to bring in new revenue in a weak economy. Catering to this demographic: a hungry group with limited gourmet dining selections, may certainly be something to seriously digest and consider putting on your next menu.