Real Talk is our weekly series about the peaks, pitfalls, and perils of the food world. Every week, we’re taking you to the heart of food’s most glamorous (and difficult) projects with the help of our content partner MOO , whose products are all about making dream hustles into beautiful realities ( click here for 20% off your next order!)
From pop-up dinners to pop-tart marketing, hyper-local restaurants to global food empires, this is your peek behind the curtains of food & drink’s dreamiest initiatives and get—you guessed it—the real talk. This week, writer Lien Ta is opening her first restaurant—and she took us along for the ride.
When I was a kid, around 10 or 11 years old, my dad would tell me two things: Let’s open a liquor store, or let’s open a noodle shop. And let’s do it together. I engaged in a lot of “professional work” with my dad then, some a little too laborious probably, but I was notably mature for my age. He was sick during these years, and often relegated to a plush-suede La-Z-Boy kind of chair, in a hue of 1970s burnt sienna. We were at the family store (neither a liquor store or a noodle shop), and he would direct me verbally—do this, do it like that, do it over. I did as I was told.
But I had to gently explain to my fixed-in-his-ways Chinese father that it wasn’t exactly practical for me, as a pre-teen, to sell liquor to the American public. So mentally, I settled on the other plan: One day, we would open a noodle shop. My dad, however, would pass away from cancer a couple of years later, and the memory of this little culinary dream would be fleeting.
I hadn’t recalled this old ambition of mine until recently. The restaurant I’m opening in just a day is not a noodle shop; it’s something more. It’s got 50 seats, a full bar, an impeccable kitchen covered in white subway tiles, shelves lined with Japanese ceramic plates and bowls, and a corner entrance, which in some cultures is considered to be good luck. The restaurant is located in Los Angeles, and it’s the first restaurant of its kind in the neighborhood of Koreatown. In the mornings when I arrive, I am hit with the aroma of my neighbors pickling fresh batches of pungent kimchi and roasting a lot of mackerel.
The full bar in question. Photo by DYLAN+JENI
Technically, we are an American restaurant. If you could taste a place, you would taste Southern California: rich with a multi-cultured canon of people and a fresh point of view. My chef/partner and I raised $750,000 with the help of investors we sought out one by one. But the money didn’t come all at once.
We discovered the space first, and quickly had to do what was necessary in order not to lose it.
It’s difficult to say what was the hardest part: Getting all the money was hard. Naming the restaurant was hard. Hiring has been extremely challenging. Even getting the new AC unit in the dining room to properly work has been emotionally troublesome.
The exterior of Here’s Looking At You. Photo by Jenn Emerling
We named the restaurant Here’s Looking At You, lesser known for its origin as a classic cocktail toast. First appearing in American literature and poetry in the late 1800s, the abbreviated version of “Here’s a toast to looking at you,” was begging for a drink to be served. Two drinks at least—to clink together, naturally. At the time, naming the restaurant this was a triple-dog dare to ourselves; firstly, it’s a weird thing to call a restaurant—as it’s not a single, dominate word or a marriage of two, separated by an ampersand. And secondly, we weren’t even close to being approved for a liquor license by the city—let alone schilling out $80K to buy one. Or even having $80K on hand. But, perhaps it was the name that willed it all to happen.
Sometimes, when we’re both feeling particularly bedraggled by the minutiae of restaurant ownership, Jonathan, my business partner, and I will ask each other: “Whose idea was this again? Why did we do this?!”
We had just completed a private industry dinner the night before, when guests arrived at 7p.m. and the restaurant’s dishwasher was only installed 30 minutes later, and my reply to Jonathan was this:
“But how happy did everyone look last night?”
I believe this was the point all along.
When we were colleagues together at Animal , Jonathan’s cooking made me extremely happy. One day, after working together for well over a year, I was suddenly reminded of that old dream on the proverbial bucket list, the one I had as a kid: Open a Restaurant.
At my previous management job prior to Animal, I had learned an important lesson: I couldn’t do it myself. I needed a partner, and specifically, a badass chef/partner. I found that in Jonathan, and luckily, he agreed to open a restaurant with me…one day. (If ever.)
One of our dishes: quail with beet, red wine vinegar, and spices. Photo by Jenn Emerling
It all happened a little unexpectedly. When the space fell into our laps, it seemed unwise to give it up. I slapped together a 19-page business plan, cobbling together our still-in-progress point of view. We got a lawyer. We shopped the business plan around to any single person that ever gave a damn about either of us and spoke honestly and confidently about our plans to open a great restaurant. In a matter of weeks, we gathered enough funds to secure the space, sign the lease and, well…begin.
It felt awfully slow at first. We would visit the space over and over, take in dozens of meetings, and yet, nothing would change. I remember there was this old discarded box, sitting in the middle of the vacated space, that once held a foot-soaking device for pedicures, leftover from the little beauty salon that once inhabited it.
After an endless period of permitting issues with the city, we were finally ready to begin construction. I’ll never forget when our first demolition of the space occurred because it was the same week I got married.
Me and Jonathan looking happy in the midst of chaos. Photo by Jenn Emerling
Construction was interesting for us because we opted to NOT hire a formal designer—a way for us to save some money and truly ensure that the restaurant would be our desired aesthetic. We figured out the latter as we went along. Our general contractor would typically give us a heads up: Need your bathroom tiles by Wednesday, need your bar equipment by Thursday, need your Title 24-compliant pendant lights by Friday. The learning curve was real for us, a lot of lessons were learned (for any future restaurants we might choose to open), but ultimately, we are glad and satisfied knowing we made all of these decisions on our own.
We weren’t too proud to ask for help. Josef of Baco Mercat helped us set up our initial financial costs. Joy, a restaurant PR maven, led us to our lawyer. Woogene of fundamental LA sold us on our CPA. Zach of Alimento intro’d us to our General Contractor. Ori of Bestia counseled us on seeking investments. Alvin of Eggslut helped us secure an important investment and also allowed us the opportunity to host a one-night-only dinner in late January at his culinary incubator, Unit 120 . It was then that we were able to tell the world: Here’s Looking At You is coming soon.
Our initial projected opening date was fast approaching, and it became clear that the status of our liquor license would not turn active, despite the fact that we would be physically ready to open. So, we decided to open a limited-released concept within our space. It was called Tet-a-Tet, un-coincidentally the name of my partnership with Jonathan (in French, “tete-a-tete” means: a conversation between two people, face to face). The concept would be Vietnamese takeaway because Vietnamese flavors is what first bonded us: We both grew up eating a lot of it. “Tet” is the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture, requiring a lot of preparation for essentially a two-week party. Tet-a-Tet was our pre-party to Here’s Looking At You.
Our $26 Almost-Original Mai Tai is pretty damn good. Photo by DYLAN + JENI
Tet-a-Tet’s last day was on Father’s Day, and we were able to fete both of Jonathan’s fathers. Two days later, our liquor license became active, and the booze FINALLY got delivered, when the sky featured a once-in-a-lifetime Strawberry Solstice. It’s the name of our first cocktail featured on the menu.
I would list the last three weeks of my life among the most challenging weeks of my life. Fueled purely by adrenaline, passion and expectations, together, we have somehow managed to get this restaurant in an acceptable shape to open to the public. Jonathan and I have 15 incredible employees we are responsible for. And we both feel personally responsible to do well in order to best showcase where we came from as a tribute to our mentors.
We have cocktails, we have wine, we have menus. We have working bathrooms and working ice machines. We have electricity (which was a big deal for a long time when we didn’t). We have a reservations system, we have a point-of-sales system. We have a website. We have a little bit of press and media attention. We have friends willing to help us on their own dime. We are feeling pretty lucky.
Now, we just have to open.