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December 11, 2023
Craig’s Isn’t Fun or Fancy. It’s Forgettable. So Why Is It Still LA’s Hottest Table?
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Craig’s in LA is the restaurant equivalent of Point Break. Is this movie good? We don’t know, but we watch. Is Craig’s good? We don’t know. 

Craig’s, a Los Angeles celebrity catchall restaurant, name-checked equally by the Drakes and the De Niros of the world, answers the question that many have asked: “What if DJ Khaled decorated a Ruth’s Chris?”

Opening in 2011 on a stretch of Melrose Avenue in Beverly Hills that’s become one of LA’s great drivable malls, Craig’s has remained, almost inexplicably, one of Los Angeles’s most popular restaurants, and I wanted to know why. Why do paparazzi dot the entrance nightly when so many other restaurants serve the same slightly dated “California cuisine,” but better, within a one-mile radius? Dozens, in fact, do it better a short Lyft ride away, including The Grill on the Alley, South Beverly Grill, anything advertising a grill, really. 

The easy answer is, likely, because of the owner’s connections in the entertainment biz, and the Rolodex of Craig Susser himself from his 23 years running the front of the house at Dan Tana’s (quite literally the opposite of Craig’s, but more on that later). But that can’t be all. Ultimately, if a restaurant is goofy enough, it doesn’t matter who the owners know…right? 

Craig’s sits on a strip of Melrose Avenue more akin to Collins Avenue in Miami Beach during Art Basel. Out-of-towners driving neon Gallardos, vague diplomatic license plates, and uninhabited glass box showrooms full of Kohler bathroom furnishings and one absurd yellow sofa. It’s a collection of eateries where one might show off a newly healed surgery while recording a video for social media of a server who rode their bicycle to work that night pouring chocolate on top of ice cream made from cashews.

Craig’s offers some of the most straightforward American food in town, free of unnecessary flair and fusion, unabashedly saying this type of restaurant’s quiet part out loud: “We didn’t come to this restaurant to eat food.” And the food there has to be remarkably undynamic because anything else would be a sensory overload for a sensuous clientele: people who look fabulous for 52. 

The real fusion at Craig’s lies in its interior design: it’s one part elevated casual bar with wood beams, turn-of-the-century factory brick (possibly fake), and leather booths, fused with the art collection of someone who owns a pair of sneakers with Batman’s Joker painted on the toe box. Shoddy reproductions of priceless Banksys sit above a couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Just Google “Mr. Brainwash” and select “images.” 

I found this juxtaposition of corporate-steakhouse leather booths and dry-aged chops mixed with floor-to-ceiling murals of stick-figured pizza slices, ice cream cones, and dollar signs to be so arresting that my ability to judge its food was rendered superfluous—an effect that is hopefully by design. On a recent weekday night in October, as we were escorted past this mural to our two-top on the back patio, I imagined that Craig had given Justin Bieber or Chris Brown a paintbrush and 45 minutes. 

The works lining the brick walls at Craig’s are interchangeable with those in a Las Vegas boutique tucked away at Caesars, a place to find a life-size Swarovski-encrusted Kobe Bryant or Darth Vader, perhaps. Please take my emphasis on the artwork with a grain of salt, as the lofty air I breathe is shared only by those fortunate enough to dine out in a fancy Beverly Hills–adjacent establishment while also possessing strong opinions about graffiti art. Now, on to the food.

They’ve cherry-picked much of the Hillstone formula: a spinach artichoke dip at the bar with the Laker game on mute, or a plate of pigs in a blanket with Madonna sitting two booths over at the Tower Bar. But they’ve replaced the magic feeling that you’ve made it in the world with the lesser feeling of snagging a table at Jones—and this is Craig’s formula for success. They’ve found a hole in the dining market: rich people who don’t feel comfortable at fancy places or simply can’t get a good table at them. 

But Craig’s doesn’t feel like a fun place to spend money, like Catch or even Erewhon does. I hate to give Erewhon any more ink this year, but it offers a great comparison. While writing this, a TikTok creator named Tinx is Bo Jackson–ing the culinary collaboration space by simultaneously pushing product at Erewhon and at Craig’s: a Halloween-themed pumpkin-forward smoothie at Erewhon dubbed the “Basic Witch,” and a vegan ice cream sundae served in an oversize sprinkle-rimmed martini glass at Craig’s. 

I can justify her $19 smoothie upon reading its list of high-dollar, life-giving ingredients, like raw manuka honey and shaman-blessed ancient grains. A shared photo of this pureed pumpkin pie will signal wealth and wellness, but at $46, the value proposition of Tinx’s Hot Girl Sundae comes less from its ingredient list and more from its Amazon Prime sparklers. 

Now, back to Dan Tana’s. Craig cut his teeth at the tiny but beloved red-sauce Italian joint, one of the last great institutions in town, learning the ins and outs of bygone hospitality at one of America’s most treasured dining rooms. Like Craig’s, Dan Tana’s is (arguably) known as a restaurant where the food ain’t great. But at Dan Tana’s, that’s more than made up for by the fact that the room itself and every one of its employees is enchanting. You feel lucky to be drinking that kind of shitty martini; the dust on Tana’s picture frames has lived ten more lifetimes than you will, and their veal cutlet is named after George Clooney, not a TikToker who rose to fame during COVID (no shade to Tinx). None of this is Craig’s fault. When an aging Tana’s server slops and spills his tray of cocktails while walking through its tiny passageways, it’s endearing; it almost feels deliberate.  

Craig’s is like a weed that slowly takes over your lawn—annoying at first, but then you realize it somehow stays green on its own without the hassle of having to care for it like grass.

I asked a friend who’d dined at Craig’s before if she had any tips for navigating the night, and she replied, “Don’t get the margarita.” I assumed they must add a splashy embellishment to stand out from the competition; for example, a still-smoldering dried lime floater. But the margaritas looked like margaritas. My Tito’s martini with a twist was somehow quite foul, mystifyingly so, as any airport bar can shake up some vodka long enough to satisfy me, but no. It went down like a plastic bottle of Popov, warmed by a back pocket. I grinned with each sip in disbelief, but it smoothed out by the end, as martinis tend to do.

Upon opening the menu, my dining and podcast partner, Chris, revealed, “We won’t be starting with the vegan crab cakes.” Giggling feels good in a place like Craig’s. We ordered a selection of straightforward American classics: pigs in a blanket, Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, a burger and fries, and the sesame-crusted salmon with steamed broccoli and sriracha vinaigrette. A complimentary bread basket featured bits of pleasantly underbaked pita and pieces of toasted French bread, some torn into irregular shapes and some cut into tiny bits no larger than an AirPods case (1st generation) We ate all of it because it was free, and because it was there, but I found myself giggling again as I imagined a line cook in the back roughly chopping a loaf of bread like a bunch of cilantro. 

TikTok creator Tinx launched a vegan ice cream with Craig Susser.

The shrimp cocktail was good to go, plainly plated with a sweet cocktail sauce, but the burn of fresh horseradish was missed. There was no bed of crushed ice, no finely diced chive, but the Caesar salad for $22 was perfectly fine and cheaper than I had expected (hoped). It’s hard to fuck up pigs in a blanket, and these went down a treat. The food’s overall charm is in just how unembellished it is. There is no flair, nothing unexpected. Based on the Warholian canvas featuring Jim Morrison looking badass next to a framed and distressed American flag, I expected some Guy-Fieri-level pizzazz on the plate, but no, this was food made for the people who go there: rich old guys who want to watch the game (similar to Houston’s, they have some flat-screens tastefully set up in the bar), check out some skirts, and enjoy a fully loaded baked potato with no funny business.

The only miss was my burger’s oddly dense bun, which looked like an English muffin but ate like a once-fluffy brioche run over by a wrapped G-Wagen moments before getting kissed with some grill marks. The patty’s flavor was deep and beefy, like a proper steakhouse burger should taste, but my giggles came back as we realized that, much like our bread basket, none of the fries were longer than an inch. 

I fumbled over tiny fry scraps, not a long boy in the mix. Obviously, I’m nitpicking, but things like this don’t happen in the real world, and I have eaten at some of the worst restaurants. It’s psychedelic. It’s as if that fake restaurant art project in New York was open seven days a week instead of one night.

Giggling feels good in a place like Craig’s.

Craig’s is like a weed that slowly takes over your lawn—annoying at first, but then you realize it somehow stays green on its own without the hassle of having to care for it like grass. It’s a perfect expression of Hollywood excess for those still kicking around from the ’80s. Eating at Craig’s is the brick-and-mortar equivalent of what it must have felt like to green-light the script for Point Break. Is that movie good? Is that movie bad? I don’t know. Did it cost $8 million to make and gross $80 million? Yes, it did.

Craig’s feels like the nicest restaurant at an airport. You’re paying a little extra to have table service and a place to put your Goyard without having to keep an eye on it, but with the steady stream of Doja Cat and Domino’s commercials on the flat-screen. Like a child’s stroller in Central Park, equipped with shiny things to squeeze and squish instead of birds and trees to admire, you don’t have to raw-dog society without the familiarity of comforting stimulation. It goes against every reason one should dine out, but now that our lives are becoming more and more like one big layover in Dallas, Craig’s doesn’t seem so absurd. 

Walking back out to the real world felt like Q-tipping my ears. As our valet yelled, “I have a Porsche!” to a handful of belly rubbers on the sidewalk, I giggled one last time. I drove back east, marveling at the spray-painted mural of thoughtless squiggles and shapes on the facade of a building worth tens of millions of dollars.

Jason Stewart

Jason Stewart is a retired DJ living in Los Angeles. He currently does a podcast called How Long Gone.