There's a lot to be said for atmosphere.
The Parish, chef Casey Lane's gastropub that opened in July of last year, is a triumph of many sorts — a triumph of cocktails, of bar culture in general, of poutine. But mainly it's a triumph of atmosphere, at least in the top half of the two-story, flatiron-shaped restaurant, which feels like the glassed-in deck of a 1930s ocean liner, sailing through downtown Los Angeles. That's especially true toward the back of the room, the base of this isosceles, where a vintage map of the city holds the place of honor, and the wood walls cast the room in a mahogany light, with a twinkling, clubby, swank feel that embraces you like the romance of an old movie.
Lane, who came to L.A. via Portland and Oakland but is originally from Texas, made a name for himself at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice, which he opened in 2009. He was only 26. But where the Tasting Kitchen is all Californian pasta freshness, the Parish is a very different beast. It's a gastropub, pure and simple — a heightened take on pub food; a more refined presentation of drunk food.
As should be the case with such an endeavor, the drinks are front and center, and that long bar that runs down one leg of the isosceles is in many ways the heart of the Parish. Most of the drinks created by John Coltharp are twists on classics. The Queen Anne's Revenge is a rum negroni; the Historic Core is a Manhattan enhanced with Apple Jack and green chartreuse, inspired by the "historic core" district of downtown Los Angeles. Sitting at this bar, swilling these drinks, it's easy to fall for the Parish's charms.
Much of the food is seductive as well. Roast chicken comes with a vinegary bread salad and hearty mustard greens. The burger is topped with wonderfully assertive cheese; some nights, it's the blessedly stinky Époisses from France, while others it's sharp blue Stichelton from England. There's chicken liver on toast topped with crackly, thin bacon; a particularly piggy-tasting pork head fritter; and crispy fried sardines that come with caper aioli and are fantastic as a bar snack, washed down with a beer. (The Parish has quite a few beers, as you might imagine, many of them local.)
There are less-artery-clogging options, like a kale salad with pomegranate and crispy parsnips, and a fantastic dish of caramelized green beans with marcona almonds and romesco.
But the Parish's strength lies in elevating grease. The best dish on the menu is the fried oyster poutine, topped with spicy gribiche for a mustardy, pickle-y, herb-laden smoosh, the crispy oysters and soggy fries melding into a pile of glorious tang. It's one of those dishes you almost wish you were drunk enough to put your entire face into: Its combination of fat and tart and fry and yum seems to be engineered exactly for that level of intoxication. Even when consumed sober, it's giddily delicious.
But then there was that one night when I didn't make it into that upstairs room, when even at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday the dining room was too full to take another soul (the Parish can be extremely hard to get into, although not always, and the rhyme and reason of when and why is beyond me). So, to the downstairs patio we went — and at least 50 percent of the Parish's charm swooshed out the door with us. Yes, I was kind of cold, and yes, our waitress seemed particularly perturbed to have to come out there to serve us. (Service, in general, seems to be a weak point, barring the bartenders and bussers, who both work with friendly dedication and purpose.)
But apart from that, some food that suggested quality and simplicity inside seemed pricey and unspecial outside. Inside, a $30 branzino seems like a great complement to the fun, raucous room and the company of good friends. Outside, it's just a $30 fish on a plate, fresh and well prepared but, unadorned as it was, unexciting and overly expensive.
Again, it didn't help that, on this particular evening, the kitchen was out of certain things, yet the waitress didn't tell us until 20 minutes after we'd ordered those things, saying with something close to an eye roll, "So the pork head fritter won't be ready for another hour ... do you still want it?" It didn't help that the heating lamps weren't turned on until after we'd asked four times, and then only thanks to one of those ass-busting bussers. Many things contributed to what became a rather miserable meal, yet it showed that a miserable meal is definitely possible here.
Take away that room, that grand bar, that view out those long windows, and you're left with some decent food and some less than decent service. Even upstairs, if you land at the very tip of the isosceles on one of the tall bar tables, perched on a stool, your table is likely to wobble, your back become sore.
I get it: It's a pub. But it's a very expensive pub and therefore more annoying when comfort is put last on the list of priorities.
The Parish is open for breakfast and lunch in the downstairs café, a pleasant, light-filled room with none of the glamour of the upstairs. These earlier meals, which you order at the counter, are far simpler affairs than dinner. There's high-quality coffee, pretty great biscuits for breakfast and, for lunch, sandwiches that tend toward gluttony — sausage dripping in sauce; a chicken sandwich, with a fried egg on top, on two slices of bread that have basically been cured in oil and crispified.
It's worth noting that the Parish has changed quite a bit since opening. Much of the staff has turned over and Lane has retooled the menu, dropping some of the pubbier items, such as fish and chips, and introducing more upscale entrees over time. In November, pastry chef Brooke Mosley left and Lane took over that side of the menu as well. It shows: Desserts at dinner are fine but simple to the point of being forgettable.
The problem with gastropubs, particularly in this country, is that we rely on them for too much. It's not our fault — but the fact that you may well need a reservation to get into the Parish means you're supposed to have dinner here and treat it like a restaurant, an event, a form of entertainment worthy of planning ahead and making a considerable time commitment.
It's too bad, because the Parish's true calling is as an actual pub, one you could stop into, have a drink, nosh on some fried sardines, grab a gloriously stinky burger, and occasionally get so plastered you might put your face in a plate of fried oyster poutine. One day I suspect it will settle into that functionality. In the meantime, you can head to the base of the Parish's isosceles for some of the best atmosphere downtown has to offer.
THE PARISH | 840 S. Spring St., dwntwn. | (213) 225-2400 | theparishla.com | Café: Opens 8 a.m. Mon-Fri and 9 a.m. Sat & Sun. Dinner & bar: Sun.-Wed., 5:30 p.m.-mid.; Thurs.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.- 2 a.m. | Entrees, $14-$30 | Reservations recommended | Full bar | Street and valet parking