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Suzanne Goin & Caroline Styne On The Timeless Mystique Of Downtown LA

Restaurateurs Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne have been shaping Los Angeles’ dining scene for more than 20 years, winning James Beard Awards with restaurants like Lucques, a.o.c., Tavern, and now Caldo Verde and Cara Cara at the Proper Hotel in downtown LA. During the pandemic, Goin and Styne not only opened two new restaurants, but they were also founding members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, whose work was instrumental in securing over $28.6 billion in government grants for restaurants and bars across the country.

SUZANNE GOIN: We both grew up in LA, and my parents worked downtown, so I’d always see LA when my parents were going to work. I feel like I’m from the 1930s or 1940s. I love the feeling of a real downtown and beautiful old buildings. It was always a mythical place for me growing up. For me to be here finally in the heart of downtown LA is a dream come true, and something I’ve imagined my whole life. The timing was not perfect, but downtown is coming back again.

CAROLINE STYNE: For years people had been coming to us for projects opening up downtown. I do feel like we’re part of a revitalization that’s happening. Even on Broadway alone, I’ve noticed there’s definitely an energy and spark and freshness to the area, and a lot of commerce and retail popping up.

GOIN: When you’re on the roof at Cara Cara and look down on Broadway, it feels like you’re transported to another era with the old marquees. We’re both hotel junkies. I don’t know if there was ever a plan to open a hotel restaurant, but we’re suckers for a great hotel. It does what a restaurant does on a whole ‘nother level. Setting the mood and feeling like you’re escaping. It took us a long time to open our first hotel restaurant, but we had been in talks with the Proper hotel for seven years.

STYNE: We’ve been dating the Proper for a long time

GOIN: The combination of seeing the space, being in the building, and meeting the players just clicked for us. We knew interior designer Kelly Wearstler and hotel developer Brad Korzen from when they dined at a.o.c. and Lucques, and it felt like a really good fit. We really felt simpatico about what they were trying to do and what we like to do.

When we first opened, I was at the Proper almost every night. I love being here. There’s something fun about coming to work in a hotel. It’s very different from a standalone restaurant. It’s all-encompassing. It’s pretty cool to have guests who come in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

STYNE: It’s a different kind of regular that you cultivate that relationship with.

GOIN: You may never see them again, but you see them a lot for a few days.

STYNE: And even if you never see them again, you’re part of their memories of their time in Los Angeles.

GOIN: Caldo Verde feels like a grown-up restaurant to me. It reminds me of our original restaurant, Lucques. There’s something sort of civilized about it.

STYNE: Casual sophistication.

GOIN: Being in a glorious room, the double-height ceilings and all the plants, and looking through the archways to see the art. Cara Cara is also amazing but very different. It’s fast-paced and fun, and downstairs, Caldo Verde is a little more sophisticated.

STYNE: When you open a restaurant, you’re creating an environment and escape, a fantasy without it feeling goofy. Kelly is such an incredible talent. She has a way, a little like Suzanne on the plate, of layering textures and flavors. Somehow Kelly does that visually with patterns and materials, and accomplishes what a California restaurant should look like—incredibly organic and natural. There’s a lot going on, but when you see it all in place, it’s like a calm, perfect presence. Every time I walk into that restaurant, I cannot believe how beautiful it is.

GOIN: It first hit me when we walked into that building seven years ago. It was pretty run down, but you could feel the bones of it. It felt really Old World to me—vaguely European. It had this dark moody thing going on, and I wanted to know what people were eating when this building was built. I did a bunch of research, and it was just continental cuisine. So I asked myself, what was I hoping that I would find? What was I hoping that they were eating?

I’ve worked for two different Portuguese people, in Boston and in Providence, Rhode Island, which has a huge Portuguese community. I was exposed to Portuguese food in my early 20s, and I always loved it and always loved that spirit—of drinking Vinho Verde and hanging out and talking and having a good time in the middle of the day. Somehow in my brain those two things connected.

I’ve been able to cook what I want to cook for a long time now, so it’s fun for me to have a path to follow and narrow the direction of what I’m doing. The menu is not all authentically Portuguese, but it’s Portuguese-inspired.

In 2019, Caroline and I went to Portugal—Lisbon, the Douro Valley, and Porto. I saw different things than I thought we were going to see. The joie de vivre, a very humble but loose festive spirit, is very much alive there. That’s another thing we’re looking for with the restaurant. I want it to be a fun place for people to eat cheese and drink wine and spoon out their caldo verde as they pass plates. I definitely took a lot of inspiration from that trip. I didn’t want to fly in a bunch of fish from Portugal, so I wanted to focus on what we have here. Portuguese cuisine is so seafood-heavy, but I wanted to highlight something really local, so I’m working with a fisherwoman from Santa Barbara to get the rock crab for our caldo verde. It’s the perfect way to use it since there’s so much shell.

STYNE: It’s an interesting moment in LA. We’re in this downtown commercial area, and a lot of people aren’t back in the office yet, so we are definitely still growing our lunch business. We have a lot of people who come in for breakfast too. We foresee it as being the place that you can walk to and have a fantastic lunch and go back to work. There’s a fashion district and so much happening around this area and so many interesting people. I also foresee a little fashion hour at our bar. I feel like Caldo Verde has such a draw for so many different reasons.

GOIN: During the pandemic, it was all we could do to try to survive, and try to figure out how to take care of our staff as best we could. The horrible unknown of not knowing what was coming, and not knowing how long our money needs to last. Do we need to lay people off? Is it safe to do takeout? It was brutal. We were just trying to figure out how to survive. The people we feel the real responsibility to are our staff who have been with us for so many years. Our chef de cuisine and sous chef at Caldo Verde were both at Lucques when it closed. We thought it would be six months, but it was a year and a half before we could open.

STYNE: The fact that Congress put this whole thing into action with the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and got $28.6 billion in the hands of really needy restaurants—it was a fantasy come true. Unfortunately we had asked them for a lot more money, and we found ourselves in the position that two-thirds of the restaurants that needed the money didn’t get it. There are 177,000 restaurants that applied and did not get funding because the money ran out. We need another $60 billion to replenish that fund. We’ve been pleading with Congress. They saved a third of the industry, but we need to save the other two-thirds.

I think it’s a bipartisan issue. I don’t think anybody would disagree that restaurants are an important part of the economy. It’s pretty devastating to the whole economy when restaurants fail, and so many are on the verge of failing. We were so fortunate that we got a couple of PPP grants, and if we didn’t have those grants, our restaurants wouldn’t be operating today. We would be closed.

GOIN: The initial round saved so many people, but there needs to be more.

STYNE: If you didn’t have a banking relationship, it was very hard to get a PPP loan. In the end, Square and online banks provided some avenues. But if you weren’t really savvy and didn’t have all of your ducks in a row, you didn’t get those loans.

GOIN: We are definitely still struggling to find people. So many left the industry, moved home, or moved out of state where it’s cheaper to live, or decided to start a new career. A lot of people really changed their lives and moved away from the hospitality industry.

We are really happy with the restaurant, but we just need more staff to execute everything. To grow the cocktail program, and to be open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And to grow into everything we can be. I look forward to us being a year old and growing to become part of the community. We had a really busy breakfast this morning, and it was not just hotel guests. That was so fun to see. We love the bustling restaurant feeling when there are all different types of people just doing their thing and enjoying themselves.

Top photo: Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin. Photo: Dylan & Jeni.