By Andy Wang
Chef Michael Cimarusti and general manager Donato Poto are co-owners of Providence, the seafood-focused tasting-menu restaurant they opened in Hollywood. Since its 2005 debut, the restaurant has been rewarded for its commitment to fine dining with several accolades, including two Michelin stars. After nine nominations, Cimarusti won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West in 2019. Cimarusti, Poto, and Cimarusti’s wife and co-owner Crisi Echiverri are also behind Connie & Ted’s in West Hollywood.
MICHAEL CIMARUSTI: I don’t think changing course at this moment, or at any moment in the 17 years that we’ve been open, would have been a good idea. We went all in on fine dining from day one. Back then, Providence was a very different restaurant that had aspirations, but wasn’t able to maybe fulfill all that ambition we had. But every day, we get a little bit closer to being the kind of restaurant that we both want to be a part of. We have a team that’s grown with us—some who’ve been here ever since we opened the doors. And it just seems like, for 17 years, we’ve found an audience.
DONATO POTO: Fine dining is what we know how to do well. I don’t think there are more challenges now for us than before. I think we are working harder now than before—not just because we are, thank God, full every day, but also because we see every single detail we want to improve, and we go for it and make sure we fix it immediately.
CIMARUSTI: I think the fine-dining standard in New York forever, ever since I was a cook there, is always French. Obviously, now you have very very high-end Japanese restaurants in Manhattan, with three Michelin-star status. But the standard for me growing up was always French cuisine. That’s where I learned most of what I’m still doing today.
But when I first came to LA, I was working at Spago, the original one on Horn Avenue. That was like a completely different take on fine dining, honestly. Much looser. Much more hip. Inclusive of a lot more influence than what you would traditionally see in a fine-dining restaurant in New York. Over the years, that sort of acceptance of the cuisines of different cultures definitely bled into what I do. Then I spent some time traveling in Japan and cooking over there. That changed what I do as well.
Fine dining doesn’t have to feel buttoned-up and reserved and staid. I don’t want it to be. At Providence, as long as you’re not looking like a slob, you can sit and eat here. You don’t have to wear a jacket and a tie. We’re only as buttoned-up as you want us to be. We’re not going to have servers patting you on the back or that kind of thing. But if you’re here to have a good time and be loose and enjoy the company of your friends, and you want to draw us into that, our servers are there for you. But obviously always with a sense of formality. The craft of serving—we won’t compromise those standards. But if you’re here to have fun, we want to do everything we can to facilitate that.
In Los Angeles, you can be a bit more loose. I want people to enjoy themselves when they come. I think that level of flexibility is important to the restaurant’s success, and it’s also fairly unique to Los Angeles in a sense, because I’ve eaten in places in other cities where it just felt like you’re going to walk in, you’re going to sit down, and you’re going to conform to whatever is going on. You don’t play a part in the experience. But here, we want people to be comfortable. We want people to feel taken care of, but certainly not worried about which fork they should pick up, or or am I drinking the right wine? We’re not here to judge people.
Sometimes, people come in wearing $2,000 hoodies, so what do you do? That’s Los Angeles. If somebody comes in with a backwards baseball cap, I don’t enjoy that. I think it’s wrong. There’s a famous scene in The Sopranos where Tony’s sitting with Artie Bucco, and they’re commiserating about the fact that this douche is wearing a baseball cap in the dining room. Tony walks over to him and strong-arms him into taking the cap off. But then he also sends him a bottle of wine, which is very gracious. It shows the two sides of Tony.
But you know, we don’t have a Tony Soprano here. We have Donato Poto, but I don’t think he’s going to go over and make somebody take their cap off.
POTO: There is a different feeling here. A person goes to Paris, somehow they don’t dress the same. In New York also, they don’t dress the same. When I go there, I put the jacket on.
But I used to work in high-end restaurants in Europe, in Michelin-star restaurants, and I always had to stay three feet away from the guests and give a certain type of service because the restaurants had certain standards. The guests were actually acting the same way as us. They were not talking. When I arrived in Los Angeles, after a few weeks, I was working in a restaurant and guests were telling me their names. They were hugging me. They were asking me questions. I started to realize that they were much more friendly.
I was very, you know, culinary school and high-end restaurants and a specific way to cut fish and all those things. Here, I started to learn there is something in addition to that. My brain needed to be changed. I see that those people are spending even more money than at the restaurant where I was working in Europe, but they are enjoying it more because they are talking to me.
Things started to change in my head about how to take care of guests here, giving them what they want at the right time, professionally. If they want to talk, you talk. If they want to be left alone because they’re doing business, you leave them alone. If they want to know about you, you can tell them about you.
I can see joy in their eyes. To me, that’s the biggest difference in Los Angeles.
But you have to be careful. Last night, there were some kids jumping up and down in one of our booths. What are you going to say? What I thought I had to do was slow down the excitement of the youngest kid by talking to her. “Hey, how are you doing? How is the food?” She was about three or four. Suddenly the girl was like, who is the guy with a thick accent? She just sat down.
CIMARUSTI: She ate all the amuses, and then she had a bowl of pasta. At the end of the meal, the server came back and the family asked, “Do you think you can get just a big plate of petit-fours for her? She just wants chocolate and stuff like that.” Great. At 9:30 at night, we fill this kid full of chocolate. She never went to sleep, I’m sure. We also gave her a puppy when she left.
POTO: Sometimes, people come in from out of town, and they’re at Disneyland the whole day, and the concierge who made the reservation didn’t tell them much about the restaurant. They come here with their bags and their hats and their shorts. What can you do?
Once, this guest had a hoodie that said the F word everywhere. “Fuck You” everywhere. It was obviously an expensive hoodie. The server came to me and said, “Did you see what he was wearing?” It was so well done that I didn’t see it at first. I went to look at it and saw Fuck You, Fuck You, Fuck You all over the hoodie. And then in the back, it said it in big letters, just in case you didn’t see it everywhere.
I went up to the gentleman and said, “I’m sorry, I really can’t allow that here. Would you mind taking it off?” He was kind enough to get up, go to his car, take off his hoodie and put on another sweater. He laughed about it.
You’ve got to be very careful with attire. If you call me today and ask if you can wear jeans and a T-shirt, I will obviously say absolutely no problem. But at the same time, I remind them that if anyone in your group doesn’t know, please let them know to avoid flip-flops, tank tops, and baseball hats.
CIMARUSTI: I think maybe now it’s better than it’s ever been. When I first got here, you had Spago, Patina, Citrus.
CIMARUSTI: Yeah, you had some heavy hitters back in the day. Then clearly, fine dining took a bit of a dip, but it’s definitely on the upswing now. Also, you have people that are creating menus that are far more representative of who they are and what their culture is, as opposed to just everything being looked at through a French lens.
POTO: That’s the key.
CIMARUSTI: Or an Italian lens. Now the top tier of LA’s dining scene is everything. It’s N/Naka. It’s Hayato. It’s Melisse. It’s still Spago. It’s Phenakite. It’s all over the map. It’s Kato. It’s Providence. It’s much more representative of what the city actually is.
I feel like fine dining offers a chef a very unique platform. Look at Brandon Go at Hayato. He’s making it work with seven people a night. Restaurants like Providence or Kato or Hayato or N/Naka offer an opportunity to chefs and restaurateurs to really make strong connections with guests. We have people who have been coming here since their kids were little toddlers, and now those kids are in college and still come back here with their parents. That’s a pretty special thing.
That’s why I got into cooking in the first place—to be able to offer people a place they can come to over and over again, where they feel comfortable and pampered. That’s what made the last couple years such hell. Dropping off food to somebody curbside is not the same thing as having them with you in the restaurant for two-and-a-half or three hours.
POTO: But the importance of a restaurant like this—it shows even during the pandemic. Some people drove a couple hours here just to pick up food and go home. But now that our dining room is open, they come back and say they were happy to eat our food at their house, but they’re much happier now. Some of them, they’ve been coming once a week, believe it or not.
Guests have been beyond nice, extremely thankful that we are open. Nobody was telling us anything mean or difficult when we reopened in the first week of April in 2021. Then little by little, when things stabilized and became more normal, their expectations got higher, but not higher than they were pre-COVID.
Last night, there was a guy alone at the bar. He was casually dressed, but I could see there was some thought put into the casual way he looked. When I did some prawns tableside, he started talking to me about what other restaurants are doing. He tells me he has been going to all the best two- and three-Michelin-star restaurants in the world, the top 50, and here and there. It made me realize why I enjoy doing fine dining at this level because it’s about sharing those moments.
CIMARUSTI: For me personally, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if I thought my best work was behind me. Last Tuesday, we had 68 covers. This Tuesday, yesterday, we had 68 covers. Last Tuesday, it was like the Crusades. It was just insane. Large tables, insane numbers of dietary restrictions, vegans, vegetarians, dairy-free, gluten-free, all this craziness. Last night, it was like, I don’t know, a spring breeze. Everything was just perfect. The pacing was great. Everybody came on time. We had very few allergies. Everything was just perfect.
You live for those moments, but you’re also trying to figure out—when you have those 68 covers come in, and 30 of them have dietary restrictions, how do we deal with that gracefully? It never ceases to amaze me the ability of Los Angeles diners to come in with an allergy that you just didn’t expect. You have to find a way to get through it all. And at the end of the day, you still walk away and are proud, when you close the door, and are like, “We did a great job tonight. We made 68 people very happy.”
But sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. We had one celebrity come in. He was in the midst of a revival and even nominated for an Academy Award that year. Not that any of this matters to me, but I just think it makes for a better story if I tell you these details. He came in with his mom. I think he had a pocket dog. He took a look at the menu. He read it over for a minute, closed it, put it on the table and said, “There’s nothing here for me.” And he just walked out. It was just so funny. It’s just so absurd. What are you going to do? You just have to laugh.