In the restaurant business, capturing a niche market can be very profitable. Among people I know, Chaya Venice is the place to go after work for a drink and a snack. The happy hour is so popular, in fact, that it now continues every day for at least five hours (is that five happy hours?), between 5 p.m. and at least 10 p.m.
Any restaurant that’s been in business in the same location for 20 years must have it together. So in celebration they are going to close for a week to redecorate. I hope they don’t change the beautiful ceiling. Look for the new opening on April 1.
Of course when you’re a restaurant critic, and take your job seriously, you can’t just praise everything or people stop reading your columns. After all, how many newspapers would sell if the headline were “Tiger Woods was faithful to his wife?”
I stopped into Chaya Venice the other day with my son Spencer. Whenever there’s a sushi bar to review, and Spencer is in town from Tokyo where he lives, I always invite him. After we were seated in a very comfortable booth, Spencer walked over to the sushi bar and said to the head sushi guy in Japanese, “Hello, I’m Spencer Hecht. Where are you from?”
After all, a lot of sushi places have Koreans making the sushi, so you can’t be too careful before launching into Japanese.
“Why do you ask?” was the unfriendly reply. Will the sushi be made with loving care with the customer in mind? In fact, while about 15 percent of the business at Chaya Venice is sales of sushi, that’s not a strong point, and I’ve never seen a Japanese person at the sushi bar. Part of this might be that popular sushi bars are popular not just because of fresh, well made sushi, but a good sushi bar is a place where you can converse with the sushi chefs, discuss the latest sports event, the weather, and especially fish and seafood cuisine. I don’t think that’s happening here.
The non-Asian luncheon and dinner plates are certainly good enough. We had a delicious, fresh baked salmon, and a good salad. The hamburgers looked wonderful. Chaya is well-known for its many signature items off the kitchen menu, including the simple yet very tasty chicken Dijon, the hearty rib-eye steak, and the miso-flavored Japanese broiled black cod, one of my personal favorites. Luckily, the chefs have been trained to cook the cod in proper Japanese fashion, making sure to properly broil it in order to slightly blacken the skin and caramelize the miso sauce into the delicate fish for extra flavor.
The crispy fried calamari is also always a best-seller at Chaya, both in the dining room and during Chaya’s famous all-night happy hour at the bar. The quality of the squid is quite good, and the portions very generous.
Also, the prices are reasonable. Except for the sushi, which is more expensive than in many places.
Now about the wine list! The chalkboard of wines by the glass is very well thought out: there is one varietal of good quality of just about any kind you would want, and the prices per glass are very reasonable. But the wines offered by the bottle are very ordinary, and the prices are pretty outrageous. They’re working on it. But if you want a good bottle at a reasonable price, ask for a bottle of one of the wines by the glass listed on the chalkboard, and you’ll be in good shape. Nowhere on the wine list does it alert the customer to the fact that those wines are available by the bottle, but the friendly waiters do recommend a bottle when more than two glasses are ordered at a table.
Really the special feature at Chaya is the small plates offered during happy hour. These may change from time to time, but the prices for these snacks are reasonable, and the quality is excellent. A really good snack plate for $5 is a deal. And these days when I’m trying to eat less for dinner, this is a great way to go!
If you go:
110 Navy St., Venice, Calif., 90291
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 6 p.m. every day, weekends to 11 p.m. Happy Hour every night
from 5 p.m. to closing. The bar is open Monday through Thursday 11:30
a.m. to midnight, and Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., Saturdays 5
p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Tub’s fine chili
GENERAL COMMENT: Chili is a cult food. There are annual chili cooking contests, and lots of secret recipes. I have mine, and the main secret is the kind of beer I put into the chili. Tub’s has a weekly contest for the best outside recipe, which is a good idea, but they didn’t have one the day I was there.
WHERE: 4265 Overland Ave., Culver City, Calif., 90230. Telephone: (310) 559-8827 (TUBS), located in a small shopping mall with a convenience store almost next door where you can buy a beer to take into Tub’s when they’re not looking (keep it bagged and it’s OK).
WHEN: Open Monday — Saturday, 11:30 a.m. — 8 p.m. Sundays, noon — 5 p.m.
BEST DISHES: Don’t go if you expect to order anything other than chili. Personally I liked the chicken chili the best because of the garlic flavor and the white beans. The steak chili was not bad. The turkey is the most popular. Usually the smoked pork would be my favorite, but I found this one lacked chili flavor and didn’t have enough meat in it.
BEST FEATURE: The chili is served in a bread basket, which is the perfect way to eat it.
WORST FEATURES: No on-site beer, very limited menu, no hot peppers.
WHAT TO DRINK: I had a beer from next door.
PRICES: Don’t even worry about it. The single helping is about $5. Larger helpings are available.
BOTTOM LINE: A good idea but it could be much more.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org