by Sarah A. Spitz
LITTLE PRINCE: A PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH TO DINING
In Antoine de St. Exupery’s beloved children’s tale “The Little Prince,” a fox talks to the little prince about taming others through friendship and love and encouraging responsibility towards one another. That’s the philosophy that drives Little Prince restaurant on Main Street in Santa Monica. The owners have set out consciously to create a warm, inviting space that creates community, both in the dining room and behind the scenes.
Head Chef Ari Taymor studied philosophy in college, an influence that’s stayed with him ever since. After college he trained in the kitchens of James Beard Award-winning and Michelin-starred chefs in San Francisco and France, and renowned local chef, Jeremy Fox (Rustic Canyon) became a mentor.
A SKYROCKETING SUCCESS
His first big success was the highly-lauded Alma, an 8-table, downtown LA prix fixe phenom that attracted heated attention very early on. Named Best New Restaurant in 2013 by Bon Appetit, Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2014 and a 2015 nominee for Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation, Taymor experienced first-hand the intense pressures that come along with a meteoric rise.
After closing brick and mortar Alma, recreating it (even more critically-acclaimed) for two years at The Standard Hotel, then facing the prospect of opening another new venue of his own, he stepped back completely to re-assess.
That’s when he took a life-changing 3-week trip to Australia in 2017 with three friends, all now partners in Little Prince: his then-roommates Andy Noel and Tegan Butler, and Shane Murphy, CEO and co-owner.
Murphy has been in and around restaurants all his life and found a niche as a real estate broker, specializing in restaurant spaces, and as a restaurant consultant. He worked with Jordan Kahn to get Vespertine, the cutting edge, space-age, experimental fine dining establishment in Culver City developed, built and opened.
“Our trip to Australia wasn’t intended as research and development for a specific project,” said Murphy, “but during the trip the idea emerged. Ari and I had been in talks about partnering and Andy and Tegan had photographed food for Alma. We realized that the four of us traveled well together and enjoyed each other’s company; and we could feel free to be creative around each other and build on each other’s creations. We understood that we could be a highly functioning creative team and could do something work-related together.”
The timing was perfect for Taymor, too. “My priorities in life and what I was looking for in my career really changed. I was sitting on some offers for the next project but now I had the opportunity to work with friends, people I respected and who were really inspiring to me creatively. In that environment, I’m able to be a better leader, to create a more cohesive and positive experience” in the kitchen, in the restaurant, for the staff and for the guests.
Little Prince opened as a brunch-only pop-up in 2018, “Almost a year to the month that we went on our trip,” Murphy noted. “The thing that impressed us about Australia’s restaurant scene was the idea of an all-day brunch that ran from 9 am to 4 pm. We wanted to put our own spin on that so we did weekends only at first. But we realized it wasn’t a sustainable business model.”
Consistently named by many publications as one of the best brunches in LA, it wasn’t long before Little Prince became permanent. It’s now open for dinner 6 nights a week, and brunch only on weekends.
There are plans in the offing to create a special experience on Sunday nights, starting sometime in April or May. “It will be its own unique Sunday evening program,” said Murphy, “very much targeting the immediate community, which is our focus here.”
APPROACH TO COOKING
The cuisine is seasonal and, with Taymor at the helm, always creative. Although he admires such chefs as David Kinch (3-Michelin star Manresa in Los Gatos) and Andoni Adorese (Mugaritz, Michelin-starred fine dining Basque restaurant in Spain), the underlying philosophy of Taymor’s cooking is, “Storytelling, a sense-memory, nostalgia, trying to create dishes that can be traced back to a particular moment in time using smell, texture, temperature, something more evocative than just taking a French version of some dish and tweaking it.
“It’s taking technique and different ways of layering flavor and trying to match that to different emotions. I don’t read cookbooks or restaurant reviews. Inspiration for me comes from being in an environment where I feel connected, and from there ideas tend to flow pretty naturally.”
Murphy extends that philosophy to the diner’s experience: “The way I look at restaurants is the way you’d look at an immersive art installation. It’s multi-sensory, and you’re experiencing something novel, which might cause you to think differently or maybe influence your own next creation. It’s not like, hey, it’s 8 o’clock, let’s go eat. I’d like for the customer who dines with us to learn and taste something new every time they come in.”
The focus at Little Prince, says Taymor, “is creating an overwhelmingly positive experience for the people who come here, the people who work here, the vendors and farmers that we work with, so we’re able to go home at night and think that, what limited impact we’ve been able to have has been net positive.”
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret,” says the fox to the Little Prince. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The restaurant aims to bring that essential quality of heart to the dining experience. Little Prince is located at 2424 Main Street in Santa Monica; call (310) 356-0725 for reservations.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.