Socalo. It’s a play on “SoCal” and “Zocalo,” the Spanish word for town square or public plaza. And it’s the vision that Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, two of the most beloved and celebrated chefs in LA, share for their new restaurant, Socalo, soon to open at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 20th Street in the Gateway Hotel space that used to house an IHOP.
“We want to become a place where people convene, restore and connect,” said Mary Sue. With its contemporary design, ambitious bar program, artisanal microbrews and mezcal, and of course, their special brand of SoCal inflected Mexican food, it’ll be an easy goal to achieve.
FROM CITY TO BORDER
The creative culinary team behind Santa Monica’s Border Grill (which closed after 27 years due to a rent increase) will build on the model they’ve always championed—high quality ingredients, affordable prices, not compromising the planet, and community building—since opening their tiny first restaurant on Melrose Avenue next to LA Eyeworks, City Café in 1981. Susan remembers, “We only had nine tables. We used to do our prep on the back patio, and cooked on hot plates and hibachis. The bathroom was in the kitchen, right by the fridge.”
They’ve come a long way since then, with the success of Border Grill downtown, the BG truck, in addition to branches in Las Vegas, LAX, at Huntington Library, and new restaurants recently opened in Long Beach. They were the first hosts of KCRW’s “Good Food,” which led them to “Too Hot Tamales,” on Food Network TV in the 90s. “People from across the country would come to Border Grill and give us big hugs, like they were our best friends, which really helped raise awareness” about their brand of south-of-the-border cuisine.
Mary Sue and Susan met when they were the first and only women in the kitchen at Jovan Trboyevic’s renowned Chicago restaurant, Le Perroquet. Mary Sue recalls, “We were working circles around the boys and we worked for half the price; we came in early and left late and never made any fuss. It was an amazing kitchen to work in, we probably learned more in that kitchen than any place we’ve worked. He was very ahead of his time.”
After training for a year at restaurants in France— Paris for Mary Sue, south of France for Susan— they found their way to LA and opened City Café. Susan said, “We used to stop by Anelcy’s on Melrose and Western, buy 24 carnitas soft tacos, eat them and say, this is such fabulous food, we should open up a Mexican restaurant.” Which they did, with the first Border Grill inside City Café, opening at the same time they were moving City Café to a former carpet warehouse on La Brea to become CITY.
They jumped on a plane to Mexico City, staying at the home of one of their employee’s parents, where, Susan said, “We learned to cook from his mom and his aunts; we’d shop at the markets, bring home all these ingredients and they’d teach us what they were and how to use them. In those days, nobody knew what a chipotle chile was; we had to bring them back home with us.”
LONGTIME FRIENDS, LOYAL DINERS
CITY quickly became a hit with a celebrity crowd. “Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Kevin Huvane when he was still just a pipsqueak agent, and Bert Fields, the famous entertainment lawyer were regulars. Bert had a crush on Susan after she took him for a ride on a Moped,” Mary Sue laughingly remembered.
But “We’re not just for the 1%,” she says. “We’re affordable for our friends and we’ve always paid living wages and health care for our employees, since day one.” They love Santa Monica. “I feel like we grew up here, and learned a lot from the city’s forward-thinking values, like getting rid of Styrofoam and plastic, even though it comes with its challenges.” And they have been giving back: supporting LGBTQ issues, charities like Alex’s Lemonade Stand, LA Food Bank, Planned Parenthood and other philanthropic organizations.
They’re reupping their commitment to the planet. Mary Sue says, “Susan and I know how much Santa Monica cares about creating a more sustainable food system. That’s why Socalo is a Zero Foodprint restaurant, addressing its carbon footprint with operational efficiencies, menu design, and directly funding farmland restoration through Restore California. Links between food and climate change are real and if we can all do something – it becomes impactful.”
NEW FLAVORS, SPECIALTY DRINKS AND FREE PARKING
With their big garage doors open to the street and their emphasis on the bar program, Socalo will feature a curated offering of Mexican microbreweries, artisanal wines and mezcal from distilleries in Baja, Hermosillo and beyond.
There’ll be more of a Mexican pub-style/canteen vibe with steak, shrimp and typical Mexican dishes cooked on a comal (flat griddle), plus something they’ve been eating a lot of lately, “vampiro tacos,” a scorched tortilla served open face with grilled meats, bubbling cheeses and their own salsas, including salsa macha, a thick, dark sauce with nuts, chiles and garlic. They’ll also feature a strong veggie and vegan menu, pressed juices and aqua frescas.
And yes, there will be to-go and delivery options. But the most important news you need to know: Parking will be free for 90 minutes at the Gateway Hotel, thanks to Mary Sue and Susan’s strong relationship with the landlord.
They’ve been walking the streets, introducing themselves to the car dealers, medical facilities, hospital and post-production houses in the neighborhood to let them know about Socalo. Susan says, “We hope that we can be there for everyone in the neighborhood, with our huge happy hour, our breakfast and lunch counter service during the day and full service at night.”
Opening date is still TBA. But keep an eye out on that corner for this new and welcome eatery.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.