Ask the Experts: Michael and Kim McCarty, Michael’s Santa Monica & New York

by Jessica on February 4, 2011

“Please let me eat my goddamn slider!” Michael McCarty insists just before sitting down for an interview on a late Thursday night in the lounge area of his iconic Santa Monica restaurant. Guests are trickling out, and it’s been a long evening that’s included an art opening in the upstairs salon area featuring paintings by Billy Al Bengston. Coming from anyone else, this request might seem a bit gruff. But McCarty happens to be one of the most cordial, consummate hosts in the restaurant business, so it comes with a wide smile to show he’s joking (even if he is hungry). No wonder Michael’s on Third Street near Wilshire has been in business over thirty years.

The McCartys’ graciousness, taste and charm imbue every part of the restaurant. Michael’s, with its classic patio space, helped catalyze what might broadly be labeled the California cuisine movement and served as an incubator for some major kitchen talent (Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel, Sang Yoon, Kazuto Matsusaka et al.). And as you’ll read soon enough in their own words, their two restaurants (the other is on W. 55th St. in midtown Manhattan) are lasting testaments to the McCartys’ belief in the importance of real human conversation and interaction. I can personally vouch for both Michael and Kim’s expertise in this area; I could have easily spent hours chatting with them. The jaw-dropping art collection — Kim herself is an accomplished artist — can make a night at Michael’s feel like a trip to a gallery or intimate museum, too. How’s that for multitasking?

Kim and Michael raised their two kids, age 21 and 24, who now live on the east coast, while juggling their bicoastal businesses and family life. And after all these years, Michael McCarty doesn’t rest on his laurels. Michael’s has recently added a monthly guest bartender/mixology event, as well as the Michael’s Market Meet-Ups series on select Wednesday mornings to coincide with the farmers’ market.

So your kids grew up in the restaurant?

Kim McCarty: With colic!

Michael McCarty: We opened this [Michael’s Santa Monica] in 1979. In August of 1989 our son was born. We opened New York in November of ’89. Our daughter was two-and-a-half. We moved to NY to open that restaurant, and from then on – we had an apartment right above it – our children ate dinner almost every night in the restaurant. So our kids from a very early age were phenomenal eaters. But more importantly, they grew up observing Michael’s in New York and Michael’s in Santa Monica, but also the entertaining we did at home. They were very adventurous eaters.

Kim: We never were those parents who asked “oh honey, what do you want?”

Michael: None of that crap.

Kim: “This is what you have! There’s no choice, and you have to do the dishes afterwards.” It’s important that they got to participate.

So no options?

Michael: It wasn’t an argument.

Kim: It was part of a whole thing. There were lots of people around. It was about entertaining and conversation, and being part of it.

Where in L.A. would you take your kids when they were little?

Michael: Oh, everywhere.

Kim: I don’t think you treat kids like kids. You give them respect as people.

So what other tips do you have for parents to encourage their kids to be adventuresome eaters and well behaved in restaurants?

Michael: Don’t baby them.

Kim: Expose them to everything. You have to meet people. And you have to encourage the art of conversation. Dinner time isn’t just the food. It’s a time to talk and communicate with each other.

So unplug, don’t be on your phone, that sort of thing?

Michael: Absolutely. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with this generation. It’s gonna be a whole other ballgame. It is a paradigm shift. No question about it.

Kim: Our kids are 21 and 24 but they get mad at us if we have the iPhone.

Michael: There is always the return to civilized life. I see that in our restaurant here, where so many people get tired of sitting on a bench and eating Brooklyn style. After a while you want to return to a civilized situation where you can actually sit and enjoy a conversation for more than 45 minutes. I think that’s human nature.

Do you think there’s hope yet?

Michael: I know there is.

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