Kid Hit Menu Items: MessHall’s dinner menu doesn’t have a separate kids’ section or a supplemental page. There’s “Survival” (alcohol) on one side of the sheet, and “Late Provisions” (food) on the other. But this being the new local spot, we wound up sitting by our friends/neighbors, who had ordered from the unpublished yet more sensible menu for guests under 10 or so. Options include simple chicken platter, or a plain mac n’ cheese compared to the $21 (OUCH!) Maine lobster mac, which was a small crock of stove-top stewed, quickly baked saffron-toned elbows with chunks of lobster that I split with our youngest. (Back to Annie’s tomorrow!) This by-request way of handling the kids’ menu — for now, at least — is how Westside Tavern, a not entirely dissimilar restaurant on the Westside, does things, too.
Adult Perks: Not long ago, drinks along Hillhurst meant the beloved Ye Rustic or the Drawing Room. My, my, between Big Bar, Little Dom’s, and now MessHall, have we become spoiled around these parts. At the newest kid on the boozy block in our neck of the woods (I’ll back off the camp puns now), don’t let the Hallucinogenic Whimsies of Banana Man, which could be well on its way to becoming a Fiona Apple album title, scare you off. It’s gorgeous, it’s floral, and has the best kind of bright, sweet-and-sour banana flavor when combined with Pisco, lime and absinthe, with a neon layer of orgeat syrup hovering above and gradually fading into the milky pale yellow mixture. A dash of Peychaud’s bitters and the colorful pop of a pansy finishes this gorgeous creation. No trace whatsoever of icky goop. For this specialty alone I’m happy MessHall has arrived. Then there are more classic and nouveau cocktails, beer, wine, and for those who want to go digging in the crates, 300 to chose from. Other drink highlights at our table included a straightforward Jack Rose and the Serrano-laced, vodka-based Amanda; the cachaca and champagne Boss’s Wife, not so much.
Pros: As the name suggests, MessHall’s room, with a portion of the historic Brown Derby’s domed ceiling exposed, is loose and loud. Because the place was already packed by 6 p.m. on its first Sunday of business — not because of families as I assume by default, but because of the Pink Martini show at the Greek (duh) — we sat at one of the square fire pit tables on the patio. The outdoor space protected by a row of hedges and set under that signature Wayne McAllister-designed sweeping overhang is, as per usual, perfect for kids. It’s got easy in and out access to the sidewalk, too. Booths and banquette seating are also available inside. MessHall even had packs of crayons and camp-themed coloring pages at the ready for opening weekend. Side dishes, or “rations,” are all $6 (compared to slightly more at Westside Tavern), and include roasted carrots, a decent sized plate of grilled asparagus with hazelnuts and sage-brown butter, fries, and corn on the cobb. We passed around under $12 plates of starters such as tasty shrimp cakes, a sharp kale Caesar, hearty romanesco with artichokes, pine nuts and gremolata, and crispy oysters. MessHall’s interpretation of pineapple upside down cake was surprisingly delicious, considering I don’t usually care for the stuff, while the banana cream “pie” hung in confused limbo between a reconfigured pie and pudding in a jar.
Cons: I know wholesale food costs keep spiraling upwards. But I can’t help but scratch my head at the set of tangibles and intangibles turning drop-in type neighborhood joints into restaurants that serve entrees in the high $20 range. That said, most dishes are under $20, and if you’ve become inured to the $15 burger phenomenon, MessHall won’t be much of a shock. (At least it IS an excellent burger, if heavy handed with the salt. Meanwhile, the kitchen entirely forgot to salt the French fries with fried herbs.) As for the main eats bummer, the skin from chicken cooked under a brick ($17) should look nearly as stiff as the block itself, not pile into a soggy slump. And that lobster mac was absolutely a one-time deal. Service hit some snags, but obviously it would be wrong to harsh on a brand new, slammed restaurant for this reason. Same goes for the food. They’ve got time to improve.
Changing Station: No
High Chairs: Yes
Parking and Access: Easy big parking lot behind and to the west of the building.
Other Tidbits: The huge Louise’s in the historic Brown Derby building at Hillhurst and Los Feliz stopped making sense. It never looked full, although I’m certain a group of loyalists (folks in the towers across the street, nearby office workers coming for lunch specials, etc.) kept the kitchen busy enough to justify its existence. Still, it was more like a relic from the Sun Dried Tomato Era, when Wolfgang Puck trickle down economics dictated that every relatively upscale L.A. commercial district needed a Louise’s Trattoria.
MessHall hits the broad mid-to-high-market niche with unfussy American food. In other words, it’s a utility player. The interior could be just about any contemporary restaurant in L.A. Or as my friend pointed out, a more stylish Houston’s. Which frankly, MessHall is a fancier branded, few-notches-above iteration of, with some mighty fine cocktails by Erik Lund. Aside from clever placement of dining hall trays subbing in for pressed tin, some other knick knacks, and Homer Laughlin china printed with MessHall’s abstracted red pine tree silhouette, the summer camp/Army kitsch theme could go a little further without going overboard with the set decorating. (Ricki Kline would know how to push it just right.) Why not ride the coattails of Moonrise Kingdom and the outdoor chic style smartly presented at Individual Medley in Atwater Village?
With all the pent up demand and anticipation, the vibe Sunday night was humming. But the prices for what’s hardly alchemy in the kitchen are more up-market than what I expected. If MessHall management is inclined to take ONE page from the previous occupant’s book by adding an early bird special, we we’d be all for that. Or better yet, family style meals would hardly stray far from restaurant’s motif. So while there will definitely be families in those 170+ seats alongside types like the A-list director we spotted, don’t worry, non-kid people of Los Feliz — you should be OK, especially when the clock strikes 8:00 p.m. and the bar keeps going strong. Just don’t forget to grab a handsome matchbox and a Tootsie Roll when you step back out onto Los Feliz Blvd.
4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz
Hours: Daily, 5 – 11 p.m.; weekend nights bar menu served until 1 a.m; lunch & brunch to come.