I moved to West Hollywood in 2010. I was fresh out of college and had just turned 22. West Hollywood was different then, a mostly quiet neighborhood where people came to eat at Urth Café and shop at Kitson (remember that store – a favorite of Kim K when exaggerated shoulder pads were all the rage). Robertson was known for The Abbey with its mouthwatering mojitos and wild gay scene, and you might have seen Laganja Estranja on Santa Monica Blvd doing the splits on stage before she joined Rue Paul on the silver screen. The nightlife scene was mostly in Hollywood – on the boulevard or just south on Cahuenga, but a slightly obscure club called Industry had a hot hip hop crowd on Thursday nights, and young socialites, athletes, and music professionals gathered on La Cienega, waiting to be let in. A few years into my tenure, this location became Greystone, and suddenly West Hollywood was on the map, named in rap songs and flooded with paparazzi who waited to see what celebrities may saunter in . . . or stumble out. I was different too, the lingering remnants of the country accent I had fought not to adopt (to no avail) while in college in North Carolina were still in my voice, and I was still wearing the dramatic side part and sweeping bangs I copied from the girls on Laguna Beach. I ate dinner at Bossa Nova, or Tender Greens, or Lemonade. I wasn’t interested in fancy meals or quality wine; I wanted to spend my money on the club dresses I bought on Melrose (the affordable part further east where the street intersects with Curson Ave) and drink free vodka cranberries at some stranger’s bottle service table after midnight.
West Hollywood is now the place to be: street corners adorned with Instagram-able restaurants, rooftops that blast music into the starless LA nights, and sidewalks flooded with dressed-up youth anxious to get on the scene. While a clear shift has taken place – Kitson is gone and now there’s a Pretty Little Thing and House of CB – some staples have remained, never letting their reputation wane. The ivy-encased Italian eatery on the southeast corner of Robertson and Melrose, Cecconi’s, is one such place. In 2010, I watched the shiny, expensive cars (whose make I recognized from music videos but couldn’t name) pull up to the valet. The people who stepped out of them were elegant and sophisticated. I observed from the outside, feeling like what lay beyond the foliage was something special and unattainable.
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What I realize at 33, is that I was right in many regards: inside Cecconi’s is something special. I’ve changed too these last eleven years – traded the club life for three-course dinners and the cranberry vodkas for Cabernet – and while the restaurant’s elegance aligns with what I once imagined, I’m now one of the sophisticated (or so my younger self would think, at least). I drive my convertible (it’s no Lamborghini, let’s not give me too much credit) up to the valet and step onto the pavement in expensive heels, ready to join the classy crowd behind the ivy wall.
I’ve been to Cecconi’s twice recently: on a Saturday with a girlfriend and on a Wednesday for a second date. Besides serving fantastic food (don’t worry, I’m about to run down some of my favorites) this restaurant delivers the perfect intersection between luxury nightlife and an ideal date spot. I arrived before my girlfriend for our Saturday 10pm reservation. Each table on the sprawling patio was filled with well-dressed, nicely-perfumed people enjoying the ambiance created by dim lighting and white tablecloths. I wandered up to the bar, heels tapping against the black and white striped floor, and found two turquoise stools amidst the crowd, leaning my elbows on the grey and white marble surface as I took my seat. Inside, the overhead lights were low and the bar was embellished with art deco lamps shaped like foot-tall mushrooms. A floating glass shelf hovered, and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling above the tables to my left. I ordered a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa. To my delight, it was full-bodied with rich fruit notes and very subtle earthy undertones. If you like a full red, this is the one I’d recommend. (On my date, I arrived early as well but ordered white for fear of having purple teeth when I smiled at him. I tried the Chardonnay, which drinks more like a Sauvignon Blanc – crisp with notes of citrus. It’s different from the rich, buttery flavors I usually associate with a Chard but perfect for a light starter as I waited for a man who I knew liked to eat seafood).
On Saturday night, the bar was packed. I was surprised by this, as I had always associated Cecconi’s with fine dining rather than with a swanky scene. But swanky it was. A group of four men leaned against the marble wearing velvet blazers and going sockless with tailored trousers and brown dress shoes. One rested his palm on the bar and threw his head back when he laughed. It didn’t look like they were waiting for a table; instead, I watched as they scanned the bar for ladies. Two black men with glimmering jewelry glanced my way. We made quick eye contact across the crowd. I seemed to be the only single woman having a drink. As I surveyed the tables I saw several four-tops filled with groups of girls (as well as handsome grey-haired men dining with their wives and friends), but the bar was overflowing with testosterone. (Let me be really blunt in case you’re missing the message amidst flowery description – ladies, there are a bunch of men who set up camp at the Cecconi’s bar on Saturday nights).
On Wednesday it was a different scene. The barstools were full but there was no crowd standing and surrounding; rather, table after table was filled with cliques of chicks. They were dolled up – wearing backless bodysuits with black pants, or sleek fitted dresses – having girl talk over cocktails and calamari (which is both crunchy and tender, served with lemon aioli sauce). For a moment, I thought I saw a table of four single men, but then I noticed their dad (or someone of that age that bore a genetic resemblance). So, dear men: if you can figure out how to mix and mingle at another’s dinner table (which, from where I’m sitting, does seem tricky), Wednesday may just be your night.
But whether you’re seeking a scene as a single or daring to go on a second date, I have one major tip for ordering at Cecconi’s is: wait to hear the specials. While there are plenty of delectable items on the menu (like the Salmon entrée from the Wood & Charcoal section: the skin is glazed with a zesty pesto and pan-fried to a perfect crisp, the fish itself is subtly salted – just enough to highlight the natural flavors, and even the side of broccolini packs a punch – dressed in rich sweetness that contrasts the faintly bitter vegetable), the specials are where they keep the hidden gems. There is always a truffle pasta option or two. Both nights, I ordered the Ricotta Ravioli in a butter sauce with black truffles (this was far from the only thing I ordered, for the record). The pasta, cooked delightfully al dente, is fresh and firm, a perfect paradox to the smooth, soft, whipped ricotta which is stuffed to the brim (not flat and lackluster like ravioli can sometimes be). The butter sauce is delicate and not overpowering, and the shaved truffles are the star, bringing this dish together. Each time I’ve attended, the specials menu has also boasted a risotto that made me salivate (on Saturday it came with scallops, and I admit I regret not trying it) and at least three different steak options, which I hope to sink my teeth into someday soon. To close out my date on Wednesday we shared profiteroles, which were cold and flakey and sweet, and a ten-year tawny port. (Let me go on record of saying, I had just eaten profiteroles at a fancy restaurant in Monaco, and Cecconi’s rendition outshined them. If you have even the most minimal knowledge about Monte Carlo and its fine dining, you know this is a big declaration). The sip of port, syrupy and full of tannins, left a sugar on my lips which lingered through our second date kiss. The perfect seal to a perfect dining experience.
That Saturday, as I pulled away from the valet, Brentwood bound with no after-party to attend (something my younger self would have certainly dreaded), I thought about changes and staples. LA is always evolving: venues cycle, the hot locations shift from block to block, even the people come and go – dream chasers and romantics. It’s exhilarating to be a part of a living breathing city and to feel like you can grow along with it. I’ve shed my once-semi-southern accent and am now wearing my hair in a middle part, for example. And still, it’s nice to have a few things that never change. And so, I’m glad Cecconi’s is a constant, a scene that’s always in style.