It’s been almost three years since chef Casey Lane became disillusioned with what he saw happening to the hospitality business. The pandemic just made things worse, forcing restaurants to minimize, get smaller and figure out how to survive. For the first time in his career, he had lost inspiration. Then suddenly, the same things that chased him away brought him back to the field.
The Los Angeles-based Palisociety of independent boutique hotel brands is expanding with the debut of the Palisociety Dining Group led by Lane, the new Creative Director of Food & Beverage. The group of carefully and meticulously renovated and restored properties currently operates 17 food and beverage outlets. Later this year it will be adding four venues across three new hotels and in 2023, will be adding an additional 10 venues across nine new hotels.
“I went through a bit of an existential depression,” Lane tells L.A. Weekly in the cozy courtyard of Simonette at the Palihotel Culver City, where he has debuted an all-new French menu. “I want to bring back the way that we were brought up and the respect we showed to restaurants and cooking and the chain of command that comes with it. The fact that you did things out of pride and integrity.”
“I came back a little more energized than most people, but many have not wanted to come back to the food world,” he says. “The pandemic changed the business. I find that everyone in the kitchen wants to be an executive so they can stop actually doing the job and that disappoints me. I’m so tired of hearing people’s professional path plans and their clipboard aspirations. Now I feel like it’s very punk rock to want to actually cook again. I want the tradition of wanting to be a great cook to come back.”
So Lane takes it one step at a time, one foot in front of the other with each restaurant, treating every concept like it’s the only one on his plate and his most important project.
The revamped Simonette menu is unpretentious and inspired by his auto grill stops on road trips through France. There are classic dishes like mussels in a rich saffron cream broth with spinach and al dente fennel and delicate French breakfast radishes encased in sweet butter, dusted with fleur de sel. The Tunisian tuna tartine is a North African take on the traditional Nicoise salad with marinated shell beans, tapenade and frisee lettuce. For purists, there’s also the original version of the salad.
Other classics include steak tartare, croque madame, peppercorn beef filet and the traditional French omelet. Burgers (which are half price during happy hour Wednesday through Sunday 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) include the Parisienne with caramelized onion, American cheese and bordelaise sauce, a traditional Americaine and Roadside Double with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions. The bouillabaisse is swimming with so much seafood it comes with a bib.
The Palisociety’s penchant for preserving landmarks and his appreciation of founder Avi Brosh’s respect for history were the inspiration for Lane’s return to the hospitality world.
“They do a good job of renovation in ways of restoration and that’s important to me in how neighborhoods are crafted,” says the Texas native. “We don’t want to see things gentrified. We want to go in and restore. I missed that development. I get inspired to continuously create, thinking about breakfast, in-room dining, parties, dinners and so many other things and discovering the neighborhoods that we’re in. Who are the people that live there? What do they need and what do they want? Not just what we want to show them.”
Chef-partner at the Tasting Kitchen more than 10 years ago, Lane opened the Basque-inspired Breva in the newly restored Hotel Figueroa in 2018 and followed up with the elegantly casual Viale dei Romani, designed by Parts & Labor, at the Kimpton La Peer Hotel a few months later. He oversaw every food aspect at the Kimpton – breakfast, lunch and dinner at Viale, service for the pool, the lobby bar, in-room dining for all 105 rooms, 120-person rooftop dinners, business banquets and breakfast buffets.
Now that the Simonette refresh is behind him, the four-time James Beard Foundation Rising Star semi-finalist will soon be reopening the Marco Polo Italian restaurant at the group’s Silver Lake Pool and Inn as well as a Japanese concept on a popular corner in West Hollywood and a bistro in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. His menu at Arrive in Palm Springs features Southern California-inspired Latin favorites like huevos rancheros and street cart fruit with Tajin for breakfast and cauliflower grain bowls for lunch.
“The biggest adjustment to coming back was the loss of love for what we do,” he says. “It’s an incredibly hard job, the pay is bad, the working conditions are aggressive. It can be a thankless job. You don’t get a ton of applause. We were punk rockers who grew up with the Anthony Bourdains and that’s hard to find now. Everything is so PC. We were pirates and outcasts and now they are out of place there. There’s no home for those people in that environment. It helped a lot of them find a path and find meaning and be additive to their family and society. Now they’re all driving Uber. People would rather be drivers and delivery guys instead of cooks.”
Still, the eternally youthful 39-year-old Lane – who spent those years off the reservation involved in a lucrative cannabis-growing enterprise in Portland – can’t stay out of the kitchen.
“People are settling for mediocre. Those are the reasons I left and they are the reasons I came back. It’s a beautiful thing when you get to take part in a craft that has heritage and history. I don’t know what Excel does for those other people, but spreadsheets just don’t inspire me.”
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