1147 Third Street
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Yelp: 3.5 stars
Interview Date: Tuesday, October 12, 20
Michael McCarty, owner of Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica, with another location in New York, grew up “in Mad Men time,” he says. “My dad was an executive at GE and spent a lot of time entertaining and being entertained. The restaurant business in New York was driven by ad companies at the time.” In addition to visiting restaurants, Michael’s parents loved to entertain. “Mom and Dad entertained all the time, and I enjoyed watching them throw great parties with great people. They always combined the best: the best people, food, beverages, design and experience. I was hard-wired for this business.”
Growing up, Michael noticed that the best restaurants were always classical French restaurants. “90% of the people in the restaurant business were Europeans,” he says. “It was not a career choice for Americans, because in the 1950s and 1960s people ate because they were hungry – it was not yet a part of the culture.” Michael’s interest in food grew substantially during his Junior (high school) year abroad in Brittany, France, and began on the ship he and his classmates took to get there. “It was an Italian boat, and at the time in New York, Italian food was pretty bad,” he says. “It took us 11 days to get to France, and during that time I enjoyed the very simple, clean food and the wonderful way the waiters created this very stylish form of hospitality. It was a wonderful, positive experience.”
After his year abroad Michael returned home for a year to graduate high school, then turned around and went back to France to attend Le Cordon Bleu in 1972. “It was extremely helpful that I had been in France before and spoke the language,” says Michael. “I went to hotel and restaurant school at the same time as attending chef school, and then attended Academie Du Vin, which was the first school to demystify wines.” It was during this time that Michael began to piece together his own style of cooking, “California Cuisine.”
“It is a combination of classic French techniques, Nouvelle Cuisine and my own history of learning about entertaining through my mom and dad,” says Michael. “I got to pick and choose how to blend all three and create this new style and flavor.” After attending a summer program in Hotel and Restaurant management at Cornell University, Michael visited his brother in Boulder, Colorado. “Boulder was incredible: there were farms all over the place and you could get wonderful produce – everything you could want,” says Michael. He began teaching French cooking classes in French at the University and received his own undergraduate college degree while there.
“When it was time for me to move on, I called Lois Dwan, the Los Angeles Times food critic, and asked which restaurants were best in L.A.,” says Michael. “At her suggestion, I got together with Jean Bertranou of L’Ermitage on La Cienega and we brainstormed on what was missing in California. We figured that what you couldn’t get here was the French ingredients, so we started shipping them in from France – arugula, cheese, fish. We started supplying other restaurants, and then started bringing in the seeds to grow the mache, arugulas, haricot verts, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom beets, and other great produce from France. Then we noticed that you couldn’t get good duck here, so we started breeding ducks and created the first foie gras in America.
In April of 1979, Michael opened Michael’s on Third Street. “It’s a modern American restaurant that serves a new style of modern American food,” he says. “It’s a little bit spa, a little Nouvelle, a little classic … all served in a beautiful indoor-outdoor setting. At the time, most of the restaurants here were 90% inside – with no windows! I found this location and saw that I could build a garden and recognized its potential. I brought in all the best plates, glasses and flowers. My wife is a painter, and we have always incorporated art and jazz. I went to a little-known designer, Ralph Lauren, and he developed our uniforms – a prep look.”
In addition to the food and the location, Michael also focused heavily on the service aspect of the restaurant. “I developed a completely new way of operating a restaurant without snootiness,” he says. “I am about creating an experience of great food, great wine, a great environment and great people
In 1989 Michael opened Michael’s New York. “My whole goal was to design a new style of restaurant experience,” he says. “I broke down the stereotypes to create a civilized dining experience, and our revolution has succeeded. Great chefs like Jon Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton and Roy Yamaguchi all worked here.”