I feel like I was waiting all Summer for MessHall to open. I kept hearing buzzes that it had people like Julian Cox involved, that it was (another) new take on home foods, and–mostly–that it would be competition for the old standby, Little Dom’s. When we got word of it’s opening day two weeks or so ago, we marked a date on the calendar and made a reservation and went. We, like practically everyone we know, were dying to go. Just dying.
You walk up to MessHall and it is definitely not the old Louise’s Trattoria: it’s woody and cool looking and there’s a big sign up front in block letters that says “MESSHALL.” The interior matches with lots of wood fixtures and cool yellow and greeny lighting. There’s a display of oysters that greets you across from the host stand, which makes you feel immediately comfortable. With the exception of the two televisions that don’t really belong in a place like this, the design of the place is nice, from the not-too-dark lighting to the simply mirrored walls (in lieu of artwork) to the frosted glass windows, a façade that doubles as moving impressionist paintings.
Your table has these little white plates with a small, cute red pine tree in the center of it, a simple mark that is on every plate and every anything you are given at the restaurant. It must be said that the brand identity (the block letters, the little red tree) are very well done. The menu matches this design idea and–fortunately for us all–did not appear to let us down in terms of what they carried. Starting with the drinks, they are obviously a whiskey place and have your Mint Julep and your THIS DRINK and your THIS DRINK in addition to oddities like THIS DRINK and THIS DRINk.
Here’s what we went with: the Mint Julep, Amanda, “The Hallucinogenic Whimsies Of Banana Man,” and “The Downtime (Between Euphoria Or Bitter Disappointment).” The first two are classics: the Mint Julep (above left) is served in a silly blue tin cup and is quite minty and the refreshing Summer cocktail you imagine it to be; Amanda was spicy cilantro, lime, and pineapple drink made with vodka, which you absolutely cannot discern. The latter two were purposefully weird, like drinks a camp counselor would make bored on a hot night with a liquor cabinet: Banana Man (above right) is one of the oddest drinks in Los Angeles, a banana-y, licorice-y drink that is smooth and fascinating until the end which is slightly sediment-y because of the banana; The Downtime is a bit intense, heavy on the whiskey and bitters resulting in tasting like a good cup of your grandfather’s best cough medicine.
At this point, we ordered some things to eat: we tried their Baby Beets and Slow Braised Greens to start, Willard’s “Far-Famed” Chicken and Hog Chop for entrees, and the Banana Cream Pie for dessert. Two starting items were nice, granted we went out of our comfort zone for them and did not order the oysters, calamari, or shrimp cakes. The beets were so unexpected and come with a beautiful, colorful presentation of yellows, greens, reds, and purples. You’ll wonder why you didn’t know beets came in so many colors until you place a fork into the dish to find the green is actually cool avocado pretending to be a beet and the rest are warm beets tossed in dill, lemon, onion, and even a little grapefruit. We’re having a love affair with beets so this was a perfect, light start. The greens were good as well. As a Georgia boy, I’ve had many, many greens and this dish played with the bitterness of the collards and kale by balancing it smoothly with bacon and onion (both had strong flavor notes but were not that heavy in the dish, thankfully).
The entrees were pretty good, too. The “Far-Famed” chicken is a nod to their history and a dish pulled from Willard’s Chicken Inn, a 1929 restaurant that was eventually tuned into a Brown Derby in the forties. The dish–above–appears to be super tenderized chicken that’s over fried. Surprise: it isn’t! Growing up, my grandmother knew I was a fried chicken/chicken tender crazy so she’d always buy these frozen breaded chicken pieces that she’d bake for me (basically this). They were never good and always were the idea of lightly fried chicken. MessHall and their Far-Famed chicken taught me what my grandmother was alluding to with a gussied up version of the dish that is light and perfectly homey with the fantastic potatoes they’re served with. The gravy it comes with was pretty runny and meh and the little bit of greens it comes with were the same as before. You do feel like you are in a mess hall though as you have such a classic entree with, not one, but two sides. Hello, Boy Scout Camp Summer of 1997!
The Hog Chop was good as well. A little unexpected in that it’s so homey, this one in an OK way. It was not bad, no, but it did not fair well placed next to the chicken. It is cooked nicely (grilled, rather) and topped with a citrus tabasco butter, which is an interesting compliment to this hunk of pork. The cheddar grits it is served with are brilliant, creamy and cheesy and comforting: they are exactly as you would hope they would be. The greens were the greens. This was our third time seeing the side so we were pretty bummed we decided to try it as a starter. (Note to you: don’t order a side item–a Ration–as a starter as they will make cameos for the rest of your meal.)
Dessert is always so boring but all of the MessHall items looked refreshing. They have a Pineapple Upside Down cake, Cookies & Cream, Some More (a take on s’mores, duh), and a “Frog Hollow Cobbler.” They all sounded great, like campfire treats, but we had to get the Bana Cream Pie. We had to. That same Georgia boy who loves greens loves banana cream pie. The dish is not a slice of pie but a slightly deconstructed take on the dish served in a cup (the cream) with a sugar cookie (a “vanilla wafer”) on the side. This was the perfect way to finish the meal as it is a sugary, creamy, cookie-y finale. It was wonderful. The grilled banans were kind of gross, though. Like the banana sediment in the banana drink, this was something we could have done without.
MessHall is fun. They take homey and comfort food and take it to field, specifically the backyard around a small campfire with a tent and sleeping bags. Nothing about the food or drinks are particularly revolutionary but it is all good and hits some good creative marks at points. As the most hyped restaurant of the Summer (in our minds), it seventy percent lived up to the hype. Will we be back? Of course! There’s so much more to try in the indoor fancy campground that is MessHall.