After a 17-month hiatus, beloved Los Angeles restaurant Here’s Looking At You is back. Co-owners Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener (who is also the chef) were forced to shutter their Koreatown establishment in 2020 over mounting rent bills and declining revenue due to the pandemic.
In their time of need, they turned to their community, who have shown up consistently at the restaurant—dubbed HLAY by diners—since its debut in 2016. Ta launched a GoFundMe campaign last year that raised $90,000, allowing the restaurant to pay outstanding rent bills and reopen in January.
“I think the nicest thing that I heard from a community member was ‘thank you for involving us and asking for help,’ Ta says. “It was very humbling and really shocking in a way, to know that so many people stepped forward to help this restaurant see another day.”
HLAY, named ‘Restaurant of the Year’ by Food & Wine Magazine in 2017, has remained largely unchanged, but Ta and Whitener have returned reinvigorated, with some new additions to the menu.
“The soul of the restaurant has not changed at all. It’s still an ambitious cocktail and food menu, because it’s still run by the same people,” Ta says.
With the reopening in mind, Ta and Whitener are once again focused on their globally-influenced menu that spotlights Asian ingredients. They’ve brought back several diner favorites including the beef tartare with red chile and tamari, the spicy frog legs with salsa negra and scallion, and shishito peppers with huamei (preserved plums).
But, Whitener has added several new creations to the menu as well such as a crispy duck leg confit and an uni panna cotta. A beef bone marrow dish features an XO sauce made with fried baby shrimp and anchovies —all of it can be tucked into a lettuce wrap or spread on top of grilled sesame bread. Whitener has also introduced skewered meat sets to the menu. Options like chicken oysters, and snail are cooked on a hibachi grill in the kitchen before they’re brought out to the table.
“Chef Jonathan is wildly creative, so there’s a lot of new items, or there’s a protein that we’ve used before, like a seasonal grilled yellowtail collar, but it will vary in flavor and preparation,” Ta says.
For the cocktail menu, Ta and Whitener pulled from the more than 200 drinks recipes created at HLAY since its opening. The beverages will change seasonally, but some recent options include the weston, a blue wet martini inspired by the neon lighting at The Troubadour theater in Los Angeles and named after its founder, Doug Weston.
The cocktail menu is presently titled Market Wilderness and nods to the summer with drinks like the little juarez, featuring tequila and rum mixed with watermelon syrup, pineapple, and lime, spotlighting fresh flavors.
The intimate, 50-seat interior remains, though the exterior has been painted gold to celebrate the reopening. Taxidermy hangs from the walls alongside bookshelves lined with cookbooks. Outside, there’s the iconic mural space the restaurant is known for, currently featuring a third creation by artist Priscilla Witte. “In a way, it’s as if nothing has changed,” Ta says. “We still see our guests from way back when, guests who have babies now and are back.”
Some challenges remain, though, particularly the struggle to hire more staff members, a concern felt acutely by the restaurant industry. Ta says there’s no quick fix to that, but remains hopeful that it won’t last forever.
“There are still ways to do what we love, despite the limitations we’re feeling right now,” she says. “We’re here to open a restaurant every single day and serve guests and enjoy the simple pleasures.”
Here’s Looking At You is open Thursday to Monday from 6pm to 10pm.
Kristin Braswell is a journalist and founder of CrushGlobal Travel, a company that customizes travel guides and authentic experiences around the world.