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The RundownLos Angeles

Everything You Need to Know About Agnes, A Taste of the Midwest in Pasadena

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Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.

Before Vanessa Tilaka and Thomas Kalb opened Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery in Pasadena last summer, they had been meticulously planning every detail of their Midwestern comfort food restaurant and cheesery for four years. 

Every dish on the menu, vintage stamped plate, and piece of artwork at Agnes tells a story, usually about the husband-and-wife duo behind it. The couple, who met while making pasta at the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant flour + water, are each responsible for a different part of Agnes. Kalb is the executive chef, while Tilaka runs the adjoining cheese counter and mini-market. The two work together to breathe new life into a space filled with inspiration from the past. 

Here’s everything you need to know before you go.

Photo by Jakob Layman
Photo by Jakob Layman

1. They serve what they call “fancy comfort food.”

Kalb grew up in Iowa and fondly remembers his mother rounding up his large family for home-cooked meals every night. He admits she wasn’t the most gourmet cook, but today he draws inspiration from childhood favorites such as Hamburger Helper, pizza Bagel Bites, and scalloped potatoes. 

“A lot of people think Midwestern food is just meat and potatoes,” Kalb says. “Although that’s somewhat true, we wanted to take the comforting and nostalgic side of [our roots] and wrap it up with the abundance of California produce. We try to take all the techniques and skills that we’ve learned in our careers and just have fun with it.”

One of Kalb’s more playful dishes is the Lamburger Helper. While it borrows a name from the boxed classic, this version isn’t exactly a weeknight staple. Kalb’s version involves smoking a leg of lamb, braising it for 12 hours, and shredding it into a slow-cooked sugo that he serves over handmade pasta ribbons. Also on the fun side of the spectrum are the fluffy potato dumplings that come loaded with housemade creme fraiche, bacon lardons, roasted broccoli salsa, and chives. 

There are more surprising items, like Tilaka’s favorite: the cornbread eclair, a pastry topped with chicken liver mousse and dotted with cherries. “It’s a savory play on a sweet item, which is supposed to look like frosting on an eclair with sprinkles. It always catches people off guard when they first order it, and they always come back for more,” she says. 

Photo by Jakob Layman
Photo by Jakob Layman

2. Tilaka pours her heart and soul into the cheesery.

The cheesery is a grab-and-go market, with the idea that everything — think jams, crackers, nuts, pickles, olives, and the like — is meant to pair with its cheeses. Tilaka curates the cheese selection, while the accompanying wine and beer are hand-picked by Agnes’ beverage director Liz Kelso. For customers who want to picnic on a whim, they can find ​​reusable wine glasses, cheese knives, and boards. There are also sandwiches, housemade pastas, imported tomato sauce, tinned fish, and more. 

Tilaka, who fell in love with cheese while living in Northern California and frequenting spots like Marin French Cheese Co. and Tomales Bay Foods, loves a good backstory to the products she carries. There’s one about how Sagittarius, a cow-and-sheep’s milk blend from Shooting Star Creamery, is made by an 18-year-old college student. And another about an aged smoked goat gouda called Brabender that’s only released to select people once a year, sending Tilaka on a monthslong journey to gather enough pieces to constitute an entire wheel. 

Her cheeses, naturally, find their way into Kalb’s menu as well — the aforementioned Lamburger Helper features a fresh farmer’s cheese, and the winter chicories and citrus salad is garnished with shavings of Pantaleo goat cheese. 

3. Order a cheese board at the restaurant and you’ll get special treatment.

When a diner orders a cheese board, Tilaka and her cheesemongers will personally come to the table with their own selection of what they think the guest will like, and drop off a card with the names and descriptions of each item. Sometimes, they’ll share fun tidbits about those selections to get them amped up about the unique cheeses they’re about to explore.

“People have now taken pictures [of the cards] and will come back like three months later and say, ‘I had this and I want some more,’” Tilaka says. Some diners have enjoyed the cheese selections so much that they make collections out of the cards.

Photo by Yoshihiro Makino
Photo by Yoshihiro Makino

4. The owners call the design “grandma chic.”

Agnes’ warm farmhouse design matches its comforting menu. Exposed wooden beams and red brick walls serve as the framework for the 4,600-square-foot restaurant, the former home of the Pasadena Fire Department’s horse stables. “The building was built in 1922, the same year that my grandmother [Mary Agnes] was born,” Kalb says. “That was a huge inspiration for naming it after her.”

Kalb and Tilaka worked with designer and architect Oonagh Ryan of ORA, notable for her work with auburn and Esters Wine Shop & Bar, to get the “grandma chic” feel of the place just right. Plaid banquettes in mustard yellow and navy blue hug the walls, and the open kitchen projects the sensation of dining in someone’s home. 

The entire collection of vintage plates are part of the couple’s personal collection, which they hunted down at garage sales and thrift stores around the country. “We want people to feel like they’re hanging out with their grandmother as she cooks dinner,” says Kalb. “That’s the memory of my childhood.” 

5. The couple’s history is all over the walls.

As much of Tilaka and Kalb’s stories are present in the food, even the walls themselves have a personal touch. A large landscape painting from their friend Melissa Dickinson incorporates pieces of their history into the paint itself. 

“It actually has brick from these walls, dirt from this floor, seashells from the beach where we conceptualized Agnes, and rocks from our first road trip in the Rocky Mountains,” Tilaka says. “All of that is crushed into the paint and poured on this canvas. It even has sand from the waterfall where Thomas proposed to me.”

The black-and-white photographs also hold particular meaning for the couple. One is an image of Kalb’s uncle playing the accordion. Another is of Tilaka’s father, who opened L.A.’s first Thai market, Bangkok Market, rowing his family down a river in Thailand.

“These aren’t just random decorations that we bought and put up,” Tilaka says. “A lot of this stuff is personal.”

Jean Trinh’s food and culture stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Food & Wine. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.