Los Angeles

Photos courtesy of Marvin

Letter of RecommendationLos Angeles

Why Marvin Is the Perfect Place (to Meet in the Middle)

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You know that one restaurant that’s just right because of that one special thing? Yeah, us too. That’s why we’re introducing our newest franchise: Letter of Recommendation. These are tributes, from our staff and contributors, to spots that offer something unique — restaurants we can’t live without. They may not be the most buzzy, but they provide something essential.

First up: a solution to a vexing, age-old question — where can East and West siders in Los Angeles happily meet in the middle?

To live in Los Angeles is to have at least one and probably several friends who live an hour or more away at rush hour. For me, it’s family that lives in Venice, while I’m in Los Feliz. When I first moved here, I looked for restaurants halfway between us, which meant rummaging through options in the vicinity of West Hollywood. I needed somewhere casual but delicious, with an easygoing air and a menu accessible enough for our varied tastes and dietary restrictions.

I struggled. While there are plenty of good restaurants in West Hollywood and its surrounding neighborhoods, many of them are overly sceney (read: Dan Tana’s, Tower Bar, Jones). Plus, my partner doesn’t eat fish and my aunt doesn’t eat wheat, which meant sushi spots and pizza restaurants were out of the question.

It wasn’t until I turned to a dear friend who has lived in Los Angeles for a very long time that the answer became clear: “My go-to spot for meeting halfway is Marvin,” she said. By the end of my first meal there, I knew that it had become mine, too.

Having a centrally located restaurant that just works in your back pocket is an essential L.A. life hack. It removes the song and dance about where to go when you’re already putting in extra time to get there, and ideally can be called into service with some frequency. This city is known for its rich array of singular dining experiences and cuisines, from Northern Thai curries in a strip mall to old-school institutions known for martinis and prime rib. But I’m talking about something different here — a place that’s comprehensive instead of specific, but also consistent, and convivial enough to warrant distinction. Enter Marvin.

Located in Beverly Grove, Marvin started its life as a French wine bar, but these days it’s fashioned more loosely as an American bistro that plays the hits — Caesar salad, pasta, roast chicken, cheeseburgers — and plays them well. The décor is unfussy yet chic, with rustic wooden chairs, hints of maroon, and aluminum cans dangling playfully from the ceiling. It’s usually crowded, often with attractive people (and the occasional celebrity). There are patio tables for warmer evenings, or for when your party feels safer dining outside. Marvin’s pleasantly large menu may not break new ground, but everything is executed well, from the goat cheese toasts to the spicy rigatoni to the arctic char.

Marvin is not a destination that you need to trek all the way across town for, but you can happily trek halfway across town for it. As owner Max Marder puts it, you don’t come to Marvin to get “the thing” — you come to get anything that suits your mood on a given night. If you’re particularly hungry, it might be the chicken Parm. If you’re feeling peckish, it’s an arugula and fennel salad. Both options are good options because everything at Marvin is reliable.

Marvin has served in this notably dependable role in central L.A. for eight years now. Previously, Marder had been working for his father, the prolific restaurateur Bruce Marder, at his upscale Italian restaurant Capo. Max wanted to branch out with his own place, revolving around younger, more affordable wines from small European producers. He called it Marvin, a portmanteau of the family’s name and the French word for wine.

Its role as everyday bistro has since firmed up with an ever-broader array of dishes and natural wines, but if the menu seems to wander, that wasn’t unintentional. Ricky Moreno, a chef and  longtime partner in the elder Marder’s restaurant group, was initially enlisted to build a concise, French-leaning menu with cheese and charcuterie, steak tartare, steak-frites, and chocolate pot de creme. He also incorporated some of the most popular recipes from Capo, such as the rigatoni Bolognese with truffles and porcini —  a repackaging of Capo’s rigatoni tartufo ragu.

Those dishes are still available, but many more have been added to the mix. In 2018, the restaurant threw a Halloween party where it dressed up as iconic West Hollywood red sauce haunt Dan Tana’s and served chicken Parm and Italian chopped salad. Both items were so popular they wound up on the menu permanently. During the height of the pandemic, the team put together a to-go dinner series inspired by Stanley Tucci’s cult-classic 1996 film “Big Night.” One night, they made dishes in the style of New York’s Carbone, including a rigatoni in spicy vodka sauce. Another night was Hillstone-themed, with Marvin’s version of the chain’s Macho Salad with roasted chicken, avocado, dates, goat cheese, and almonds. These dishes are now menu constants, too.

Yes, it’s wonderful when a restaurant has a distinct point of view, but what I love about Marvin is its lack thereof. Where else can you reliably depend on such a wide array of items, including jamón-tomato toast, truffle French fries, meatballs, hamachi crudo, cacio e pepe, pork chop, and Dover sole, at any given time, all at once? In a city of ultra-specialized restaurants with a million rules about how to eat, Marvin’s broad focus is frankly a relief.

A lot of restaurateurs will say their restaurants are versatile: a place for drinks and snacks at the bar, to buckle in for a full three-course meal, or to drop by for a nightcap. But I’ve yet to find a restaurant where that’s more true than it is at Marvin, where approachability is built into the DNA. There is truly something for everyone here, which after a grueling crosstown drive is the best Angeleno gift of all. In fact, I’d eat there more often, if only I lived a little closer.

 

Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, Eater, TASTE, The Los Angeles Times, Punch, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.