A Long Goodbye to Animal, the Restaurant That Changed Everything in LA
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Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s massively influential Los Angeles restaurant Animal held its last dinner service on Saturday, June 17. The evening was, for the restaurant, as it has always been: Hip-hop blared to a packed house, and dishes like sweet, savory chicken livers, yellowtail collar, and deep-fried rabbit legs came fast from the kitchen.
Animal’s demise was a death by many cuts, literally. With the opening in 2008, Shook and Dotolo helped to pioneer the use of offal dishes like chicken liver — their signature and only appetizer — and other lesser-used (at least at the time in America) options like pig tails and veal tongues on modern American menus. In the early days, they kept costs low by butchering whole animals and executing their nose-to-tail menu with a small staff. Likewise, it was cheaper to use offal instead of pricey primal cuts. By 2009 the guys had come into steady supplies of pig ears and heads from Niman Ranch, pork jowls from Peads & Barnetts, and veal brains from other small farms.
That is no longer the case; prices for such ingredients spiked over Animal’s decade-plus in business, and their availability has declined due to farmers fetching a higher price for pet food brands. The cuts are also in higher demand on restaurant plates, thanks in no small part to Animal itself. The restaurant also struggled with the prohibition (and subsequent unbanning and re-banning) of foie gras in California — an ingredient that played a prominent part of Animal’s original menu standouts like loco moco. In nearly every perceivable way, today’s restaurant market is dramatically different than it was in 2008. Yet perhaps more than losing their favorite cuts or struggling to stay relevant on the plate, the closure of Animal was personal for Shook and Dotolo. They simply decided that their seminal restaurant was no longer sustainable for them as people.
“We are in a different place now, and we’d both decided to be there for our kids while they are at an age where they still think we are cool,” says Shook. Due to shifting priorities and a growing set of other restaurants to run, Shook and Dotolo chose to close Animal without looking back. But the duo leaves behind a rebellious spirit of innovation, leaning on flavors that cross the city’s diverse communities, and instilling a maverick attitude that’s become a trademark of LA’s restaurant DNA.
In 2008 fine dining in Los Angeles was on the eve of a revolution, led by young chefs in their 20s and 30s. Emerging from the global financial crisis, restaurants like José Andrés’s the Bazaar and Gjelina opened that year, with former corporate hotel chef Roy Choi founding the Kogi truck.
Animal opened in June of that year as a loud, aggressive, stripped-down space with no sign, no real decor, no recipes, and zero fucks given. It was just two chefs cooking the way they wanted to. It was the restaurant that captured the zeitgeist on the eve of a changing of the guard. Chefs from all over were inspired by Animal, whose kitchen seemed to embody a collective turn against the status quo. “Animal signified a tectonic shift in the LA dining scene,” says chef Eric Greenspan. “[It was] unabashedly bold, and gave the pretension of fine dining the finger.”
“The moment I set foot inside Animal my life changed,” says Diego Hernandez, who went on to earn a Latin America 50 Best Award at his restaurant Corazón de Tierra in Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe. “Nineties hip-hop was blasting over the sound system and [it was] the most exciting menu I’d read.” Most tables ordered the chicken liver toast, sweetened with balsamic glaze; that decadent loco moco topped with foie gras, and a quail egg inspired by a Hawaiian restaurant in Gardena; and crispy fried pig ears dressed with chile and lime under a fried egg. Pork belly served with kimchi was an ode to Koreatown and Salvadoran street food, while quail fry on grits with slab bacon bathed in maple jus was inspired by Shook and Dotolo’s eating sprees in South LA. Diners didn’t come for a multicourse tasting — they came to divide and conquer the extensive list of shareable plates, eating in a way that now feels routine.
Animal brought the cultures of LA onto its menu with its own perspective, incorporating the assertive, over-seasoned, and spicy flavors that locals crave. Dotolo and Shook’s inspiration came from eating through LA’s cultural enclaves. “We couldn’t afford to travel in the early days, and when we did get the money we’d spend it all eating out at places we could afford,” says Dotolo. In LA you can eat the world and its offal — Hawaiian staples in Gardena, bar food in Koreatown, and pupusas on Beverly Boulevard — without even getting on a plane.
Even fine dining stalwart Thomas Keller of the French Laundry fame appreciated the sense of place exuded by Animal, seeing a dining room full of people that really wanted to be there: “They were making food with a high level of execution in a fun, casual environment,” Keller says. “It was a breath of fresh air.”
Critics often didn’t get it at first. Los Angeles Times writer S. Irene Virbila found it “dietarily incorrect,” while the New York Times’ Frank Bruni labeled it “not a great restaurant” and “daredevil eating.” Jonathan Gold, then writing for LA Weekly, “appreciated the hardcore vision” and eclectic wines. The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear described Animal’s fans as “pretty girls and mangy guys ... mostly in their thirties.” For enthusiastic food bloggers like myself, Animal was a playground.
That’s not to say the restaurant was perfect right out of the gate. The demand for Animal’s foie gras biscuits and gravy, crispy pig ears, veal brains with vadouvan, and crispy pig head called for an equally ambitious wine list and a “high-low” service model, something the loose, unstructured front-of-house staff struggled with for a time. Wine arrived at the table at the wrong temperature, and waiters struggled to guide customers through the ambitious dining experience at Animal.
In 2009 Helen Johannesen introduced inexpensive, mineral-y, acidic wines that mirrored Animal’s edgy cuisine, and brought vital front-of-house leadership just as the restaurant went into high gear. Johannesen founded Helen’s Wines in 2015 in partnership with Dotolo and Shook (Johannesen is a partner and beverage director for all Dotolo and Shook restaurants); the mini-wine shop located inside every location of Jon & Vinny’s is a testament to her important role in Animal’s success.
“I was part of a group of people in Los Angeles at the time who felt there were holes in wine programs around town,” says Johannesen, who also developed the service model for the busy restaurant. “There was homogeneous energy and the boundaries needed to be pushed.” Animal arrived during influential wine critic Robert Parker Jr.’s reign, when LA wine lists favored big Napa cabs, pricey French Bordeaux, and bold Tuscan Brunello di Montalcino. Young diners couldn’t afford these bottles, but even worse, a pour of PlumpJack Estate cabernet sauvignon doesn’t exactly pair well with kung pao sweetbreads.
So instead, Johannesen would pair a white Burgundy with notes of floral, white-fleshed stone fruit or a bright Sancerre rosé with the barbecued pork belly sandwiches and oxtail poutine. “I saw a need for wines with acidity, minerality, and a softer touch,” says Johannesen, resulting in a wine list dotted with fun bottles of wine under $60. Johannesen’s wines, and service style, became an extension of Animal’s playful menu, and was years ahead of today’s trend of natural, funky wines.
For chefs finishing their shifts, Animal was for years an ideal place with late-night service where one could grab a bite with peers before heading to bed. “What Blue Ribbon was to NYC, that’s what Animal was for us,” says chef Michael Voltaggio, who was the chef de cuisine at the Bazaar, won Top Chef, and operated Ink until 2017. “Animal made it okay to serve excellent food without the frills. It was on the level of anything else three times the prices. Animal was a place I could go once a week, grab a few plates, and be inspired.”
In short order the “Animal effect” began to take over Los Angeles. In 2009, Walter Manzke started to serve crispy ears with bearnaise at Church & State, while Josef Centeno turned out brightly spiced crispy pig ears alongside horseradish aioli at Lazy Ox. The Los Angeles Times declared 2011 a banner year for the city’s dining scene, noting the new addition of several destination restaurants like Animal within what was already arguably the best city in the country for international cuisines.
At Bestia, which opened in 2012 and remains one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Ori Menashe serves roasted lamb necks, pan-roasted chicken gizzards, and smoked chicken liver pate. “Animal opening in 2008 was the restaurant that helped lead the way for all of us chefs that use cuts of meat and offal that were not common at the time,” says Menashe. “For many others it was a restaurant that set the stage for so many talented chefs to emerge.”
It isn’t just the outside inspiration that has cemented Animal’s legacy in Los Angeles. Alums have become some of the most influential cooks, chefs, and restaurant operators in the industry. In 2016, chef Jonathan Whitener would go on to craft one of LA’s most exciting global menus at Here’s Looking at You in Koreatown with former Animal manager and now business partner Lien Ta. Miles Thompson worked at Animal before opening the ambitious and affordable tasting-menu restaurant Allumette in Echo Park, followed by a spot at the helm of Santa Monica fine dining institution Michael’s.
“My time at Animal was the most valuable time spent in any kitchen in my career,” says Eduardo Ruiz, who was a chef de partie at Animal before going on to open the critically acclaimed Corazón y Miel in Bell. “In addition to learning about food, ingredients, and cooking technique, I learned about having fun in a kitchen.” Courtney Storer, culinary producer for The Bear, a hit show about the struggles and joys of the modern restaurant kitchen, worked with Dotolo and Shook for seven years. Over 15 years, Animal’s menus helped to shape the way that America eats; its deep roster of former talent has given Los Angeles many more years of culinary excellence to look forward to.
In recent years, Dotolo and Shook began mulling whether or not to close Animal. The restaurant was dark for two pandemic years before reopening in May 2022, but it never found its previous footing. Within a year, the chefs agreed that it was time to move on. In hindsight, they wonder if hiring a PR or marketing firm might have helped to boost returning sales, and they question their decision to not somehow utilize their space during the restaurant closures of 2020 and 2021.
It’s likely nothing they could have done would have made a difference. Dotolo and Shook were named Rising Star Chefs in 2008, won Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2009, and in 2016 finally brought home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West. Behind the scenes, Shook says sales for Animal had already started leveling off: “2016 was our worst year on record, besides the pandemic.” On June 5, Eater LA reported Animal would close for good after 15 years of business.
While Animal stayed focused on offal dishes, LA diners were shifting to more familiar and comforting flavors with a twist, like caviar-topped fish sticks, turmeric chicken wings, or curry-covered biscuits. “All these restaurants are coming back with all these classic dishes done in a simple way,” says Dotolo. “Like I love what Josiah [Citrin] is doing at Dear John’s, a classic steakhouse with old-school sand dabs and creamed spinach.” The chefs acknowledge a shift in what modern Angeleno diners want, but the thought of retooling the menu for a new audience was never in the cards. That just wouldn’t be Animal’s style. Losing the pig ears, veal brains, and beef hearts would mean losing the restaurant’s identity.
“We could have kept it going, but there’s nothing more we can get out of Animal,” says Shook.
“We fell in love there, had kids, and achieved more than we’d ever imagined,” adds Dotolo. “We’ve lived a dream.”
Their seafood restaurant Son of a Gun turned 12 this year. Jon & Vinny’s has expanded to four branches, and the duo also operates local mini-grocery Cookbook while continuing to run one of LA’s busiest catering companies. There’s plenty to keep Shook and Dotolo busy when they’re not spending time with family.
Restaurants rise and fall. It’s a business of passion for chefs and restaurateurs who must deny the reality that the average lifespan of a restaurant is five years, with up to 90 percent failing within the first year. It’s August and already this year’s Los Angeles Times 101 Best Restaurants list is down to 98 due to closures. Fifteen years is an age few restaurants achieve, and a testament to Animal’s resonance with diners and members of its own hospitality community.
Like Spago and Campanile before it, Animal came along at the perfect time with imagination, playing bluesy riffs over California cuisine’s more delicate chords. It sealed itself firmly into the fabric of LA’s dining history by taking a cavalier approach to traditional restaurant service, pushing brash offal dishes through shared plate menus inside one of the loudest dining rooms this city has ever heard. Dotolo and Shook gave the industry confidence to use unloved cuts and gave customers an offal primer that came in handy when LA’s Korean, Singaporean, and Mexican chefs began to open their own fine dining restaurants. Mostly, they inspired young chefs to take it to the limit and to cook for themselves. Animal alums still feed us at restaurants all over town, often with a repertoire of hamachi tostadas, sweetbreads, and bold cooking influenced by LA’s diverse neighborhoods. We owe a great deal to Animal, which was the spark that ignited a movement to cement Los Angeles as the most interesting place to eat in America. The restaurant changed Angelenos as diners.
Up until the very end it was possible to order many of the hits from Animal’s heyday: chicken liver toast, bone marrow slathered in chimichurri, and perfectly fried quail over grits. During one final service, Dotolo brought out a plate of gnocchi with Bolognese. My dinner guest and I both laughed at the very thought of such a delicious yet tame dish of gnocchi sitting next to all the gutsy dishes on the table. “I didn’t really want to put it on the menu, but a friend, a customer, asked me to serve it for our final run,” said Dotolo at the time. “It’s cool and all, but not hardcore. Maybe if we threw in some gizzards.”
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