How to get into LA’s MICHELIN-starred Mélisse and Citrin

Credit: Stan Lee
A composed pasta dish with foam on top at Los Angeles restaurant Citrin

Josiah Citrin has been at the forefront of California cuisine in Los Angeles for decades, in no small part thanks to his groundbreaking restaurants Mélisse and Citrin in Santa Monica. 

Mélisse opened in 1999 as one of the city’s most intimate tasting menu spots, and subsequently nabbed two MICHELIN stars (which it maintains to this day) and earned Citrin best chef of the year honors from Los Angeles Magazine in 2012. 

In 2019, the chef took part of Mélisse and opened Citrin, a casual counterpart with both a la carte and tasting menu options. Given Mélisse’s caliber, it felt only natural when Citrin earned its own MICHELIN star and holds on to it still. 

Today, Mélisse remains one of the toughest reservations to score in LA, while Angelenos know to head to Citrin for a more laid back vibe and one of the best happy hours in town. “In Mélisse, you feel like you’re in someone’s house,” Josiah Citrin says. “Citrin is very modern with a big bar; it’s more casual and sleek.” 

It’s a particularly exciting time to visit with Mélisse turning 25 this summer, and the chef is dishing on what makes his restaurant tick, including the irresistible uni, the hidden gem on the wine list, where to angle for a seat, and more. 

What do you think Citrin and Mélisse’s X factor is?

Mélisse and Citrin have always been about showcasing the highest quality seasonal ingredients like in this salad. Credit: Citrin

Josiah Citrin: Our attention to the highest quality ingredients. We work with the best producers in the state and the world. We also make it a point to hire really friendly, attentive people, so that there’s a nice ambiance. We really pay attention to detail and take care of our guests. Plus, I’m always thinking about what’s next. The restaurants are constantly evolving.

What’s the one dish you’ll never remove from the menu?

At Mélisse we change the menu seasonally, but the uni is the only dish that’s been on the menu since day one. I really think it’s the perfect single bite, with a mix of hot, and cold, and a punch of umami. 

At Citrin, we’re a little more rock-and-roll about changing the menu, but the egg caviar with soft-poached egg, the lobster bolognese, and what we call the ‘dirty’ chicken are always on the menu. The chicken is marinated in garlic, lemon, and herbs, and we roast it to get those crunchy bits on the skin. The lobster pasta has been a crowd favorite for years; it’s comforting, a little different, and has layers of texture and flavor. We instruct the guests [on] how to eat it, so they get a little bit of everything in one bite.

What is the hidden gem on the wine list?

There are a lot of hidden gems, but I would say look for any of the Bandols on our list. It’s a big red wine and pairs really well with our lamb and beef entrees and even the dirty chicken. The bottles are really special. It’s one of my favorite wines.

Who’s your longest serving staff member?

Teo Inzunza started off as a valet and now does everything from being a handyman to helping with prep to being a backwaiter on New Year’s Eve. Our steward Atalo Velasco has done the dishes and prepped for 20-plus years, and our backwaiter Fernando Diaz has been there since the beginning.

What’s the best seat in the house?

Mélisse is an intimate tasting-menu spot that seats just 14. Credit: Wonho Frank Lee

Because it’s so intimate, every seat in Mélisse is a great seat, so it’s really up to each guest to decide. At Citrin, I’m going to put a VIP at table 7 or table 42, which are both just removed enough from the dining room, so you get a great view but you still feel like you’re in the middle of the action. Or I’d seat them at the corner of the bar where they can see each other and the restaurant.

When is the best time to find a reservation? 

A Mélisse, we open up reservations for the following month on the first of the month. Citrin also opens reservations 30 days out, although I’d say to make a reservation after 7 pm, because diners aren’t going out as late anymore.

What’s been the biggest change at the restaurant since the opening?

Citrin is a casual counterpart to Mélisse. Credit: Stan Lee

We’ve moved to a more modern style of fine dining. Although the china is fine and the product is excellent, the style of dining is not as stuffy as it used to be. Everything is a little bit less formal while still being very professional.

Why do people love the happy hour at Citrin?

We have the Evening Glass-Off Tuesday to Saturday from 5:30 to 7 pm. I’m a surfer and those are the hours when the water becomes smooth and glassy, and you can get a second surf in. At Citrin, people can come to a one-star MICHELIN restaurant and experience the dishes like the lobster Bolognese in smaller portions. It’s a great value [beer is $9, select wines $11, and select cocktails $13].

What’s your favorite award you’ve won?

Famed chef Josiah Citrin hopes he can celebrate three MICHELIN stars at Mélisse one day. Credit: Dylan + Jeni

Obviously, for me, it’s my two MICHELIN stars. Hopefully one day I can celebrate three.

Karen Palmer is a pizza- and pasta-obsessed food writer based in Los Angeles. She is the former editorial director of Tasting Table, and her work has appeared in Eater, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram at @karenlpalmer.

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