The Insider: Why regulars were extra-passionate about saving LA’s Here’s Looking At You

a bowl with steak tartare at Los Angeles restaurant Here’s Looking At You

When the pandemic struck in 2020, Koreatown darling Here’s Looking At You closed—and almost didn’t reopen.

But in the years since its 2016 debut, the restaurant had quickly established itself as a neighborhood go-to, a critical hit, and a beloved third space for Angelenos, who kept returning to HLAY (as many Angelenos call it) for its inventive California-inspired and Asian-inflected small plates.

That community was essential to bringing the restaurant back with a bang in January 2022 after regulars raised $100,000 to save it. “I still think about the GoFundMe every day,” says Lien Ta, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Jonathan Whitener.

Since then, Ta and Whitener have brought a new chef de cuisine to keep things fresh, and the ever-changing, excellent cocktail list and buzzy dining room make it feel like a dinner party every night.

In our latest Insider installment, we’re getting the scoop from Ta on the dish that will always stay, the best seat in the house, when you’re almost guaranteed to get in, and more. Read on for all the tea.

Los Angeles restaurant owner Lien Ta at the host stand at her restaurant Here's Looking At You
Co-owner Lien Ta says restaurant regulars were instrumental in HLAY’s reopening. Photo credit: OpenTable

What do you think Here’s Looking At You’s X factor is?

Lien Ta: I think its originality. The restaurant feels a little bit odd and quirky. There’s some kind of magical dust between our staff and our guests and the relationships that build between the two. Plus, how everyone really stood by us during our GoFundMe.

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

The steak tartare. We tried removing it once, and it was a calamity because people love it so much. It’s ground up brisket, we have a scallion vinaigrette, and housemade onikasu seasoning, which we call “devil flakes” [a secret blend]. There’s a hen yolk on it and a seasonal green, whether it’s watercress or pea shoot. It’s served with grilled Bub and Grandma’s house sesame sourdough and some Japanese aioli.

What’s the underdog of the menu?

Our menu changes a lot, but I would say the current underdog is a golden beet dish from our freshly minted chef de cuisine Sieger Bayer. The beets are charred on the grill and hasselbacked and served with a soya cream. It almost looks like an apple cobbler.

What is the hidden gem on the wine list? 

Our list, which is curated by wine director Daneille Fornier, is pretty value-driven. I’d call out a Chenin Blanc, Domaine de Taille Aux Loups “Bretonniere,” by winemaker Jackie Blot, who recently passed away. Another special bottle is the Clos Fornelli “La Robe D’Ange,” a Corsican red that tastes like a baby Burgundy.

Is there a go-to on the cocktail list?

A yellow cocktail with a cut-up, hollowed lime with a cherry in it and some mint leaves for garnish at Los Angeles restaurant Here’s Looking At You
A recreation of the original 1944 Mai Tai recipe has been a hit since the beginning. Photo credit: Jessie Clapp

If we have some kind of mezcal-based cocktail, it’s always a favorite. Right now it’s the Order Fire, a blend of mezcal and passionfruit. And we always have our Mai Tai Resurrection, which is our recreation of the original 1944 Mai Tai. It always lives on a little tiki-themed postcard. 

Who’s your longest regular?

We have so many. I think I have to give it to Alison Dinerstein. She dined with us on the first day, and she maintains her regular status. She lives in Hancock Park. Her husband, David, won a few Oscars a couple of years ago [for the 2021 Questlove-directed Summer of Soul], so those came to dinner one night too.

Who’s your longest serving staff member?

Right now, we have two who worked on the first day and are still here. Arturo Penaloza, who is essentially the soul of the restaurant, is our back server. We met working together over 10 years ago. Marc Brooks is a server, but he’s also been our GM and helps me on the side with administrative work. He’s a phenomenal human being and essentially our inner leader.

What’s the most memorable request you’ve received from a customer?

We have these regulars that were engaged and had a wedding planned, but they were so in love that they married early and came to dinner after and asked us to keep it a secret. Even their families didn’t know, because they went ahead with the wedding.

What’s the best seat in the house?

The bar at Los Angeles restaurant Here’s Looking At You featuring a wooden counter, wood-topped stools, and a liquor cabinet stacked with bottles and books
Grab a seat at the bar to get the best view of all the action at HLAY. Photo credit: Dylan + Jeni

It’s 100% the bar. It’s really lively, and every bartender is an exceptional human being. It’s the show; you can see the entire dining room and the kitchen.

When is the best time to find a reservation? 

These days, after 8 pm and later. Back in the day, it was the opposite, but now the earlier times book up more quickly.

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

From an operations perspective, we have fewer staff working and it still runs flawlessly. I’m just so amazed by our team.

What’s your favorite award you’ve won?

I think the most impactful one was when we made the New York Times’s list of the 50 best restaurants in the country. We reopened in January 2022, and that list came out in September, so it was really helpful to boost business.

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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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