How did we get here? Back in the aughts, being a buzzworthy restaurant meant serving decimating amounts of pork product, fried vegetables, and poutine, consumed with oceans of booze and finished with a shot of Fernet-Branca. It was an international bro-down as American chefs bowed to the likes of St. John’s nose-to-tail master Fergus Henderson and Pied de Cochon’s lethal genius Martin Picard. The most exciting things in food were sharing a plate of chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates at Avec in Chicago, and ordering poutine smothered in oxtail gravy at Animal in L.A. As a food writer, I loved the gonzo thrill of these epic food parties, with their loud music, louder chefs, and brazen screw-yous to fine dining (even though many of the chefs came from four-star kitchens). What I didn’t love was how I felt the next morning. Make that day.
And then a few shifts occurred in the food world. In L.A., paparazzi snapped athleisured celeb couples sitting down to raw vegan bowls at Café Gratitude, and, well, who doesn’t want to look like that? Lalito chef Gerardo Gonzalez, who grew up in Southern California, channeled menus like Café Gratitude’s when making the kale salad and raw falafel that put El Rey on the all-day map in NYC in 2015. De Maria chef Camille Becerra has always drawn upon her early training at macrobiotic restaurants and a Zen center. In recent years, though, her homages to the Dragon Bowls that she once made at the NYC macro pioneer Angelica Kitchen have really resonated, bringing her attention first at Navy in 2014 and then at Café Henrie before she joined De Maria last year. With her neon swooshes of, say, beet-tahini dressing and jazzy add-ons like turmeric-poached eggs, her fashionable bowls have tapped a nerve in the food world.
Meanwhile, coffee bars ascended, driven in part by young Australians, who, along with flat whites, brought with them something called avocado toast. Both are an essential part of their all-day café culture, in which savory-leaning breakfast dishes are often served until late afternoon at such stylish pioneers as Bills in Sydney. That café’s influence can be seen at rising Aussie-owned chainlets like New York’s Two Hands and the always-crowded Bluestone Lane coffee shops.
Over on the business side, higher rents meant that it made sense for restaurants to be open for more than one service.
But more than anything, it’s the people running these restaurants who have made the all-day café what it is. All of the women I interviewed for this story—and women are the driving force behind this movement—could have gone the fancy-tasting-menu route when opening their own places but chose not to. Julia Jaksic, who opened the self-described “somewhat healthy” Cafe Roze in Nashville last year, staged at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, then grew to realize that the intensity of white-tablecloth restaurants wasn’t for her. A job with chef Missy Robbins was a turning point: “She was taking her inspiration from traditional Italian food,” Jaksic said. “I realized I didn’t need to be in big fancy kitchens.”
Which brings us to Sqirl. A former fine-dining pastry cook, Jessica Koslow opened the seminal East Hollywood daytime spot in 2012 as a pop-up with G&B Coffee to showcase her line of jams. When she first explored opening a restaurant in postcrash 2010, the economy in her Silver Lake neighborhood wouldn’t have supported a dinner-only spot. Besides, she wanted to open the place she felt was lacking in L.A.: something that combined the all-day cafés she’d experienced while living in Melbourne for a year with the “little cafés that make your neighborhood feel like a
community” that she’d loved during a stint in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 2008. In L.A., “there wasn’t any place to go to feel like you could get some work done and feel like part of a neighborhood.” And there was nowhere making the kind of food she wanted to eat, no matter what her mood.
The avocado toast that she wanted to eat was anchored by green garlic crème fraîche and electrified by pickled carrot ribbons and lacto-fermented hot sauce, a turmeric-ginger tonic at the ready. (Koslow had discovered the Ayurvedic brew, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, after hurting her ankle.) Or maybe she was in the mood for a slice of thick-cut toast with jam and ricotta—both house-made, of course. Whatever she wanted to eat was soon craved by Angelenos with a schedule flexible enough to allow for standing in line. Those Angelenos were eventually joined by food writers and chefs from around the world, and before you knew it, all anybody wanted was a Sqirl of her (or his) own.