Michael McCarty opened Michael’s Santa Monica in 1979, helping to signal the rise of seasonal California cuisine, which predated the debut of the nearby Santa Monica Farmers Market by two years. He followed that up with Michael’s New York in 1989. He and wife/artist Kim McCarty recently celebrated Michael’s 40th anniversary with a charitable tasting event benefiting No Kid Hungry and featuring an array of chefs who have worked at Michael’s over the years, including Jonathan Waxman, Sang Yoon, “Top Chef” champion Brooke Williamson, and current chefs Jeff Lustre and Matthew Wilson. I recently interviewed McCarty by email to get insights into his namesake restaurant’s past four decades.
Josh Lurie: What do you remember about your very first night at Michael’s Santa Monica? How did it go, and how did you get diners to show up?
Michael McCarty: The first night of Michael’s Santa Monica was a hoot! Exactly like I wanted it to be: great food, great wine, great people, GREAT PARTY!!!
When I started building Michael’s in the late ’70s, the world of food, wine and art was much smaller and everyone ran in the same circles. It felt like something exciting was about to happen. Word of mouth traveled fast over the course of the year (before the opening) amongst our friends, who passed the word along to their friends and more. It got to the point that Joe Armstrong (then the publisher of New West magazine, founded by Clay Felker and eventually sold to Rupert Murdoch) hired Colman Andrews to cover the “happening.” He then convinced Ruth Reichl to come down from Berkeley to cover us (which you can check out in Chapter 4 of her first book). When Ruth’s article came out: we went into hyper-speed and never slowed down since our opening day on April 22, 1979. To get the word out about opening night itself, we made a couple hundred phone calls — you have to remember these were the days before the internet and social media!
JL: At what point did you realize that Michael’s Santa Monica might stick around for awhile?
MM: When we realized that we had a 6-month waiting list that never ended!
JL: What have been some of the biggest challenges in running Michael’s Santa Monica over the years?
MM: The biggest challenge will always be staffing. When I opened Michael’s in 1979, there were few Americans that took hospitality/cooking as a career. Almost all employees were European, and there were virtually no cooking schools in the U.S. So I formed Michael’s as a “teaching restaurant” knowing full well that we had to train both FOH and our kitchen in our new way of doing things.
JL: Why did you decide to open a branch of Michael’s in New York?
MM: I actually found the Michael’s New York site in the fall of 1979 via a broker (suggested by Steven Spurrier, my teacher at the Academie du Vin in Paris). I saw the space with its wonderful and unique huge garden and new it was where we could create something that complemented our Santa Monica restaurant. I began to negotiate the buyout of the Italian pavilion that had originally opened in 1939. It took me 10 years to finalize and we were off and running in 1989.
JL: What are your favorite aspects of running restaurants? What keeps you and Kim going?
MM: The best part is the theater of it all: throwing a party every night, getting the mix of the crowd, having a “club” where everybody is having a big time, putting people together and best of all…good eats and drinks! Kim and I have fully embraced the “happening” that has occurred and continues to occur everyday at both Michael’s Santa Monica and Michael’s New York. There’s something about the energy of being in our restaurants and putting a smile on everyone’s face.
JL: If you were to construct a dream tasting menu featuring Michael’s Santa Monica dishes from over the years, which dishes would you choose? Let’s go with 9 courses max.
MM: Always start with Billecart-Salmon rosé. Oysters on the half-shell with the most current vintage of Sancerre, followed by grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns with herbs de Provence and lemon. And more Sancerre. Then, as we are in the midst of spring, pan-seared shad roe with Pommery mustard sauce, Walla Walla sweet onions with bacon lardons and wild watercress with a Bombay Sapphire Martini straight up with 5 olives. For more springtime action: a combo of Dutch white asparagus and Zuckerman colossal delta green asparagus with fava beans, peas, morels, Serrano ham and 5-minute chopped egg…and chives with more rosé. A mesquite-grilled Manchester quail with thyme, garlic and girolles, paired with Minuty 2018. More main courses: a pan-seared Carpenter squab with black currents and foie gras with The Malibu Vineyard 2013 Pinot Noir; Snake River Kurobuta pork chop served with pan jus and porcini ravioli with a Sine Qua Non Midnight Oil Syrah 2003; Flannery Beef côte de boeuf with sautéed ramps, Weiser peewees and a giant California Cab Sauv of your choice.
We’d finish with CHEESE!!!!!! Or as it was listed on our first menu: “ce qu’il faut” with my walnut raisin toast. You’d enjoy it with that same California Cab Sauv as we’d finish with a pavlova, Harry’s Berries (of course!) and more Billecart-Salmon rosé.
Sorry it’s 11 courses, not 9 — it’s a party!