The paparazzi were hanging outside Catch LA on a recent Friday night, flashes bursting and shutters clicking whenever an Uber or SUV with tinted windows pulled up to Los Angeles’ hottest new rooftop seafood spot.
And they are there most nights, ready to click their camera triggers whenever someone steps out onto the curb, because odds are high that it will be someone famous.
In the three weeks since nightlife impresarios Mark Birnbaum and Eugene Remm opened their latest creation, an outpost of the original Catch restaurant in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, Catch LA has overflowed with models, musicians, actors, agents, directors, producers, media personalities, aging celebrities, and—of course—friends of Birnbaum and Remm, who first made it big when they opened New York City nightclub Tenjune in 2006.
Cindy Crawford, Larry David, Sylvester Stallone, Quincy Jones, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Larry King, Ari Emanuel, Chris Brown, Nas, Jamie Foxx, David Beckham, Bob Saget, Millie Bobby Brown, Paris Hilton, Hillary Duff, Victoria’s Secret models Alessandro Ambrosio and Taylor Hill and so on have all dined at the new West Hollywood restaurant high up above Melrose Avenue with views of the Hollywood Hills and downtown Los Angeles.
The door downstairs is policed by a bouncer—rare for a restaurant—but if you arrive at off-peak hours, before 7:00 PM or after 11:00 PM (the restaurant and lounge is open five days a week from 5:00 PM—2:00 AM, making it a late-night attraction in an otherwise sleepy Los Angeles) you’ll likely be allowed in and may even get a seat at the bar, as I did, not far from someone on the sliding fame scale.
Survivor host Jeff Probst was nursing a cocktail behind me around 7:30 PM on a recent Friday, looking around at the lush surroundings (plants climb the walls and wrap their vines around distressed wood beams over the roof) and wondering aloud to a friend what had been there before Catch moved in.
An attractive young couple with whom I’d struck up a conversation laughed at Probst’s remark: it was an empty lot before Catch alighted on it, they told me, but everyone assumes something was there because they’re used to old LA hotspots being torn down once they lose their cachet, then being remade or redecorated into the next place to see-and-be-seen.
These two were real foodies who purported to be “in” with chefs and owners of other popular restaurants in LA, though they hadn’t yet made a connection with someone who knows someone who knows someone at Catch, which is the only way to get a dinner reservation there these days.
Like me, they were among the sly interlopers trying to gatecrash by schmoozing one of the many arrestingly beautiful model-hostesses in the hopes of getting a table. They were told to call the restaurant or book a spot on Open Table, which I’d later learn wasn’t accepting reservations for Catch. You can’t put your name down on a list when you arrive, and you can’t get a table unless your name is already on their A-list list.
They’d finished their Pineapple Trainwrecks (Belvedere vodka and pineapple juice with splashes of lemon and a pinch of bittersweet tarragon), one of Catch LA’s signature $14 cocktails, and were about to give up when a staffer approached and asked if they were part of the “Davenport” party.
Why yes, of course, they replied—then were promptly escorted out when they failed to provide a correct first name on the reservation.
I, too, was ready to give up after circling the terrace several times when, by chance, I bumped into someone who knew someone who knew someone who was an investor in Remm and Birnbaum’s new venture, and squeezed into a table on the terrace with them.
I expected the food to be underwhelming, as it often is at scene-y, just-opened restaurants, but the Salmon Belly Carpaccio ($16) was buttery and the Crunchy Rice Cakes ($17 for a small plate or $23 for a slightly less small plate) with tuna tartare and wasabi sauce were taste explosions.
The Mahi Mahi Wonton Tacos ($17) and Chicken Lettuce “Cups” ($16) were equally satisfying. For dessert, the much-hyped and Instagram-famous #HitMe Chocolate Cake was sinful but not too sweet.
Celebrities usually sit in one of the blue-grey leather booths or tables in an even more protected area, policed by security after certain hours. After dinner, I found 39-year-old Birnbaum, who had been unreachable prior to my arrival, chatting with Zach Braff in one of these booths.
When asked why it was impossible to get a table (or to get hold of him, for that matter), Birnbaum, who resembles an aging former boyband member, was salubrious: in the first week or two after they opened, TMZ had given them so much coverage that they had unsavory tourists and people from God-knows-where booking tables at 5:30 PM and overstaying their welcome and then, after dinner, standing at the bar taking iPhone videos of Catch LA's famous and infamous guests.
“It made everyone uncomfortable, so we decided to keep it more friends and family,” Birnbaum said, adding that they'd decided to temporarily shut down their connection with Open Table (they've supposedly opened it up again in the week since I was there).
This explained why, when looking for a reservation at every possible hour in the days before I arrived, there were no open tables.
“Quite frankly the only reason Open Table exists is to fill your restaurant, so we don’t need them right now,” Birnbaum told me later on the phone, after I’d returned to New York.
“Even though we’re a 350-seat restaurant, we want those in the dining room to have a 70-seat, intimate experience and to not be so overbooked that the service suffers. ‘Great food, great service, great vibe’ is written on every wall in our New York space. If we can make sure that same mantra applies to Catch LA, then that will give the restaurant the longevity in a business where nine out of ten restaurants will fail. It’s that sort of stress that requires everything to be a little bit tighter in the beginning.”
That means a dining room where A$AP Rocky rubs shoulders with Calvin Klein, and Michael J. Fox is just a few tables over from Derek Jeter.
“It’s a fun experience for everyone,” said Birnbuam.
Indeed, back at the bar around 12:30 AM, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” throbbed provocatively from various leafy corners of the roof, which was open that night but is retractable, providing early diners relief from LA’s relentless sun or protecting them from the rare rain shower.
One short, thirty-something fellow who was introducing his friend to the Catch LA experience laughed about the very accommodating men’s bathroom attendant (“he holds your drink while you take a piss, then he attacks you with his lint roller!”) and gushed about “the women…the women!”
He was right: there were a disproportionate number of pneumatic babes flitting around in LA’s trendy uniform, as seen at Coachella this year: skin-tight black jeans slashed at the knees, wide-brimmed hats, and wrap-around choker necklaces that dangled into plunging lingerie tops.
Even the most impeccably glamorous gaggles of women could scarcely hide their passive desperation to outperform the others.
On my way out, one Jane Birkin lookalike—a Belgian emigré and a “nine to five” economist by trade—bought me a drink and explained why the wage gap was overhyped.
“Cheers,” she said, “to dirty martinis and expensive women!”