One of our favorite tasting menus among Los Angeles’ rich, vast dining scene is that of Providence, the longtime seafood fine dining destination along Melrose Avenue. As Providence approaches its 17-year anniversary this summer, Angeleno spoke with chef Michael Cimarusti about Providence’s lasting power, his craftsmanship approach and L.A.’s legacy as an industry trailblazer.
Has sustainability always been a top priority for Providence?
I've become more and more aware of sustainability issues and give it more time and more thought now than I probably did when we first opened because I think 17 years when we first opened, the whole movement towards sustainability was, not to say that it was in its infancy, but it wasn't as advanced as it is today. I think it's something that people think about more and more in their daily lives, as opposed to the climate 17 years ago, just wasn't quite the same.
Why is it important for an establishment like Providence to have sustainability at top of mind?
I think it's important for all of us from big corporations to little mom and pop restaurants like mine. I think we all have a certain level of responsibility to try and take care of our environment, and our planet as best we can. It's no one single effort that's gonna bring about a solution. Everyone doing a little is what's gonna bring about a solution.
Food and dining was among the most hard hit industries by the pandemic. How have you and the Providence team grappled with COVID-19?
We kept as many people employed as we could throughout the pandemic and we switched to a kind of a takeout model. Takeout is not a lot of fun. Let's put it that way. It's not nearly as gratifying as welcoming guests into the restaurant every day. But I think we definitely put a lot of effort and thought in the takeout that we did and we definitely found an audience. There were people that would come week after week. There were people that it really resonated with and they still tell us that today when they come in to eat at the restaurant now how getting takeout once a week or once every other week was kind of a highlight for them and something that they looked forward to, and that was that's always nice to hear.
I think our guests are feeling a little bit more comfortable now than they did in the past. We haven't laxed any of the standards that we put in place. We're still testing twice a week all of the staff and still abiding by all the mandates that the city and the state have given us. Yes, it's definitely on the wane, but there are lingering reminders of the fact that we're still in the middle of it.
So Providence hits 17 years in June. In all that time, what are you most proud of?
We have people that we still see several times a year, people that have been coming since the the very first day that we opened and people that have grown with the restaurant. We have families that used to come with kids that were toddlers that are now off at college and things like that. I think that's probably the most gratifying thing is that we have people that have been with us on this journey, both inside the restaurant and guests, for the entire 17 years. To me that's really meaningful that we've carved out a little space for ourselves and there are people that have been with us all this time and that's really nice to know. I still feel— and I know my partner's Donato and Crisi feel— that our best work is still in front of us. I still think we have more work to do. There's potential in all of us and as long as we keep pushing, we'll continue to evolve and continue to get better.
Is it ever challenging to regularly create new menus?
No, I mean, it can be challenging at times, but seasons have a rhythm to them. Things come into season and go out of season. Right now, we're right on the cusp of spring, so I'm looking forward to things like morels and asparagus and fava beans and sweet peas. There are all these incredible ingredients that are just around the corner that we're sort of anticipating.
For me, innovation is not the key. Making sure that the food is delicious and well-presented and well-executed is what's most important to me. I'm more of a classicist, I think, when it comes to cooking, and I also consider myself more of a craftsman than an artist, but I think there is definitely a class of chefs that are artists. I feel like I'm more of a craftsman and that's the kind of ethos that I try or the kind of culture that I try to foster within the restaurant and within the cooks and the chefs that by getting a little bit better every day at your craft, your food will continue to evolve as long as you're constantly pushing. And you're constantly trying to improve your own skills and how you apply them to the food that you cook.
See also: The Best Tasting Menus in Los Angeles
Why do you think Los Angeles is a great cultural city, particularly in reference to food and dining, and how is Providence a part of that?
I feel like Los Angeles has always been and I think it always will be on the cutting edge of artistic endeavor. We have some of the best museums in the world. We have a food scene here that is as vital as any I think, certainly in terms of our ethnic food scene here. Street food, that kind of thing, it all springs from Los Angeles and the trends that are set there. In terms fine dining and restaurants on the higher end, if you want to talk about Spago or Patina or places like that, those are legacy-type restaurants that are still looked to today as being sort of seminal American restaurants whether or not they're in Los Angeles. Clearly they’re Los Angeles restaurants, but I feel like they're always in the conversation when you talk about important restaurants in the United States. So, Providence being a part of that. I definitely feel like there was a time when we were the new kids on the block. And now people like myself… and a few others around town are kind of I don't want to say like elder statesmen, but it almost feels like that. Wolf is like The Godfather, continues to be, has always been. But then I think after that, there's guys like me and my friend Josiah Citrin and a few others that have been here in Los Angeles for about 25 years that are kind of helping keep the city on the map in terms of food culture. It's a tough argument, I guess. Forget about the pandemic, but the years prior to that, L.A. was definitely considered to have one of the best food scenes in the country, no doubt about it, also as evidenced by the fact that there are so many out of town chefs that want to come here and open up.
What else is important to know about Providence’s legacy?
When you asked about things that I'm proud of with regards to the restaurant, the fact that we've had staff with us all this time —there are certain staff members that have been with us ever since we opened. Some of them are at Connie and Ted's running that place, but then there are others that are still members of the team at Providence. Like the chef de cuisine, Tristan Aitchison has been at Providence ever since we opened and our host Randy has been with us ever since we opened. We have a couple of captains that have been with us ever since we opened. I'm proud of that too. We have lots of staff that have been with us 10-plus years. I think that I'm proud of that for sure, that we created a place where people feel safe and appreciated and they can grow with us, which is nice.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Providence is located at 5955 Melrose Ave. 90038.
Photography by: Courtesy Providence