The Outpost

The Corner Table by Brad Johnson

As a regular practice the Post & Beam management team reads Yelp to stay abreast of what our guests are saying. We do so with the intention of catching anything we may have missed in the experience at the restaurant that would enable us to improve. Of course, we like reading the good stuff too. Yes, at times Yelp reviews can be infuriating, when you know the team did all they could to satisfy a guest, yet our efforts are just a click away from being completely misrepresented as was the case in a recent Yelp review.

We’re grownups and everyone knows “the restaurant business is tough”. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant can tell you most of us who make a career in the field of hospitality desire to see people happy. We bend over backwards to meet the needs of an ever demanding customer who has more than enough choices of where to spend their time and money. When we read a negative review, we take it to heart, try to address whatever may be fair about what was written and try to improve.

On the verge of opening Post & Beam five years ago, as is the common practice in our industry, we placed an ad online on Craig’s List that we were hiring for “all positions”. It should be said the decision to open Post & Beam in South Los Angeles was not made lightly. While the neighborhoods to the west contained one of the largest affluent African American cluster of communities in the country, Santa Rosalia the street we are on, could be considered the equivalent of the “other side of the tracks”. Our confidence in Ken Lombard and Quentin Primo and their vision to guide Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, at the time a C-Class mall, into a brighter future was what gave us the confidence to make a go of it. That Debbie Allen and Norm Nixon, old friends, occupied a space across the parking lot from the future Post & Beam was further enticement. The fact that one of the previous restaurants on the property had been robbed at gun point, later closing and all other restaurants on the property had closed (except IHop) did not discourage us, we signed on. Some thought we were crazy.  Karen Hudson, a third generation African American Angeleno and granddaughter of famed architect Paul Williams visiting our location pre-opening  said to me upon walking up to the building “ do you really think you will be able to get people to come here at night?”.

When we posted our job ad, aware of the way above average unemployment rate in the neighborhood, we expected a huge turn out from the community. Finding locals to fill the jobs we offered was not something we ever thought would be one of our biggest initial challenges. To our surprise of the fifty or so people that showed up to apply, only 3 were African American. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject but that is for another time. It was always our intention to open with a diverse staff, it’s been a trademark of restaurants, bars and clubs I’ve been involved with over my thirty plus years in the business. The turnout, or lack of, from the local community, was pretty shocking; nonetheless we had a restaurant to launch and needed to get the staff trained.

As Post & Beam became better known, our staff as well as our clientele, has become more diverse, in fact, I believe we are one of the most diverse rooms in the city and we’re proud of that.

Why is any of this important? When someone experiences food they don’t care for, or, has a subpar service experience and makes it an issue of race, calling out a member of our staff, in this case our General Manager, a little context is in order. To make the outrageous accusation this reviewer made is quite a leap from not liking our fried chicken. If a guest at Spago in Beverly Hills lambasted Wolfgang Puck’s decision to hire an “African American manager” because the clientele is white, how offended would you be? Why are some so quick to make a racial issue out of any perceived slight? In this case, we did everything we could, yet the experience proved justification for her proclamation “this is why we don’t support”. I should add that the server, an African American woman, was left a less than 10% tip. I guess a hardworking young woman making an honest living serving you is not worthy of your support either.

Sam, our General Manager, who yes, happens to be white, is our fifth General Manager in five years. To break it down racially we’ve had one Latino, two African Americans and now Sam, our second white GM. While by no means is he perfect, Sam did not deserve to be maligned. He chooses to work at Post & Beam in large part because he knows we represent something in this community and to our loyal patrons, we matter. He was genuinely and understandbly upset by the totally off based, unfair, uninformed and untrue accusation that any decision made at Post & Beam by Sam or anyone else is made on the basis of race. Sam is a very qualified restaurant professional having spent time in some top rated restaurants. He has worked all over the world teaching English to students. Is he perfect? Of course not but to make any judgment of his an issue of race and to admonish us for hiring anyone we deem capable because you think we should hire someone “race appropriate” is at best misguided.  Do we make service errors? Yes. Does a dish ever not meet expectations? Yes. Govind Armstrong, a highly regarded African American chef and my business partner, called a “food genius” in a recent spread in Essence magazine about Post & Beam strives to create a craveable dining experience.  We’re also proud to be in the top 50 of LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s Top 101 restaurants in the city, a distinction earned each year we have been open.

To those of us who went to sleep the night Barack Obama was elected with the optimistism that the ugly burden of racial discrimination may finally be losing its grip, eight years later, after Ferguson, Eric Garner, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Donald Trump, the OJ series, gentrification, we’ve woken up to find our country still grappling with its history. President Obama couldn’t bring the country together. In fact, we see the hate that his presidency has brought to the surface. It’s sad we can’t and just aren’t ready to move on. So we stay trapped in old ways of thinking, racking up unintended casualties along the way.

I recently attended the screening of  “Free State of Jones” a new movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali. If any of us need to be reminded of what our ancestors endured so that we could walk into a voting booth, I strongly recommend you take the family to see this movie. One does not need to look back further than a few generations to be reminded of this countries racist past and how that past is still very much a part of our present. I was disheartened to read recently my hometown NYC has the most segregated school system in the country, in no small part due to neighborhoods affected by discriminatory practices dating back to the fifties and sixties and home loans granted to whites, denied to Blacks.

What does any of this have to do with someone’s experience in our restaurant? Plenty, you see we are on the frontline, everything you read about, rising minimum wage, healthcare, the economy, gentrification, we are experiencing real time. To then have to defend yourself against the very thing you know you represent  the antithesis of, that being discrimination, is not something I relish but certainly am grateful for the opportunity to stand up for the world we at Post & Beam want to live in. We are very grateful to those that support the restaurant and though I’m not happy our General Manager was unfairly insulted, I am embracing this as an opportunity to address to try and heal the wounds, not throw salt on them. So Vickie T. or Stephanie R. if you would like to revisit Post & Beam, I’d like to have a meal with you. All said, I feel your pain but your read in this case was dead wrong. To future diners at Post & Beam, your server may be gay or not like The Beatles.

RECIPE by Chef Govind Armstrong

This recipe originally appeared in the Hollywood Bowl Chef’s Picnic Club. “A Southern California native who grew up on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and cooked all over the world, Armstrong has introduced some soulful Southern notes into his repertoire at Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills and Willie Jane in Venice.”

“Classic Motown including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Diana Ross, etc., is always woven into the mix when I’m in the kitchen. Typically, mellow music with a strong rhythm—like The xx, The Temper Trap, and Thievery Corporation—keeps me inspired, on pace, and focused.”

—Govind Armstrong

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 1-1/4 pounds Tillamook medium cheddar, shredded
  • 1 8-ounce can pimentos
  • 1/4 cup pimento brine (the liquid from the can of pimentos)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 3/4 cup whole-egg aioli or your favorite vegan mayo
  • Salt and pepper

PROCEDURE

  1. Place cheese, pimentos and brine into a food processor and blend until smooth.
  2. Transfer into a bowl and mix in spices and mayonnaise.
  3. Serve with your favorite crostini or crackers, and charcuterie.

RECIPE by Chef Govind Armstrong

Chef Govind Armstrong teaches us the process of pickling shrimp to mix into a salad and how to make homemade dressing. See video on How to Make Pickled Shrimp on the Hallmark Channel . Read more

THE CORNER TABLE by Brad Johnson

Late, late on a cold night in January early-80’s, the band at The Cellar was anxious to start its 3rd and final set as the crowd, while sparse, was still in the mood for more. I was ready to go home. It was 2:30am on a Thursday and the only people still out besides staff had sniffed enough cocaine and consumed more than enough Remy Martin. The ones with jobs still planned to somehow show up for work later that morning. Bob Turner, a marketing executive, had managed to fall asleep in a booth while holding his half full snifter of brandy in the air, steady not spilling a drop.

The Cellar was the type of place anyone might show up. This night was no exception. Standing at the top of the stairs looking more than just a bit shaky stood none other than Jazz legend and notorious night owl, Miles Davis.

I’d heard so many Miles stories from my Dad who met Miles and his band when my father was selling men’s clothing for Paul Stuart. My Dad sold suits to Miles and the band, a real thrill for my father as I don’t think Miles had a bigger fan of his music than Howard Johnson.

I’d heard Miles loved the fried chicken at The Cellar but on this night it didn’t appear as though Miles came to eat. I made my way over to him and eagerly introduced myself sticking out my hand “Miles, hey, I’m Brad Johnson, Howard Johnson’s son!” Miles barely looked at me and while removing the cigarette from his lips allowed me to help him out of his dark colored long coat. Excitedly I removed Miles coat, a Burberry trench of course, from his slender frame and hustled off to put it safely in the office.

When stars showed up people loved it and the buzz created was palpable. When a legend like Miles, Stevie Wonder or Muhammad Ali stopped by, the night took on a whole otherworldly vibe. Musicians played harder, singers sang with all they had, women circled and the fellas just felt happy to be in the same fraternity. Like you were in the right place in the world, nothing else mattered, nowhere could be as cool as where you were at that very moment.

As the night wound down Miles was ready to go. He motioned to me and mumbled something that vaguely sounded like “where’s my coat?” If you have ever heard Miles speak, his voice was as rare as the sounds that he made with his horn. Even when sober, Miles spoke in a whispery very low scratchy sounding voice, kind of like Marlon Brando’s Godfather voice, but without the Italian accent. I quickly ran downstairs and grabbed Miles’ coat from the sofa in our office. As I lifted the coat I noticed a burned out hole in one of the sleeves and out fell a half smoked cigarette.

Then I remembered, Miles was smoking when he came in. As I helped him out of his coat he removed the cigarette from his mouth and held it between two slender fingers. Ok, he was a little high…as the coat slid off of his arm and dragged over his hand the cigarette got loose and while still lit, got stuck in the elbow of his coat, where it created a big fat burn. Damn, the last thing I wanted to do was hand Miles Davis back his fly Burberry with a big hole in the sleeve! With not much in the way of options I decided to help him into the coat, glide his arm down the sleeve and somehow avoid the hole, which was big enough for him to stick his hand right through. It worked! He coolly staggered up the stairs and disappeared out into the cold. Whew, that was close.

Several years later I was invited to the home of Scott Saunders. Scott managed Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and was hosting a small party for Nick’s birthday. I’d been discussing working with Nick and Val who were friends, on their recently opened restaurant Twenty/Twenty in lower Manhattan. In attendance were Roberta Flack, Nick and Val, Scott and a very young Whitney Houston. Val, Roberta and Whitney were gathered around the piano singing and playing. I stood with Nick and Scott near the window of his upper floor luxury apartment overlooking the Museum of Natural History and Columbus Avenue. I felt very lucky to be part of this intimate affair and watching these amazing ladies play and sing together was something I’ll never forget. At one point, Whitney made her way over to where Nick, Scott and I were standing. At the time I was a partner in a restaurant on Columbus Avenue called Memphis and you could just about make out its entrance from Scott’s window 20 stories up.

Feeling a sudden burst of confidence I struck up a conversation with Whitney whom I’d never met. “I’m in the restaurant business and that’s my place down there with the two wooden doors and no name”. She was friendly and looked out the window as I tried to point out the place. “Do you ever go out to dinner?” I bravely inquired. She looked at me and giggled, more I thought at my audacity than from shyness. “Yes, do you want to take me there?” Before I could say “Hell yea!” she was summoned to the piano to sing happy birthday to Nick with Roberta and Val.

As they serenaded Nick, I heard the sound of a door bell. I looked at Scott who motioned for me to get the door as he was busy snapping pictures. Feeling on top of the world and witnessing these incredible women singing, I floated to the door. As I opened Scott’s front door there standing in front of me was none other than Miles Davis!! “Miles!” I exclaimed after having met him years prior “I’m Howard Johnson’s son, I met you at the Cellar, remember me?” I asked excitedly. Without hesitation and as he brushed by me in that classic Miles Davis growl he said “Yea, you the mother***er that burned my coat”.

 

The Corner Table by Brad Johnson

For more than 20 years, my dad, Howard Johnson, owned a very popular restaurant on the Upper Westside of Manhattan called the Cellar. The Cellar was a special place and at the time of its inception in 1973, there were very few, if any, black-owned restaurants outside of Harlem below 110th street. Ironically, my father bought the Cellar from another Black man who owned it for a few years but decided to sell after having lost his appetite for the place. Despite its location in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, the clientele had become “too Black” for him.

In the early ’70s, my father was working for Paul Stuart, a well-known men’s clothing store and hanging out at some of the popular watering holes of the day, Vic and Terry’s, Jocks and Teachers, among others. Those that knew my dad would be quick to agree he had great taste, and a certain social prowess, easily mixing in any group. This combination made him a natural for his new venture as a restaurateur. To say my father was a risk taker would be accurate, both in his private life—he married my mother Phyllis Martha Notarangelo, an Italian woman, when interracial marriage was still illegal in most states—and in business, where he jumped head first into an industry that other than a fondness for Jack Daniels, he had no experience in.

My father’s generation (he was born in 1925) was truly amazing. I’m so proud that my dad served as a Marine in World War II, where he witnessed and experienced prejudice around the world and at home, and yet never allowed any of it to detour him from blazing his own trail. He amassed a range of friends of all ages and races. His eye for style, a great suit, and the importance of good fabric, furniture (I still have the Eames chair he purchased 50 years ago), and cars made him memorable to so many. Jazz was a major love. He would fall asleep almost every night with the radio tuned to the local jazz station.  My dad was happiest cruising in one of his cars on Martha’s Vineyard where he had a home, top down, listening to Miles Davis. He would often say “I wouldn’t want to leave here to go to heaven.”

The Cellar was a few steps down from street grade, dimly lit and had 8×10 black and white photographs of jazz greats lining the walls. There was a small stage that often held way more musicians than it was intended to, a long L-shaped bar, a 46 seat dining room and a juke box. The crowd epitomized the “Black is Beautiful” slogan of the day. People such as Susan Taylor, Editor of Essence magazine, Ed Bradley, Arthur Ashe, Bill Cosby, Phyllis Hyman, Muhammad Ali, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Diahann Carroll, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, as well as hustlers, number bankers and State Supreme Court judges were friends and customers. My dad had his crew too, guys with names like Red, Bootsie, OT and Gopher—the list could go on. It would be accurate to say that, in its prime, the Cellar was the place for blacks to be.

Every week while I was away at college, I would pick up a copy of Jet magazine at the campus center store and read bout my dad and the Cellar’s famous clientele.

The first “chef “ Leroy—a very talented cook—was black and crazy as hell. A small, hot, very busy kitchen is not the best place for someone whose temper could flare at any perceived slight or mistake. My dad soon let Leroy go, or he quit (I don’t remember) and hired a tiny guy from Thailand named Woo. Woo took the soul food menu Leroy had created, that also had some typical pub grub found in many of the watering holes on the Westside like French Onion soup, Chef’s salad, and shrimp scampi and infused his own Thai touches. So the menu along with the above mentioned dishes had Thai beef salad and chicken gai yung. In Miles Davis’ book, Miles, the Autobiography, he said the Cellar had “the best fried chicken in the world.”

Kenny Brawner’s band “Raw Sugar” would play three sets nightly to standing-room-only crowds.  Songs from the Broadway smash The Wiz, like “Ease on Down the Road,” would bring the house down on a nightly basis. After the 3rd and final set at close to 4 a.m., with the crowd often wanting more, my dad would turn up the house lights while announcing, “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!” The crowd would love it, taking the last sips from spilts of Moet or Lancers Rosé and head out into the early morning—happy, if not a little tipsy.

Though he may not have realized it at the time, not only was my father a trailblazer, he laid the foundation for me to follow in his footsteps. I learned about music, what to wear, how to carry myself, and pride of ownership. To this day people come up to me and talk about the Cellar and my dad.

Recently at Post & Beam one afternoon before we opened for business, an older gentleman came to the door. I let him in, thinking it was someone from the neighborhood who’d heard about the restaurant and was curious to see it. I thought he might be in his 80s, and though somewhat frail and a noticeable limp, he still had a swagger, plus his cap was tilted to the side just right. He took a close look at me and said, “You’re Howard Johnson’s son. I knew your dad from the Cellar,” We had a nice exchange and I considered offering him dinner on me, as he looked like things may have gotten a little tight. As I walked him outside we crossed the parking lot reminiscing, me trying to think of a smooth way to offer him dinner but not have it come off as if I didn’t think he could afford it on his own. Then he stopped for a moment to pull out his car keys to unlock his car—a brand new yellow Lamborghini.

He was just the kind of cat my dad would have known.

When my father passed in 2007, I called the New York Times to see about having his obituary printed in the paper. My father read the Times daily, and it wasn’t Sunday without the Sunday Times. The nice gentleman from the Times told me because they couldn’t find anything written about my dad to verify the facts in his obituary, and subsequently wouldn’t be including his passing in the paper. My good friend David Rabin had taken up the task of gathering the facts about my dad and wrote a wonderful tribute. Despite New York Mayor David Dinkins having given my father a proclamation for the years of operating the Cellar, the Times couldn’t confirm to its satisfaction who Howard Johnson was and what he and the restaurant meant to so many.

The sad truth is that even as recently as the early ’80s, the mainstream media rarely if ever covered black-owned restaurants. Certainly the absence of black food writers adds to the void. As such, many of the stories about black restaurateurs past and present will be told by writers who are unfamiliar with the challenges these operators faced then and now. With the recent passings of Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s restaurant, the famous upper-Eastside watering hole, and Sylvia Woods, owner of Soul Food institution Sylvia’s, and the well-deserved coverage both deaths received, I’m reminded of my dad. He deserves to be remembered and will be by those who knew him.

Thanks to my dad, I still read the New York Times most days—and always on Sunday.

 

The Corner Table by Brad Johnson

On a recent Friday night, Chef and Restaurateur Marcus Samuelson was in town. After seeing each other during the summer in Harlem at his game changing restaurant The Red Rooster, we agreed to connect next time he made it out to the West Coast. True to his word Marcus called to let me know he was in town for a quick trip doing press and we decided to head out into the LA night. Our conversation during the course of three hours flowed effortlessly over a sound track I’d programmed that included Ashford and Simpson, Michael Kiwanuka, Gil Scott Heron and Freddie Hubbard. I invited my partner in Post & Beam, Chef Govind Armstrong to join us but having just become a father to a lovely daughter Willow Rae, he took a rain check.

In a text Marcus mentioned he wanted to experience a taste of Black LA night life. He later told me my “ha” reply to the idea that there actually was a “Black” scene made him laugh. As I write this, a few places do come to mind that we could have checked out…Mavericks Flat, Harold and Belles, La Louisiane, or the fried chicken at my favorite Adolf Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen to name a few. My thinking at the time was there is no Red Rooster, or for that matter Georgia in LA right now. No disrespect to the aforementioned establishments, all of which have long histories. Next time we will make the rounds including these places for sure.

I picked him up at the Standard on Sunset, suggesting and he agreed to rolling around while we decided what stops to make. True to form, having seen Marcus recently in the Style section of the NYT, he’s got great taste and is very stylish. Not over the top though, just cool and effortless, like the way we all wish we dressed. Do I dare rock an Orange scarf?!

Riding together gave us a chance to talk, as two people of color in the same business in two different markets, comparing notes as well as life experiences. Our first stop was decided after Marcus received a text from Sang Yoon, owner/chef of Fathers Office. He was at the newer Culver City location, so we headed south from Sunset Blvd. Our conversation started briskly and never subsided the entire night. Topics ranged from how the “open 24 hours” coffee shop at the Standard could close while he was waiting for me, to the almost nonexistence of Black food writers, to what had become of Black-Jewish relations after the much in common struggle during the civil rights era.

When you go out with Marcus to a restaurant it quickly becomes apparent the proliferation of food/chef/restaurant related entertainment on television has made some of those appearing on these programs big stars. He was approached constantly. The place was packed. I guess we looked like we could use some help and were soon offered by some very nice folks to share a corner of a table for six that already had six people seated. If you want to eat really well, dine out with a chef. Most chefs when hearing one of their contemporaries is in the house start sending complimentary food to the table. Sang was very gracious, food flowed; we shared with the table and also discovered 4 Calling Birds, a tasty Dark California Ale suggested by the knowledgeable bartender Ryan.

From there Marcus wanted to see the still under construction Post & Beam, so further south we went. I found out things about him and he in turn asked about me. This bears mentioning because often anyone in the midst of a run like the one he’s having, is so lost in their own world that inevitably the conversation becomes one sided. We circled Post & Beam, Marcus gave his approval and we were off to Hollywood Blvd to visit Elie Samaha’s Supper Club and adjoining Writers Room.

I wanted Marcus to see Supper Club not because either of us had an interest in clubbing (at least not on this night) but rather to show him the unique set up. The Supper Club is formerly the classically cool Vogue Theater and has an exposed kitchen on a stage, a setting I thought Marcus should see for some future idea. Next door at the Writers Room, a cool intimate bar designed by the talented Gulla Jonsdottir, who also designed David Rabin and Will Regan’s Double 7 in NYC, we drank coconut water infused cocktails served by the dapper mixologist and head bartender, Daniel K Nelson, who came out from behind the bar as we toasted.

The night was getting late, so time for one more stop. We decided to visit Son of a Gun on 3rd and say hello to GM Dan Warrilow. Marcus and I sat at the bar, had a couple of beers and shared a fried chicken sandwich. It reminded me of visiting my dad years ago at a hotel he was involved with on the US Virgin island of St Croix. After the clubs and bars let out there was a guy who sold fried chicken and ice cold Red Stripe from a little road side stand. Fried chicken and beer after our evening on the town is damn close to a perfect finish to a stellar night.