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Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024

At Michael’s of Santa Monica, Have a Hockney with Your Hamburger

The birthplace of “California Cuisine” has also drawn countless artists to its tables, and their art to its walls, from Judy Chicago to Mary Weatherford


BY Catherine G. Wagley in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine | 02 MAR 24

On a chilly December night, Michael’s restaurant feels tucked away, even though it is just blocks from Santa Monica’s often-bustling 3rd Street Promenade and not far from the beach. Its off-white exterior glows warmly out onto the sidewalk. The airiness of the architecture contrasts with the two heavy 1980s artworks that flank the main entrance: a bold ceramic landscape by Charles Garabedian and a bronze relief by Robert Graham, with little, boxed-in figures lining a ripped-open middle. Garabedian and Graham were two of the many artists who frequented Michael’s in the decades following its opening in 1979, and are among those whose works ended up in the restaurant’s collection. “That was always the goal,” says artist Kim McCarty, who was still studying at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design when she started the restaurant with her husband, Michael. “Michael wanted it to be not just about the food but also about the music, the art.”

Photograph courtesy: Michael's Restaurant
Photograph courtesy: Michael’s Restaurant

When Michael’s opened, the art world and restaurant world were both small, and the boundaries between the creative industries in Los Angeles were porous. The restaurateur Bruce Marder dabbled in producing records and movies before and after opening West Beach Cafe in Venice, which, along with Michael’s, is often celebrated for reinventing fine LA dining. Tony Bill produced The Sting (1973) before opening 72 Market Street with Dudley Moore in Robert Irwin’s former studio (also in Venice). The actor and photographer Dennis Hopper frequented the iconic Ferus and Dwan galleries before he began coming to Michael’s. His photographs hang in the lounge there, beside a massive charcoal drawing by James Surls, across from a black-on-gray Cy Twombly lithograph and a print by David Hockney of himself in the nude, dining with Pablo Picasso. Frequently, the restaurant acquired art through barter.

In addition to making friends with artists, Kim and Michael sought out collaborators for their art-infused vision. They befriended the gallerist Peter Gould, who opened L.A. Louver in 1976. Like them, he was in his twenties and just starting out. The late Elyse and Stanley Grinstein, generous collectors who co-founded the printmaking workshop Gemini G.E.L., and loved to submerge themselves in artists’ lives, became regulars at the restaurant. As a result, numerous lithographs from Gemini (by Helen Frankenthaler, Hockney, Jasper Johns) and works by artists on L.A. Louver’s roster (Tony Berlant, Garabedian) line the walls. Kim’s own haunting watercolors hang in nearly every room as well. The restrooms have always been the biggest treasure trove, with prints and photographs above the sinks, toilets and towel racks. Judy Chicago posed nude for a photograph by her husband, Donald Woodman, which hangs in the men’s room, because she’d been frustrated by the number of photographs by Hopper—notorious for his macho energy—in the men’s loo at the New York restaurant, which the McCartys opened in 1989.

Photograph courtesy: Michael's Restaurant
Photograph courtesy: Michael’s Restaurant

Then there were the exhibitions: Kim started curating small shows in the restaurant’s private upstairs dining room in 1989 and continued on and off until 2012, making Michael’s a deep cut on some now-established artists’ résumés. Joe Goode and Mary Weatherford both showed there; the artist Analia Saban (who worked in the studio of the late John Baldessari, a regular at Michael’s), helped Kim curate exhibitions in the early 2010s.

Since 2015, their son Chas (named after Charles Garabedian) has helped run things. He resurrected the shows as well as the restaurant’s reputation for giving up-and-coming chefs a platform. Through mutual friends involved with Chinatown’s alternative spaces, Chas met Christopher Schwartz, who agreed to curate two exhibitions in 2018. Schwartz was in between projects—he had just left a gallery job and would not open his own gallery, STARS, until 2021. The restaurant felt like an in-between space, too—one that gave Schwartz freedom to experiment—and he ended up programming The Gallery @ Michael’s for two years.

​  Photograph courtesy: Michael's Restaurant  ​
Photograph courtesy: Michael’s Restaurant

“It’s extremely textured,” says Schwartz. “It has this kind of old LA history. And I loved that.” He started with group shows, riffing on the restaurant’s aesthetic, hanging a B. Wurtz painting with a hole cut out of it in the stairwell next to the porthole window, or a Jill Mulleady painting of the gymnast Simone Biles right next to the men’s restroom. Then he organized a series of solo exhibitions, inviting artists to play with the restaurant as context and theme: the young artist Kate Spencer Stewart made ethereal paintings informed by the dining room’s windows; Raul Guerrero, who has been showing in Southern California since the late 1960s, exhibited his paintings of local bars and restaurants. “Installing the shows was similar to how someone would install art in their house,” recalls Schwartz. “Oh, this looks good with this sightline and this window makes sense with this thing here. The smoke detector on the wall needs to play off this painting somehow.”

While restaurants come and go in many big cities, LA has a notoriously high turnover. Restaurants that opened in the 1990s have been labeled “legendary,” and so Michael’s longevity is notable. The family ethos contributes to its success, as do the McCartys’ strong ties to the LA art community, which have only expanded since Chas brought back the upstairs gallery. Of his parents, Chas says, “Michael works the crowd,” adding that Kim and Michael “balance each other out.” “The food here has always been really colorful and I think a lot of that has been a replication of their relationship. Mike got into art through Kim and I think they complement each other.”

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, Los Angeles 2024 under the title “Full-Color Plates.”

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Frieze Los Angeles is at Santa Monica Airport, February 29–March 3, 2024.

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Main image: Photograph courtesy: Michael's Restaurant

Catherine G. Wagley is a writer and managing editor of Momus. She lives in Los Angeles, USA.