It has been nearly three months since Pijja Palace opened for business on the ground floor of the Comfort Inn in Silver Lake. Sunlight streams through the restaurant’s large windows at dinner hour this time of year, lending the dining room’s blond wood accents and glowing pastel color palette. Tables are smoothly arranged and rearranged again throughout the service to accommodate both small and large groups. Everyone arrives ready to stay for a while, huddled near lentil-covered onion rings, stacks of homemade pasta, and several hot wings. The game was played and viewed via dozens of flat-screen TVs lining the walls, but that’s not exactly why everyone is here. The dimly lit sports bar and the sticky floor of the popular imagination is nowhere to be seen.
Owner Avish Naran hangs at the gallery window that connects the back of the house to the dining room. As the kitchen headed by Miles Shorey is firing on all cylinders, Naran calls in orders while overseeing the split restaurant. Eyes wrinkled but his body relaxed, Naran enjoys a full view of his perch of diners tearing up crunchy pizza topped with green chile sauce and delighting whiskey chai served in lukewarm Delmonico glasses. If a party seems to need a little more attention, he personally delivers on their orders to make sure all is well.
The story of Pijja Palace follows the heroic journey well made: growing up in the shadows of Dodger Stadium, Naran rejects the integrity of a medical or legal profession and instead follows a creative calling that sets him on a path through the unknown. Naran’s years-long quest – which kicks off college and art school, then transfers to culinary management schools and restaurants, and introduces him to sage advisors along the way – leads him to realize that opening an Indian sports bar on the site of a former foot clinic on the East Side of Los Angeles is his goal. Final. Faced with parental opposition, neighborhood council rejection, and complex cultural expectations, Naran emerges from the rubble—in an oversized T-shirt, basketball shorts, and a new pair of Nikes, no less—to lead Los Angeles’ most popular restaurant. And the crowd is wild.
The early success of Pijja Palace is based on Naran’s unwavering commitment to providing a dining experience that no one really asked for. With extremely slim profit margins and high failure rates, restaurants can sometimes play it so safe that the entire experience – from the decor (Mid-Century by Joybird), to the menu (a food or two, a few home-made pastas, and a great-sized steak) And even the playlist (hip-hop and R&B in the ’90s) – looks tired and worn out. But it took a 30-year-old start-up restaurateur to turn things around in Los Angeles. While asking diners to believe in vision combined with food and fun can be too much for some restaurants, the crowds at Pijja Palace say otherwise. From Indian grannies to flannel hipsters to guys who just want to watch the game – everyone eats it.
“There is a lot of the same shit in Los Angeles. You have to look at things differently, not just for success but just for fun,” says Naran. “I’m not bound by any rules; my concept is where the hell I want it. I drop what I want.” to the audience.”
Naran dreamed of the Bijia Palace nearly a decade ago while attending the Restaurant Management program at the Culinary Arts Institute in New York City. Almost all of the restaurant’s culinary and design elements, including the menu, cocktails, and typography, are hatched backwards when presented to classmates on neatly curated slices. “I just wanted a cool new place where people could really come and view the food through the lens of an Indian guy who grew up in Los Angeles,” he says.
But before that, Naran focused on shaping his culinary skills at the Napa Valley Culinary School, and staged at upscale Indian-inspired restaurants in San Francisco, such as the August 1 Five, Campton Place Bar and Bistro, and Rooh. “I was still on my mind, like, ‘I need to be at this level to cook great food,'” he says. Although he tried to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Indian chefs, Naran eventually got bored of the formal establishments with French roots (“Eating tongs was uninteresting to me”) and the same old interpretations of Indian fine dining (” Let’s make butter chicken, but we’ll put the sauce under the chicken.”). Although the fascination with fine dining had lost its luster, Naran’s craving for the familiar flavors he grew up eating, as well as his desire to open a restaurant, continued.
Growing up in Echo Park within a multi-generational home, Naran’s mother and grandmothers filled the house with Gujarati cooking. “Both my grandmothers make amazing biryani that is completely different from each other,” he says. Typically on the family table were chicken rasa vari (“a staple in many Gujarati families”), dal bhat (lentils and rice), and khta buda (“it’s like a sour fermented crepe”). Meals out in Tai Town, San Gabriel Valley and Artesia reinforce Naran’s love of good food served in casual rooms and in his hometown. “I feel like in Los Angeles we have some of the greatest cultural foods in the States,” he says. In particular, Naran found a kind soul in Koji’s truck. “Roy [Choi]It has a huge impact on me. I’ve been eating koji since before I could even cook and that was representing him as Angelino through a Korean lens – that was an inspiration to me.”
When the Sunset Foot Clinic’s lease finally expired in 2019, Naran’s father Dipak Patel first booked the venue at Pijja Palace. (Patel owns the plaza on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Benton Way, including the two-story Comfort Inn that anchors the complex.) Although owning and operating a restaurant “is not my brown child’s parents’ dream,” says Naran, “[my parents] I always supported what I wanted to do creatively.” With the worst of the pandemic over the past spring, the restaurant opened to a few initially curious diners. But soon crowds began lining up at the host stand to learn about the new kid on the premises.
“I see restaurants as an art project. I see myself as a cliched term,” Naran says. “I don’t think enough people view restaurants as art projects, and as someone who cooks and designs, I just think they should be immersive, like projects, like think tanks.”
Naran’s burning desire to bring a truly unique dining experience to Los Angeles has influenced every element of the restaurant. “I feel like every dish at Pijja Palace has a story,” he says. Extruded noodles with cilantro pesto and bright mint are served in the shape of a rickshaw as a nod to the common mode of transportation in India. Tandoori pasta, with lemon and chili, captures the smoky essence of a classic chicken dish. More Easter eggs appear in the dining room. The restaurant’s leather seats are only stitched to evoke the feel of a brand new baseball glove. And look closely at the beer taps behind the bar to watch the handles of the cricket bat, in a subtle homage to the sport. “I feel like all restaurants should be [personal], so if you open something that’s not like you, why did you do this? ”
Naran’s totally serious, 360 approach to the food and feel of Pijja Palace is what most resonates with diners and keeps them coming back for more. Given everything, it’s hard for him to remember that there was a time when his parents acted like he “killed someone” when he expressed his desire to attend culinary school. Or when many chefs refused to sign off on the project upon hearing his seemingly outlandish concept. Or when the local neighborhood council was so hung on the former foot clinic’s signs that they delayed the restaurant’s liquor licensing for months, apparently out of nostalgia. But it’s all behind him now. “Nothing is better than you feel when you put your mind to something, and you make every move to revive it, and then people get it,” says Naran. “Nothing was misunderstood.”