An evolving dining scene appears to be brewing in Bixby Knolls, and business owners say customers are eating it up.
Just in the past year, two new establishments have opened up, including Willmore Wine Bar in 2012 and a sushi bar called Atun last month. A restaurant called Weiland Brewery is expected to relocate to the local area from its former location in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles next year.
Natalie Gutenkauf, who has owned The Factory Gastrobar on Atlantic Avenue for four years, said she couldn’t be more thrilled to see new sit-down, independent restaurants joining the mix.
“I’m so excited to have more and more restaurants open up in our neighborhood here,” said the Bixby Knolls native. “The more restaurants that are here, the more of a destination point it is… [and] the more people are going to come into our neighborhood and spend money.”
As it stands, Gutenkauf said her restaurant, which was the first gastropub to open in Long Beach, has established a loyal “foodie” clientele, and is considered a “haven” for the most unique craft beers in the region, gets flooded during the monthly, now popular First Fridays Art Walk event. Sometimes there’s a two-hour wait to get in, she said.
The way Gutenkauf sees it, however, having more dining options only builds on Long Beach’s “food culture” and makes Bixby Knolls more attractive to customers from outside the area.
“I’m just really encouraged that more and more businesses are opening here because, the more blood that you have here, the more traffic and the more enthusiasm there is,” she said.
The main rival for Bixby Knolls is Belmont Shore’s 2nd Street, which sets the bar for commercial real-estate values in Long Beach based on the heavy foot traffic the strip draws from tourists and nearby residents. Bixby Knolls, however, is becoming more attractive to entrepreneurs, said Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Association (BKBIA).
“What we’re hearing directly from brokers and potential business owners is that they’ve now heard that Bixby Knolls is now an up-and-coming neighborhood and they’re now looking at it seriously,” he said.
The momentum in Bixby Knolls is partly what drew film producer and Lakewood resident Talun Hsu and restaurateur Greg Carpenter to open Atun, a Japanese restaurant specializing in sushi, “yakitori” (grilled or skewered chicken) and “izakaya” (an after-work drinking establishment that serves food with drinks).
Carpenter, who serves as the general manager and lives in the area, said the restaurant already has repeat customers just in the past few weeks of opening. He said 40 percent of the clientele walk in from the local neighborhood.
The restaurant, which features an open kitchen, is also open late- until 10pm on Sundays through Thursdays and until 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Carpenter said he expects the place to be busy for its first First Fridays event today, Dec. 6.
“The neighborhood has really latched on,” said Carpenter, who has 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry. “I think this street is just looking for some more places to dine.”
Rick Bennett, who has owned WeilandBrewery in downtown Los Angeles for the past 14 years before being forced to close because of a new Metro subway line, said he plans to move his restaurant into a 3,500-square-foot space at 4354 Atlantic Ave.
He said his alcohol-sales license is still pending approval from the Alcohol Beverage Control Department and a conditional-use permit to operate still has yet to be finalized. If all goes as planned, however, Bennett said he plans to start construction in January.
The restaurant, which got its name from its former location– the building of the historic Weiland Brewery that closed because of prohibition– is known for its American regional fare, including hamburgers with a selection of 30 different toppings. The restaurant also contracts with nearby beer distributors to provide a variety of craft beers.
After moving to Long Beach two years ago, Bennett he was quickly sold on relocating to Bixby Knolls after plans to move into a spot on Pine Avenue in downtown fell through.
“Once I saw Bixby Knolls, I immediately fell in love with the space and the area,” he said. “I knew where I wanted my restaurant to be in. I just kept going and looking until I found the right spot.”
Bennett said he also sees the move as a chance to spruce up his menu as well.
“We see Bixby Knolls as an opportunity to update my food,” he said. “We’re going to do some new items on this menu we’ve never done before. It should be very interesting.”
Cohn said the influx of new restaurants should help draw customers to other small businesses along the corridor. The new dining establishments will also add to the list of places to eat during community events. BKBIA’s Supper Club, for instance, introduces people to restaurants that have been there for years, such as Nino’s Italian Restaurant and Georgie’s Place, as well as the ones that are brand new, he said.
“It’s great to have choices so people can start making their way up and down the street,” Cohn said. “It gives us more options.”
While staying true to its family-oriented and community atmosphere, Bixby Knolls continues to evolve with more diversity, but there’s always room to grow, adding that residents are still asking for a deli and an Indian-food restaurant, he said. There are also rumors that Michael Dene, owner of Michael’s Pizzeria, which was recently recognized as the top pizzeria in the nation by Zagat.com, is planning to open a new location on Long Beach Boulevard.
Cohn said there’s still somewhat of a formula to Bixby Knolls in that businesses mostly cater to the local community.
“There’s definitely got to be a Bixby Knolls feel to it, which is a real community-based and family-based neighborhood,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for. Obviously, the quality has to be there, and we want people in the neighborhood to want to come back over and over again and support the restaurants. What’s fun for me is when you go into certain places and you see all sorts of familiar faces, and the owners know the residents.”
Gutenkauf, who has recently been solicited by a publishing company to create a cookbook, said that people these days are more open to new culinary approaches, such as using seasonal produce from local farmers markets and community gardens. Serving grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and sustainable seafood in her cuisine has “tested the bounds” on price but provides for better quality food, she said.
Gutenkauf said what also has made her restaurant a success is using social media, collaborating with local chefs and organizing regular events, such as “farm dinners,” cooking classes and the second annual Drink Good Beerfest that brought together 30 different breweries in September.
“We’ve created this community with other restaurants and created this scene with each other that it has really brought to light to the consumer that food is really more than just going out and eating,” she said. “Food is an experience.”