After 28 years on the fine dining scene, a Venice institution shifts to serving shareable small plates in a more casual setting
By Audrey Cleo Yap
Reboots are all the rage in television and the movies lately, and now the trend seems to have hit one of the Westside’s fine dining mainstays. For almost three decades, Chaya Venice has been serving up Euro-Japanese fusion fare to beachside locals. But late last month, the 28-year-old establishment got a new name — Chaya Modern Izakaya — and with it, a new menu.
“We emphasize the izakaya aspect because we want people to have fun. It’s more for the atmosphere,” said Chaya President and CEO Yuta Tsunoda. “It’s an eatery. It’s not a place you have to take three hours for a meal and wear a jacket.”
Led by a team of three chefs —Yuko Kajino, Joji Inoue and Katsuyuki Wako — Chaya’s offerings now include more shareable hot and cold small plates against a sleek, laidback “izakaya,” or casual Japanese bar-like, setting.
Dishes like ramen soaked in reposado tequila and steamed clams with deep-fried agedashi tofu in Chinese shaoxing wine are offered alongside staples from the old menu, like soy-glazed black cod, saffron paella and the famous spicy tuna tartare — a dish invented at its Beverly Hills location, Chaya Brasserie, in 1984.
Chaya first introduced its unique Japanese-French flavor to Angelenos with the brasserie and La Petite Chaya in Silver Lake (both have since closed). Its Venice outpost opened in 1990.
And what, ostensibly, seems like an overnight revamp has, actually, been years in the making, first initiated three years ago when Chaya’s longtime corporate executive chef, Shigefumi Tachibe, left the building. His departure allowed Tsunoda and the team a chance to begin thinking about evolving the menu.
“For 28 years, our chef did a wonderful job, and we couldn’t change a menu item because local customers and regulars loved it so much,” said Tsunoda.
The 100-seat space also got an interior facelift in 2016, with a two-week renovation that added a more contemporary feel to the already-upscale digs.
But transitioning longtime patrons to a new menu hasn’t been an easy process, according to General Manager Joe Ando.
“You have regulars that have been coming here for 28 years, so it’s been a very delicate process. I have to be delicate about it,” he said.
To help, Ando said that over the past year-and-a-half, Chaya has gradually replaced old menu items with similar-but-new ones, e.g. substituting an old starch dish with a new starch one.
The reboot extends to drinks as well. A new menu crafted with the help of bar consultant and mixologist Feisser Stone includes cleverly monikered libations like the Son of a Beesting (gin, ginger, honey, lemon, lavender) and the Far East Side (tequila, sake, cucumber, shiso, lime), in addition to a selection of high-end sakes, beer and wine.
A chef-facing counter area means patrons can also opt for a nightly prix fixe menu crafted by one of the three chefs (it will change depending on who is at the helm). It’s Chaya’s version of a kaiseki or omakase — chef’s choice — experience, and a chance for the chefs themselves to showcase California ingredients, whether it’s seasonal produce or a fresh catch from waters near Santa Barbara.
“It’s a playground for the chefs so they can educate all of us,” said Tsunoda, adding that a five-course meal will cost about $65.
Tsunoda also said that the days of large main dishes with hefty proteins are gone as diners seek a range of dynamic flavors in smaller portions. And he thinks it will be the variety that will keep them coming back, over and over again.
“They don’t have to spend an abundance of money and can try so many different things and drink,” he said. “That’s really what izakaya means — being more approachable and wanting people to come back two or three times a week.”
Chaya Modern Izakaya 110 Navy St., Venice (310) 396-1179 thechaya.com
Contact Audrey Cleo Yap at audreycleo.com or follow @audreycleo on Twitter.