York Boulevard's culinary landscape, currently dominated by pizza joints, food-trucks and pop-up eateries of dubious legality, might seem a poor fit for rustic, French style cuisine.
However, when James Graham's latest restaurant endeavor, BÁ, opens at the corner of Ave. 51 and York, he won't be the first classically trained chef to ply his trade in the neighborhood.
Graham will be setting up shop in the former storage and shipping room of Elsa's Bakery, a York Boulevard fixture, whose owner Manuel Vargas studied French baking techniques on the west side of Los Angeles as a young man.
"He can cook baguettes better than anybody," said Graham, who has formed a friendship with the bakery's owner over the last year.
"Over the last 10 years, business has slowed down so much that he doesn't use that [storage] space anymore," Graham said. "I was walking around the neighborhood and accidentally found his place and we just started chatting with Mr. Vargas. It was his idea to make that space available."
Graham said that BÁ's menu will feature "old-school french country food. A lot of cassoulets, a lot of really hearty stock based soups, a lot of delicate greens and a lot of roasts."
By design, BÁ won't have any walk in coolers or freezers, meaning all the meat and produce that's served will have been purchased from local sources on the same day, Graham said.
Baguette's, baked next door at Elsa's, will also be on the menu.
"The reason we chose to work out of this space was because of them, we've become really great friends," Graham said. "They really liked my concept and they gave us a really great offer, which included benefits like them making my bread."
Graham, who lives at Ave. 54 and Rangeview, brings with him an extensive culinary resume. In the 1970s, He completed an apprenticeship at the Four Seasons Restaurant inside the Seagram's building in New York City. He also opened the critically acclaimed restaurant "The Grill" in downtown Tucson, which he sold in the early 2000s.
He's also spent time in Los Angeles' kitchens, working under Scotter Kanfer at "The House," on Melrose Place.
Graham said he's excited to be launching a new restaurant in Highland Park. He thinks the neighborhood is ready for what he's serving, and he likes the idea of being able to walk to work.
"We like York Blvd. better than Colorado Blvd.," Graham said. "The people aren't quite in the child-rearing stage yet. They're more willing to go out for a late dinner."
Graham said he plans to serve dinner from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m., with light appetizer and snack service continuing until 1 p.m.
Graham's wife, Julia Latané, an installation artist, will be handling their interior design.
The plans call for 12 table tops that will run in four columns of six, with an aisle down the center. Large curtains will hang from ceiling, which will separate the dining room from the front door and the reception area.
The kitchen will be visible through a glass window.
"The space itself is very small and Julia has designed a very cozy restaurant," Graham said.
Even taking into account the cost of using fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and the small size of BÁ, Graham said he is still confident he can turn the restaurant into a successful business.
"I work for cheap," Graham said. "You don't make a lot of money in food, but it's really exciting and it's a lot of fun. I'm confident I can making a living off this place and create four or five part time jobs."
Last Wednesday, Graham went before the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council's land use committee to seek their support in his application in receiving a liquor license for BÁ.
Janet Dodson said their was some trepidation among community members about the number of liquor licenses that had already been handed out in the area, but she said she was willing to support Graham's endeavor because he wouldn't be selling alcohol exclusively.
Graham said that as a resident of Highland Park, he understood the community's concern over the number of liquor stores in the neighborhood.
"I am grateful for the difficulty of getting liquor licenses, because I don't what them handing out liquor licenses right around the corner from me," he said.
However, Graham said the ability to sell beer and wine with meals at BÁ would go a long way in ensuring its financial success.
"You're margins are always slim in the food business," he said. "So, I'm really hoping beer and wine will be able to lubricate the pain of that."
Last Thursday afternoon, Graham and Mr. Vargas grandson, also named Manuel, were working inside the hollowed out shell of Elsa's former storage room, preparing it for the eight weeks of construction that will follow. If all goes according to plan, Graham said he is hoping that BÁ will open by the end of the summer.
Vargas, 21, said he's excited for what's to come of the space.
"I've never seen the door to this place opened, I've never seen the window opened," he said. "I'm excited to try some new stuff."