In Los Angeles they say every waiter is a wannabe actor. So the last thing Dustin Lancaster expected when he moved here from Oklahoma to study acting was to make his name as a restaurateur and hotelier. Despite booking parts in TV and commercials – most notably in How I Met Your Mother – his claim to fame is having recast the northeast corner of the city as a hot place to eat and drink. Through his company Eastside Establishment he’s injected new life into Los Feliz and Silver Lake.
“It all started right here,” he says when we meet at Covell, the buzzy little wine bar at the heart of his empire. “I’d lived in the area for years and while this wasn’t considered a cool place, there were a lot of creative people here and we all missed having somewhere nice to hang out.”
Back then Lancaster was acting by day and spent his nights bartending at Café Stella, an Eastside favorite where he learned a thing or two about wine – and the neighborhood.
“I thought about what I missed here and the answer was a nice wine bar. I got a few friends to invest in a bar, from which Eastside Establishment grew. Later I bought nine apartments on top of the bar and made them into a hotel. Silver Lake was not booming when we opened. This strip of Hollywood Boulevard was all but forgotten. Nothing that’s here now was here then. One of my investors hated the location so much that he backed out of the project.”
The Covell is not a run-of-the-mill hotel. The nine individually decorated rooms have their own kitchen supplies, coffee makers and private entrances. Apart from housekeeping there’s no hotel feel to speak of.
“I wanted it to have that Airbnb feel, but still with all the amenities you get from a hotel. The guests have total privacy here,” Lancaster says.
Wanting to protect the vibe he’d created at the Covell, Lancaster encouraged likeminded entrepreneurs to open businesses around the hotel. Today Silver Lake is crowded with coffee shops and bars, as well as the artists, bohemians and musicians who have long called this area home. However, Lancaster admits that gentrification is a two-edged sword and that Silver Lake is changing.
“The artists and free spirits are being pushed out by rocketing rents and have to move elsewhere. I bought a Mexican restaurant, El Condor, in Silver Lake a few years ago, and the rent has doubled three times since. Even for us it’s hard to keep up,” he says.
So where to next? The natural evolution is Highland Park. Gentrification is happening really fast over there. There’s a new restaurant opening every week now.
What’s your key ingredient for a successful restaurant? Today people have made up their mind whether they like a place even before they have come in. So aesthetic, hospitality and service have to confirm their opinion. If I haven’t been noticed within five minutes of walking into a restaurant I will leave, so I make sure no one is left at the door at my restaurants.
What’s hot in Silver Lake right now? There’s a new restaurant called Meze next door. They have a young Israeli chef and I love what he is doing. He’s blessed with the gift of not knowing too much. You can feel the youth and boldness in his cooking, and I envy that. Once you know something, you can’t undo it. I guess that’s a good thing, but it also holds back creativity.
What do you have planned on the Eastside? We bought an old firehouse in the arts district that we’re turning into a hotel – it’s an amazing building. And we recently opened a wine bar, Oriel, in Chinatown.
TEXT? Sofie Zettergren