Stories Of Venice Experienced Through Food And Wine
Launched in Venice this summer, Avital Tours offers a taste of local culture through food and wine. With a flight of California craft beer served up on a skateboard deck, a three-hour, four-course culinary tour starts at the Venice Ale House.
A jam-packed weekend set of regulars and tourists brunch on the patio here where Rose Avenue ends and the Boardwalk begins. The chalkboard menu reads like a who's who of L.A. micro-breweries, and the burger selection includes Niman Ranch lamb, free-range turkey, and grass-fed California beef. Farm-fresh eats this close to the sand still remain somewhat of an anomaly, and therein lies a story—the story of Tom Elliot and Spoon Singh who were enjoying a beer on the Boardwalk years ago and thought it would be great if they could have a bite of something delicious and healthy while watching the sun go down over the Pacific.
In 2010, they opened Venice Ale House, a reprieve from the abundant dollar slice pizza and questionable patties along the world famous path, and in the years to follow others joined them, offering their version of casual beachside eats made with hauls from the farmers' market and the culinary craftsmanship for which Venice restaurants are better known in other parts of the neighborhood. (Jesse Barber's Dudley Market is featured on the tour too.)
This is how Avital Ungar, creator of Avital Tours, experiences and shares the story of a neighborhood. One dish, or a flight of craft beer, serves as the opener to a much larger conversation about what's happening nearby. She started the tours in her hometown of San Francisco in 2011. After living in Aix-en-Provence and traveling through Paris, the certified sommelier built a business around her passion for culinary adventuring, one that would appeal to locals with her same insatiable curiosity.
She and a growing team of hosts have since expanded Avital Tours to North Beach, Union Square, and following Ungar's move to Venice last year, she added her favorite L.A. food destinations to the mix: Venice, Downtown and Koreatown. She doesn't claim to know the neighborhoods like someone who's lived in them for 20 years. The challenge and fun in this for her is to learn the area through its food, and to hear the stories from the people who make it.
Each tour is slightly different depending on time of day. For the afternoon set in Venice, the walk continues up Rose Avenue with a pause under the tutu of Jonathan Borofsky's Ballerina Clown for a quick fun fact about its mechanical leg. Though built to kick, it was turned off when residents at the Renaissance building complained about a squeaky knee. From there, the group heads into The Anchor Venice for truffle lobster rolls and summer rosé.
It's a ten minute walk from Main Street to Abbot Kinney, passing by Google's newly planted courtyards, bodybuilders coming and going from Gold's Gym, the fogged up windows of private art studios, colorful murals on the sides of buildings and dumpsters, and a shuttered Joe's restaurant, which will soon re-open as Felix with "pasta maestro" Evan Funke at the helm. It's the abbreviated visual of everything Venice.
Abbot Kinney is where the meat of the tour takes place, beginning with cashew raclette and biodynamic Gruner Veltliner under the olive trees at Plant Food and Wine. There's a bonus stop at the Cook's Garden where head gardener Geri Miller plucks off samples of herbs and introduces everyone to her girls in the chicken coup. From hidden gem to world famous, the next stop is GTA and its communal egg crate seating for hot slices of lamb sausage pizza and bottarga and jalepeno pizza. Bottarga, by the way, is cured fish roe—this was GTA/Gjelina/Gjusta chef Travis Lett's pick for the tour, and not a surprising one after seeing his enthusiasm for it in Gjelina's cookbook.
For dessert, a newish spot in Venice, and one with a surprisingly local connection—Blue Star Donuts, the Portland import know for its brioche dough and fancy booze-infused flavors like blueberry bourbon, Cointreau creme brûlée, and for today, strawberry mojito.
As Ungar tells it, Blue Star co-owners Katie Poppe and Micah Camden were nudged to open their first L.A. location by good friend Kirsten Dermer, a Venice native who is intimately tied to the skateboarding community. In the '90s, her neighbor, Aaron Spohn, built a half-pipe and system of ramps in his backyard. It became one of the best unkept secrets in L.A. known as Spohn Ranch. People started asking Spohn to build for them as well and soon a request came from ESPN wanting help with their vision for what would become the X-Games. Dermer was the first employee of Spohn Ranch and today runs operations as CEO and CFO. Last year she partnered with Blue Star to bring her favorite doughnuts to Venice.
It may seem at first that the tour focuses only on the new, affluent side of Venice, but after listening to the stories and meeting the chefs and owners behind each place, a judgment alone on new versus old feels lazy. New to the neighborhood is a good thing if love for the community is there too, and Ungar brings it. Besides, she will be adding new routes to the tour soon with Venice classics in the mix for those who are hungry for more.
// PROMO CODE: Lincoln & Rose readers enjoy 10% off their tour. Enter 20LINCROSE16 at checkout.
// Avital Tours Venice // $76 per person, or $92 with optional alcohol pairing.
Photos courtesy of Avital Tours