WORDS BY ELEANOR CLEVERLY
Jessica Christensen isn’t shy about her initiation into the world of fine dining. As an east coast girl turned west coast Chef de Cuisine at Culver City’s most inviting new eatery, City Tavern, she admits it was the brief kickback job she landed after a sour experience in the art world that sparked her interest in food.
“I went to work at a small coffee shop on the beach, and they had the best food ever,” said Christensen. “Seriously, people would come in and ask, ‘Where did your chef train?’ And I’d tell them, ‘San Quentin. He learned to cook in jail.’”
Chef Jessica Christensen; the bar at City Tavern.
The seaside experience helped direct Christensen on the path toward City Tavern. After bouncing around culinary classes at a local community college, she landed in the most unlikely spot, the elite kitchen of Lugua Nigel’s Ritz-Carlton. It was there that she saw how invaluable daily cooking experience could be, as well as its ability to offer cut-rate tuition.
“At that point, I realized it was better for me to go into work an hour, two hours early every day and learn for free,” said Christensen. “Getting that job at the Ritz was pretty lucky, but, it was old school, very high-end, and ridiculously fussy fine dining.”
I wanted [City Tavern] to be social. It’s not fussy – it’s a casual environment. In a lot of ways, it’s where I would want to go eat.
It was Christensen’s response to the French culinary tradition tabled at her first restaurant that created such a contrast in her City Tavern menu. The Tavern, an offspring of Culver City’s sexier Rush Street establishment, offers authentic dining for a gastropub audience. Although it’s home to California state’s first table taps (electronic beer dispensers built into booths, and monitored by patrons), Christensen makes clear that her food has no gimmick.
City Tavern’s dinner menu showcases small plates with simple, serious ingredients. The grilled crudités is composed of artichoke, spicy and sweet peppers, olives, and smoked sea salt. A plate of Carlsbad luna oysters (to share) is accompanied by a vodka mignonette and fresh horseradish. Lastly, apricot jam and pretzel crisps keep charcuterie and artisanal cheeses casual.
Grilled peaches with wild arugula, pickled cherries, and buratta; warm bacon and cheddar pretzel with country mustard aioli; cheese and chocolate sampler trays with paired tastings.
Still, Christensen’s enthusiasm for the new project reaches beyond what happens under her gaze, behind the scenes. “I wanted [City Tavern] to be social. [We have] really high-end, quality products across the board, from the beers, to the craft beverages, to the food. It’s not fussy – it’s a casual environment. In a lot of ways, it’s where I would want to go eat.”
Heavy wood built-ins and long walls of blackboard help this casual aesthetic along. Many head chefs are discouraged from contributing their ideas on style, but Christensen was offered autonomy in creating her kitchen and showcasing her food. Her search for unique, complimentary pieces inspired the pairing of vintage utensils, simple white plates, and statement slate.
Most of the companies Christensen has courted are small and locally run. “I love the way it all came together,” she says. “It’s nice to go with smaller, more personable companies.”
City Tavern’s take on the McDonald’s classic – Creekstone natural beef burger, sharp cheddar, fixings, and of course special sauce; silverware hand picked by Chef Jessica; table taps, a first for California.
As City Tavern continues to make a name for itself in Culver City, Christensen is dedicated to continuing a tradition of working with good people who create superior products. Soon, City Tavern will team up with local sommeliers, The Beer Chicks and Eagle Creek Brewery, to host an event meant to celebrate local culture, great food, and of course, exceptional beverages. City Tavern, 9739 Culver Blvd., Culver City CA · 310.838.9739 · citytavernculvercity.com →