535 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90071 (map); 213-624-0000; checkersdowntown.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: An upscale dining room makes a decadent burger
Want Fries with That? Yes—they're straightforward and satisfying
Prices: Checker's Cheeseburger (w/fries), $14 (Lunch and Bar Menu)
Notes: The Thursday night's happy hour is called FOUR because selected drinks and small plates are $4 a piece from 4 p.m - 8 p.m. I'd say it's in the running for best Happy Hour in town. Each week's deals are previewed on their Facebook page
Sitting in one of Los Angeles' most storied neighborhood's, Bunker Hill, Checkers Hotel is an attractive piece of the art deco city's history. The building dates back to the 1927 when it was opened as the Mayflower Hotel. It lacks the grandeur of its more famous neighbor, The Millennium Biltmore, but recently has managed to do something that not too many hotels in town have: garner some attention for its dining room.
Most of the Los Angeles food scene talk about how Checkers Downtown has focused on their very clever and very tempting happy hour. They call it FOUR and, as you'd imagine, fours abound: four dollar drinks, four dollar small plates, and four hours of it (from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.). It's a fantastic deal on some light fare, but, because I eschew self-discipline as a matter of principle, I couldn't resist ordering a burger. In a familiar and welcome reversal, my unabashed weakness was rewarded with a restaurant's hidden strength.
It's really no surprise that Downtown Checker's chef, Todd Allison, would be make a great burger, or a great anything else for that matter. He came up under the award-winning (and notoriously demanding) James Boyce working at some of the more renowned fine-dining hotel restaurants around. What is a bit unexpected is that he chose to make his first solo endeavor at a Hilton.
The venerable Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles received a makeover a few years ago by the chain and, while consistently one of the better lodging deals around, you wouldn't imagine a rising star chef would see it as a perfect venue for his talents. At least that's what I thought until Allison reminded me that his space had once been the stomping grounds of another California chef: Thomas Keller. While Boyce is his mentor, Allison considers Keller his gastronomic lodestar, so taking over a dining room the legendary chef controlled just before opening The French Laundry was an easy decision.
Of course, burgers are nothing new at higher-end hotel restaurants, and to be honest, unlike the rest of his succinct and interesting menu, there isn't a lot new about Allison's construction. But my, does he embrace the decadence of my old standby. The eight ounce patty of Angus beef makes its way from Rocker Bros. Meats and enjoys the benefit of an 80/20 blend. He adds a healthy portion of cave-aged, white cheddar and some baby arugula. The bun is from Le Chef and is a poppyseed Kaiser roll. Then there is the aioli—mayonnaise gets mixed with red onions that have been sautéed in red wine and chopped bacon. I'm not certain it's legal in every state.
The affable and skilled sous-chef David Baker (also a Boyce alum) showed me how they get the patty to a beautiful medium rare with just a couple of minutes on each side with the 650 degree grill. The juiciness and char are superior. The crunch of the crust matches the smooth (and warm) interior beautifully. The cheddar has a sharpness from its age, but stays smooth in its melt. I was suspicious of the bun, but it's not my New York's Kaiser roll. Rather than airy and very flaky, this one has more sponginess. It holds up to all of the juice, though certainly it isn't the burger's strongest suit.
Which brings me to what is: the aioli. This decadent mash of fat on top of fat mixed with salt and a subtle sweetness is an ode to excess. Though I'd normally skip bacon if left to my own device, the presentation here is just right. The fat and truly powerful hit of salt balances with the other components rather than overpowering.
Now that Allison has spent the last year and a half reigniting the hotel's culinary bona fides he's decided to move on. Allison is heading down the coast to San Diego's Anthology. His departure and recent change in ownership at Checkers (the hotel is a franchise) means the restaurant is in for some change. Let's hope not too much.