In 10 Years, N/Naka Changed Los Angeles’s Dining Scene Forever

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WhenWhen chef Niki Nakayama opened N/Naka a decade ago on the corner of Overland and Lawler in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles, she regularly served fewer than 10 people each night, even though the kitchen and dining room could handle four times as many. She distinctly remembers serving just two diners during a particularly slow service in those early days, when restaurant patrons were more enamored with pork belly and molecular gastronomy than in refined Japanese tasting menus. Still, she persisted, fueled by an unshakable sense of joy for her craft and duty to traditional kaiseki philosophy. “It never occurred to me that we were not going to make it. For the first time in my career I just felt this incredible sense of belief in what I was doing, and I would find a way,” she says.

To finance N/Naka, Nakayama sold her successful Melrose Avenue restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, and then purchased the Overland Avenue building outright. She used the remainder of her budget to furnish the kitchen and dining room before opening in April 2011.

Though many Angelenos knew their way around a Japanese restaurant menu in 2011, kaiseki was still widely unknown. At the time, the ultra-expensive Urasawa in Beverly Hills and the now-closed A Thousand Cranes in Little Tokyo both served kaiseki-influenced tasting menus, but neither were fully committed to calling them that. But the dining public’s lack of knowledge about the centuries-old, multicourse Japanese tradition didn’t deter Nakayama from heeding an unrelenting call to serve kaiseki at her namesake restaurant.

“Kaiseki is knowing when to pluck the ingredient at the peak of its seasonality, or even just before, and presenting that,” she says. “For me, it’s so much about an appreciation for nature and a gratitude for the feeling of nature and how we’re supposed to highlight all the things that surround us.” Classic Japanese cooking techniques — steaming, frying, grilling, and simmering — are purposefully chosen to highlight each ingredient throughout the 12-course meal.

Nakayama has been cooking alongside her wife, Carole Iida-Nakayama, in the 400-square-foot kitchen for most of the past 10 years. The two were new to dating when Carole stepped into the kitchen to fill in for a no-show sous chef, and she hasn’t left Niki’s side since. The gamble to blur the lines between their personal and professional lives paid off as the two grew stronger in bringing the restaurant’s modern kaiseki to life with each service and season. And all the while, they’ve had to navigate the many highs and lows — Netflix fame, Michelin’s return to Los Angeles, pandemic-era uncertainty — that come with restaurant life.

In its decade of operating, N/Naka has risen to national acclaim to become the most celebrated kaiseki restaurant outside Japan. The indelible mark the restaurant has left on its hometown can’t be understated: from introducing locals to kaiseki to redefining “California cuisine” and inspiring a generation of chefs and restaurants, here are the 10 ways N/Naka changed the Los Angeles dining scene forever, according to influential members of the city’s dining community.