It’s been almost three months since Pijja Palace opened on the ground floor of a Comfort Inn in Silver Lake. Sunlight streams through the restaurant’s large windows until dinnertime this time of year, highlighting the dining room’s blond wood accents and pastel palette. Tables are laid out and rearranged seamlessly throughout the service to accommodate small and large groups. Everyone arrives ready to linger a while, huddled together to share lentil-battered onion rings, piles of homemade pasta and lots and lots of tangy wings. The game is on and projected onto a dozen flat-screen TVs lining the walls, but that’s not exactly why everyone is here. The dimly lit, sticky-to-the-floor sports bar of the popular imagination is nowhere in sight.
Owner Avish Naran hangs from the show window that connects the back of the house to the dining room. With the kitchen run by Miles Shorey firing on all cylinders, Naran calls in orders while overseeing the split restaurant. Frowning but body relaxed, Naran has a full view from his perch of diners tearing up crispy pizzas smothered in green chili chutney and reveling in whiskey sour chai served in frosted Delmonico glasses. If a party looks like it needs a little more attention, he personally delivers his orders to make sure everything is going well.
The story of Pijja Palace follows the well-trodden heroic journey: Raised in the shadow of Dodger Stadium, Naran rejects the security of a medical or legal career and instead follows a creative vocation that launches him on a path through the ‘unknown. Naran’s years-long quest—which zigzags through college and art school, then zigzags through culinary management and restaurant schools, and introduces him to savvy consultants along the way—brings him to realize that opening an Indian sports bar on the site of a former foot clinic in East Los Angeles is his ultimate calling. Battling parental reluctance, ward council naysayers and complex cultural expectations, Naran emerges from the rubble – donning an oversized t-shirt, mesh basketball shorts and a new pair of Nikes, no less – to lead the Los Angeles’ most talked about restaurant. And the crowd goes wild.
The early success of Pijja Palace is built on Naran’s unwavering commitment to providing a dining experience no one really asked for. With its notoriously thin profit margins and sky-high failure rates, restaurants can sometimes play it so safe that the entire experience – from decor (mid-century to Joybird) to menu (a crudo or two, a few home-cooked pasta and a full-size steak), and even the playlist (hip-hop and ’90s R&B) – feels model and tired. But it took a 30-year-old novice restaurateur to shake things up in Los Angeles. While requiring diners to have faith in the vision, in addition to food and enjoyment, may be too much of an order for some restaurants, the crowds at Pijja Palace say otherwise. From Indian grandmas to flannel-clad hipsters to guys who just want to watch the game, everyone eats it.
“There is so much of the same shit in LA. You have to see things differently, not just to be successful, but just to have fun,” says Naran. “I am not bound by any rules; my concept is where the hell I want it to be. I project what I want to the public.
Naran envisioned Pijja Palace almost a decade ago while enrolled in the restaurant management program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Almost all of the restaurant’s culinary and design elements, including its menu, cocktails, and typography, were hatched long ago and presented to classmates on carefully formatted slides. “I just wanted a cool new place where people could come in and really showcase the food through the lens of an Indian who grew up in LA,” he says.
But before that, Naran focused on developing his culinary skills at the Napa Valley Cooking School and staged high-end Indian-inspired restaurants in San Francisco, like August 1 five, Campton Place Bar and Bistroand Rooh. “I was always in the mindset of, like, I have to be at this level to cook good food,” he says. Although he tried to absorb as much knowledge of Indian chefs as possible, Naran eventually grew bored of formal establishments of French origin (“Making claw food was so uninteresting to me”) and the same old interpretations of high end Indian cuisine. (“Let’s make a butter chicken, but we’ll put the sauce under the chicken”). Although the magic of food has faded, Naran’s passion for the familiar flavors he grew up with, as well as his desire to open a restaurant, persisted.
Growing up in Echo Park in a multi-generational family, Naran’s mother and grandmothers filled the house with Gujarati cuisine. “Both of my grandmothers make great biryani that are completely different from each other,” he says. Commonly on the family dining table were chicken rasa vari (“a staple in many Gujarati homes”), dal bhat (lentils and rice) and khatta puda (“it’s like a fermented pancake sour”). Dining away from home in Thai Town, the San Gabriel Valley and Artesia reinforced Naran’s love for good food served in casual rooms and his hometown. “I feel like in Los Angeles we have one of the best cultural cuisines in the United States,” he says. Most notably, Naran has found a kindred spirit at the Kogi truck. “Roy [Choi]is like a huge influence for me. I was eating Kogi before I even knew how to cook and it was a portrayal of him as an Angeleno through a Korean lens – it was so inspiring to me.
When the lease for Sunset Foot Clinic finally expired in 2019, Naran’s father, Dipak Patel, has booked the space for Pijja Palace’s debut. (Patel owns the place at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Benton Way, including the two-story Comfort Inn that anchors the resort.) Even though owning and operating a restaurant is “not a parent’s dream of a brown child “says Naran, “[my parents] always supported what I wanted to do creatively. With the worst of the pandemic last spring, the restaurant initially opened to a trickle of curious diners. But soon, crowds began to line up at the host’s booth to spot the newcomer to the neighborhood.
“I see restaurants as an artistic project. I consider myself to be – it’s such a silly term – a creative director,” Naran says. “I don’t think enough people see restaurants as art projects and so as someone who cooks and designs, I just think they should be like immersive, like projects, like think tanks.”
Naran’s burning desire to bring a truly unique dining experience to Los Angeles has influenced every element of the restaurant. “I feel like every dish at Pijja Palace has a story,” he says. The extruded pasta served with coriander mint pesto is shaped like a rickshaw, a nod to the popular mode of transport in India. Tandoori spaghetti, with its charred limes and chilies, captures the smoky essence of the classic chicken dish. More Easter eggs appear in the dining room. The restaurant’s leather seats are stitched to evoke the feel of brand-new baseball gloves. And look closely at the beer taps behind the bar to see the cricket bat handles, a subtle homage to the sport. “I feel like all restaurants should be [personal]so if you open shit that doesn’t look like you, why did you do that?
Naran’s totally serious and 360-degree approach to the food and ambiance of Pijja Palace is what resonates most with diners and keeps them coming back for more. Looking back, it’s hard for him to remember that at one point his parents reacted as if he had “murdered someone” when he expressed a desire to go to culinary school. Or when several chefs refused to sign on to the project after hearing its seemingly outlandish concept. Or when the local neighborhood council was so hung up on the signage of the old foot clinic that it delayed the restaurant’s liquor license for months, seemingly out of nostalgic spite. But all of that is behind him now. “Nothing feels better than when you focus on something, do everything to bring it to life, and people understand,” Naran says. “Nothing was misunderstood.”