Chef Scott Zwiezen sits at the helm of two beloved Los Angeles eateries that blend piquant Old World flavors with new culinary flare. There’s Elf Cafe, a sit-down vegetarian kitchen famous for leaving carnivores deeply sated. And there’s Dune, an inventive falafel counter that, a mere 11 months in, is utterly bustling. But there was a time when the man behind it all thought he’d wind up working in a more literal sort of driver’s seat. “I was in pilot school in Denver,” Zwiezen says with a low chuckle. “I was taking air navigation classes and doing flight simulator training. I really liked it.”
Of course, that was before he dropped out to play bass in a band that subsequently relocated to Prague for a year and ultimately landed in L.A.’s arts-loving east side. Viva K released their debut album in 2005. They played a few festivals, booked a residency at an esteemed club, and got remixed by Spaceman 3 legend Sonic Boom. Then an unusual thing happened. In 2006, Zwiezen’s band opened a restaurant.
“We just shrugged and said, ‘Why not?,'” he recalls. “It took our energy away from the music, but we always saw Elf as the second Viva K record. There’s some Catholic saint who looks after drunks, fools and children. I think he was watching over us.”
But Zwiezen isn’t capricious; he’s good at following his muse. The humble gourmet adheres to a simple philosophy: “I serve what I like to eat: clean food, using the best ingredients we can afford, with a reasonable conscientiousness about where it all comes from.”
His music ties still matter, too. Elf’s current head chef Dave Martinez last cooked at the upscale Soho House, but he’s also the former lead shouter of Long Beach hardcore crew Clit 45. It was Elf server Leona Marrs, late of Pretty Girls Make Graves, who first noticed the Dune space was available to lease. And when Zwiezen started slinging falafel, he hired Zig Zags singer/guitarist Jed Maheu to help cook.
If Elf is an album, it’s a sprawler, intimate and intricate, with songs that take you on a journey every time. By contrast, Dune is a punk LP: simple, fast, surprising, and full of heat (especially if you add a few peppers). The delightful excess of its predecessor is reduced to essentials: three sandwiches (also available as hummus plates), plus a handful of sides. There’s house kombucha, and the sea salt-flecked rose water dates are a treat, but the main event comes wrapped in soft homemade flatbread, topped by garlicky sauces and pickled things: either the dense and tender, pine nut-spiked lamb balls, or the falafel — crispy on the outside with an herbaceous, bright green middle.
“We start with raw chickpeas, and we soak them until they almost sprout. Then we grind those up with greens we get from these local farmers. We don’t use any flour, and it’s best if you actually undercook it a little,” says Zwiezen. He’s been perfecting his recipe for about 13 years, since his bygone days as a self-sufficient raw vegan.
Though his first job, at 15, was as a KFC fry cook in Slidell, Louisiana for $3.35 an hour, Zwiezen got his true start selling prepackaged raw concoctions (including a dehydrated falafel) to small L.A. markets. That’s why he and a partner leased the cheap, boarded up kitchen in Echo Park that would eventually become Elf.
Now, as the oil bubbles at Dune in nearby Atwater Village, it’s clear that a few things have come full circle. “I’m not ever trying to sound boastful,” he says, “but it’s really nice when Israeli or Lebanese people come in and say, ‘This reminds me of home.'”
And although Dune’s opening was much less “Wild West” than that of Elf, which notoriously ran on two hot plates and a single convection oven for years, it did mark a return to the DIY spirit that’s driven the chef thus far. Business picked up fast, so friends volunteered to help prep, Zwiezen hand-ground garbanzos while he waited for a food processor to arrive, and his girlfriend Anne O’Malley (whom he refers to as “my sweetheart”) worked the register, learning the name of each customer who walked through the door. There’s a “Steve” who comes in nearly seven days a week.
Like any punk venue worth its salt, Dune is standing room only except for a few seats at the bar, but the small shop is gaining a big following. Zwiezen’s even been approached about franchising, but he’s wary. He runs a tight, familial ship, and while he’s long abandoned dreams of flight, being a restaurateur isn’t so far removed from playing in an up-and-coming indie band. “It’s never just me,” says Zwiezen. “There’s a team and we’re all working together. Energy goes out, then it comes back in.”