By Robert Spuhler
Inside a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront along a busy stretch of Montana Avenue, just over a mile away from the Fairmont Miramar, Sang Yoon became one of the most influential chefs in Los Angeles back in the early 2000s. And he did it with a dish that had been all but written off by most chefs: the humble hamburger.
It’s here that Yoon opened Father’s Office, a bar dedicated to craft beers. But he coupled that with his chef background to create a hamburger named one of the best in the world by Esquire, and one that would change the way chefs looked at hamburgers for years to come.
To understand the importance of the Office Burger, it’s important to understand the dining world at the end of the last millennium. The burger was an afterthought on many menus, used more as an escape hatch for the less-adventurous guest, or an item for kids to order.
But while much credit is given to superstar French chef Daniel Boulud for the 2001 invention of his DB Burger, Yoon introduced his Office Burger the year prior as a way to make high-quality food more accessible.
“The question was, ‘why did people who are trained to do what I do, how come we never serve food in anything other than white tablecloth environments?’” says Yoon. “’Why can’t I do this in a fun place without all the pretenses, and why can’t we just make it casual?’ And that’s what Father’s Office is — the answer to that question.”
The burger that came from that “answer” is influenced heavily by one of Yoon’s favorite dishes, French onion soup. Incorporating dry-aged beef into the patty, a unique move in itself, the burger is topped with caramelized onions, arugula, and gruyere and blue cheeses.
Today, a quality burger like that in a beer bar may be considered common, but the word “gastropub” was little more than a rumor at that point; the term had only been coined in 1991 to describe The Eagle in London, and there were few, if any, places in America that had imported the phrase. Combining top-notch cuisine with a strong beer list was hard to describe in the early days.
“[There] was, I would say, about a year and a half-ish period where people were kind of figuring out what it was,” Yoon said. “In the early days, it was like, ‘Oh, the chef of Michael’s opened a place on Montana [Avenue].’ So, every other phone call was trying to make a reservation. People didn’t know how to interface with us.”
Despite the small space, there are no reservations for Father’s Office. But even more so, diners are caught off-guard by the rules: ketchup is not allowed and no substitutions are made. The gastropub was so famous for those edicts, Yoon says, that the third-most searched phrase on Google for Father’s Office was “no ketchup restaurant.”
“No matter how much you agree to change a dish or customize a dish, there’s no hundred-percent satisfaction, no matter howhard you try or what you charge,” Yoon says. “So you, as a chef, say, ‘you know what, I can’t please everybody. I can’t make everything for everyone. I’m going to make very few things and I’m just going to stand behind the few things I make.’”
All of it — the burger, the “gastropub,” the no-substitution policy — would go on to show up across town and around the country. But even with the competition, the original Father’s Office is regularly packed to this day; a second spot in Culver City is routinely busy and a soon-to-open third in downtown L.A. will no doubt be a success.
“I’ve been watching it happen for almost 20 years, all this sprouting up around me,” Yoon said. “So yeah, I guess it validates what you did and you know that it was a good idea.”
All photos courtesy of Father’s Office.