I grin at my dining companion, and he arches an eyebrow in response. He feels it too – the whisper of something great to come.
As we approach the host stand, a fresh-faced hostess embraces us with her warm smile, and assures us it will only be a few moments before our table is ready. My friend and I scoot to the side and wait patiently with the other parties attempting to squeeze into the bar. Their and our efforts are futile, but my name is called within minutes of our arrival and we are soon whisked away from the chaos at the bar to the more pleasant chaos of the dining room.
I spot the table before I even know it is to be ours. It beckons me like a chocolate-dipped caramel, and my heart cinches with excitement when the host presents it to us with pride. He knows and we know – the corner booth table that offers both my friend and I view of the entire restaurant, is the best in the house. We descend into our seats with enthusiasm.
My friend tosses an accusatory eye in my direction. “What, did you slip them a hundred?”
I shake my head in bewilderment. “No, I’m just that special.”
I say it in jest, but in the moment, it feels true. I do feel special, and with that single gesture from the host, every expectation I had for Jason Travi’s new Santa Monica restaurant is fulfilled. The food could be a complete disaster, and I would still leave satisfied by the experience of being seated at such a prime table in the midst of such an energetic space.
Fortunately, the tone set during those first ten minutes continues to play out throughout the entire evening. Our waiter practices the ideal level of attentiveness – guiding us through the menu and wine list, offering us tastes of our by the glass selections before making the pour, and checking in at the appropriate intervals to ensure that our dining experience is seamless. The busboys are similarly attuned to our needs, and despite my friend and my rapid-fire inhalation of water, our glasses never hover below half-full.
The superior service is on par with the superior – though not perfected – menu. My luscious bowl of mushroom, walnut and sage soup is well-balanced and comforting on the rain-soaked evening, and my friend eagerly devours his refreshing blood orange and fennel salad. The starters, however, prove to be needless stomach primers when we see the size of our pizzas.
The cheese is still oozing from the heat of the wood-burning oven when my potato, fontina, rosemary and sea salt pie and his quattro formaggio pie are presented before us. A translucent kiss of olive oil skims the surface, and as I coddle a tender slice in my hand, I understand why LA Times restaurant critic Irene Virbila describes the pizzas as “closing in" on Pizzeria Mozza. While the crust could benefit from a crisper interior, the outside rim is a strip of chewy, salt-infused perfection. It is not to be left behind in favor of the topping-heavy portion of the pie that introduces a chorus of flavors to my tongue that could only be enhanced by a gentler application of cheese. My friend feels similarly about his decadent pizza, and though we both normally favor a dessert-capped dining experience, neither of us can be tempted by the pear tartine or chocolate bread pudding.
As we push out of our cozy booth chairs, our stomachs taxed from our imprudent ingestion of both starters and pizzas, I feel a twinge of sadness that our meal has come to an end. I smile at the hostess who greeted us with such warmth, and make a concerted effort to meet her eye.
“Thank you.” I say with meaning, hoping the words will convey how wonderful it felt to be treated like someone special. It is the type of experience that makes me want to be a regular at Riva. And it is the type of experience that reminds me why it is so pleasurable to go out to dinner.