Toledo native pays tribute to hometown with new LA restaurantWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
For Susan Feniger, it was a long trip that led her back home.
It was late last year when the world-famous chef, restaurateur and television personality (Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales”) decided to remodel her latest Los Angeles-based bistro — Street — and rebrand it as something more homespun and friendly, something closer to the cafes and pubs in her hometown of Toledo.
“I have great memories of the creek behind our house, because we lived along the creek on Bancroft there, and ice skating along the Ten Mile Creek there, and playing ice hockey,” Feniger said in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “So I have very vivid memories of that time in Toledo. I was there until I graduated from high school.”
Feniger’s first steps on the path to culinary fame were in the Glass City, as well — her first restaurant job was at Smith’s Cafeteria in Westgate. After leaving Toledo, she established herself as a major name in the world of cuisine, with numerous influential eateries to her name. (She’s also worked to give back to the Los Angeles community as much as possible, including a position on the boards of the Scleroderma Research Foundation and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.) In 2013, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the California Restaurant Association.
When she began to plan how Street would transform itself, she took inspiration from the kind of places where she loved to eat when she was growing up — great, friendly cafes where her dad would take her, often after sharing a baseball game.
That’s how Street has transformed into Mud Hen Tavern.
“There was a place that used to be in Toledo called Andre, and I used to go there with my dad. Sometimes, I’d spend Saturdays at the office with him, I’d go there and have a five-baloney sandwich with him, cut thick. And I just remember always loving that,” Feniger said.
“So when we made the changeover from Street to Mud Hen Tavern, I just wanted to have a great neighborhood place where people would feel comfortable dropping in and having a local draft beer, getting something simple like a great hangover burger, or get something more exotic like the tuna ceviche, or the corn nuts and the chipotle chili.”
The end result is a place that feels like a happy hybrid of great Midwest-style pub food and spirits blended with a Los Angeles flair. The menu has a bunch of great options recognizable to most any frequenter of a great down-home cafe — French fries, burgers, pizza, fish and chips. But it comes with enough of a spin to add a distinctive personality to the cuisine, one that fans of Feniger’s work have loved for years.
“Honestly, I think it’s sort of comfort food from all parts of the world,” she said.
“Some of it is sort of exotic food, from pubs all around the world, and some of it is down-home food. I really wanted a place where — this is a big neighborhood area [and] I wanted a place where people could feel like it was, you know, their hangout, their local pub. Their place where they could go around the corner, they didn’t have to have a reservation and drop in.”
Though the establishment’s name has a distinctive echo of her hometown influences, it isn’t meant to specifically echo any nostalgia for the team itself, Feniger said. It’s more about symbolism, representing an era of her life that this new restaurant both emulates and elevates.
“Honestly, it could have been named the Ottawa Hills Bears or it could have been named The Maumee River,” she said. “The one thing that is sort of cool is, the mud hen is a great-looking bird, and my architect who did this remodel, his office overlooks MacArthur Park and there’s mud hen birds all over MacArthur Park.
“I love the idea that the mud hen bird is from the Midwest, so am I, [and] it migrated to MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, which is downtown, so I sort of like that whole connection to that.”
One gets the sense this is truly what the Mud Hen Tavern means to Feniger: a merging of the old and the new. Nostalgia for her former life back home, mixed with an understanding of all she has become, wrapped up in one package.
“I think dining out is all about the experience — the vibe of the place, the attitude of the staff, the quality of the ingredients that you use, the preparation of the ingredients, the look of how the servers are dressed, the level of skill in making the cocktails. And I think being a chef, first and foremost, I want to make food that tastes really great, that I want to eat.”
To check out the eatery, visit www.mudhentavern.com.