Roy Choi describes his Korean barbecue restaurant Best Friend at the Park MGM as a poem to Los Angeles, his hometown, the place he got his start as a chef with a food truck Kogi, serving Korean-Mexican tacos that made “food that isn’t fancy” into a lifestyle.
“I wanted to create a place that not only represents LA but also like it could be feels like a party to everyone,” Choi says of Best Friend, his one-year-old restaurant that reads like a joyful love letter to Los Angeles.
In 2019, the restaurant won the Eater Award for design of the year from Eater Vegas.
More than four years ago, MGM Resorts reached out to the chef about opening his first restaurant outside of California at the Park MGM, a call that took him by surprise. “I wasn’t looking to expand. …I don’t have like a million restaurants around the world. And I never had a restaurant outside of California.” From that conversation, Best Friend started to take shape, with a name he hoped would “just make you chuckle inside.”
And while the name does indeed incite a giggle, he also thinks of the restaurant as more of a lifestyle than just a place to eat. “We have a serious intimate relationship with the people who eat our food. We’re like a band. So we wanted to kind represent what people thought of if they were part of the whole Kogi culture.”
That meant a decor that encapsulated all that is Los Angeles, using artists, photographers, designers, architects, and more creative types to put together Choi’s thank you letter. “These are all friends of mine that I’ve been working with for a long time and finally it was great to be able to give them a huge platform to really go all the way with their stuff.”
The experience starts in the liquor store at the front. Choi, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, immigrated to the United States with his family at age 2. His family owned several businesses ranging from a dry cleaners to a liquor store when they settled in Los Angeles, so he wanted the entrance to the restaurant to represent his childhood.
“There’s a lot of hidden poetic elements to the whole restaurant and they don’t necessarily have to be at the front of everyone’s mind, but they’re meaningful to me,” Choi says. “So the liquor store represents my life, my extended family’s lives, and my friend’s lives, and my community’s lives in Koreatown in Los Angeles and the whole essence of growing up as a immigrant, especially an Asian immigrant kid and what it means in our history of surviving in this country, and a lot of us that came to this country and our parents that came. My parents, English wasn’t their first language. They didn’t have history. They don’t have any type of resume that they could give someone to get a job. The first thing that we could do is open small merchant shops, whether that’s dry cleaners or liquor stores or gas stations, small markets, neighborhood markets, things like that.”
Everything inside the liquor store holds meaning to Choi. “Those aren’t just like props.” No, after walking past a neon teal and yellow sign proclaiming “Roy Choi is your Best Friend,” diners find the replica of a liquor store filled with everything from chips and instant ramen, boxes of Hello Panda cookies and cans of Spam, bottles of Mogu Mogu juice, and a slushy machine filled with boozy versions of the gas station staple only filled with Hennesessy and Coke. Stickers paint the space, recalling a skateboard lifestyle, while a photo of Bruce Lee and a cash register await. Diners can sit at the barstools lining the space to order a drink or a quick bite, or buy souvenirs such as giant Best Friend jugs or trucker hats. And like Las Vegas, pops of neon light up the space, one with a bowl of ramen, another with two martini glasses, and others reminding customers to “Get Lucky” or “Enjoy.”
Diners walk through a curtain of red freezer door flaps into the main dining room. Another cornucopia of sights await there. Five photos represent Boyle Heights, East LA, Koreatown, South Central, and Hollywood. Plants hang from the ceiling. A mural from Los Angeles artist Phung Huynh adorns one wall. A deejay booth spotlighting LA artists takes over one wall. “You just don’t know where to look. There’s so much cool stuff to look at,” Choi says, noting that everything from the aroma of the spicy stews to the hip hop sounds coming from the speakers are meant to transport a diner to Los Angeles.
Even smaller design details lend an LA air to the restaurant. Runners and bussers wear chinos and Dickie’s with tennis shoes, bucket hats, and crisp, oversized T-shirts. Servers wear different colors of track suits in red, blue, black, and green, while bartenders get a pink look. “It just felt like LA to me,” Choi says. The menu comes in a yellow binder that seems like a yearbook shouting out Choi’s greatest hits from his LA restaurants over the years.
And then there’s the chef’s table in the kitchen, an ode to chef Emeril Lagasse. “Emeril kind of saved my life. Not him directly or personally, but me watching his show saved a hopeless kid who was on his way to nowhere,” Choi says of the chef who inspired him to go to culinary school.
“Sometimes you meet your heroes, so when I became a chef later after Kogi, I got to meet Emeril and tell him a story about how he saved my life and then we became friends. Then we filmed the movie Chef in New Orleans, and then Jon Favreau and I got to eat at Emeril’s and we sat at the chef’s table. And it was one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.” Favreau and Choi teamed up again for the Netflix series The Chef Show.
Another nod to Choi’s past comes from the kimchi room in the back of the kitchen. There around 1,500 pounds of daikon radish, cucumber, and cabbage ferment in plastic tubs for three months. Choi’s family once ran a Korean restaurant called Silver Garden in Anaheim, California, and his mother’s kimchi was so popular that his family packaged it to sell locally. It’s at that restaurant that Choi first started working in the kitchen, making dumplings at age 8.
Despite happy hours in the liquor store Mondays through Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m., an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue night on Mondays, and deejays from LA taking over the decks, Choi says he’s still working on ways to make the restaurant even more attractive to locals. That might mean local guest chefs coming in to cook so he can get to know their food and he can showcase their talents in his restaurants.
“We also never lose sight of the fact I want people from Las Vegas to eat at this restaurant too. It’s really important for us to continue to make these things that make it exciting for you to come from your neighborhood over to the Strip, or when you get off work or come to work early if you’re working the night shift and come have a meal.”
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