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L.A. Restaurants Are Expanding To Saudi Arabia, But They Don’t Want To Talk About It

Jon & Vinny’s popup in Riyadh

L.A.-based restaurants are quietly expanding to Saudi Arabia, an unexpected emerging new tourist destination attracting world-class chefs and foreigners with deep pockets. The list of restaurants opening locations and doing pop-ups in the Middle East includes fine dining establishments such as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago and Chi Spacca, an Italian-inspired collaboration between restaurateurs Joe Bastianich and Nancy Silverton, Michelin-starred Petit Trois and their sister restaurant, Jon & Vinny’s. In addition to Los Angeles institutions such as Randy’s Donuts.

While some restaurants like Fat Sal’s, Urth Caffé, and Randy’s have been open about their expansion to the Middle East, others have not. Jon & Vinny's, Petit Trois, Chi Spacca, Joans on Third, Avra, and The Palm have all done popups in Saudi Arabia’s capital recently or are planning to. But you will find little to no mention of that on their social media accounts or official websites.

The lack of acknowledgment is striking, considering restaurants generally make a notable effort to announce new collaborations, locations, and popups. When Jon & Vinny’s expanded to South L.A., they let their 100,000+ Instagram followers know. Similarly, Chef Ludo of Petit Trois has been hyping up their new restaurant in Denver on social media. But neither mentioned their highly-lucrative popups in Saudi Arabia. And with the exception of Jon & Vinny’s and The Palm, none of the restaurants who have been quiet about their business in the Middle East responded to our questions.

By contrast, other restaurants that have done popups in Saudi Arabia have gone to great lengths to announce their popups. Folia, a fancy vegan restaurant in Beverly Hills launched by Matthew Kenney in partnership with a Saudi investment firm, released a dramatic drone video shot in the middle of the desert. The video shows Josie Clemens, Kenney’s “right-hand chef” and recent Hell’s Kitchen finalist, sitting at the top of a desolate peak holding two plates. “Here we are in Saudi Arabia, bringing you the art of plant-based food,” she says. Fat Sal’s similarly released an animated video. “We’re making sandwiches over there,” someone says in the video.

Opening up Saudi Arabia to the western world is part of a larger initiative by the Saudi government to reframe its image as an oil-rich, authoritarian country with a legacy of human rights violations. That translates to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bring influencers and celebrities, concerts, WWE matches, and Formula One races to Saudi Arabia. While some have welcomed these reforms, critics have accused Saudi leaders of attempting to “whitewash” past human rights violations, in some cases pushing major celebrities to back out of events and others to use their platforms to call out leaders. However, that hasn’t seemed to deter L.A.-based food businesses from expanding.

Although L.A. restaurants began appearing in Saudi Arabia in 2016, Riyadh Season, a six-month-long over the top entertainment festival launched in 2019 held in Saudi Arabia’s capital city, has accelerated the flow of the L.A. to Saudi Arabia restaurant pipeline from just a trickle in the desert to a steady flow of popups and new openings.

This year’s Riyadh Season, which ran from October of last year through March, was split up into 14 themed “zones” all over the city, allowing attendees to experience everything from crashing military tanks into cars to a winter wonderland complete with fake snow in the desert.

In the Al-Murabba zone, the most exclusive area of all of Riyadh Season, top restaurants worldwide were selected to do pop-ups. Set in a night garden at the former home of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, attendees who were able to secure reservations were treated to Arabic coffee, incense, and music as they entered the palace. Golf carts made to look like antique cars were used to shuffle guests around. Presented by the Four Seasons Hotel, a meal at one of the restaurants featured in the Al-Murabba zone reportedly started at more than $130 per person. After dinner, guests washed their hands with gold-infused soap.

From New York City, organizers recruited Bar Masa for the occasion, the three Michelin starred restaurant by Chef Masayoshi "Masa" Takayama. From Argentina, considered one of the world’s best steak houses, Don Julio. And from Los Angeles Petit Trois, Folia and Jon & Vinny's.

Jon & Vinny’s time in Riyadh was brief, but it appeared to be successful. On a busy night, Steven Lau, an employee of Jon & Vinny’s, posted a photo of a diagram (on his personal Instagram) showing that the popup served more than 180 people in about four and a half hours. “Two hundred and twenty covers in 6 hours,” Lau wrote a couple of hours later. At that rate, in a week, the Italian-inspired eatery could easily pull in more than $180,000 before accounting for expenses.

Vinny Dotolo, one of the chef-owners of Jon & Vinny's, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.
Jon Shook, one of the chef-owners of Jon & Vinny's at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

While serving hundreds of meals by night, members of Jon & Vinny’s staff and one of the owners stayed at the five-starred Ritz Carlton for at least part of the time. “Last day of service,” Lau posted a selfie of himself in the blue marble pool at the Ritz, where rooms start at several hundred dollars per night and where four years prior, wealthy Saudi royals accused of corruption were infamously detained. The hotel is commonly used to house guests of Saudi leaders.

In response to a detailed list of questions, including questions regarding who covered the hotel arrangement and other expenses, a spokesperson for Jon & Vinny’s simply told L.A. TACO: “Pop-ups are a great opportunity to bring our food with new people in new places, and we were excited to share our dishes at Riyadh Season.”

In a statement from Keith Beitler, the Chief Operating Officer of Landry’s Inc, a hospitality company that owns The Palm, Bietler said: “Palm in Riyadh is a partnered location with SAFood in the Riyadh Season’s Boulevard and is a permanently licensed location as listed on our website –” According to a LinkedIn page, SA Food International is a food and beverage business located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, specializing in managing international and local companies, including Randy’s Donuts and The Counter Burgers.

While some have embraced Riyadh Season, critics of the hundred-million-dollar festival have said it’s not accessible to most people in Saudi Arabia, where the median yearly family income is less than $40,000. During the first Riyadh season in 2019, a rare public debate concerning inequality ignited due to high ticket prices. “There was a rush toward entertainment in a way that distanced many people…the have-nots,” Saad Albazei, a literature professor, told the BBC.

This year’s Riyadh Season was similarly criticized. In particular, many people took issue with the high prices associated with the exclusive, reservation-only Al-Murabba zone. When asked by a reporter, the chairman of the state-sponsored group behind Riyadh Season declined to confirm how much was spent on the most recent festival. 

Others have accused the event of contributing to the “whitewashing” of a historically repressive government. Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations extend decades. They include enforcing gender segregation, making same-sex relationships punishable by beheading, jailing women’s rights organizers as well as torturing and killing their critics. Recently, Saudi leaders have been widely criticized for getting involved in the civil war in Yemen, considered by the United Nations to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

Events staged in Saudi Arabia, like the recent Formula One races, WWE matches, and the country’s first international film festival, have similarly faced criticism. In 2021, Human Rights Watch urged all participants of an upcoming Formula One race to either uses their platforms to protest or stay away. The criticisms have pushed celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and John Cena to pull out of appearances scheduled in Saudi Arabia. 

“On the surface, the festivities are meant to show race attendees having an amazing time. But a look beneath the hood makes clear that the Saudi government intends to use these celebrities to whitewash its abysmal human rights record,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement ahead of a Formula One race. The group called the move “a deliberate government strategy aimed at whitewashing human rights violations.”

The launch of Riyadh Season came about a year after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. A subsequent U.S. intelligence report found that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) authorized the killing. Following the assassination of Khashoggi, under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia began luring influencers, celebrities, and internationally recognized events to the Middle East, leading some to speculate that events like Riyadh Season are a smokescreen to cover up past atrocities.

Riyadh Season is a product of an initiative called Saudi Season, part of the larger “Vision 2030” plan, an ambitious multi-billion dollar campaign to transform the historically conservative and oil-rich country financially and socially. Previously, Saudi Arabia lacked a robust entertainment sector, and for years movie theaters and concerts were banned. But under the de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, rules concerning dress, live music, and opening the country up to international tourists have been relaxed. The drastic policy change has garnered Mohammed bin Salman praise in some circles.

“Reporters and academics tell us that society is changing and that freedom has arrived. What they don’t say is that there is still no freedom for Saudis to think and act on their thoughts, or to engage in real debate—and there is certainly no freedom to criticize the arrangements of power,” Madawi Al-Rasheed, a professor of social anthropology and well-known critic of the Saudi government writes in The Saudi Lie, an essay published in London Review of Books. 

In her essay, Al-Rasheed lays out in detail how, in her opinion, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman orchestrated a “pervasive PR campaign” toting the leader as a reformer. “While [Mohammed bin Salman] consolidates his power and rules as repressively as any Saudi leader before him, he is able to win praise abroad by loudly advertising Western-friendly new ‘freedoms’ for Saudis.”

The restaurant business has not experienced the same backlash as other industries. Earlier this month, Jeddah Season, another multi-million dollar festival held in the coastal city of Jeddah launched. Madeo Ristorante and Top Round Sandwich Shop are both listed in a PDF outlining events for the festival. 

Additionally, it appears that some LA-based restaurants are in the process of opening permanent locations in Saudi Arabia. Chi Spacca, Bianca, Madeo Ristorante, and Joan’s on Third have all secured Saudi Arabian Instagram accounts. They’re all set to private, and they’ve yet to post anything.

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