On Speechless (which returns to ABC tonight at 8:30), John Ross Bowie teams with Minnie Driver to play a couple committed to helping their kids (including a son with cerebral palsy) lead a good life despite financial hardships and a litanny of other challenges. You may also recognize the actor for his work as Sheldon’s rival on Big Bang Theory or from any number of projects. But in this case, we wanted to focus on another passion of Bowie’s — good eating.
Raised in New York City, the current Los Angeles resident has a long list of recommendations for both cities and a few stories about star sightings, group hangs with fellow UCB alums at a cop bar, and controversial opinions on pastrami. Words in italics are his.
The New York Food Experience
Early in our conversation, Bowie mentions seeing Tennessee Williams at a restaurant on 43rd and 9th in New York in the ’80s called Curtain Up (long gone), but those kinds of sightings, while not commonplace, still have a clear impact.
There’s a producer on Speechless named Melvin Mar and he took me out for Japanese food in the West Village. Omen Azen. It’s this really high-end Japanese place. We went in and the first thing we saw was Warren Beatty, just hanging out, eating with Diane von Furstenberg. Immediately, I was like, “This is crazy.” But then again, there was a TV producer taking me out to dinner with a couple other actors — so I went along for the ride. They put us in the back at a table right near Wallace Shawn and his wife. Which, actually, I have to say, star struck me so much more than Warren Beatty. Warren Beatty is a genius and a terrific director and one of his generation’s finest actors. But if you’re a character actor, like myself, Wallace Shawn is a patron saint.
Wallace Shawn is the alpha and the omega. He is the guy who did Vanya On 42nd Street and Clueless within like 18 months of each other because he’s that much of a badass. So I fanboyed on him and he was very gracious about it. As for the food, I had this incredible fixed price meal that was a seasonal tasting dinner with… there was no sushi, I remember that. There were assorted sashimi and this incredible filet mignon dish that came out at one point. But it was a transformative evening of eating. It was really really great. I didn’t see the bill, but I have an idea — having glanced at the menu. It was… I think that might have been a once in a lifetime dinner.
Comedy And Cuisine
Bowie has a clear sense of the shared tradition between comedy, food, and drink at various restaurants in New York City. He mentions the Westway Diner as a great place “if you’re hungry, on your way to a hangover,” calling out the legend that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David worked on the idea that would become Seinfeld in the space. There’s also Don Giovanni’s, which boasts “excellent” pizza and lives on the spot where the old Improv sat, with one of its famous brick walls still visible.
That tradition is something he also experienced first hand while coming up as a part of UCB in the late ’90s and early 2000s at the converted 22nd street burlesque theater (The Harmony) that served as the company’s first home.
I was coming up with guys like Rob Corddry, Seth Morris, Brian Huskey, and my wife, Jamie Denbo, whom I met there. And what we would do, is after shows, there were two options. Usually, you would go to McManus which is an Irish bar down 7th Avenue, that was just down the street from the local police precinct. Which was notable because the front was all cops and the back was all improv nerds. Which worked out fine, actually. You know you would think, “Oh, that could be a source of friction.” But it was actually really chill and everybody who ate there was really respectful to each other. So we’d go there most nights and have beers and you wouldn’t go too fancy with the menus there, but you’d order wings for the table or something.
If someone was doing really well and like a couple of us had booked commercials and we were feeling a little extra flush and then we’d go up the street to a place called The Red Ceiling. That was a little darker, a little more romantic, a little fancier. But it was very clear that you could tell the financial state of people by where they wanted to go after the show.
The Pastrami Wars
New York City is renowned for its pastrami. The sadly defunct Carnegie Deli flagship is no more, but Katz’s lives on and a 3 AM pastrami and a knish at Sarge’s is worth the shlep and the colorful clientele trying to eat away the after-effects of a night out. There are even places that’ll get a little mad and pile pastrami onto two knishes, a concept Bowie was intruigued by. But while he recognizes the rep, he makes it clear that LA doesn’t mess around when it comes to pastrami, either.
Canter’s pastrami is good, but Langer’s down near McArthur Park — which closes at four o’clock in the afternoon — is the best pastrami I’ve had on the west coast and I’ll throw it up against the Carnegie. Its lunch and breakfast are exemplary.
I know what I said.
Langer’s is really just rich, buttery pastrami. It just kind of… you don’t eat it so much as you just absorb it. It’s really delicious.
Don’t Sleep On LA Food Culture
Bowie left NYC at around 30 and settled in LA, a city with a plethora of food options that, in his view, often fail to get adequate respect because everything is so spread out. So we pretty much turned things over to Bowie to try and rectify that and shine some light on some of his favorite LA eateries.
There’s a new place on Western in Korea Town, called The Bun Shop. It does these Korean tacos with this incredibly soft dough. And the meat is kind of in that bittersweet sauce. I actually had them with tofu a couple weeks ago and it’s fantastic. It’s just this really neat little fusion eatery. It’s not too expensive, and my son actually found out about it from one of his babysitters. And he turned me onto it. So now my eight year old introduces me to new things, which is super exciting.
There’s a lovely little romantic place in Hollywood called Off Vine which is literally off Vine Avenue, which is not the most photogenic stretch of Hollywood, but it’s in this little craftsman house and it’s tucked away and romantic and adorable and expensive, but not like once-in-a-lifetime expensive. That place is a really well-kept secret until now. But I’m happy to drum up some business for them because that place is, it’s just a great little out of the way restaurant for a romantic evening in Hollywood. And you’re right near the Arclight and a couple of the other theaters so you can make an evening of it.
Finding A Writer’s Oasis
In addition to his work on Speechless and across several other on-screen projects, he’s also a writer, having authored a deep dive into Heathers in 2011 (among other things). Knowing that, we asked about the quiet and/or creativity-inspiring coffee shops in LA where a writer can get some work done.
I somehow find it less distracting to write outside than if I write at home. There’s a Korean coffee chain called Tom N Toms that will give you a really good iced latte and there’s a couple of them in Koreatown. They’re pretty big and there’s one that has sort of an upstairs lounge and I love to write there sometimes.
There’s a great place in Echo Park called Stories, which is half book store, half café. The café is really quite good. And there’s a cluster of tables inside and then out on the back patio. And there’s this incredible book store adjacent to it. I don’t go there as much as I’d like. When I used to live in Silver Lake, I was down there pretty often, but it is a great place to write and you just feel… it’s weird. There’s a lot of distraction, but it just kind of feels encouraging. You’re surrounded by all these books that are telling you, “Why aren’t you writing good?” I find it strangely encouraging.
Speechless returns to ABC tonight at 8:30PM.