Before he was mentored by Wolfgang Puck, before he worked at such celebrated French restaurants as La Tour d’Argent and Le Moulin de Mougins and before he cofounded La Brea Bakery and the Los Angeles culinary mecca known as Campanile with his former wife, chef Nancy Silverton, James Beard Award–winning chef Mark Peel was a young boy who spent life’s first decade growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. It seems fitting, then, that Peel should return to his birthplace, Pasadena, to expand his most recent venture, Prawn Coastal Casual, a sustainable seafood eatery that he opened in downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market in 2017 (on the site of his previous eatery Bombo).
Prawn opened eight months ago in Old Pasadena’s One Colorado complex, in the historic structure formerly occupied by Escuela Taqueria. It’s the latest manifestation of an idea that Peel, 63, contemplated for decades but only started to make a reality three years ago. With the closure of Campanile in 2012 — and after working in such high-end California restaurants as L.A.’s Ma Maison, Beverly Hills’ Spago, Santa Monica’s Michael’s and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse for the majority of his career — he decided to focus on creating a different kind of place: one that offered healthy high-quality food that was accessible to more people in terms of price and atmosphere. Bombo, which offered steam-kettle seafood stews and boils, was a start; Prawn expands on the idea with a bigger menu that also includes grain bowls, salads, sandwiches and fish and chips.
But Prawn isn’t just a “fast-casual” restaurant, a concept that has been touted as the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry in recent years. (Chipotle, Tender Greens and Lemonade, with their stylish interiors, quick service and better-than-average food, are three that fall neatly into that category.) Prawn is “fine-casual,” a newer term, defined just last year by Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer on CBS’ 60 Minutes as marrying “the ethos and taste level of fine dining with the fast-food experience.”
Sure, walking into Prawn, with its fully exposed kitchen and menu above the front counter, one immediately gets the sense that it’s a relaxed space. And, yes, the food comes out in just a couple of minutes. Prawn, too, has a stylish décor (white and oceanic blues predominate; Instagrammable renderings of sea creatures adorn the walls). But what truly sets it apart from fast-casual concepts — beyond its table service and beer and wine selections — is the food created by the renowned Peel: rich, complex broths; intriguing flavor combinations; seafood that is just held to a higher standard, at a lower price.
Fine-casual is a concept that’s fast on the rise: According to restaurant industry– news website Skift Table, which cites data from market research firm Mintel, 69 percent of consumers want to see more casual restaurants that offer high-quality food and are quick and convenient, a step above fast-casual. It makes good business sense, too: Fine-casual concepts are typically smaller than full-scale formal restaurants and can benefit from lower rents; a correspondingly smaller staff also means lower labor costs. At the same time, a chef-driven menu means prices can be a little higher (in Prawn’s case, still lower than other seafood establishments serving comparable quality), and the sale of beer and wine can help raise revenue as well.
Peel and his current wife, television personality and standup comic Daphne Brogdon (Food Network’s Daphne Dishes), saw the need in downtown L.A. for just such a place — particularly one focused on seafood — when they were researching their first location. “There are a lot of [seafood] places in downtown Los Angeles, but there was nothing that was an affordable [concept],” Peel says. “Water Grill is wonderful but it’s not inexpensive. I was really targeting the 70 percent [of consumers], not the 3 percent.
“You can make a good meal for $100 a person, it’s not that difficult, but to make it for $15 a person, there’s a trick there,” he continues, referring to the broths that are the base for many of Prawn’s offerings, including the clam chowder, shrimp butter boil and spicy scallops. The “trick” is the manner in which the broths are developed. A lobster broth, for example, is based on gutted shells with remnants of lobster meat, which Peel purchases from his L.A. seafood supplier for about $2.50 a pound. For recipes that require chunks of lobster, such as his $19 Thai lobster roll, he gets meat that has already been blanched and picked. Prawn also offers a $14 paella, laden with shrimp, mussels, chicken and house-made pork sausage; and the $14 Seattle fish stew, a bestselling item, is made with lobster broth, shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, salmon and bacon, served over rice. “It’s essentially a bouillabaisse,” Peel says. “Rice doesn’t belong in [a traditional] bouillabaisse but” — chef’s prerogative — “I wanted to put it in there,” he says with a chuckle.
Fans of the increasingly popular grain bowl will find it at Prawn, too. Starting off with a base of barley and quinoa, guests can opt for the Scottish salmon bowl ($12), which features an aromatic shiitake and seaweed broth, napa cabbage and pickled onions. Or they can create their own custom grain bowl (starting at $9), by picking up to four veggies, including turmeric roasted cauliflower, kabocha squash, roasted broccolini, spiced almonds, stewed chickpeas and roasted shiitake mushrooms. Next comes a protein — choose from fried egg, tofu, spicy chicken breast, spicy shrimp or salmon. “We really don’t need more than three or four ounces of a protein in a meal,” Peel says. “It’s actually healthier to have some carbs — some rice, a pasta, potatoes, vegetables. More than three or four ounces is excessive and contributes to heart disease and cancer and all kinds of things.”
Prawn’s beer and wine offerings are primarily from local suppliers, and most beer is on tap “because it’s environmentally friendly,” he says. “You don’t have all those bottles at the end of the day. Our wines are [from the] Central Coast; they’re young, fresh, delicious — complex but not overbearing.”
The Pasadena Prawn is larger than the original — at about 1,500 square feet, it’s about three times the size of the compact space in Grand Central Market — and it has a more relaxed vibe than the frenetic market scene. Peel says that working at the downtown location is “intense,” due to noise level and the crush of customers. The menu is the same in both locations, however, thanks to a centralized Lincoln Heights commissary where all the food is prepped. This “hub-and-spoke” business concept allows for consistency of product and cost control, and will continue to serve future locations as the business expands, he adds. (Peel has already been looking at Long Beach, Culver City and Century City as possible locales.)
“In the commissary we’re able to concentrate the skill and the equipment,” he says. “We do all the broths there, made in 10-gallon pressure cookers to seal in the flavor and produce rich results; we roast the potatoes and onions and bake all our cookies there. We make all of our own lemonades there, too: a fresh ginger, a passionfruit-ginger, a limeade with fresh mint and honey — and a touch of chipotle peppers to give it a little spark.”
Back at Prawn, Peel gets to play with “toys” he coveted for years before acquiring several when he opened Bombo: shiny $60,000 steel-jacketed steam kettles that put the finishing touches on all of Prawn’s broth-based dishes by quickly cooking on-site the seafood added to the premade broths. He first saw them at New York City’s venerable Grand Central Oyster Bar, which opened in 1913, and now Peel’s kettles are prominently on display — and put to use — in both locations. “I love those because they’re really clean and fast,” he says, as it doesn’t take more than three or four minutes to finish a dish. “There’s also a little bit of theater to them.”
Prawn is located in the One Colorado Courtyard, 16 Miller Alley, Pasadena. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call (626) 219-6115 or visit prawncoastal.com.