Pijja Palace, an Indian sports bar, is the restaurant LA didn’t know it needed

It’s been almost three months since Pijja Palace opened its doors on the ground floor of the Comfort Inn in Silver Lake. Sunlight streams through the restaurant’s large windows until dinnertime this time of year, setting off the light wood accents and pastel palette of the dining room. Tables are seamlessly arranged and re-arranged during service to accommodate both small and large groups. Everyone arrives ready to stick around for a while, huddling close to us to share lentil-slathered onion rings, piles of homemade pasta, and lots and lots of hot wings. The game is on and showing on a dozen flat-screen TVs lining the walls, but that’s not why they’re all here. The dimly lit, sticky-floored sports bar of the popular imagination is nowhere to be seen.

Owner Avish Naran hangs in the display window that connects the back of the house to the dining room. While the kitchen, led by Miles Shorey, is firing on all cylinders, Naran calls out orders while overseeing the bisected restaurant. His brows furrowed but his body relaxed, Naran has a full view from his seat of diners tearing into crispy pizzas slathered in green chile chutney and enjoying tea whiskey sours served in chilled Delmonico glasses. If it looks like the group needs a little extra attention, he personally delivers their orders to make sure everything is in order.

The story of Pijja Palace follows a well-trodden hero’s journey: Raised in the shadows of Dodger Stadium, Naran rejects the safety of a medical or legal career and instead follows a creative calling that sets him on a path through the unknown. Naran’s years-long search—which took him through college and art school, then went to culinary and restaurant management schools and introduced him to wise advisors along the way—led him to the realization that opening an Indian sports bar in the former foot clinic’s location in East Los Angeles is his best calling. Battling parental pushback, neighborhood council naysayers, and complex cultural expectations, Naran emerges from the rubble—wearing an oversized T-shirt, mesh basketball shorts, and a fresh pair of Nikes, no less—to run Los Angeles’ most talked-about restaurant. And the crowd goes wild.

A dining room full of people at Pijja Palace in Silver Lake.

Pijja Palace’s early success was based on Naran’s unwavering commitment to providing dining no one wants. With their notoriously thin profit margins and extremely high failure rates, restaurants can sometimes play it so safe that the entire experience—from the decor (mid-century via Joybird) to the menu (a crudo or two, a few house-made pastas and a steak at large format) and even the playlist (90s hip-hop and R&B) — feels formulaic and tired. But it takes a 30-year-old upstart restaurateur to shake things up in Los Angeles. While asking diners to have faith in the vision, along with the food and entertainment, may be too tall an order for some restaurants, the crowds at Pijja Palace say otherwise. From Indian grannies to flannel-clad hipsters to dudes who just want to watch the game, everyone eats it up.

“There’s so much of the same crap in L.A. You have to look at things differently, not only to succeed, but also to have fun,” says Naran. “I am not bound by any rules; my concept is where the hell I want it to be. I project whatever I want to the public.”

Naran dreamed up Pijja Palace almost a decade ago while enrolled in the restaurant management program at the Culinary Education Institute in New York. Almost all of the restaurant’s culinary and design elements, including the menu, cocktails and typography, were hatched way back and presented to classmates on neatly formatted slides. “I just wanted a great new place where people could come in and really show food through the lens of an Indian who grew up in L.A.,” he says.

But before that, Naran focused on honing his culinary skills at the Napa Valley Cooking School and stints at upscale, Indian-inspired San Francisco restaurants such as August 1 Five, Campton Place Bar and Bistro, and Rooh. “I still thought I had to be at this level to cook great food,” he says. Although he tried to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Indian chefs, Naran eventually grew bored with formal establishments with French roots (“Making food with tweezers was so uninteresting to me”) and the same old interpretations of high-quality Indian food (“Let’s make butter chicken, but we’ll put the sauce under the chicken”). Although the magic of fine dining has lost its luster, Naran’s passion for the familiar flavors he grew up with and his desire to open a restaurant remain.

A chef in a green hat next to another man discussing something behind the kitchen counter.

Pijja Palace Chef Miles Shorey with owner Avish Naran.

Growing up in Echo Park in a multigenerational household, Naran’s mother and grandmothers filled the home with Gujarati. “Both my grandmothers make great biryanis that are completely different from each other,” he says. The family table usually featured chicken rasa vari (“a staple in many Gujarati households”), dal bhat (lentils and rice) and khata puda (“it’s like a sour fermented crepe”). Dining out in Tay Town, the San Gabriel Valley and Artesia cemented Naran’s love of good food served in casual rooms and his hometown. “I feel like in L.A. we have one of the best cultural foods in the United States,” he says. Most notably, Naran found a kindred spirit in the Kogi truck. “Roy [Choi]is like a huge influence for me. I’ve been eating Kogi since before I could even cook, and this representation of it as an Angeleno through a Korean lens was so inspiring to me.”

When Sunset Foot Clinic’s lease finally expired in 2019, Naran’s father Dipak Patel reserved the venue for Pijja Palace’s debut. (Patel owns the plaza at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Benton Way, including the two-story Comfort Inn that anchors the complex.) Although owning and operating a restaurant isn’t “any brown kid’s parent’s dream,” Naran says, “[my parents] has always been supportive of what I wanted to do creatively.” With the worst of the pandemic this past spring, the restaurant reopened to a host of curious guests. But soon crowds started lining up at the home stand to catch a glimpse of the new boy on the block.

“I look at restaurants as an art project. I see myself as a – it’s such a silly term – creative director,” says Naran. “I don’t think enough people look at restaurants as art projects, and as someone who cooks and has designed, I just think they should be like immersive, like projects, like think tanks.”

Pizza, wings, pasta at Pijja Palace in Silver Lake.

Naran’s burning desire to bring a truly unique dining experience to Los Angeles has influenced every element of the restaurant. “I feel like every dish at Pijja Palace has a story,” he says. The extruded pasta, served with a bright cilantro and mint pesto, is shaped like a rickshaw as a nod to the popular mode of transportation in India. Tandoori Spaghetti, with its charred lime and chillies, captures the smoky essence of the classic chicken dish. More Easter eggs appear in the dining room. The restaurant’s leather seats are stitched just right to feel like brand new baseball gloves. And look closely at the beer taps behind the bar to see cricket bat handles, a subtle tribute to the sport. “I feel like all restaurants should be [personal]so if you open something that’s not like you, why did you do that?’

Naran’s completely sincere, 360-degree approach to the food and feel of Pijja Palace is what resonates most with diners and keeps them coming back for more. Looking back on it all, he has a hard time remembering that there was ever a time when his parents reacted as if he had “killed someone” when he expressed a desire to attend culinary school. Or when several chefs refused to join the project after hearing its seemingly strange concept. Or when the local neighborhood council was so enamored with the former foot clinic’s signage that they delayed the restaurant’s liquor license for several months, seemingly out of nostalgic spite. But all that is now behind him. “There’s nothing better than when you put your attention on something, make every move to bring it to life, and then people just get it,” says Naran. “Nothing is misunderstood.”

Delicious rigatoni with tomato masala, cream and coriander.

Delicious rigatoni with tomato masala, cream and coriander.

Spaghetti tandoori with smoked chili, garlic and charred lime.

Spaghetti tandoori with smoked chili, garlic and charred lime.

Visitors to Pijja Palace watch sports on TVs in the bar.

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