Republique, The French Restaurant That Was Saved By Its Pastries

Savory tarts, seasonal danishes, and on-the-go montaditos line the pastry case of Republique. (Tamika Adams/KPCC )

Walking around Wilshire and La Brea, it's rare not to see a line stretching outside Republique. Inside the brick building with tall glass panes, you can't miss case after case of delicate baked goods. The savory mushroom tart piled high with peas, moist fruit danishes with fresh mango, ricotta toast topped with sweet blood oranges, tart jam, salted pistachios and the flakiest, butter-crammed croissants beckon Angelenos from across the city.

Since opening in 2013, Republique has become such a staple it's hard to imagine the neighborhood without it, but if you time traveled back to 2012, the founders would have told you a different story...

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THE LONG & WINDING ROAD

In 2012, Republique was a gamble for chefs and restaurateurs Margarita and Walter Manzke, as the couple struggled to find the right spot for their restaurant.

In the beginning, most of the PR focus was on Walter Manzke, who was already a rising star at the now-closed, but beloved Bastide and the Arts District rustic, chic bistro Church & State. Even with his name, it seemed like that restauranteur stars were out of alignment, so the Manzkes started looking for guidance on how to jumpstart their new venture. That guidance arrived in the form of Bill Chait, a prolific restaurateur who helped open everything from Bestia to Picca, The Rose, Barrel & Ashes, and Otium.

"We had another space downtown that we had put a lot of money into and it just fell through," says Margarita Manzke, who often goes by Marge. "Bill Chait came and helped us get this space. Without him it would not have happened."

Chait spoke with the property owners and made an offer. He helped grease the wheels and secure the place for the Manzkes.

Archival photos of the South 600 block of La Brea Ave. circa 1930. (Courtesy Republique)

The building came with a sparkle of Old Hollywood history — Charlie Chaplin built it as an office space while developing his studio chops in the 1920s. It was used as rental offices in the 1940s, converted to retail space a decade later and hosted the beloved restaurant Campanile for 25 years.

"It really is a historic piece of Los Angeles. The building wasn't even for sale at the time but we inquired and made an offer. We had no hope of actually getting it. We are so very fortunate to have this and we think this space has had a big part of why we were successful," she says.

PUSHBACK FROM COMMUNITY & STAFF

The Manzkes had big shoes to fill, trying to live up to the success of past chef-owners, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, who were the 90's "it" couple of new American cooking. During Republique's first few months, the Manzkes struggled to fill the dining room — and the customers were vocal in their discontent.

"People were pissed," Manzke says. "We were nervous coming in to the space because there [were] a lot of 'what ifs.' What if they don't like it? 'Why isn't it like Campanile? Why is the menu so different?' There was a lot of that."

Even the staff had their reservations about the Manzkes' vision, which was to create a French provincial dining experience with California sensibilities.

"Even our staff would tell us, 'Why are there no servers? We need to switch it up if we are going to make it,'" Manzke said. Guests at Republique still order their food at the counter instead of from their tables for a more casual dining experience. Adding to the easygoing vibe of the space is a mix of communal and traditional seating, including banquet-style tables.

Despite the skeptics, the Manzkes stuck it out and stayed true to their vision.

"The opening of the daytime concept was very hard because we would have days where we would have [only] two or three customers. The whole dining room would be empty with just two people sitting in the middle. It was very sad," Manzke says.

About six months in, an eternity for a new restaurant, attitudes started to change. "I think as time went by, they saw what we were doing and started to accept us. I think it just clicked. I think a couple of reviews came out at the time and they were very positive," she says.

Jonathan Gold praised the "urban rustic" desserts and Eater called it an "all-day" restaurant: "Walter and Margarita Manzke have made République into one of the touchstones of modern, multipurpose dining in Los Angeles —the kind of place you can come for a celebratory dinner, meet colleagues for lunch, or swing by for coffee and (stunning) midday pastries while staring into your laptop."

The interior of Republique, located on La Brea in the "bread block" of Mid-Wilshire. (Photo by Tamika Adams)

LOOKING AHEAD

That first wave of reviews highlighted Margarita Manzke as the force behind the restaurant's stellar pastry program. By word of mouth the focus of the restaurant became the delicious baked goods coming from Marge's case. She was the restaurant's secret weapon— and by 2016 she emerged as the key figure for Republique.

"This place is home because we made it work," she told LAist. "It was very hard, but I think we have found our place in Los Angeles."

Since then, it's been an all uphill ascent for Manzke. This year, she was a finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef at the 2019 James Beard Awards, pitting her pastries against some of the best in the country.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Manzke has a gift for fusing flavors and artistry into her baking, which is featured in her newly released cookbook "Baking at Republique."

Later this year, the Manzkes will open a new French bistro-style cafe, Bicyclette, in the former Picca and Sotto space on the westside. "We're very fortunate to get that space because, again, it's another beautiful building. It looks like a house. Walter has the vision of making it into a French bistro but with his California twist."

Sound familiar?

In the spirit of expansion and reclamation, the pair are also returning to Downtown L.A. for their next restaurant project. Manzke won't reveal many details about the menu, but says it's going to be in another historic space, the Herald Examiner building.

"I think it helps keep us inspired, being inside these building that are linked to Los Angeles in such a strong way," she says.

Editor's note: A version of this story aired on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.