HANNAH AN is a veteran in the Los Angeles restaurant business, but that doesn’t mean opening The District by Hannah An — a unique concept of Vietnamese flavors combined with locally-sourced ingredients — hasn’t presented its challenges. Still, she’s no stranger to bringing Asian cuisine to Angelenos. An is the oldest of the five An sisters who, along with their mother, make up the An restaurant empire. When her family was forced to flee Vietnam in 1975, An’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, opened Crustacean in 1996, the first An restaurant in the states that has since become a staple in the Beverly Hills fine-dining scene. The women of the An family have been expanding their restaurant empire together ever since, but when Hannah An decided to open The District, she wanted to do things on her own. An spoke with Lady Clever about her passion for bold Vietnamese flavors and cuisine, why this is the right time for her to pursue this restaurant concept, and her experience on her first solo restaurant venture.
What inspired you to open The District by Hannah An?
I had a lifelong dream of opening my own Vietnamese restaurant — one that celebrated everything I love and hold dear about my native country. I was born in Saigon and my family moved to the United States when I was young, but I’ve since returned to visit several times, as recently as this past summer, so the inspiration behind The District was born out of those travels and the countless hours I’ve spent cooking alongside my family.
How is The District different than the other An family restaurants?
This is my first solo venture, so it is one step removed from the An family restaurants. The District is very representative of both my Vietnamese heritage and my American upbringing, so everything from the cuisine to the décor combines those two worlds. I’ve created a very approachable menu that’s rooted in tradition and the time-honored recipes of my ancestors, but also features a more modern take through the presentation and incorporation of the finest seasonal seafood, produce, and garden-fresh herbs that Southern California has so readily available.
How involved are you in the day-to-day operations of The District?
I almost live there! The District is my passion project and my life’s work, so I’m incredibly involved in all aspects of the restaurant. I developed the entire concept, researched and tested all the recipes, hired the staff, scoured flea markets for antique finds, and worked closely with my designer, Kenneth Ussenko of KU Productions, to execute my vision for the look of the space. I want people to feel like they’re being welcomed into my home when they cross that threshold — that I’m taking them on this little culinary adventure through Vietnam.
What has been the biggest challenge starting The District on your own and not opening this restaurant with your family?
It’s wonderful being able to make a lot of my own decisions, but with that comes a greater responsibility. When I work with my family, I have more of a sounding board, and we’re able to divide and conquer, so certain tasks can be executed more quickly. With The District, I’m spending more time analyzing every single aspect of the business. This can take longer, but it’s a necessary process in order to ensure that my staff fully translates my vision for the restaurant.
What has the reaction from your family been to your solo restaurant venture? Are they supportive?
I’m still involved with my family’s restaurant business, and they are supportive in realizing that The District is an opportunity for me to grow and express myself creatively. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate our family’s rich heritage, and showcase our philosophy and approach to Vietnamese cuisine.
What lessons have you learned from the women in your family about running a successful restaurant in this tough business?
I learned so much from my grandmother and mother about Vietnamese cooking fundamentals, like balancing flavor with the five senses to create perfect harmony in each and every dish. My family is such an inspiration to me, and we’re all incredibly hardworking and passionate — I had those values instilled in me at a very early age.
Have you found it difficult to balance your personal and professional lives?
It’s challenging, but one of the benefits of running a restaurant is that you can essentially invite your friends and family anytime to your “office.” It’s one of the things I love most about working in the hospitality industry — my loved ones can celebrate with me over a meal, you’re meeting new people every day, and strangers become friends. Also, one of the important ways I achieve a balance is to consistently seek opportunities for my businesses to support the community, whether it’s hosting a local charity event or volunteering my time and expertise.
What is one piece of advice you’d offer women just starting who want to start their own business, restaurant or otherwise?
The first step is to create a strong business plan that’s financially sound and conservative. Get everything down on paper, as this creates the foundation for your work moving forward. With restaurants in particular, it’s also important to look at every aspect of the business — from the atmosphere to social media presence to the marketing plan. Of course you need to have fantastic food, but that is just one piece of the puzzle. Above all else, love what you do. Starting any kind of business is like having a baby — you have to love it and constantly nurture it.
And lastly: what’s your favorite item on the menu?
If I have to choose one, then it would be the pho. It’s prepared exactly the way I make it at home, with an oxtail and beef broth that’s cooking for 24 hours and absolutely no artificial flavorings.
Yum! Save us a place at the table — we’ll be checking out The District by Hannah An pho sure.
Check out The District by Hannah An for a look at the delectable dishes offered and to make reservation, and to keep up with all of the happenings at The District by Hannah An, head on over to Facebook and Twitter.