The dishes at Beer Belly in Koreatown have a certain decadent, yet comforting flair — just like that of your favorite song. And it’s no wonder, because Beer Belly executive chef Wes Lieberher was once the lead singer of the rock band Kill Verona. The successful Philly-based band toured and had a large following, but then Lieberher was diagnosed with tinnitus five years ago. “Realistically, I had to give it up,” Lieberher told me. “The doctors said there was no cure for it.” So, then he turned to his other passion: Food.
Today, Lieberher has crafted a Beer Belly menu filled with what Jonathan Gold calls “ingenious drunk food.” A few months ago, I got the chance to sample Beer Belly’s new lunch menu and if you love delicious burgers, I highly recommend you check it out! You may never go back to regular ol’ hamburgers. And if you’re not into burgers, my-oh-my, try the fries and amazing mac and cheese.
Lieberher was also nice enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions about the new menu and his transition from music to food.
What brought you to Los Angeles after you left music?
I was executive chef at a French restaurant in Philly called Vintage and my buddies were starting a food truck out here. They called me and said “You gotta come out here and do with us.” So I said all right and took a chance. Then my other friend was getting married — Joel Madden from Good Charlotte and Nicole Richie — and I did the menu at their wedding, and that was another thing that led me here. I came to LA, started the shop Grindhaus, but they weren’t very prepared. I met Jimmy [Han of Beer Belly], because he was our best customer, so he told me about his place that wasn’t open yet. And when the food truck was souring, I said “Let me come work for you.”
Jimmy had said that he basically gave you free reign with the menu, so what were your goals and plans for the food?
At that point, I had only been in LA for less than a year and it was a growing food scene, but I also noticed it was very healthy. I got a feel that people would want something comforting, so my whole idea was — since the place is called Beer Belly, it’s about beer — super rich, over-the-top, and crazy with everything from scratch. I wanted to keep with the concept and do something for the soul.
What is the most popular dish?
Grilled cheese. It’s one of the consistent favorites since the restaurant opened and it hasn’t stopped since. All the time, day or night.
What is your favorite dish?
I get bored with stuff really easily, but I’d say my personal favorite is probably the braised short rib. I love short rib — if it’s on the menu, I’ll get it. The grilled cheese, too.
What places in LA do you like to eat at?
I frequent some of my buddes’ places. My best friend is the manager of the Pikey and I love it. I have another friend who’s the chef at Cook County. I used to go Gjelina a lot.
What is your process for coming up with new dishes? And how did you come up with the new lunch menu?
We’ve never done burgers — when we opened, Jimmy said not to do burgers, since everyone does burgers. I said all right, but I love burgers and I love doing burgers, so I figured we could have burgers for lunch. Someone could have a different experience whether they came here for lunch or dinner.
The whole thing behind my food is I want people to be inspired to think about their childhood and what they ate, but give them a new version of it. So it’s comforting, but it’s also different in a way
What did you take from music and your creativity with a band into the kitchen?
I write menus like I wrote songs. A lot of chefs cook for themselves, but I try to think of what someone would want to eat and not just for me. That creative process where it’s like you think about what you want to eat, but also what the people who are coming here want to eat. It’s a big part of the process. I just love thinking of different ways to do popular dishes.
Photos By Eric Shin