Vanderpump Rules is—if you don’t know—a spinoff of sorts from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and it has been a fixture of Bravo programming and a fan favorite since 2013. The show, which just wrapped its tenth season, revolves around Lisa Vanderpump, a former Real Housewife (until 2019) and the purported proprietress of a restaurant empire anchored by the West Hollywood eatery SUR, whose messy, sexy, star-crossed front-of-house staff make up the bulk of the Vanderpump Rules cast.
Many friends of mine obsess over Vanderpump Rules and I’ve always felt left out. And with 200-ish episodes in the can, the idea of trying to catch up seemed daunting. Last week, I happened upon a possible solution: binging the first 10 minutes of the first episode of each season. It ended up offering a digestible recap of the show, which seems to involve a revolving cast of about 12 attractive people, who feud, flirt, and fight while “working” at what seems to be either a Potemkin restaurant or an elaborate money laundering scheme.
Los Angeles has a reputation as a town full of flaky, fame-seeking hot people. Front-of-house restaurant staffers also tend to have reputations for flaky, fame-seeking hotness, making Vanderpump Rules sort of like the LA of LA. Beloved for its unabashed trashiness and almost winking messiness, the show offers a distilled essence of Los Angeles: the city’s stereotypes in their purest form, fast-acting and unattenuated with nuance, authenticity, or surprise. In perfect LA fashion, none of the showbiz careers the SUR staff all claimed to be seeking in the first episode 10 years ago seem to have panned out in the years since. Unless, of course, you count the perfect showbiz careers playing aspiring showbiz seekers on this reality show—a cosmically elegant, fake-it-until-you-make-it-faking-it LA success story. (It has been reported, though not confirmed, that Vanderpump was making $1 million per season by the end of her Real Housewives run.)
Lisa Vanderpump herself represents that ultimate of LA types: the purportedly self-made success story with vaguely murky origins and quixotic finances, a close proximity to wealth, and a slightly uncanny accent. Cultivating a facade that bespeaks luxury and mild exoticism seems to be her main skill; an English person seemingly too LA for England, in the Simon Cowell mold.
A former teen actress who went on to appear in “over 100 commercials” and eventually in Baywatch Nights, Vanderpump married Ken Todd, the owner of a London nightclub where she was helping out as a receptionist, in 1982. Together, the two sold their London restaurant and moved to LA in 2005. Vanderpump went on to “design 26 bars, restaurants, and clubs” (according to her first person 2017 Bravo bio), including the jewel of their rhinestone tiara, SUR, where all the principle Vanderpump Rules cast members either work or have worked, depending on that season’s particular drama.
And then there’s Pump, an offshoot of SUR that sits a few blocks away from the flagship. Vanderpump recently announced that Pump would close, a victim of—according to her—rising rents (the building’s landlords claim otherwise).
It’s notable the degree to which Vanderpump Rules avoids depicting cooks, chefs, or really anything directly related to the food at SUR. Which makes sense, given that none of the LA stereotypes Vanderpump Rules trades in exactly scream “people who like to eat”—season 8 addition Charli famously revealed that she had never before tasted pasta.
With Pump set to close, it felt like right time to take a pilgrimage to the source, to taste and experience what the Vanderpumps have actually been selling that has allowed them to employ so many gloriously sexy idiots for all these years, beyond the sexy idiots themselves, the selling of which is self-evidently lucrative.
After paying the $20 for parking down the street, the first hurdle to sampling this food is finding the actual hostess stand amidst Pump’s sprawling facade. My friend Matt and I make our way through the bar at the corner end of the complex, through an interior that resembles (as I imagine it) something like Dave Navarro’s boudoir. Think “Casbah tattoo parlor.”
Through the bar and past the DJ stand—it feels right that we would see the DJ stand before the hostess stand, with dishwasher-cum-DJ James Kennedy, another too-LA-for-England-style guy, being one of the show’s most memorable characters—a large manager finally guides us to the reservation book. There, a woman with shiny blonde hair and thickly-applied but impeccable makeup directs us to our table.
Past an open-air patio whose olive trees provide a natural canopy, our table sits against a natural wood wall overlooking the courtyard, like a shabby chic take on a poolside cabana. I take my seat against a red wine-colored banquette flanked by violet velour throw pillows, directly underneath a sign that says “Wine makes my clothes fall off.”
The cushion is broken down and uncomfortable, leaving me listing 20 degrees starboard. A lumpy throne for the idiot gawker. The experience begins to remind me of a viral Jake Brodes tweet about a fictional Mexican food place called “Floofy’s,” where the tacos cost $9 and “there’s a bunch of neon signs everywhere that say Be A Messy Bitch and Me Gusta Tequila.”
In the first episode of Vanderpump Rules (“Welcome To Sur,” 2013), Lisa Vanderpump explains that she looks “for a really different energy in the people that work here, and that’s what makes them a great server at SUR. It’s not necessarily their table-waiting skills.” Server Kristen Doute then adds (saying, perhaps, what Vanderpump isn’t legally allowed to), “People always comment on the wait staff, and it’s true, we’re all really good looking. Sorry.”
When our server at Pump arrives, he is, as Matt describes, “almost bionically handsome,” a slightly built, lightly-stubbled guy with dark hair, a megawatt smile, and a faintly Latin accent wearing a tailored shirt with loosened tie (the Pump uniform). He looks like a tribute band front man, or the star of a regional Rock of Ages production. Quickly he proves that he is, actually, a very good server—attentive, personable, and knowledgeable about the menu.
It is a menu which features such offerings as the Pump-Tini, the Big Pinky (Vanderpump is known for driving a pink Rolls Royce, among other pink luxury cars), the Pumpopolitan, the SUR Strawberrini, and a Pumpagranite Margarita. Like all writers, I cannot resist a good portmanteau, the more absurdly awkward-sounding the better. These clearly aim to sound ridiculous and, fair play to them, hit their mark.
I end up ordering an $18 “Spicy Cowboy” (a concoction of mezcal and ginger beer) and a $4 Coke for my sober dining partner. We put in for a few starters, including the Rock Shrimp Tempura ($20), the Heirloom Tomatoes with Creamy Burrata ($17), and the Kales on a Date ($17). For entrees, we order the Pinky Pump Burger, the Grilled Skirt Steak With Lisa’s Potato Salad, and some Handmade Mushroom Ravioli to share ($23, $38, and $20).
Aside from the boring corny stuff every tourist trap is legally required to serve (eg, an overpriced Caesar with optional overpriced proteins), the menu has a lot of things I’d normally actually order. Beet salad, beef carpaccio, burrata. Not exactly reinventing the wheel, but it’s not Cajun tequila-lime shrimp alfredo explosion! either. It seems in keeping with the essential Vanderpump MO—a reminder that you too, are very basic.
My cocktail arrives shockingly quickly, the shrimp and burrata soon after. The cocktail is smoky and tart, not out of this world but more or less exactly what you’d expect from a mezcal drink. The burrata is, if not the saddest burrata I’ve ever seen, certainly in the running; raw tomatoes, barely dressed, with a paltry amount of cheese and some dry grocery store bread. The shrimp tempura is, like Vanderpump Rules itself, slightly trashy and sort of lazily executed but undeniably delicious. We hork it greedily, eyeing each other in that mutual expression of, Is it okay if I eat that last chunk?
Our very good kale salad arrives alongside some more, even sadder bread, which we devour anyway during the interminable wait for entrees. The down time does, though, afford us the opportunity for ample people watching.
An extremely fashionable group of men with sharp eyebrows and shiny shirts (West Hollywood, after all) sits down to our right. On our left sits a more Bohemian mix of artistic men and normcore women with monochromatic tattoos. On the walk to the bathroom I overhear snippets of some women’s stage-whispered gossip about, what else, Vanderpump Rules. In the very back of the restaurant, to the rear of the tree-shaded courtyard, sit three or four tables of gray-haired older folks, quietly dining and chatting, the only visibly aged patrons in attendance. I wonder whether this seating was arranged because the grayhairs are secretly powerful folks being shielded from riff raff, or if it’s simply a method of keeping the old and unfashionable out of view.
At long last, after I’ve ordered a $15 glass of Vanderpump Chardonnay (oaky, floral, mostly solid), our entrees finally arrive. Basically, a golf course hamburger with above-average frozen fries, and a very good, marinated-tasting skirt steak with some average, turkey bacon-infused mashed potatoes on the side. Both come garnished with the de rigeur handfuls of half-wilted spring mix. We share the bowl of exactly six round mushroom raviolis, underseasoned in the California restaurant pasta fashion. It’s all fine, and by that point, we’re famished, so we devour it all like mommy’s best little piggies. Final tally: $202 for a two-hour dinner.
Vanderpump has described Villa Blanca (a restaurant of hers that closed in 2020) as “the place where you take your wife.” SUR, she says, is “the place where you take your mistress.” Pump, it seems, is the place where you take fans of a reality show.
It sells the perfect LA experience to actual out-of-towners and local out-of-towners alike: paying too much for something basic because of its tenuous connection to show business. Ultimately leaving you with the question, How did this thing get so famous? Which, in turn, forces you to sit with the most obvious answer: Probably because of people like me.