Our 99 Essential Restaurants issue dropped last week, and in celebration, we're making a few lists to help you narrow down which essential restaurants you ought to hit up. We already pointed out 10 essential restaurants where you can eat for under $10, and today we're looking at places that are great for vegetarian diners.
Not all (in fact hardly any) of these restaurants are specifically vegetarian in nature; rather, these are places where everyone will be happy — carnivores, omnivores and meat-free eaters. With all the varied diets L.A. diners are known for, it's only right that our essential restaurants reflect that breadth as well.
10. Superba Food + Bread
Restaurateur Paul Hibler’s second restaurant in the Superba family is one of those places that embodies the personality and carefree style of Venice so perfectly, it became that city’s de facto living room (or maybe breakfast nook) as soon as it opened. A former auto body shop, Superba Food and Bread was opened up and glassed in so that it feels as if the building is made of pure air and light — an accomplishment made all the more impressive by the jumbled urban streetscape of Lincoln Avenue just outside its door. An all-day affair, it’s not just a restaurant — it’s a cafe, a patisserie and a bread bakery, as well as a pretty great place to grab breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are house-baked bread and pastries, and the kitchen turns out the kind of pseudo-healthy, ultra-fresh California cuisine that makes full use of grains and veggies. There are things on toast, small plates and (often Mediterranean-influenced) larger plates, wood-grilled vegetables and meats cooked on a rotisserie. Mainly, it’s just a laid-back place to hang out and sip a macchiato or glass of wine while basking in that oh-so-Venice vibe.
9. Bäco Mercat
Among the myriad emotional comforts our city has to offer, one of the most crucial to us is the knowledge that you can drop in to Bäco Mercat on any given day (at midday or dinnertime), plonk yourself at the bar and partake in the bright, soulful cooking of Josef Centeno. Centeno has basically laid claim to this couple of historic blocks, with Bar Amá around the corner, Orsa & Winston next door to that, and now Ledlow (né Pete’s) taking up the space beside Bäco. But Bäco Mercat stands resplendent as Centeno’s original vision for what downtown needed: a place that reinvented the sandwich (or is it a taco? A wrap?) in the form of a bäco, a flatbread/pita arrangement that smooshes soft bread with tangy sauce with creative fillings, both meat and veggie-based. The rest of the menu darts all over the globe, and reveals more about Centeno’s point of view than it adheres to any particular trend or style. Vegetable dishes such as sugar snap pea and pear salad with grapefruit and burrata remain utterly original in the face of an onslaught of derivative vegetable arrangements elsewhere. Be it a smoky romesco on a veggie-driven flat bread or a whole roasted chicken with saffron honey, something at Bäco Mercat will get you, and get you good. How comforting.
There may be no restaurant as emblematic of the breezy, stylish Venice lifestyle as Gjelina, no place where the people are more beautiful, the vibe more Cali-chic, the food more true to our gourmet/carefree aspirations. The pizzas have crispy edges and are topped with ingredients such as burrata and wild nettles; the vegetable dishes might include roasted fennel with white wine, blood orange and fennel pollen; the wine list is long and engrossing. The magic trick of Gjelina is that food this serious (and it is, seriously good) can be served in a room so effortlessly casual, the brick back patio all leafy and twinkly, the crowded dining room looking like a wood cabin met the beach and they fell in love. You only have to walk past this restaurant and see the crowds of people waiting outside, and peek through the windows at the people snacking on charcuterie and bowls of house-made pasta, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “I want to be them. I want to be there.” You’re going to have to wait a long time for a table, but the good news is that you, too, can be part of the fantasy.
When you’re in the realm of ultra-expensive meals, the ones that hit well over three figures before you’ve even considered a glass of wine let alone tax and tip, it can be hard to discern true value. Of course, it depends what’s important to you: Luxurious surroundings? Obsequious service? If your main interest is in food, in particular gorgeously plated, highly fussed over, brightly seasonal, modern Japanese cuisine, we recommend n/naka, the quiet Palms kaiseki restaurant run by Niki Nakayama. Nakayama says she may be the only female kaiseki chef in the world — kaiseki being the formal, multicourse, seasonal style of Japanese dining. Regardless of whether she is unique in that regard, her restaurant and food (much of it grown in the restaurant’s garden) are certainly singular in Los Angeles. The 13 courses will take you through different aspects of the season, be it a “modern interpretation of sashimi” composed of Japanese scallop with bell pepper gelee, golden kiwi and dill, or her “chef’s choice dish,” which is usually a stunning spaghettini with shaved black abalone, pickled cod roe and Burgundian truffles. (A vegetarian tasting menu is also available.) The quiet room and humble service have a calming effect, allowing you to fully concentrate on the meal before you. As a way to blow a couple hundred bucks, you could do a lot worse.
It’s quite a trick that Walter and Margarita Manzke have pulled off at République, a kind of sophisticated elasticity that allows the restaurant to be whatever you need at any given moment. The ambition of the husband-and-wife chef team was to create a modern restaurant that served many functions — a sunny cafe and bakery for breakfast and lunch, a neighborhood spot for a casual dinner, and a grand restaurant serving refined French- and Italian-influenced cooking of the highest caliber — and it manages to be all of these things simultaneously. The gorgeous space, carved from the courtyard and façade of the castle-like historic building that housed Campanile for more than 20 years, becomes the staging area for many kinds of meals. On the weekend, stop by for brunch, when the light streams in through the front windows and the bowls of shakshouka and kimchi fried rice are devoured by happy diners at long wooden tables. In the morning, you can grab a fresh juice or a black sesame croissant and make use of the free Wi-Fi. At night, everything from caviar service to chips and dip is available, and you can make a dinner of a $14 rustic Alsatian-style tart or a $125 premium dry-aged côte de bœuf. Accompanying all this is sommelier Taylor Parsons’ incredible wine list, which is a thing of great beauty, and suitable for whichever of République’s many charming personalities you choose to engage.
5. Rustic Canyon
Kanye West once boasted that he had forgotten better rhymes than most rappers had ever thought of (to paraphrase). After multiple visits to Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon — and a few months staring longingly at head chef Jeremy Fox’s Instagram — you develop the sense that the former chef of Napa’s Ubuntu has similar creative qualities. The best dishes on the menu seem to be available for the briefest glimmer of time, such as a soup of deeply caramelized sunchokes offset with ripe persimmons, or a gorgeous plate of roughly torn falafel and Monterey squid accented with aioli nero. Rustic Canyon also has more consistent pleasures: The dark and handsome dining room remains one of the best places in the city to unwind with a plate of charcuterie and wine from an offbeat producer you’ve yet to hear of, and then end with a stellar seasonal dessert from the mind of Jun Tan.
If Jessica Koslow’s East Hollywood cafe were just a little less inventive, just a smidge less delicious, perhaps it would have gone unnoticed by everyone except the coffee- and toast-hungry surrounding neighborhood. But despite Sqirl’s guise as an unremarkable hipster coffee shop, Koslow’s cooking tells a different story. It tells of her experience in stellar restaurants and bakeries all over the world, from Atlanta to Melbourne. It tells of someone deeply invested in her city and her region, and the ingredients native to both. Mostly, it tells of a chef who combines an urge to cook for her neighborhood with a keen sense of creativity and flavor — where else in L.A. (or America) could you get seared turnips and shishito peppers with mojo picón and garlic greens, or a Beecher’s cheddar sandwich with kale and house-made tomato/coriander jam? (Koslow’s line of Sqirl jams is perhaps our favorite gift for out-of-towners when we want to show off our local bounty.) The lines to order at the counter are long (particularly on weekends), the parking is difficult, the seating scarce. The hassle is worth it, always. Sqirl proves, again and again, just how far a little inventiveness, deliciousness and skill can go.
3. Trois Mec
The little strip mall at the corner of Melrose and Highland is perhaps one of the least likely locations for a serious hub of French/American gastronomy, yet Trois Mec and Petit Trois, the sister restaurants from Ludo Lefebvre (along with investors/co-masterminds Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo), are more charming partially because of their behind-a-gas-station disguise. Two years in, Trois Mec remains a thrilling place to dine, the tiny room — in what looks like a Raffalo’s Pizza — the staging area for tasting menus as inventive and umami-focused as food can be. Over your five courses you’re likely to find delicious oddities such as roasted eel atop a white chocolate mousseline and Granny Smith apples, or Carolina Gold rice pudding topped with a shower of matcha green tea powder with a cured golden egg yolk nestled at its center. A vegetarian menu is also available, though you'll have to let them know ahead of time so they can source special dishes just for you. It will cost you around $100 per person including tax and tip (bought ahead of time as a nonrefundable ticket), the music will be loud, there are no menu choices. It’s a total blast.
Since moving up the street to a larger, more festive location, Suzanne Goin and Carolyn Styne’s A.O.C. has become a kind of archetype for the modern Californian restaurant. What does that mean, exactly? It means big, flavorful seasonal salads, crispy focaccia, beautifully balanced and inventive vegetable sides and big, generous platters of Euro-Cali cuisine to share with the table. It means one of the best wine lists on the coast, inclusive of our state’s viniferous bounty but with a focus on France and fun asides, like selections from Slovenia and Hungary. It means a gorgeous indoor-outdoor dining room that positively thrums with good energy, and plenty of bar seating for the casual diners and serious drinkers among us. Oh, and behind that bar is Christiaan Rollich, one of the country’s most promising up-and-coming crafters of cocktails. It means an utterly home-grown restaurant we can be immensely proud to call our own.
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It’s amazing that it took as long as it did for a truly trendy, upscale vegan restaurant to emerge, one with great cocktails, a killer wine list and an atmosphere to match its swanky Melrose Avenue location. In the two years since Crossroads opened, chic vegan restaurants have become a bit of a trend, with even a couple of meat-loving chefs jumping on the bandwagon. But Crossroads remains the standard-bearer, the place you take your meat-free friends on their birthdays and secretly enjoy your meal every bit as much as you would if it were sprinkled with bacon. Chef Tal Ronnen and crew focus on the vegetables themselves rather than messing around too much with fake meat (aside from a couple of “comforting classics” for the vegan desperate for veal scallopini), and each dish is a fully realized composition, making for a meal that’s far more compelling than the usual grain bowl or collection of sides. Your rapini might come with black garlic and toasted hazelnuts; your “crab cakes” made from hearts of palm might make you swear off the fishy version for good.