To say that 2015 has been a banner year for L.A. restaurants would perhaps be a lie — there have been fewer major attention-grabbing openings this year than in years past. And yet, as I look over the places that have seized my attention in these last 12 months, I see an L.A. scene emerging that is more true to the soul of this city than in any other year. We’ve gained so many weirder, smaller, less Eurocentric restaurants this year.
As you read my top 10 picks, you might notice the prevalence of Asian and Mexican spots, which take up more than half of this list. We’ve always said we’re a city that isn’t bound by the European sensibilities that dominate on the East Coast, and this year that’s become obvious not just in a few exciting openings but in the majority of them.
So how do we define a banner year? Perhaps growing into our true selves as a dining city qualifies after all.
10. Everson Royce Bar
What do you get when you take one of the city’s most passionate wine purveyors and a James Beard Award–winning chef and have them open a bar together? You get Everson Royce Bar, the Arts District drinking hole conceived by Randy Clement of Silverlake Wine and Matt Molina, previously chef at a little place you may have heard of called Osteria Mozza. In many ways ERB is a fairly simple operation: long, backlit bar facing some banquette seating; a large kitchen abutting a hallway to the outdoor space; a huge, string light–festooned back patio with picnic tables and a bocce court; a short menu of classic drinking food from all over the world. Molina’s food is hardly groundbreaking here — there are no cheffy twists on dishes, just familiar bar snacks perfectly realized. But somehow, those elements — together with beverage director Chris Ojeda’s fantastic cocktails — make for the neighborhood bar of your dreams. There’s a lot to be said for doing something straightforward and doing it very, very well. 1936 E. Seventh St., downtown; (213) 335-6166, erbla.com.
9. The Arthur J
It's hard to resist the charms of the Arthur J, David Lefevre's new Manhattan Beach restaurant. If a steakhouse is all about a projection of American fantasy, then the Arthur J spins that fantasy particularly well. The restaurant's decor is an imagining of the glossy swagger of the 1950s, all geometrically latticed room dividers made from honey-toned wood, tastefully space-age light fixtures, and carpets and upholstering that have the gray and navy chromatism of a well-made suit. Cocktails provide clever twists on the classics, and those "twists," along with the forward-thinking wine list, are really the only details of the restaurant that veer toward modernity. The food is almost all throwback, down to a pot roast served from white Pyrex with a blue curlicued design, a vessel that typically wouldn't be seen in an upscale steakhouse but that graced the kitchens of most housewives circa 1959. Are the steaks cooked well? Do they deliver that meaty tang, that carnivorous joy, the char and blood and gratifying balance between tender and toothsome? They are and they do, particularly the dry-aged prime, which comes in a variety of very expensive cuts. Great steak, it turns out, is an indulgence that never gets old. 903 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach; (310) 878-9620, thearthurj.com.
8. Trois Familia
What will spring forth next from the minds of Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo? The trio, now with a trio of “Trois” restaurants, has followed up Trois Mec and Petit Trois with Trois Familia, a funky little spot in a Silver Lake strip mall that is part French, part Mexican and 100 percent hipster fantasy. And what a fun fantasy. The restaurant, which is open for breakfast and brunch daily and has no liquor license, would fall under the weight of its own silliness if not for the quality of the cooking, which is fantastic. You put your name on a list out front and wait to be called to a communal picnic table, there to dine on dishes such as “hash brown chilaquiles,” which means hash browns in a pool of hot sauce with an egg on top, or a garlic butter and bean burrito that is as delicious as it is fundamentally whacked. There’s a lot of that here — Frankenstein dishes that should be terrible, and would be terrible if it weren’t for the cooks in charge. But with these three at the helm, even the silliest idea turns out to be pretty damn awesome. 3510 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 725-7800, troisfamilia.com.
7. Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen
Rocio's Mexican Kitchen is a modest affair. The small wedge of a building from renowned mole queen Rocio Camacho operates mainly as a takeout place where you order at a counter, and it's possible to pick up a burrito and never get wind of the more exciting possibilities of eating here. But there’s way more to this place than meets the eye. It wouldn't be a Camacho restaurant without a focus on moles, and the Oaxaqueño, in particular, is fantastically silky and has a depth of flavor that's downright profound — this is mole that might be cast in the starring role of some magical-realism novel, the dark sorcery used to seduce a young lover. Camacho's touch with more standard menu items makes them utterly memorable. The empanadas are so light and crispy they're almost ethereal in their shattery crunch. The aguachile has fat shrimp bathed in a scarlet sauce spicy enough to alter your consciousness but also so tangy and balanced that it will have you coming back for bite after excruciating bite. If this food were served in some fancy room somewhere, the salmon would be cooked a little more gently; the ribs under a sticky, spicy, aromatic glaze would perhaps be more tender. There would be wine as delicate as the flavor of the musky huitlacoche sauce you get ladled over mahi mahi. But the wonderful thing about Rocio's Mexican Kitchen is right there in the name. This is Camacho's kitchen, and it's not built on any premise other than showcasing the cooking of an incredibly talented chef. 7891 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens; (562) 659-7800.
We use the term “hole in the wall” as a folksy cliche, but Ricebar truly is a hole in the wall, a teeny kitchen with a door on downtown’s Seventh Street. The entire space — kitchen, storage, fridges, dining area — is 275 square feet. The master of those 275 square feet is chef Charles Olalia, an exceedingly friendly dude who often looks kind of happily stunned to find himself here. It is quite amazing to find him here, given that his last job was executive chef at Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the ritziest restaurants in California. Before that, he worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. At Ricebar, the focus is not on fine dining but rather heirloom, fair-trade Filipino rice bowls in a variety of flavors. The menu is built around the four large steamers in the front window, each holding a different kind of rice. Kalinga Unoy is a rust-colored red rice, grown on ancient terraced fields in Kalinga in the Philippines, then sun-dried. The flavor is lightly nutty and sweet, and it delicately complements Ricebar’s suggested topping, bistek tagalog: tender, pan-seared, soy-marinated beef. There’s black rice covered in hunks of lush avocado, crisp radish, sweet pops of marinated grape tomatoes and tiny, pointy, salty, crunchy fried anchovies. Pork longganisa, a sausage that’s made in-house, comes sliced and accompanied by pickled veggies and has an almost floral and aromatic yet funky flavor that leaves a light, fatty sweetness behind. Olalia will recommend you order this over garlic fried rice and also that you add a fried egg. He’s a wise man in both regards. 419 W. Seventh St., downtown; ricebarla.com.
5. Hatchet Hall
What people outside of the South rarely understand is that the best Southern cooking these days is thoroughly modern and ingredient-driven. If there’s any chef in L.A. who knows how to translate that aesthetic outside of its home region, it’s Hatchet Hall’s Brian Dunsmoor. Dunsmoor and his business partners have converted the former Waterloo and City into an incredibly appealing series of dining rooms and bars, with a patio that looks like a garden party that’s spilled out of the restaurant. The menu is long and wide-ranging, and sometimes the Southern-ness of the place is unmistakable: a plate of sliced fresh tomatoes served with pigeon peas, aged cheddar and fresh herbs, or a skillet-fried quail served with peaches, honey, black pepper and bursts of fresh basil. Other dishes are slightly more subtle in their Southern-ness. Hunks of yellowtail are sandwiched with thin-sliced habanero and juicy peach, all wrapped up in a sliver of translucent fat shaved from a Johnson Mangalitsa country ham. Okra comes with Calabrian chile and pickled garlic (and not a hint of sliminess), and wood-grilled octopus is kissed with lemon aioli and salsa verde. This is a long, diverse, ambitious menu, and it is being executed incredibly well. 12517 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 391-4222, hatchethallla.com.
4. Jon & Vinny’s
So much of pop culture is the filtering of nostalgia through a current sensibility, and no L.A. restaurant in 2015 epitomizes the fun of food and nostalgia and pop culture better than Jon & Vinny’s. At their Italian-American joint across the street from their flagship of awesomeness, Animal, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have declared their intention to create a restaurant like the ones in which they grew up eating. It’s a place where you can bring the kids and where you might also spot Kanye West and entourage, dining on pizza and pasta and soft-serve ice cream. And, man, what great pizza it is. The L.A. Woman is an instant classic; its crust is firm enough that its burrata topping doesn't collapse your slice, which can be delivered to your mouth with grace and ease. For the most part, the chefs shy away from the kind of creativity you find across the street. Instead, you get meatballs that are an absolute paragon of the form, a blend of short rib and pork shoulder that's mild and tangy in all the right ways, served with deep-red marinara. There are touches of L.A. modernism as well, in the marinated Calabrian tuna bruschetta with crunchy mirepoix, in the farmers market–driven salads and in a few of the non-meaty pastas, which are downright restrained. The thing that shines through is the chefs' sense of joy, which makes Jon & Vinny’s irresistible. 412 N. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax; (323) 334-3369, jonandvinnys.com.
Baroo is that most wonderful of restaurants, a place that is almost impossible to describe in part because no one would believe it to be true — a modernist, health-focused Korean fantasy inside a sparse room located on a decidedly unglamorous stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard just east of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There's no sign, and the room is tiny and simple: white walls, a communal table, a counter from which you order, a few stools along another counter against the wall, a blackboard menu and some shelving in back holding jars of things in various stages of fermentation. Owner Kwang Uh, a South Korean native, has had a fascinating career trajectory, filled with stints at impressive restaurants such as Daniel and Nobu. More recently, he's staged at Noma and other world-famous restaurants in Europe, and you can see the extreme fine-dining training and deep philosophy in Kwang’s cooking. Handmade pasta ribbons support a kaleidoscope of celery and celeriac: thinly pureed celeriac, pickled julienned celery, crispy chips made from celeriac and a dusky powder they call "celery ash." The dish takes one flavor profile and layers it over itself with multiple variations in texture and technique. The result is lightly fruity and creamy and utterly beguiling. There are a lot of grains being put to use, including a few dishes with Job's tears, which you may have seen sold as Chinese pearl barley. They're best here in the dish called noorook, which also has farro and kamut, and is mixed with roasted koji beet cream, concentrated kombu dashi, seeds, nuts, finger lime and rose onion pickle. Baroo is a weird, exceptionally personal, only-in-L.A. kind of treat. Is there any better kind? 5706 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 819-4344, baroola.strikingly.com.
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2. Broken Spanish
Chef Ray Garcia always seemed destined for more than the casual, upscale hotel cooking he’s been practicing for the last few years at Fig in Santa Monica. And who better to notice and recruit such a talent than Bill Chait, former head of Sprout Restaurants, the group that seems to own about three-fourths of L.A.'s hottest restaurants? My guess is that Chait met with Garcia and asked him what he really wanted to be cooking. And Garcia said, "Modern Mexican food.” At Broken Spanish, which takes over the former Rivera space, that’s just what Garcia is doing: upscale, modern Mexican that goes great with cocktails and showcases this chef’s considerable talent. It was a whole fish that won me over completely on an early visit: a red snapper served over "green clamato" (a jaunty green sauce with citrus tang and a whisper of the ocean) and accompanied by clams, avocado and soft leeks left in chunks large enough to showcase their sweet, vegetal flavor. Garcia is playing with the kind of inventiveness that feels natural, and he puts deliciousness first. This menu has a lot of comfort food that's exciting as well as soothing. You can have tamales stuffed with lamb neck or with a delightful mix of favas, peas and Swiss chard. There are touches of true modernism, too, such as a beautiful jumble of snap peas, sea beans, black sesame and creamy requesón cheese. It’s heartening to see Mexican food take the forefront in the upscale dining conversation, and also heartening to see Garcia take his rightful position as the guy to lead that conversation. 1050 S. Flower St., downtown; (213) 749-1460, brokenspanish.com.
I wasn’t expecting Cassia to be the best new restaurant of 2015 when I walked into the soaring art deco space next to the Santa Monica Public Library. In fact, I wasn’t really even thinking of it that way by the time I left on my first visit. Cassia is a spot that creeps up on you slowly — the space is so big and flashy, its feel so of-the-moment, it would be easy to down a few well-made cocktails and order a couple of dishes from the long, slightly overwhelming menu and think, “Nice place, good flavors” — yet never notice that this isn’t just another delightful but familiar Asian-ish hot spot. But on second and third visit, the exceptional quality of chef Bryant Ng’s cooking started to dawn on me. Every single dish that hit the table elicited a reaction of “Damn, this is good!” Cassia is the project of Ng (formerly of the much-missed Spice Table), his wife, Kim Ng, and husband-and-wife duo Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb of Rustic Canyon/Huckleberry fame. Ng has brought some of the sensibility that made Spice Table such a favorite, but the context is slightly different: Here, he’s riffing on the interplay between French and Vietnamese cuisines, both the influences that are born of the historical French occupation of Vietnam and crossovers born of Ng’s imagination. And so, you can order a chilled seafood platter in various sizes, but rather than the tower of chilled crustacean bits that’s customary, you get a sampling of Ng’s cooked and raw cold seafood creations: a bowl of large prawns bathed in an aromatic Vietnamese hot sauce; smoked salmon dip topped with fresh salmon roe and served with grilled country bread; hunks of raw scallop in chile oil with tiny bits of ham and corn and gobs of fresh herbs. Other French/Vietnamese mashups here, such as the pho-influenced pot-au-feu, are striking in their cleverness but also in just how well they sum up the aim of this restaurant: an elegant ode to what both Europe and Asia have taught us about deliciousness. 1314 Seventh St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-6699, cassiala.com.