Downtown's explosive growth has been one of the most widely discussed topics in the restaurant world for the past few years. Now we are beginning to see those planted seeds bear delicious, delicious fruit. What was once a scattered collection of very good places to eat has morphed and matured into a fully realized dining scene that ranks among the most exciting places to eat in the country. In a matter of blocks you can find mind-bending pastrami, Filipino rice bowls and some of the best sushi that doesn’t involve a flight to Japan. There has never been a better time to be a diner in L.A.’s urban core, and things are only looking up.
It's still the early days for former French Laundry chef Timothy Hollingsworth's grand-statement restaurant adjacent to the Broad Museum. But there's barely a room in town with more energy and excitement than Otium, which – with a Damien Hirst mural covering an outside wall – is a piece of artwork in and of itself. Don't expect formality or pomp; the service and style and menu are decidedly casual, even as you munch on sea urchin atop brioche spears wrapped in lardo and daubed with truffle butter. The long list of smallish plates has influences from all over the globe, from fancified falafel to prawns with chili, lime and coconut curry. What could be more comically American, though, than a foie gras funnel cake? If you wanted to show an extraterrestrial what upscale dining looks like in 2016, Otium and its informal extravagance may be the perfect field trip. –Besha Rodell 222 S. Hope St., downtown; (213) 935-8500, otiumla.com.
9. Wexler's Deli
From just about the day Wexler's opened, L.A.'s food obsessives started asking the question: Is this now the best pastrami sandwich in town? In light of our city's devotion to Langer's, the question seemed to be heresy, yet it isn't unreasonable. At its best, the pastrami at Wexler's rivals any in this city or any other: deeply rich, slightly smoky, sweet at its edges with a prickle of pepper and clove. Located in a stand in Grand Central Market, Wexler's is highly traditional, an old-school Jewish deli, pure and simple. Chef Micah Wexler smokes his own fish, cures his own pastrami, makes his own pickles and generally obsesses over the quality of every last detail. There may be no better outcome of all that obsessing than Wexler's lox: Slick, supple and delicate, the cured salmon tastes like a rushing mountain river in the same way an ultra-fresh oyster tastes like the soul of the ocean. –B.R. 317 S. Broadway, downtown; no phone, wexlersdeli.com.
8. Sushi Gen
There are many reasons to stand outside Sushi Gen and wait your turn for a table or a spot at the sushi bar. In a city full of sushi – rarefied sushi, expensive sushi, crappy sushi – Sushi Gen bridges the gap between quality and affordability. And it’s a pretty cool experience, to boot. Request a seat at the sushi bar and marvel as the line of sushi chefs dole out some of the highest-quality, lowest-cost raw fish in America. Rumor has it that it’s the buying power and longevity that affords them this miracle, a long-standing relationship with purveyors that gives Sushi Gen first choice of the fish coming into L.A. The lunch specials and dinner plates (not available at the sushi bar) deliver the best bang for your buck, but we prefer to sit and talk to the chefs, seek out the best of the day and order à la carte. It’s no wonder half the chefs in town name Sushi Gen as a favorite hangout, a place where you can revel in L.A.’s sushi wealth without needing to have a ton of wealth yourself. –B.R. 422 E. Second St., Little Tokyo; (213) 617-0552, sushigen-dtla.com.
When Redbird opened in December 2014, it felt like a necessary addition. Downtown needed a major, shiny new restaurant to anchor its burgeoning dining scene. It needed a place where the well-heeled would be happy to flock pre-theater, a restaurant for business or pleasure, a one-stop-pleases-all kind of place that nonetheless feels special. Redbird is a restaurant for when the mood strikes to live high on the hog, a place for eating in a decadent but sturdy fashion. Chef Neal Fraser excels at big hunks of protein, be it an extravagant slab of seared foie gras served with tart quince and cocoa nibs, or a rack of red wattle pork accompanied by roasted apples and turnips, the pig fat crisped just so at the edges, the interior juicy and piggy. The $110, 36-ounce porterhouse could feed a table of four and provides some deeply gratifying bites of beef, tangy and charred and bloody. Built in the former rectory and courtyard of the now-deconsecrated cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles known as Vibiana, the space is a glorious ode to the past and present of downtown Los Angeles. –B.R. 114 E. Second St., downtown; (213) 788-1191, redbird.la.
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. –B.R. 419 W. Seventh St., downtown; no phone, ricebarla.com.
5. Orsa & Winston
When Josef Centeno launched Orsa & Winston in 2014, next door to his bustling Tex-Mex cantina Bar Amá, there were doubters. Could the chef who was so instrumental in the casualization of downtown’s restaurant scene really pull off a place that served only tasting menus? Two years in, the answer is a resounding yes – Centeno’s cooking is both elegant and brash, seamlessly melding the austerity of Japanese cuisine with the decadence of Italy in a way that was probably prescient two years ago and manages to still feel exciting today. Dry-aged beef carpaccio comes dusted with sansho, a citrusy Japanese peppercorn, while the risotto course, crowned with uni and velvety Parmesan cream, isn't really risotto at all but a rich porridge made from Satsuki rice. The type of opulence dealt out at Orsa & Winston, either in a six-course or 10-course dinner, is one of simplicity and restraint: smoky yam grilled over Japanese charcoal, turnips braised in butter until they collapse or a delicate salad of shaved mushrooms and crunchy pea tendrils in truffle–sour plum vinaigrette. Yet even with its ambitious and creative food, Orsa & Winston manages to dispense with many of the stodgier trappings associated with high-end restaurants. Service is relaxed but attentive, good wine is poured at accessible prices, and the warm, occasionally raucous dining room feels more like a dinner party. If this is the future of fine dining, we'll take it. –Garrett Snyder 122 W. Fourth St., downtown; (213) 687-0300, orsaandwinston.com.
4. Bäco Mercat
One day, the City of Los Angeles may well rename this part of downtown “Centenoville” for the delicious influence chef Josef Centeno has brought to these couple of blocks, where all four of his restaurants reside. Bar Amá, his ode to Tex Mex, is as fun a place to eat and drink as anywhere in town. Orsa & Winston delivers one of the most interesting, thoughtful tasting menu experiences around. Ledlow is a model for the modern neighborhood diner turned sleek and gourmet. 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 and meaty meat, whether it be beef tongue schnitzel or oxtail hash. 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. Hamachi crudo with Abkhazian chili spice is tangy, fresh and pert; vegetable dishes such as shishito pepper and baby kale panzanella remain utterly original in the face of an onslaught of derivative vegetable arrangements elsewhere. Be it a smoky romesco on a veggie-driven flatbread or a yellowtail collar with yuzu koshu and walnut viniaigrette, something at Bäco Mercat will get you, and get you good. –B.R. 408 S. Main St., downtown; (213) 687-8808, bacomercat.com.
Bestia remains one of L.A.’s few true perennial hot spots. Three years in, the restaurant is still thrilling trend seekers and serious food nerds alike. The winning formula, concocted by restaurateur Bill Chait and chefs Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis, consists of an industrial-chic space in the bottom of a loft building on the edge of the Arts District, aggressively cheffy Italian cooking and stellar drinks both at the bar and on the wine list. This is a profoundly fun place to eat, the energy in the room matching the gleeful combinations on the plate, such as grilled beef tongue with marinated lentils and pickled Jerusalem artichokes, or the perennial favorite of chicken gizzards with roasted beets and Belgian endive. There are big chunks of meat for mains, or whole roasted fish. Or you can come in and get a simple pasta or pizza. If you can get in, that is – even on a Tuesday night the bar is four deep by 6:30, and reservations are a practical impossibility. It’s not hard to see why. –B.R. 2121 E. Seventh Place, downtown; (213) 514-5724, bestiala.com.
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The manner in which Hiroyuki Naruke arrived in Los Angeles is a tale unto itself, coaxed as he was by three downtown lawyers who saw the opportunity to entice the revered sushi master into a minimalist, comforting restaurant space steps away from their office building. The real story, however, is what the chef of Q has done since, introducing diners to an intricate style of Edo-era omakase dining, which prizes the delicate curing of halibut wrapped in kelp, briny translucent shrimp from Toyama Bay swaddled in nori or a gentle brush of miso over a pat of uni. Each meal ends with a simple square of tamago presented on a ceramic plate. Humble in appearance, the sweet egg omelette bursts with the deep oceanic flavors of scallop and shrimp it’s made with – at Q, nothing is quite as humble as it appears. –G.S. 521 W. Seventh St., downtown; (213) 225-6285, qsushila.com.
1. Broken Spanish
Chef Ray Garcia always seemed destined for more than the casual, upscale hotel cooking he was practicing 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. –B.R. 1050 S. Flower St., downtown; (213) 749-1460, brokenspanish.com.