I tend to dodge these questions, to deflect with counter-questions like "what are you looking for?" or "what genre do you really like" or "it depends very much on what your mood is, the occasion, how much money you want to spend." The truth is, when you write about restaurants for a living, picking bests and favorites is difficult, especially in a city as wide-ranging in its deliciousness as Los Angeles. "Best" restaurants used to be synonymous with white tablecloths and high prices, but that's no longer the case, at least not completely - these days, and especially in L.A., there's so much more to consider.
While we put out a list of the 99 Essential Los Angeles
restaurant every year, those restaurants are not ranked in any particular order. And whenever I talk to anyone about that list, the "best restaurant" question inevitably comes up. So, this year, as a last hurrah to celebrate that 99 Essentials list, we've ranked the 20 best restaurants in L.A. in order. What's the best restaurant in Los Angeles? The best 20? Here you go.
20. Kogi BBQ Truck
Consider the Korean taco: Who would have thought an idea so seemingly misguided would launch a culinary empire? Yet that's what it did for Roy Choi, who is currently enjoying the spoils of celebrity chefdom: a bestselling book and book tour, multiple restaurants, the platform to give MAD Symposium talks about the culinary community's responsibility on issues of hunger. With seven projects sprinkled throughout the city, Kogi BBQ Truck is the place you can still taste that original stroke of foolhardy genius, of a Korean short rib taco, or a hot dog covered in kimchi and shredded romaine and drizzled with Sriracha. It's a humble food truck that's turned out to to be the best PR ever for the underpinnings of what make Los Angeles great, foodwise: cultural diversity, lack of establishment rules about what constitutes a restaurant, and the talent and fortitude of our chefs. (Besha Rodell) Locations via website (kogibbq.com) or Twitter (@kogibbq).
While it's not as expensive as some high-end sushi experiences around town, there's no denying that Mélisse is one of the bigger financial commitments for dinner. But there's a reason this Santa Monica restaurant has held our attention and admiration far longer than most other palaces of fine dining. Simply put: It's the cooking. Yes, the hushed room with its cream-and-purple palette and its dramatic center light fixture lulls you into a sense of luxurious calm. Yes, the extremely formal service is a nice break from the rushed indifference or perky glibness that's now the norm - it's nice to be reminded that some service professionals are indeed professional. But those things aside, it's really chef/owner Josiah Citrin's way with ingredients that makes the experience worth the price. Certainly, the truffles and the caviar and the lobster help, but Citrin can make just as much of lentils as he can of those luxuries; many of his best dishes are born as much of technique and passion as they are of opulence. Luxury ingredients or no, this is cooking at the highest level. (BR) 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-0881.
18. Chengdu Taste
Shortly after the Sichuan restaurant Chengdu Taste opened in 2013, long lines began forming on the sidewalk outside, making that stretch of the concrete universe on Valley Boulevard seem like the unlikely home of a pop-up concert or a pot shop. Nope, just hungry people waiting for a bowl of the pragmatically named "numb taste" wontons or a plate of the stunningly good "toothpick lamb," which is just as pragmatically named and which you can see on pretty much every table in the place, making you also wonder whose job it is to skewer tiny bits of lamb with toothpicks day after day. Thank God somebody does it, as the dishes here are worth the inevitable wait. Which is to say that the lines have not perceptibly diminished - if anything, they've gotten longer. Is it worth the hype? Absolutely. For the wontons and the lamb, and also for the dan dan mian and the plates of fish, even the simple dish of spicy cooked cabbage. This is terrific food, done in the manner of Chongqing, sometimes lighter and milder than you'd expect at other SGV Sichuan palaces, but then sometimes not. Bring a book and maybe a lawn chair. And yes, order the rabbit with "younger sister's secret recipe." Would that Chengdu Taste wrote everybody's menu. (Amy Scattergood) 828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 588-2284.
More than a year after its massive revamp, Spago has fully settled into its new look and feel. The Beverly Hills restaurant that launched Wolfgang Puck's empire remains one of L.A.'s most iconic dining experiences, and the sleek white-and-black dining room and glassed-in patio with its twinkling lights have never felt so vibrant. The best seats in the house might be at the cocktail tables, which sit between the patio and the dining room and afford an outstanding view of the action on all sides (it also feels fantastically luxurious just to drop into Spago casually for dinner without a reservation, which you don't need for these seats). Chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi are presenting a menu that straddles the line between tradition and invention, fulfilling the wishes of a diner wanting a dry aged steak with Bordelaise or the type who might wish for a grilled lamb rack with falafel macaroons and harissa aioli. There are also clever twists on of-the-moment dishes, such as burrata and prosciutto that's served with roasted persimmon rather than beets or tomatoes, and spherified basil "caviar." For the movie stars you're likely to encounter, for the incredible wine list and, yes, especially for the food, there's still no place like it. (BR) 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880.
See also: 99 Essential Restaurants, 2014
"What's the best restaurant in L.A.?" It's the question I get more than any other, the thing people most want to know from a critic. "What's your favorite restaurant? If I were to only eat at one restaurant in L.A., what should it be?"