By Besha Rodell and Amy Scattergood
Once upon a time, eating well in downtown Los Angeles meant ducking into one of a very few fine dining palaces, where you would dine prettily at Water Grill or Patina, aesthetically if not physically very far removed from the grungy streets and abbreviated skyline of the city's epicenter. Only a few years and thousands of loft dwellers later, give or take, downtown L.A. now has some of the best restaurants in town, pretty glass-and-metal bistros and neo-Italian food lofts and DIY odes to sort-of Spanish cuisine. You can walk or bike to beautiful food, served outside under tree canopies and sparkly lights. You can eat stellar tacos or exquisite omakase or fried pigs ears or glorious porchetta in what once looked, particularly at night, more like the set of Mad Max than a vibrant part of the city. If this is urban evolution, it's tasting pretty good right now. Turn the page for our picks for the 10 best restaurants in downtown L.A., realizing that this will probably all change again in a few years, with or without pro football.
10. The Parish [CLOSED]
The Parish, chef Casey Lane's gastropub that opened in July of last year, is a triumph of many sorts — a triumph of cocktails, of bar culture in general, of poutine. But mainly it's a triumph of atmosphere, at least in the top half of the two-story, flatiron-shaped restaurant, which feels like the glassed-in deck of a 1930s ocean liner, sailing through downtown Los Angeles. Much of the food is seductive as well. Roast chicken comes with a vinegary bread salad and hearty mustard greens. The burger is topped with wonderfully assertive cheese; some nights, it's the blessedly stinky Époisses from France, while others it's sharp blue Stichelton from England. There's chicken liver on toast topped with crackly, thin bacon; a particularly piggy-tasting pork head fritter; and crispy fried sardines that come with caper aioli and are fantastic as a bar snack, washed down with a beer. And if you find yourself lucky enough to end up with the Parish's oyster poutine in front of you, consider it a lesson in the fine art of elevating grease. 840 South Spring St. Los Angeles; 213-225-2400.
9. Mo-Chica [CLOSED]
Ricardo Zarate has taken his whiz-kid Peruvian place Mo-Chica from a stall in Mercado la Paloma and moved it downtown, opening a restaurant that tries to channel that street-food vibe in a swanker setting. There's stylized graffiti on the walls, the design is all cement and industrial chic, and the gorgeous girls shaking drinks vigorously behind the tiny bar wear men's undershirts. There are fun food fusions — a risotto made from quinoa, an alpaca burger — but the best food here is actually the comfort food, the stuff that makes you feel cared for despite the clamorous surroundings: the ceviches, and stews of tripe, chicken or alpaca, and bright, very good cocktails with which to wash it all down. 514 W. 7th St. Los Angeles; 213-622-3744.
In a town very conversant with tacos, Esdras Ochoa and Javier Fregoso managed to make an impression indelible enough to turn their cart into a taqueria. With an assist from entrepreneur Paul Yoo, Mexicali Taco & Co. didn't move too far from its original location, setting up as a stand-alone restaurant at the edge of Chinatown last February — much to the relief of its regulars. There is the titular taco, named and in part fashioned after Northern Baja. But it's the vampiro that people come for. Here liberties are taken with form, creating something that's part quesadilla and part taco. Like most of the menu, a vampiro is made with your choice of meat like carne asada, chicken or chorizo. It's then covered with a garlic sauce and white cheese before the flour tortilla is closed into a half-moon and grilled. If you can stand the heat, add a side of gueros, or banana peppers, dressed in a Cantonese-Baja style that's befitting of the location. 702 N. Figueroa St. Los Angeles; 213-613-0416.
Church & State has been through a few chefs and many variations, notably Walter Manzke's Pig Ear Era, but the downtown bistro's current iteration may be its finest yet. At the helm now is former Patina chef and Ducasse protege Tony Esnault, who has brought his farmers market vegetable aesthetic to the busy open kitchen. All cities should have a destination restaurant for bouillabaisse and steak frites, and having a Frenchman with the kind of background Esnault has making you rabbit ballotine and Alsatian tarte flambé under a loft strung with sparkly lights is probably one of the better results of the recent democratization of fine dining. 1850 Industrial St., #100 Los Angeles; 213-405-1434.
6. Sushi Gen
There's hardly ever a crowd-less moment at the family-run Sushi Gen, regardless of the time of day. Lunch might be more telling, as you'll see pockets of people, their day jobs notwithstanding, waiting patiently outside the restaurant at its long-standing location inside Honda Plaza. Once inside, service is friendly and quick, well-honed for years since Toshiaki Toyoshima first opened Sushi Gen's doors in 1989. Entrees, most combined with fresh sashimi, are served with a side of tofu steamed with soy sauce, miso soup, oshinko or pickles, and a copious portion of rice that would appease most appetites. The contents of the Sashimi Special changes daily, rotating according to what's freshest at the market. 422 E. Second St., Los Angeles; (213) 617-0552.
5. The Spice Table [CLOSED]
Think about what you love best about street food: the satays laced with lemongrass and galangal and tamarind, the noodle bowls filled with char sui and Manila clams and fried egg. Add snacks of fried potatoes, fired with incendiary amounts of sambal. Then throw in a cheeseburger (sambal! Kraft American cheese!) and possibly the best grilled pig's tail in town, to be happily picked apart and rolled up with herbs in handfuls of lettuce in Vietnamese fashion. Then imagine all that in a restaurant lit both by candles and a huge open grill, with birdcages swinging like chandeliers, housed in what looks like a pretty stone cottage on the edge of Little Tokyo. This odd miracle is The Spice Table, chef Bryant Ng's hodgepodge of his own Singaporean heritage, his wife Kim's native Vietnam — and trace elements of Mozza, Ng's previous culinary home. Sometimes mash-ups work. In fact, sometimes they're revelatory. 114 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 620-1840
4. Alma [CLOSED]
This is what the promise of the food revolution was supposed to deliver: young, talented chefs forging their own paths in funky, unexpected spaces, simultaneously elevating our cities and our palates. Alma chef-owner Ari Taymor has carved a very cool niche for himself. His downtown restaurant is nestled among parking lots and empty-looking buildings yet manages to feel both airy and intimate. His food is a lot of next-generation riffing: Beignets are made with seaweed and tofu, while sunchoke soup is poured over an egg yolk and a paste made of amaranth for a sweet, creamy, smoky experience that's as cerebral as it is sensual. 952 S. Broadway Los Angeles; 213-444-0984.
3. Rivera [CLOSED]
When John Sedlar opened Rivera in 2009, after a fifteen-year absence from the L.A. restaurant scene, the kind of studied, brilliant pan-Latin dishes that he put on the menu were simultaneously revelatory and oddly comforting, familiar to those who knew Sedlar's cooking his previous incarnation as one of this town's most creative chefs. Rivera is still that good, the creative plates of Mexican, Spanish and New Mexican-influenced food like art on a plate — literally, given Sedlar's penchant for spice stenciling. With the recent closing of Playa, Sedlar's midtown restaurant, Rivera is even more of an oasis. Exquisite cooking — with tequila chairs, flower-imprinted tortillas and Sedlar's idea of tamales. 1050 S. Flower St., #102, Los Angeles; 213-749-1460.
Ori Menashe, his wife, pastry chef Genevieve Gergis, and restaurateur Bill Chait have created quite a winner with Bestia, one that may yet serve as the anchor for the downtown Arts District's slow creep east. Bestia is located in the first floor of a loft building in a dark and industrial part of the city, but once you're inside, it's all twinkling lights and slaughterhouse swank. Menashe's food is ostensibly Italian, but there's a whole lot of L.A. in here as well. The beef tartare is beef-heart tartare; the carpaccio might be made from tendon. Menashe makes his own charcuterie and pastas, and does a smashing job with both. His style is one of maximizing flavors rather than creating contrasts, like pairing iron-rich chicken gizzards with earthy beets, or scallop crudo with squid-ink bottarga — deep on deep; fresh fish on fish funk. The cocktails and the wine program are both serious and fun, and Gergis' desserts, while more simple and straightforward than the rest of the menu, are not to be missed. 2121 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles; (213) 514-5724.
1. Baco Mercat
At Bäco Mercat, which Josef Centeno opened in the fall of 2011, the chef-owner has a wildly eclectic approach to food that is less fusion than playful, global mix-and-match cuisine. Born and raised in Texas, trained at Daniel Boulud and Manresa, and with a penchant for Spanish sauces and Mexican home cooking, Centeno loads his menus with enough flavors and adjectives for a half-dozen restaurants. Consider the bäco itself, a taco-gyro-pizza hybrid that the chef invented once for a staff meal at Meson G — and then the bäzole, a sort of Vietnamese play on posole, engendered by the bäco. Imagine Dizzy Gillespie with a saucepan and recent gluttonous memories of San Sebastián and you get an idea of how much fun Centeno is having — and how much fun it is to eat here. 408 S. Main St. Los Angeles; 213-687-8808.