The South Bay is a large swath of the county that tends to fall off the rest of L.A.’s radar. But while the area that hugs the Pacific coast between LAX and the ports is more often a fly-by on the way to points south, it’s home to a slew of dining options that make driving the 405 worth every bumper-to-bumper mile.
In honor of this region — which is a mix of beachy and suburban, working-class and upscale, white-bread and diverse — we’ve compiled a list of great restaurants, something for every need. We're pretty sure you'll find what you're looking for.
For Eating in a Piece of Punk Rock History: Abigaile’s
Abigaile is a classy brewpub built on the ashes of “The Church,” an abandoned Baptist church in Hermosa Beach that became ground zero for South Bay’s nascent hardcore punk scene in the early ‘80s. Bands like the Descendants, Circle Jerks, Redd Kross and Blag Flag played and hung out there; some of the latter group's members even lived there. Today, the only hint that anything punk happened here is a wall of tagging (“Punk Is Not Dead”) courtesy of Pennywise's founding guitarist and tattoo artists from the shop he now owns. A copper brewhouse dominates the center of the sprawling space, churning out house IPAs and pale ales. There's a view of the sparkling water, and the menu (like Pennywise itself) is edgy yet approachable — and full of reimagined international dishes courtesy of executive chef Tin Vuong. —Sarah Bennett
1301 Manhattan Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310) 798-8227; abigailerestaurant.com.
For Hanging Out With Aging Rock Stars: Rock & Brews
The coolest thing about the two Hard Rock Cafe–like Rock & Brews in South Bay is that partners Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are actually sometimes there, eating burgers and drinking craft beer with the masses as if they weren’t the two co-founding members of Kiss. Their presence is further evidence that Rock & Brews is a place for reliving the glory days, even if most of the people who lived them in the first place are now 9-to-5ers looking for a place to drink a beer and occupy the children. At both the original El Segundo and the newer Redondo Beach locations, an open-air-concert vibe permeates the experience, where flat-screen TVs play live ‘70s and ‘80s rock performances on loop, servers are pretty girls wearing laminated backstage passes (their nametags), and one corner of the space offers a colorful play area where the next generation of rockers can lose their minds. —Sarah Bennett
6300 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach; (310) 378-4970. 143 Main St., El Segundo; (310) 615-9890. rockandbrews.com.
For a Great Bowl of Ramen: Jidaiya
The South Bay has been home to a large population of Japanese and Japanese-Americans for decades, even more so after several of the major Japanese automakers moved their operations into the area. Thus there are more solid ramen options per square mile in the area than in most any other place in the country, with Jidaiya among the best of them. This ramen shop, located in a plaza just off the 405, looks like the sort of roadside restaurant that Tampopo may have had if she’d had the luxury of space. Inside, you’ll walk past a corner dedicated to old-school Japanese candies and trinkets and sit down to enjoy Jidaiya’s wonderful tonkotsu and miso ramen; its tsukemen is stellar, too. And if you order the UFO Dumplings out of sheer curiosity, you will be rewarded with half a dozen gyoza, pan-fried together so they fuse and form a crust of sorts, then flipped over onto a plate as you might a pineapple upside-down cake. Reasonable minds and FBI agents may differ on whether this looks like a UFO. That it’s pretty awesome, though, is a fact upon which we all can agree. —Tien Nguyen
18537 S. Western Ave., Gardena. (310) 532-0999; jidaiya-usa.com.
For When You Want All Uni All the Time: Maruhide Uni Club
Any L.A. uni tour probably would find its natural, gluttonous ending point at Maruhide Uni Club. The restaurant has become a beacon for the uni-infatuated bargain hunter: Whether you're looking to spend $13 or $130, its sole purpose is to fill you with as much uni as possible. Located in a Torrance strip mall, Maruhide Uni Club is the retail outlet for the Long Beach wholesale company Maruhide, which sells sea urchin and sea cucumber to the Japanese and domestic markets. Every day, Maruhide's ship collects sea urchin and sea cucumbers from north of Santa Barbara and transports them to the company's Long Beach processing plant. From there, some go to Japan, some go to wholesale markets in the United States, and some go to Maruhide Uni Club, where the urchin is the restaurant's main (and only) romance. You can get uni pasta, uni rice bowls and, with advance notice, a 10-course uni tasting menu. —Besha Rodell
2130 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Torrance. (310) 323-2864; maruhide.us.
For Greasy Spoon Before a Flight: Pann’s
If you wanted to design the quintessential L.A. greasy spoon — as romanticized by Quentin Tarantino — the half-century-old Pann’s is pretty much a spot-on blueprint (many customers mistakenly credit it as the diner from Pulp Fiction). No matter your thoughts on Googie architecture, high-test black coffee or gray-haired waitresses, however, it’s hard to overlook the appeal of the crispy waffles and golden brown chicken wings that seem to land at every table. To their credit, the short-order cooks behind the ticket-strewn pass are equally proficient at gooey patty melts, Cobb salads or gravy-smothered pot roast. Is there any better way to gird your rumbling stomach before a long-haul flight out of LAX? —Garrett Snyder
6710 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester. (310) 670-1441; panns.com.
For When You Want to Impress Your Hipster Friends: Little Sister
Being the hippest restaurant in Manhattan Beach is a hard row to hoe. It’s perhaps a steep learning curve for customers to go from casual upscale beach dining — the norm in this ’hood — to a dimly lit room with a profane hip-hop soundtrack. But Little Sister has something to prove to Manhattan Beach, and since opening, it’s become as much a staple of this upscale beach strip as the white wine-and-lobster joints. You’ll sit under the back-wall mural of a machine gun spewing vivid butterflies and eat Vietnamese crepes and Myanmar curries and Sichuan noodles and Balinese meatballs. Chef Tin Vuong, who is in the midst of building a small empire in the South Bay and beyond (see: Abigaile above), seems to be having a lot of fun with this particular project. This is not cute American food with Asian accents — there’s a purity of intention that shines through. Dishes are boldly spicy where appropriate, unapologetically funky, bursting with flavor. Little Sister has something to teach Manhattan Beach about attitude and loud rap music and bold, very good Southeast Asian small plates, and Manhattan Beach is lapping it up. —Besha Rodell
1131 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 545-2096; littlesistermb.com.
For Hawaiian Food That Isn’t Poke: King’s Hawaiian Restaurant and The Local Place
Forget Poke. Because for a real taste of the islands, there’s Torrance’s double whammy of King's Hawaiian eateries: the original restaurant and bakery on Sepulveda and a newer (by a decade) quick-service version on Western called the Local Place, both of which are owned by the sweet-bread bakery whose factory opened nearby in 1977. At the Local Place, where you order at a counter and get your food on paper plates, a 30-minute lunch break might include a combo plate with steamed Kalua pork and fried chicken katsu, a bowl of hearty Portuguese bean soup or a pile of wok-fried saimin noodles topped with bacon, char siu, kamaboko and scrambled egg. Down the street, at the King's Hawaiian restaurant — a replica plantation castle on a wide, lonely stretch of Sepulveda — you might never make it past the bakery cases, but if you do, you’ll be graced with indoor greenery and murals that call to mind Disneyland’s Tiki Room, and you'll end up feasting on a Hawaiian meal reminiscent of a resort-style dinner. Are King's Hawaiian's restaurants the most authentic place in L.A. to try Hawaiian food? Not really. But they're a good place to start if you need a break from the poke fever sweeping L.A. — and still want a taste of the islands that created it. —Sarah Bennett
2808 Sepulveda Blvd., Torrance. (310) 530-0050; kingshawaiianrestaurants.com. 18605 S. Western Ave., Torrance. (310) 523-3233; thelocalplace.com.
For All Kinds of Seafood: Fishing With Dynamite
Fishing With Dynamite's popularity clearly speaks to a yearning in Manhattan Beach for that seafood shack of our fantasies, casual but high-quality, laid back but delivering the seafood of our dreams. Could this be it? Yes and no. The raw bar delivers on its promise. Lobsters can be had for $20 a half and $38 whole. There's a mix of East and West Coast oysters, six varieties on any given night, and the quality rivals any oyster spot in town (though at close to $40 for a dozen oysters, it's fairly steep compared with some crosstown rivals). There's beautiful California sea urchin, Peruvian scallops and Dungeness crab. Platters of assorted, chilled seafood range from $39 for a restrained “SS Minnow” meant to feed one or two, to $145 for the “Mothershucker” meant to feed five to six. —Besha Rodell
1148 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 893-6299; eatfwd.com.
For Steak and a Shot on the Cheap: The Bull Pen
In the South Bay, where new bars and steakhouses are sprouting up constantly, sometimes you just want to go to a place that had it right 30 years ago. Though it's within walking distance of several brighter, hipper operations, Redondo Beach's Bull Pen is a windowless wonder that still manages to make meaty magic at a fraction of the price of its contemporaries. Its classic 1970s wooden decor decorates what is essentially a giant dive bar, with a dining room of banquettes, affordable filet mignon and happy hour shots that will bring you change from a fiver. Multiple generations of South Bay locals convene here daily, making for a melting pot of personalities whose main commonality is that they enjoy the stiff drinks poured by vested bartenders and the cheap 12-ounce New York strip steak dinners. That and the live, smooth-rock covers, sometimes performed by wizard-looking men with flutes. —Sarah Bennett
314 Avenue I, Redondo Beach. (310) 375-7797; thebullpenredondo.com.
For the Best of the Best: Coni'Seafood
If you’ve driven all the way to Inglewood to seek out Coni’Seafood, chances are you’re here for the snook. That snook, or pescado zarandeado, is the dish that has garnered the most adoration from devotees of chef Sergio Peñuelas, and there’s no doubt the whole split, grilled, tender white fish is one of the city’s great seafood dishes. But really, it’s only the beginning of what this small, slate-gray restaurant has to offer. In a dining room one wag describes as resembling “the Flintstones’ living room,” there are smoked marlin tacos, which are like the best tuna melt ever, only in taco form. There are all manner of cocteles, such as the ceviche marinero, a jumble of shrimp marinated in lemon, cucumber, cilantro and tomato, topped with hunks of sweet mango and bathed in a wicked, dusky “black sauce.” Then there are the camarones, giant, head-on shrimp that come in many different variations of sauce: diablo for the spice lovers; borrachos — in a broth made from tequila, lime, cilantro and crushed peppers — for the hungover. There’s a brightness and complexity and pop to this food that makes all of it — not just the snook — well worth the pilgrimage. —Besha Rodell
3544 W. Imperial Hwy., Inglewood. (310) 672-2339.