When it comes to food, our mouths determine flavor but our eyes are the gatekeepers. What makes it past our lips doesn't always have to be beautiful, but color, texture and presentation, especially with artful intent, sure make eating and drinking more fun. We're not really talking about fine dining here, either. Big-name chefs popping a slab of protein, some organic garnish and a smear of sauce on a plate can have a minimalist appeal, but in the age of Instagram, artful eating has entered a bold new realm that's not usually about pricy cuisine — it's about pop-art appeal.
Inspired by music, nature, culture, mythic creatures — really, everything and anything — food as pop art is about awakening all of the senses and having an air of whimsy and humor in the conceptualizing, prepping, cooking, serving and, especially, consuming. Our consuming. Los Angeles might be the capital of conspicuous consumption, but beyond glistening food porn and the self-consciousness of sharing what we eat on social media, cool-looking food simply enhances the experience.
From doughnuts to cheesecake, sushi to coffee, ice cream to pizza, and a couple chef-driven experiences, L.A. eateries seem to be having a lot of fun lately, and they aren't forgetting flavor either. Here are the best in the town to set your sights and bites on.
Taste the Rainbow
Dona's Donuts got attention for its purple glitter confections, inspired by Tejano goddess Selena, but the colorful selection goes beyond pretty sparkles — there are also gold and silver doughnuts that look like real metal, and rainbow ones that are so vibrant, you'll be humming like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz after every bite. Dona's is worth the drive to Downey, too; the vibe here brings to mind a classic panadería but takes the concept into the Instagram-driven modern era, referencing not only beloved pop stars but Mexican wrestlers, grandparents (the chocolate abuelita) and nostalgic flavors that L.A.'s Latinos will know and love (such as the chicharron doughnut, which may not be as crunchy as fried pigskin but provides a nice maple bacon saltiness). 8636 Imperial Hwy., Downey; (562) 622-2429, facebook.com/Donas8636.
Koreatown is home to plenty of unique eateries, but Milk Tavern takes the cake — the pastel rainbow multilayered cake, that is. The self-proclaimed “playground for adults” offers some of the most unusual dessert-driven snacks and drinks in the area, including a creamy “unicorn crepe cake” served by the slice, a smile-inducing rainbow grilled cheese and the most bodacious “burrito” in all of L.A.: cotton candy rolled flat like a tortilla and filled with the cereal of your choice and vanilla ice cream. Alcoholic beverages include beer floats (served in tiny inflatable pink flamingos), spiked cereal, and rosé slushies, and there's booze-flavored ice cream, too. Talk about audacious adulting. 528 S. Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 568-3770, milktavern.com.
It might have started as a nod to Pride month but The Melt's Rainbow grilled cheese is a way to make your life colorful at any time of year. Making these things isn't that complicated (food coloring in shredded cheese, which is carefully placed, color wheel–style, on the bread), but the Melt makes 'em extra-vibrant. And because it's the cheesy standard, it really is magically delicious. 735 S. Figueroa St., Space 116, downtown; and 6290 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; themelt.com.
Taking the edible-spectrum idea a bit further, Dagwood's in Santa Monica makes pizza only fairies, ravers and maybe makeup tutorial lovers might love: iridescent rainbow glitter pizza! Yes, this really exists, and it's glorious or gross, depending on your point of view and your palate. Choose pineapple as a topping over pepperoni, and it'll all be OK. 820 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 899-3030, dagwoods.com.
Groovy “dessert boutique” Solar Return sells epic raw vegan cheesecakes that taste as good as they look. Created by local artist Stephen McCarty, the cruelty-free cakes come in mesmerizing colors and psychedelic designs that recall trip-enhancing fractals and kaleidoscopic patterns. Solar Return also sells arty matcha popsicles alongside vintage clothes, handmade jewelry and “cosmic” gifts. 1461½ Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; (323) 652-2165.
Taking the Cake
The do-it-yourself cupcake and cake making studio at Duff's Cakemix lets kids and adults alike create magnificent edible creations, but taking a gander at what's going on in TV baker Duff Goldman's interactive kitchen is always the most fun here. His staff is always making something stunning for Hollywood premieres and bashes or privileged birthday boys and girls. 8302 Melrose Ave., Beverly Grove; (323) 650-5555, duffscakemix.com.
If we're talking artful edibles, we must include iconic bakery Cake & Art. Founded in 1976, this bakery opened by Glenn von Kickel (who died in 2001) and his business partner, Tom Rosa, translated cake and frosting into art with a sculptural and painterly approach. Rosa has kept the place alive and it remains the place for inventive takes on cake. 709 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-8694, cakeandart.com.
“Goth ice cream” is a thing and Little Damage gets the credit. Its infamous black ice cream cones, which are really sort of gray when you get one in front of you, taste different depending on when you visit (we had a churro flavor last time we popped in) but the ice cream stays dark, as do the charcoal-looking waffle cones — just like your soul. 700 S. Spring St., downtown; (213) 628-3443, littledamage.com.
Move over fro-yo, ice cream in L.A. is hot again, and new ways of making and eating it keep coming. Chillbachi Ice Grill seems to have cornered the market on ice cream “rolling,” in which the cold stuff is flattened like a pancake and rolled up into cute little curls. Fun to look at and eat, even more so to make (it offers classes in which you can do so, choosing your own flavors and textures). 1040 S. Los Angeles St., downtown; (310) 270-2340, chillbachi.com.
Cute as Pie
Street art meets old-world Italy at Pizzanista, which has quickly become a favorite with downtown hip kids and Italian food junkies alike. There's nothing too visually driven here in terms of the pizza (though it is one of best-tasting in town). One flavor, however, is considered a work of art by regulars — the mac and cheese pizza. Available only on Sundays, this marriage of noodle, pizza sauce and various cheeses is like a childhood dream come to come to life. There's even a vegan version. 2019 E. Seventh St., downtown; (213) 627-1430, pizzanista.com.
The deep-dish pizza at Masa is certifiably craveable, but for special occasions (and not just Valentine's Day) we recommend the heart-shaped crust, no extra toppings. The red sauce evokes passion, even if it's just for eating. 1800 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; (213) 989-1558, masaofechopark.com.
If you like your pie pimped out, then Southend Pizza has your jam: the 24K gold pizza, which is always available on the menu and does not require a pre-order. Ingredients include sourdough Caputo blue flour, Italian white truffle cream Urbani, Italian black truffle, French fois gras, a bunch of cheeses, edible flowers and edible 24K gold leaf. 2805 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (424) 228-4736, southendla.com.
Digest in Excess
Fancy doesn't have to mean stuffy, and at Barton G. you really can't be the latter. It serves a pink cotton candy dessert atop a ceramic head of Marie Antoinette, for goodness' sake! The restaurant, which started in Miami and came to L.A. about four years ago, is the kooky brainchild of owner Barton G. Weiss. Everything here is served in a quirky or theatrical way, from the popcorn shrimp (which comes to your table in a small popcorn machine) to the mac and cheese (served in a giant mousetrap) to the “lobster pop tarts” (which you toast right at your table). Make sure your cellphone is charged for this one. 861 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Grove; (310) 388-1888, bartong.com/restaurants.html.
At the Bazaar by José Andrés, the revered chef creates complex dishes that are on the pricy side but are never precious or pretentious. They are forward-thinking and novel, from his mix of ingredients to his presentations. Andrés, whom Jonathan Gold called “a card-carrying cadre of the new gastronomy, a terrifically gifted chef” in his L.A. Weekly review of Bazaar when it opened, is the type of chef whose reputation allows him to take chances, and after nine years at the SLS Hotel he's still inspired, placing appetizers on antlers, raw fish atop octopus-shaped crisps, or whatever strikes his fancy. 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Grove; (310) 246-5555, sbe.com/restaurants/brands/thebazaar.
Some of the best sushi in town can be found in mini-malls, but that's another story altogether. Upscale Japanese faves bring allure and attention to detail to their dishes, and along with freshness of the fish, it's part of what keeps us coming back for more. We'll name a popular one, Katsuya, as our fave here. Still, it's always a nice surprise to walk into a hole-in-the-wall and find a no-name sushi chef who cares as much about the appearance of what he's serving as he does its taste. Surrounded by a bunch of Thai restaurants in Thai Town, Kazoku Sushi is a reasonably priced place to get a raw-fish fix and, depending on who is behind the bar, you just might get something lovely on your plate, too. Often for us, it's an order of ahi tuna sashimi rolled into an exquisite dark red rose. Bachelorette contestants, eat your hearts out. Kazoku Sushi, 5259 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 817-1002, kazokusushi.com. Katsuya, multiple locations; katsuyarestaurant.com.
Whole Latte Love
With a mouthful of a name like The Butcher, the Baker, the Cappuccino Maker, this Sunset Plaza spot suggests a novel approach to food and especially coffee, and it definitely lives up to that impression. BBCM has the most beauteous coffee art in town, featuring vivid colors and fun designs atop your coffee cup. These “Colorbust” lattes and coffees are almost too gorgeous to drink, but you should; they burst with flavor as well as color. 8653 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 360-6900, bbcmcafe.com.
Carrera Cafe offers a whole new way to share that selfie: on your coffee. It has a digital latte foam printer, which means you can put pretty much any image atop your caffeine fix of the day (and at no extra charge). Just download the Ripples app, snap your face (or favorite movie star, logo or meme) and load in. Send it to Carrera while you're there and out comes your own little drinkable work of art. They can even do it on iced coffee drinks. 8251 Melrose Ave., Beverly Grove; (323) 852-3337, carreracafe.com.