Los Angeles has always been a city of neighborhoods, a metropolis with no one agreed-upon center of life and commerce. Rather, the city is a grouping of enclaves as distinct from one another as the countries of Europe. Yet despite being a city of neighborhoods, this has not traditionally been a city of neighborhood restaurants.
This is the third year I’ve overseen L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants, and each year it gets both easier and harder. I know more about the city, I’m more invested in the dining scene. But it’s also harder to decide what gets struck from the list in order to make room for new restaurants. Every year I get attached to the list. But each year the 99 Essentials really need to reflect where L.A. is right now; it should be a time capsule of Los Angeles’ dining scene in 2015.
As I review the 99 Essentials, I see a move toward the neighborhood restaurant. I look at chefs such as Zach Pollack, who opened Alimento — a deeply personal restaurant — in Silver Lake, where he lives. About a mile away, Kris Yenbamroong opened his second restaurant, Night + Market Song, near the home of his fiancée, saying, “The biggest thing for me is that I’ve always wanted to have a good neighborhood restaurant.”
One of the most exciting openings of the year came with Saint Martha, a highly ambitious restaurant and wine bar in Koreatown. Koreatown certainly has no lack of great restaurants (in fact, it’s one of the locations with the highest concentration of places that appear on the 99), but Saint Martha represents something new for the neighborhood. POT, another thrilling addition to Koreatown, the city and this list, represents a totally different kind of evolution for the neighborhood, bringing into the conversation an L.A.-based, modern take on Korean food and culture.
Rather than spread out their empires over a vast and sprawling city, chefs who are also restaurateurs are doubling down (and in some cases tripling and quadrupling down) on their own neighborhoods. Josef Centeno continues to expand his holdings below his apartment downtown; Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are jumping across the street from Animal for their next venture rather than taking on a different part of the city. It’s possible the Mozza model has inspired more than just oceans of burrata and a million budinos.
If this list is, in part, a reflection of what’s new and exciting, it’s also a loving tribute to what endures, to the places we return to again and again, to the dishes we never stop craving. Who could (or would want to) imagine Los Angeles without Langer’s? Without Musso & Frank? Or without Kogi, for that matter?
As with the previous two years, this was a group effort, and you’ll see the work and bylines of my colleagues Tien Nguyen and Garrett Snyder throughout The Essentials. I am immensely grateful for their words, as well as their counsel in assembling the list. We also adhered to the rule, instituted last year, that no more than two restaurants owned by any one chef ought to appear on the list. This made for some hard choices, and some out-and-out cheats (see: Mozza).
It’s an absolute privilege to be able to write about food in this town, and to be able to oversee the 99 Essentials, which has become iconic in and of itself. It’s a lot of eating, a lot of writing, a lot of work. But it’s also an honor. It’s a 22,000-word love letter to Los Angeles.
Dine on dishes from more than 50 of the Essentials chefs on March 8 at California Market Center.