"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?"
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
Culinarily speaking, the southwest corner of Melrose and Highland is one of the most important street corners in the country. Nancy Silverton, along with business partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, has built her empire in one collection of adjacent, interlocking buildings - a place you might think of as Los Angeles' culinary heart. Technically, we're talking about three separate operations (or four, if you count Mozza2Go), but as a group, Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and Chi Spacca all exemplify Silverton's fierce dedication to quality Italian cooking. The pizza at the convivial, packed pizzeria ushered in a new school of California pizza making - a revolution, really - that prizes dough and farmers market - fresh toppings above all else. The osteria remains one of L.A.'s grandest restaurant experiences, chef Matt Molina's antipasti, pastas and rustic meat dishes showcasing the best of what happens when tradition and talent collide. And the baby of the bunch, Chi Spacca, has provided a platform for young chef Chad Colby to delve deeply into the philosophy of meat, giving Angelenos some of the most stunning charcuterie in the country, as well as mammoth cuts of meat you won't find elsewhere. (BR) 6602 Melrose Ave., Hancock Park; (323) 297-0100.
15. Tsujita L.A.
Do you really want to spend your lunch hour standing in line for the better part of an hour, inches from the busy traffic of Sawtelle Boulevard, waiting in a Wi-Fi dead zone to get into an equally crowded restaurant to slurp down a bowl of hot soup in a city where it's often 80 degrees in the dead of winter? Yes, you really do. And as often as you can manage it. The seemingly permanent crowds waiting to get into Tsujita L.A. haven't lessened since the Tokyo-based company opened its Annex across the street, possibly because the ramen and tsukemen are far superior at the original (though still good). These are probably the best bowls of the stuff in Southern California, technically masterful, Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen and exquisite iterations of tsukemen, or dip ramen, with hand-crafted noodles and broth as thick and potent as demi-glace. Sure, the ratio of waiting time to slurping time is ridiculous - but such is the mathematics of gastronomic pleasure. Just get in line. (AS) 2057 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 231-7373.
14. Hinoki and the Bird
A year after opening, David Myers' Japanese/Californian restaurant Hinoki & the Bird hasn't changed much. The menu is basically the same as it was upon launch, and the room, tucked away in a Century City condominium building, feels no less vibrant. But these things wowed originally and they wow still - that hinoki-scented cod is still one of the best dishes in town, the fish so tender that it seems poised on the precipice between fatty liquid and silken solid, the skin blackened and sweet. The lobster roll, with its sweet flesh set against a black charcoal roll, is still as exciting as before, a triumph of subtle spicing and bold conception. The crudo dishes are still delicate, complex and surprising. Vegetables, from salty grilled mushrooms to a decadent baked yam, show off the chef's mastery of doing things simply and well. And the patio portion of the dining room is still one of the most magical places to eat in town, like a darkly enchanted dream. (BR) 10 W. Century Drive, Los Angeles; (310) 552-1200.
The modern Asian restaurant has been done so badly so often that it's beyond refreshing to see it done well - in fact, it's almost a revelation. Indeed, with Lukshon, chef/owner Sang Yoon has basically perfected the concept, as long as you're willing to buy into his vision wholeheartedly. Located in the Helms Bakery complex next to his beer bar, Father's Office, and across the way from his coming food hall/bakery project with Sherry Yard, Lukshon is one man's singular vision of what a restaurant should be, and that man doesn't really care if you concur or not. Thankfully, we fully concur. It's hard to get in a visit without succumbing to longtime favorite dishes like the outstanding dan dan noodles, which sizzle with Sichuan peppercorns and pack a savory wallop of sesame and peanuts; or the gooey Chinese eggplant, slathered with fennel raita and tomato sambal. Raw fish dishes, such as fluke sashimi with black sesame oil, spicy avocado and pickled orange, or the gorgeous, glossy Hawaiian butterfish, cannot be oversold. The food is highly flavored, there are no substitutions or modifications, children are discouraged, and the wine list is built for food, not name recognition (it's actually one of the best lists in the city if you're willing to give yourself over to it, and incredibly well-priced to boot). Timid palates and sticklers for the customer-is-always-right mantra probably ought to stay away. That's all right. More room for the rest of us. (BR) 3239 Helms Ave., Culver City; (310) 202-6808.
In the five years since John Sedlar opened Rivera, the restaurant has sometimes seemed less an ode to pan-Latin cooking than a kind of evolving art installation. Of course, it's both, not least because Sedlar's works of art have always been on his plates anyway. As other restaurants come and go (including Sedlar's own Playa, some dishes from which have happily been assimilated into Rivera's menu), it has become a mainstay of Los Angeles cuisine. At Rivera - both the chef's middle name and his mother's family name - there are still the flower tortillas, the duck enfrijolada, the sous-vide pork wrapped in banana leaf in the manner of the Yucatán. There are the bottles of mezcal, the tequila chairs, the agave-field-to-cocktail-bar drinks. There are the spice stencils on the plate like edible graffiti. Most nights, there's Sedlar, too, immaculate in chef's whites, which increasingly match his hair. He'll probably stop by, maybe tell you about the art on the walls as well as the plates, maybe treat you to a story culled from his decades of cooking in Los Angeles, maybe point you toward your very own tequila chair - and call you a cab home if necessary. (AS) 1050 S. Flower St., dwntwn.; (213) 749-1460.
If there's a better way to spend $6.95 in the city of Los Angeles than Guisados' taco sampler, we've yet to discover it. The owners of the taco joint wisely figured that for many people, trying to decide between their tinga de pollo, cochinita pibil and chicharrón tacos would prove too difficult. Each stewed, meaty variation, cradled in soft, handmade tortillas, simply has too much allure. Thus the sampler was born: six smaller tacos, a collection of greatest hits that touches on all the smoky, spicy, saucy goodness this place has to offer. Each vibrant meat gets its own thoughtful topping - a dab of avocado here, a draping of pickled onion there. It's a thing of true beauty. Since beginning in Boyle Heights, Guisados has since spawned a second location in Echo Park. And in a town with a huge variety of tacos, they both sit at the very tippy top of our list of favorites. (BR) 2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Boyle Heights; (323) 264-7201.
10. Red Medicine
UPDATE: Sadly, Red Medicine is now closed.
At Red Medicine, the sentiment remains but the inspiration has changed. After three years, chef Jordan Kahn has thrown out his original conceit, a Vietnamese theme, and his food now serves only one god: the divine guidance of Jordan Kahn. He's foraging a lot these days, perhaps more seriously than any other well-known chef in town, but the wow factor remains his gorgeous platings and flavor combinations. You might, for instance, get a combination of trout roe and lemon curd, served in a glass bowl that looks more suited for a goldfish than your dinner, with raw snap peas and an "ice" made from snap pea shells. Or Dungeness crab, seasoned with an emulsion made from its shell, wrapped in lettuce, grilled over charcoal, with fermented garlic paste, passion fruit and spicy herbs. It's texturally confusing, highly interactive and outrageously delicious. Kahn remains one of the most exciting pastry chefs in town, with a flair for drama and surprise. The trendy room and offbeat service barely make sense with all this high-concept food, but if an adventure on the plate is what you're in the mood for, Red Medicine's oddities are absolutely worth abiding. (BR) 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (323) 651-5500.
In years to come, when people look back on the transformation of Virgil Avenue and wonder how it all began, the answer will be Sqirl. The spot that opened in 2012 as a coffee, toast and jam café has morphed into one of the most beloved restaurants in town - paving the way for a fantastic wine shop, a florist and an antiques store to open on the same block. More important to food lovers, it has ushered in an era of insanely good breakfast and lunch. Sqirl owner Jessica Koslow trained with one of the best chefs in the Southeast, but she decided to pour that knowledge into this small, funky café rather than a more traditional restaurant. The food here is stunning. Koslow serves rice bowls that will blow your mind, perked up with sorrel pesto, creamy feta and copious amounts of preserved Meyer lemon. Daily specials might range from tuna poke - a bowl of raw tuna spiked with yuzu, shiso from Sqirl's garden and tuna-skin chicharrón - to handmade pastas, as good as any in town and for a fraction of the price. Koslow's baking is remarkable, and her malva pudding cake is one of L.A.'s most craveable treats. The restaurant is not for the comfort-obsessed: The line is long, the seating is wobbly and sometimes hard to come by. The place can have the feel of a slightly out-of-control garden party. But for those willing to relax and go with it, there's hardly a place in town that will reward you more lovingly. (BR) 720 N. Virgil Ave., E. Hlywd.; (323) 284-8147.
See also: 99 Essential Restaurants, 2014
Niki Nakayama's restaurant in Palms is a testament to one woman's quiet quest: to bring the quiet, seasonal beauty of formal kaiseki dining to L.A. Many other restaurants play with the concept, but only n/naka is dedicated to following the formality of the art form and presenting it in such a respectful manner. Nakayama has recently given up the nine-course option, meaning you have to give yourself over to the whole $165 13-course tasting experience, but that's not such a bad thing. Not when you're presented with gorgeous plates of gleaming raw fish, each given a thoughtful garnish or accompaniment, or more creative dishes such as grilled blue shrimp coated with yuzu cream. The meal's centerpiece is usually the part of the meal where Nakayama veers a little from tradition and shows her creativity: say, spaghettini with black abalone, pickled cod roe and truffles. At once comforting and exciting, it was one of the best things we ate all year. The quiet room and thoughtful service make this one of L.A.'s most exceptional dining experiences. (BR) 3455 S. Overland Ave., Palms; (310) 836-6252.
The first thing people will tell you about Shunji is that it's in a building strange even by this town's standards, a structure formerly home to a barbecue house, which is supposedly shaped like a chili bowl but looks more like a set designer's take on a Roswell diner. The second (and more important ) thing is that the unlikely spot is home to some of the best sushi currently available in Los Angeles. Before recalibrating this crazy architecture, Shunji Nakao had amassed a pretty amazing fish resume: He was an opening chef at Nobu's first restaurant, Matsuhisa, and was the founder of Asanebo in Studio City. At Shunji, Nakao's food centers around neither the Peruvian-inflected menu of the former nor the sashimi-focused menu of the latter, instead locating things around omakase. Some of this is a purist's sushi, but some is also beautifully vegetable-focused, with occasional odes to tomatoes and mountain yam and Japanese squash. If the intensity of a dinner's multivalenced procession of dishes is overwhelming, try lunch, when Shunji offers simpler options, which are crazy bargains if you think about what you're getting. An enormous lobe of uni, perhaps, perched atop a tiny tower of perfectly articulated rice, a strip of nori like a debutante's sash. Brilliant in any location. (AS) 12244 W. Pico Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 826-4737.
6. Night + Market
Talk to any 10 food obsessives in L.A. and approximately eight of them are likely to name Night + Market as their favorite restaurant. This goes for chefs and civilians, culinary explorers and trend followers alike. Chef Kris Yenbamroong presents the unadulterated flavors of Northern Thailand in a stylishly stripped-down room next to his parents' Sunset Strip restaurant. The whole thing feels kind of like a fluke, or a high school project titled "restaurant" - until you get to the food, which is bold, complex, spicy and completely addictive. You'll find yourself wolfing down sticky pig's tails, tongue-singing larb, funky fermented pork sausage, or a hulking whole braised pork hock in aromatic juices. Yenbamroong is about to open his second outpost in Silver Lake, which promises to be a slightly different beast, though no less exciting. In fact, the Night + Market story, as well as its food, is one of the best examples of why eating in L.A. right now is nothing short of thrilling. (BR) 9041 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd; (310) 275-9724.
Perusing the menu at Animal is like looking at the source material for L.A.'s culinary thesis statement of the previous few years, an original text in a sea of derivative essays. As such, it's easy to feel as if you may be bored with pig ears topped with fried egg, or crispy Brussels sprouts, or pork belly sandwiches. Rest assured, you still want to eat these things; you just want them cooked by the original authors. Chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook will remind you why their restaurant inspired so many imitations. It's their flawless understanding of acid, which makes even the menu's meatiest dish sing with balance and pop with flavor. It's their ability to access their Southern roots without cooking overtly Southern food, as well as the way they draw on their Californian present without falling victim to fig-on-a-plate syndrome. It's the fact that they do all these dishes so well - there's an underpinning of technique and thoughtfulness that permeates everything coming out of this kitchen. So much of what we find kind of annoying in other restaurants (no sign, loud room, relentlessly trendy clientele) seems utterly worth it - even fun! - in this instance. Animal is the restaurant that launched a thousand imitators, the place started the dude-food movement, and the original that sowed the seeds for what is becoming a mini-empire (Son of a Gun, Trois Mec and at least two other forthcoming projects also are thanks to Shook and Dotolo). For all this, there's just no denying that Animal is still one of L.A.'s most exciting places to eat. (BR) 435 N. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax District; (323) 782-9225.
See also: 99 Essential Restaurants, 2014
4. Bäco Mercat
To the question "If you had one meal to eat in L.A., where would you go?" we often find ourselves answering, simply, Bäco Mercat. It's the follow-up question that proves more difficult: "Bäco Mercat ... what kind of food do they serve?" The best answer might be "Centenian," a cuisine specific to Josef Centeno, Bäco's chef and owner. But that's hardly helpful. Centeno is a wiz at taking international influences and turning them into something wholly his own: a little bit Spanish, a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Mexican, very Californian. The bäco, which could otherwise be called a Centenian sandwich, is kind of like a taco but bigger, kind of like a flatbread but thicker and chewier, and filled with beef and pork carnitas and a Catalan sauce called salbitxada made from nuts and red pepper. Centeno should win an award for his dedicated efforts to elevate vegetables: Half of Bäco's menu is dedicated to Centenian vegetable creations, each one a quiet triumph. Japanese eggplant comes as tender as pudding, set against the cooling snap of cucumber, with creamy feta and cipollini vinaigrette for added contrast. Sunchokes are showered with tarragon, dusted with dukkah and tossed with buttered croutons. Centeno runs two other restaurants around the corner but Bäco remains the shining example of the Centenian genre, a restaurant so original it is quite unexplainable. But you don't need to understand - just go. You won't regret it. (BR) 408 S. Main St., dwntwn; (213) 687-8808.
It is sometimes easy to take Lucques for granted, to forget the profound influence Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's restaurant has had since it opened in 1998. You might overlook the roster of other chefs Goin has trained, or the way of eating she gave us with her Sunday suppers and her market-driven, globally inflected California cuisine. If that's the case, go back for dinner. Sit near the fireplace in silent-screen star Harold Lloyd's former carriage house, order a seasonal cocktail or one of Styne's excellent wines, and taste what Goin has been cooking lately. Because what's coming out of her kitchen is as utterly creative as it was almost 16 years ago. Goin's food does something that seems effortless but is incredibly difficult, especially with the kind of consistency and duration she has managed. Pitched halfway between luxury and comfort and achieving both, both the food and the ambiance at Lucques come as a slow revelation, an epiphany in three or four courses, probably with kumquats or harissa. (AS) 8474 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; (323) 655-6277.
While much of the attention given to Michael Cimarusti this year was for his new, much more casual seafood spot, Connie & Ted's, Providence remains the chef's crowning achievement. This is modern fine dining at its best: service that is formal but relaxed and engaged, a wine list to swoon over, cooking that is precise and elegant. Tasting menus here begin with a flurry of small bites - a Dark and Stormy in gelee form, which bursts on the tongue and channels the drink perfectly; a nasturtium leaf fashioned into a taco, holding delicate, raw scallops and puffed rice; a cracker made of salmon skin, served with a smoked salmon dip dotted with bright orange roe. From there you move on to anywhere from three to 16 courses, most of them quietly creative odes to the sea. It's a dining room that's regularly perfumed with black truffles, where waiters excavate Santa Barbara spot prawns from hot salt and plate them tableside, where a German-engineered cheese cart glides around silently - it's a place for quiet decadence. If the theater of a full tasting menu is too spendy for you, many things are available à la carte at the cozy bar, where - unsurprisingly - some of the city's most coddled and delicious cocktails are being served. (BR) 5955 Melrose Ave., Hlywd.; (323) 460-4170.
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1. Trois Mec
When Trois Mec opened in April it had so much personality, and so much about it felt fresh and exhilarating, that it was hard to imagine it could get much better. But brace yourselves: Trois Mec has undoubtedly gotten better. The tiny nook of a restaurant, a collaboration between Ludo Lefebvre and Animal chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, still boasts all the excitement Lefebvre was putting on the plate in those early days - but if anything, the cooking has become more heady, more precise and more creative. And that's although it was pretty damn impressive to begin with. It's hard to think of another chef who could make the highlight of a meal out of a grilled cabbage leaf, but Lefebvre chars the sturdy leaf and serves it with a silken miso flan, smoked almond milk anglaise and fennel pollen. It's shockingly good. Every dish in the five-course tasting, in fact, is a small revelation (a dessert made out of brie creme, apple butter and toasted barley? Yes, please). The wine list, too, has matured into a thing of beauty, completely worthy of the food it complements. Yes, you have to buy tickets in advance through a janky website. Yes, the system often crashes. And yes, the place is a tad hard to find. But once you're here, it's like an intimate dinner party where the hosts play French hip-hop, pour amazing wine and serve what may well be the best food in town. (BR) 716 N. Highland Ave., Hancock Park; troismec.com.