Indispensable. Necessary. Essential. What makes a restaurant any one of these things?
The L.A. Weekly has been pondering that question for years now — and compiling lists of the city's 99 Essential Restaurants in an attempt to answer it. But this is my first year thinking about it — at least in such a formal way, at least as it pertains to Los Angeles.
What I realized in my months of rumination and exploration is that there's no one path to the title. Does a restaurant anchor its neighborhood? Does it push our boundaries? Does it feel integral to the life of our city?
Most of all: Is it the kind of place you tell newcomers about when trying to help them understand the essence of L.A.? Do you find yourself saying, "You have to go here"?
Since I moved to Los Angeles last year to become the Weekly's food critic, certain places have stood out not as the best places I've eaten — although some certainly were — but as the places that make this city what it is, places that made me deeply aware and grateful that I was eating and living in Los Angeles. They felt, yes, essential.
Up until now, the 99 has been entirely chosen and written by former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold. It was his list.
This year, it's become a much more collaborative effort, reflecting many voices from our food section. The Weekly's food editor, Amy Scattergood, and I did much of the selecting and writing, but we also solicited contributions from writers Tien Nguyen and Garrett Snyder as well as our new food blogger, Christine Chiao.
And so, over cocktails and macchiatos, over lobster thermidor and wood-grilled eggs, we argued the merits of this taco stand and that ramen joint; we philosophized about usefulness and idiosyncrasy; and we discussed the differences between "best" and "favorite" and "essential."
It's possible that in years to come, this will become more of a one-woman project, a critic's list. But I doubt it. The collaboration has been a gratifying process, and I believe it has resulted in an authoritative list with far more range than any one of us could have come up with alone.
Even as we worked to reinvent this list, some of L.A.'s top restaurants were themselves in a state of reinvention. Some of the most exciting new restaurants on the list this year pioneered new territory. Alma, Bestia, Bäco Mercat and Bar Ama are cementing downtown's status as a major dining destination, even as Superba Snack Bar is helping to redefine Rose Avenue in Venice. Meanwhile, restaurants in more established neighborhoods continued to innovate. John Sedlar's changing passions (a vertical rooftop garden? A Mexican-Chinese menu?) inform his constantly evolving restaurants, Playa and Rivera. Spago has redefined itself completely — and it has never felt more relevant.
Yet there are restaurants that proved themselves essential specifically because they refuse to change. Have a martini at Musso & Frank's, and I think you'll see what I mean. It's frozen in time, and that makes it irreplaceable.
Some things need to change; some things never should. This list is an example of both, a living, breathing, changing testament to everything — new, old and reinvented — that makes L.A. an essential place to eat.
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The 99 Essential Restaurants List:
Attari Sandwich Shop
La Casita Mexicana
Cemitas Poblanas Elviritas
Cube Cafe & Marketplace
Din Tai Fung
Ha Tien Quan
Hawkins House of Burgers
El Huarache Azteca
The Hungry Cat
JTYH Heavy Noodle II
Kang Ho Dong Baekjong
L&E Oyster Bar
Meals by Genet
Milo and Olive
Musso & Frank
Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa
Night + Market
Philippe the Original
Pollo a la Brasa
R&R Soul Food
Ricky's Fish Tacos
Rocio's Moles de los Dioses
Sapp Coffee Shop
Shanghai No. 1 Village Seafood
Son of a Gun
The Spice Table
Superba Snack Bar
The Tasting Kitchen
Zam Zam Market