In this week's review of 71Above, I begin with a question: “As the great middle ground takes over dining in L.A. and beyond, we're left with an odd conundrum: Where can you go for a truly special occasion?” It's one of the questions I get asked most frequently as a critic, and it's one of the questions I struggle with myself: For a big birthday, an anniversary, a meal whose main purpose is to celebrate, where to go in a town that excels at delicious but doesn't do fancy quite so well? So many of our best restaurants are so focused on the food, it's hard to focus on your date. I love Trois Mec, but to paraphrase that same 71Above review, are you really going to propose marriage at a kitchen counter in front of a bunch of line cooks while French hip-hop blares? I don't think so.
Sometimes you just need something impressive, something that feels fancy, a place with that magical vibe that whispers, This will be a night to remember. Here are our top picks for those nights when magic is the most important ingredient.
These days, Patina only ends up in the news when someone is writing a biting blog post about the restaurant's water sommelier (yes, it really has a water sommelier), or when referencing chefs who used to work here as a sign of their serious culinary chops. People tend to forget that it's an actual restaurant where you can still eat, and its location in Walt Disney Concert Hall gives it a wonderful sense of occasion. The service is formal and the food is fussed over and expensive and the whole thing is a lot of fun. You could not mistake this for a casual night on the town. 141 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 972-3331, patinagroup.com.
Gwen is an establishment that is striving for greatness in so many ways it’s a little head-spinning. It’s a meat importer, a butcher shop, a cocktail bar, a chophouse of sorts and a return to serious glitzy Hollywood dining the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Unlike chef owner Curtis Stone's other restaurant, the exceedingly intimate Maude, Gwen is large and brash, with one of the most breathtaking dining rooms the city has ever seen. The format is a five-course tasting menu, starting with charcuterie and salad, moving on to handmade pasta, and then comes the meat. You might get lamb cooked a variety of ways, or you can supplement the meal with a hunk of dry-aged Wagyu. A flurry of vegetables complements the meat course, and the bright rusticism on display in these dishes might be the highlight of the evening. Gwen is not a cheap thrill, and tickets must be bought ahead of time. But, similarly to Maude, Stone has proven once again that sometimes spending a silly amount of money on dinner is well worth it. 6600 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 946-7513, gwenla.com.
71Above, located on the 71st floor of the US Bank Tower, is attempting to be a landmark restaurant for Los Angeles. The name of the restaurant is rendered in marble and metal on the floor at its entrance, the ceiling is decorated with hexagonal sculptural forms, the waiters have the suave formality of first-class airline stewards. The dining room circles the inner perimeter of the building, so no matter where you're sitting you're in range of the floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond which Los Angeles spreads out in all its twinkling glory 71 floors below. The sparse white echo chamber of a lobby, where you'll be greeted by a host, the elevator ride up, the majesty of that view … well, it feels special. This is not a Tuesday-night restaurant, and you know it. You can have oysters poached in Champagne and topped with uni and caviar, or a standard but luxurious steak tartare. An old-school foie gras terrine shares menu space with a decidedly modern parsnip dish, roasted in duck fat and served whole on the plate surrounded by dollops of strained yogurt and date puree. 71Above excels at presenting a menu that might appeal to old-school and new-school luxury tastes alike. In this era of “casual” $200 meals, there's a lot to be said for a place that manages to feel truly special. 633 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 712-2683, 71above.com.
7. Chi Spacca
There's an argument to be made that Osteria Mozza should be here on this list: It's iconic, the food is amazing, there's a sense of grandness in everything about it. As much as we love the Osteria, if we were celebrating a truly momentous occasion we'd be more likely to make a reservation at Chi Spacca next door, where some of L.A.'s meatiest bucket-list dishes are served. There's great charcuterie everywhere these days, so we won't dwell on the fact that Chi Spacca's is some of the best. But we will point you enthusiastically to the beef and bone marrow pie, one of the greatest homages to beef that ever was, and also the giant dry-aged steaks, which might be the most clad-tight proof of affection you can buy for the enthusiastic carnivore in your life. 6610 Melrose Ave., Hancock Park. (323) 297-1133, chispacca.com.
There are plenty of glam Beverly Hills dining rooms where blowing money among the movie stars is possible, but few of them have a whole lot of substance beyond that sheen of opulence. Spago is the great exception. The Beverly Hills restaurant that launched Wolfgang Puck’s empire is still among L.A.’s most iconic dining experiences, despite (and perhaps because of) a revamp that modernized its look and feel a couple of years back. With its sleek white-and-black dining room and glassed-in patio, Spago remains one of the best spots in town not only for celebrity sightings and spying on Hollywood dealmaking but also for luxury dining. 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 prime côte de boeuf for two with Armagnac peppercorn sauce, or the type who might wish for a bincho-grilled black cod with hijiki rice salad, avocado, kimchi endive and gochujang aioli. Take advantage of one of the country’s greatest wine cellars, with 30,000-plus bottles including an astonishing selection of Austrian wines. This is a place for Champagne, for celebrations, for remembering the excesses of the city we live in and how exhilarating those excesses can be. 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 385-0880, wolfgangpuckrestaurants.com.
When you’re in the realm of ultra-expensive meals — the ones that hit well over three figures before you’ve even considered a glass of wine, let alone tax and tip — it can be hard to discern true value. Of course, it depends what’s important to you. Luxurious surroundings? Obsequious service? If your main interest is in food, in particular gorgeously plated, highly fussed over, brightly seasonal, modern Japanese cuisine, we recommend n/naka, the quiet Palms kaiseki restaurant run by Niki Nakayama. Nakayama says she may be the only female kaiseki chef in the world — kaiseki being the formal, multicourse, seasonal style of Japanese dining. Regardless of whether she is unique in that regard, her restaurant and food (much of it grown in the restaurant’s garden) certainly are singular in Los Angeles. The 13 courses will take you through different aspects of the season, be it a “modern interpretation of sashimi” composed of kanpachi with bell pepper gelée, jalapeño gelée and avocado sauce, or her “chef’s choice dish,” which is usually a stunning spaghettini with shaved black abalone, pickled cod roe and Burgundian truffles. The quiet room and humble service have a calming effect, allowing you to fully concentrate on the meal before you. As a way to blow a couple hundred bucks, you could do a lot worse. 3455 S. Overland Ave., Palms. (310) 836-6252, n-naka.com.
A.O.C. is a little less formal than the other restaurants on this list, but I can't think of a better place for a large family gathering or a birthday party than the dreamy private room upstairs overlooking the twinkling patio. Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s restaurant has always been representative of everything great about the mashup of local cuisine and European influence. This was apparent in its original location, which opened in 2002, and it’s even more apparent in the space to which it moved in 2012, which is an utter dream of a restaurant: a cozy dining room with circular corner booths and a leafy, bricked-in patio anchored by a candle-festooned fireplace. The feeling is of stepping into an enchanted space where everything will be taken care of. What should you eat? You can barely go wrong. Spread the table with meats and cheeses and the farmer’s plate, a jumble of roasted veggies and bitter greens and chickpea puree and burrata and hunks of grilled bread. There are beautiful international influences in many of the small plates, such as the devilishly black arroz negro, the slightly firm rice punctuated with soft squid and lush saffron aioli. This may be laid-back, California-style celebrating, but it is no less memorable. 8700 W. Third St., Beverly Grove. (323) 653-6359, aocwinebar.com.
It’s easy to become jaded about luxury fine dining, to forget the pleasures of eating in an elegant room with formal service (Captains! Sommeliers and assistant sommeliers! Runners who swoop in to drop food or bus your tables as if they’re performing ballet!). If the great things about dining in this manner have slipped your mind, it really is worth a trip to Mélisse, Josiah Citrin’s modern French restaurant in Santa Monica, to refresh your memory. Here, you can revel in extravagances such as caviar service, or a tableside filleting of Dover sole, or carving of truffle-stuffed chicken, or Citrin’s “Ten” menu (available by request only), which spans 10 courses and will cost you a cool $185 per person. But even if you don’t have quite that much cash to throw around, it’s worth using the excuse of a special occasion to come here for one of the less extravagant tasting menus to see what Citrin is capable of — his soups so much silkier than anyone else’s, his sauces so much more refined. For being one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, Mélisse has an exceedingly reasonable wine list — don’t get me wrong, you can easily spend a month’s salary on booze here if you want, but there are treasures to be found on the lower end as well, and a staff that’s happy to guide you. For about double what you’d spend at many of our trendier eateries, you’ll leave with the warm glow of a rare experience, one that has been perfectly calibrated from the second you stepped through the door until you finish with the gorgeous plate of petit fours delivered with your check. 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 395-0881, melisse.com.
In this tiny Beverly Hills dining room, chef Curtis Stone and his team deliver one of the city's truly special dining experiences. If you're looking for something intimate and romantic, but you also care deeply about the food on the plate, Maude has you covered. The menu, built monthly around a seasonal ingredient, exudes playfulness and is perfectly executed. Meals turn into symphonic musings on a season and an ingredient, and it's pure joy to watch Stone's train of thought meander through the courses. Impeccable service and a wonderful wine list only add to the charm, as does the set price (around $130 per person, more for months when luxury ingredients such as truffles take center stage), which would be three times as much in New York or London. Reservations are tough to come by, so plan ahead when you know that big birthday is looming. 212 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-3418, mauderestaurant.com.
Is it too obvious to put Providence at No. 1 on this list? Sometimes there's a reason for obvious choices, and that is because they're … well, the obvious choice. There are only a handful of restaurants in Los Angeles that aim for the same heights Providence does, and perhaps none that achieve those lofty aims quite so well. Michael Cimarusti’s seafood-focused fine-dining standard-bearer excels at the formal service that much of the restaurant world has abandoned. There’s a lot of joy to be found on the plate as well. No kitchen does the flurry of amuse-bouches as well as Cimarusti and crew, from a darling taco within a nasturtium leaf to cigars made from Wagyu beef that come presented in a cigar box. Ultra-fresh (and always sustainable) seafood, such as Santa Barbara spot prawns or Norwegian red king crab, is presented elegantly and simply. During the winter, you can get perfectly cooked soft eggs (or risotto, or pasta — we prefer the eggs) showered in an obscene amount of black truffle. You could come here for all kinds of reasons — for the cheese cart, for the wine list, for the opulence of the room. For a birthday or anniversary or the celebration of something momentous, no place in town does “special” quite so well. 5955 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. (323) 460-4170, providencela.com.