Each year I keep a running log to track restaurants slated to open each month. When this January rolled around and I started my new list, I fully expected the pace of openings to slow to a trickle.
That hasn't happened. Instead, despite the curdled economy, L.A.'s restaurant scene this year has busted out with new energy and invention. And it continues to inspire the entire country. I can't tell you how many New Yorkers and even, gasp, San Franciscans have told me that Los Angeles is now their favorite eating town. It's about time we got some deserved attention.
Instead of treading the tried and true, L.A.'s restaurateurs and chefs are experimenting with the wild and crazy, with pop-ups, crossovers and new genres. This year's crop of new restaurants includes sandwich shops, noodle joints, izakaya, wine bars, far-flung cuisines, wood-burning-oven specialists, plenty of communal tables and oddball bar concepts. Diverse doesn't begin to describe what's happening now.
And it's not just taking place on the Westside, traditionally the no-brainer address for a successful restaurant. (Because, the thinking goes, who would drive east of La Cienega? Well, the two Mozzas, and Campanile before that, drilled a hole in that theory, thank you very much.) Restaurants and bars are popping up downtown, on the Eastside, along the Wilshire corridor and elsewhere like mushrooms after rain.
The big surprise has been the South Bay restaurant revival, with former Water Grill chef David LeFevre hitting his stride in
Even established restaurants have changed colors occasionally. We've seen French chef and food-show star Ludovic Lefebvre collaborate with Animal chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo in an all-foie-gras dinner designed to stick it to those who want to outlaw the traditional fattened duck or goose liver. Lefebvre remains the highest-profile pop-up chef, probably in the country, with brief sold-out tenures at various kitchens around town and a truck making the rounds with his fried chicken. He's even brought the Ludo truck to Vegas, but not to Place Concorde in Paris yet.
The Animal boys opened a second restaurant devoted to seafood called, for no good reason, Son of a Gun, and decorated it with old buoys and nautical stuff from Dotolo's grandfather's attic.
Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame came out of the cold (again) to open the brick-and-mortar
At the Helms Bakery complex, Sang Yoon of Father's Office went upscale with Lukshon, his sleek, lively Southeast Asian restaurant.
At the edge of Little Tokyo, a former Pizzeria Mozza chef, Bryant Ng, came up with the Spice Table, devoted to Singaporean and Vietnamese food.
A couple of blocks over,
And Kris Yenbamroong, the young chef at WeHo's Talesai, added a pop-up called Night + Market inside the restaurant serving Thai street food on cheap enamel dishware.
Test Kitchen came and went. Ricardo Zarate, who, with that big smile, is everybody's favorite chef, finally got Picca open, a modern Peruvian tavern, with a boisterous crowd and punchy Peruvian cooking, including some killer ceviches and anticuchos along with quirky cocktails from mixologist Julian Cox. Meanwhile,
Sotto, a rustic Italian trattoria from Steve Samson and Zach Pollack — with a Neapolitan-style pizza, a wood-burning oven brought over from the old country and a savvy Italian wine list — moved in downstairs from Picca on Pico Boulevard, while in Los Feliz, Mother Dough is turning out the best margherita this side of Naples. This year, in fact for the first time, L.A. may outdo some cities in
"Top Chef" winner (and former chef de cuisine at the Bazaar)
We also lucked into what has to be one of the best museum restaurants in the country with Ray's & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It has sparkling cooking from Kris
SBE restaurant group (the Bazaar, Cleo, etc.) continues its quest for world domination with Mercato di Vetro, an Italian restaurant with four kitchens next door to the Troubadour in WeHo.
The burger craze got even crazier as entrepreneurs vied to strike it rich with the next new burger concept. Short Order from the late Amy Pressman, in partnership with Nancy Silverton, may have the inside track when it opens in the next few weeks: The two spent months tweaking Silverton's already great burger recipe.
As I'm writing this, Josef Centeno of Lazy Ox Canteen is putting the finishing touches on Baco Mercat, his global flatbread concept, in downtown L.A. Meanwhile, Ilan Hall of the Gorbals is busy tweaking the menu at Urbano Pizza Bar downtown. Claudio Blotta of Barbrix and chefs Dan Mattern and Roxana Jullapat are readying Cook County on Beverly Boulevard for its debut, serving California rustic cuisine and house-baked breads and pastries.
Even some old favorites are getting newer, fresher looks and menu updates. Mark Gold closed his sweet little Eva restaurant for a couple of weeks and reopened with a new menu and slightly lower prices. Wilshire has hired Nyesha Arrington as the new chef, who is in the midst of revamping the menu at the Santa Monica restaurant.
Not to despair about the fine dining front: Under French chef David Féau, the Royce at the Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena is doing great and delicious things. And just last week,
And if you haven't made it to Pie Hole, a little place in downtown L.A. devoted to the art of pie, then it's time to get out and explore what's new this year. Have I left anything out? Probably. Remember too, there are still seven weeks before the end of the year.
Bring it on.