The Spanish are on to a good thing with tapas, those lusty little bites that bars in Spain put out in the early evening. Ever wondered how the Spanish can eat dinner at 11 or later? Because they stave off hunger pangs and socialize earlier in the evening at tapa bars, ordering wines by the glass and nibbling on anchovies, chorizo and garlicky sautéed shrimp. In L.A., we now have enough restaurants specializing in tapas that you could actually do some bar hopping. But that would involve a bit of driving. Best to stick to one place for the night and just stick with tapas, or stay longer for dinner.
The Bazaar by José Andrés: Glamour, whimsy and some of the best tapas, both classic and contemporary, rolled into one rollicking restaurant from the celebrated Washington, D.C., chef. One side is Rojo (classic); the other side is Blanca (modern), but you can order from either menu in either space. Or simply grab a seat at the bar, and watch the cook carve your platter of superb Spanish ham. It's a wild ride here: foie gras lollipops wrapped in cotton candy, "spherical" olives, salty wrinkly potatoes with green sauce, cuttlefish in its own ink, Andrés' delightful version of a Philly cheese steak. Or a deconstructed Caesar. Chef de cuisine Joshua Whigham isn't having any problem stepping into the shoes of Michael Voltaggio. And, yes, the Bazaar is still one of the hottest reservations in town.
The Bazaar by José Andrés, SLS Hotel, 465 S. La Cienega Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 246-5555, thebazaar.com. Tapas, $7 to $20.
La Cachette Bistro: Since Jean-François Meteigner moved his long-running French restaurant from the edge of Century City to a more visible address on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, he's been fiddling with La Cachette Bistro's more casual menu. And in keeping with the small plates trend around L.A., he's expanded his French tapas menu to include fried oysters with sauce gribiche, dates stuffed with Gorgonzola, smoked salmon croquettes and braised pork cheeks with corn blini — just a few of the dozen on offer. Enjoy them on the broad sidewalk terrace in front in the shelter of a canvas awning. Recently, Meteigner has added a weekly three-course prix fixe for $29. He's also got a great deal for early-to-bed Santa Monica: 30% off your entire bill on Friday and Saturday eves if you come in after 9 p.m. Sundays, it's $1 corkage for the first two bottles.
La Cachette Bistro, 1733 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 434-9509, http://www.lacachettebistro.com. French tapas, $6 to $12.
Bar Pintxo: Joe Miller, owner/chef of the beloved Joe's Restaurant in Venice, took a trip to Spain and came back itching to open a pintxo bar. In the Spanish Basque Country and particularly San Sebastian, tapas are called pintxos. On any night, people there will hit four or five spots, drinking the local Txakoli wine and sampling the house specialties. Tiny and just a block from the beach, Joe's pintxo bar is a great place to stop in for Bilbao chorizo with cherry tomato or marinated sardines and anchovies on grilled bread. Classic tapas include shrimp with garlic, tortilla española, and piquillo pepper stuffed with crab. He's got some terrific Spanish wines too, 40 or so by the glass. The primo seats? The tables out front on the sidewalk.
Bar Pintxo, 109 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 458-2012, http://www.barpintxo.com. Pintxos, $3 to $6; tapas, $5 to $11; cheese and cured meats, $9 to $18.
Tasca Wine Bar: This sweet little Spanish wine bar on 3rd Street in Los Angeles doesn't serve tapas per se. They're small plates, i.e. larger than tapas, but in the same spirit and flavor profile — a fluffy tortilla española with chorizo, ceviche with avocado and tomato, boquerones (white anchovies) with tomato and egg on crostini, or fried calamari, for example. The place is low-key, the owners affable, and you can eat and drink well for a reasonable price.
Tasca, 8108 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 951-9890, http://www.tascawinebar.com. Small plates, $8 to $16.
L'Epicerie Market: L'Epicerie Market in Culver City features a short tapas menu center stage. Partners Thierry Perez and chef Sébastien Archambault send them out from the start of happy hour at 4 p.m. all night long. Some are classic, others more unusual. My picks? Potato tortilla, sautéed mushrooms with country bread, chicken wings confit and sautéed shrimps and chorizo. Normally, $5 to $8, tapas are just $3 at the bar every day from 4 to 7 p.m., which is quite a deal, especially from a chef who earned one Michelin star in Corsica before moving to L.A. At those prices, you can afford to drink a very good bottle from Perez's well-priced wine list.
9900 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1600, http://www.lepiceriemarket.com Tapas $5 to $8.