Illustration by Luke Lucas / For The Times; photography by Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times
These are the 101 best restaurants in L.A.
After nearly two brutal years fighting for its survival, the soul of Los Angeles dining remains resilient.
It can be hard to move past the heartbreaking losses, and questions about the future linger unanswered, but the restaurant terrain is feeling familiar again. Reservations for the hottest openings and the long-running blockbusters require planning a month ahead. Lines for tacos piled with al pastor shaved from the trompo trail down otherwise quiet blocks; the same goes for diners seeking boba and smoked brisket and Korean-style hot dogs.
The equation holds: Southern California’s superior agriculture combined with the city’s miraculous pluralism and creative spirit make the region one of the world’s most exciting places to eat.
With apologies to my editors, I don’t really believe in the idea of “bests” when it comes to the 101 project. Yes, this is a guide to excellence. It also is meant to capture, as much as a finite number can, the overall breadth and spirit of dining in L.A. Some well-established names and places appear (consider it a nudge to patronize them if you love them) and so do some fresh entrants: Look for Ammatoli in Long Beach, Flavors From Afar in Little Ethiopia, Sushi Kaneyoshi in Little Tokyo and the roving Los Dorados among them.
The number of stories to tell about L.A.’s food culture is limitless, and to that end three of my favorite writers contributed essays to extend the narrative. Please read Carolina A. Miranda on the designer whose cart may change the way street vendors sell tamales; Donovan X. Ramsey on the evolution of a tasting-menu series, heavy with history, that was featured on Netflix’s “High on the Hog”; and Esther Tseng illuminating an organization that supports restaurant workers who are part of the city’s varied, and often invisible, Indigenous communities.
Jenn Harris joins me in naming some of our very favorite places for imbibing (alcohol and otherwise), and I also highlight several enduring pop-up operators whose indie moxie matches their delicious cooking.
Whether you’re picking up takeout or settling in at a crowded counter, remember to treat those who feed us in these unprecedented times with kindness and patience. And welcome back to the table.
All Day Baby
Then there are Anajak’s Thai Taco Tuesdays. The menu changes weekly and, beyond the namesake dish, he might crank out kampachi tostadas with Hokkaido ikura, spicy drunken noodles and a halloumi salad flickering with mint. He frequently seeks out collaborations; a recent one with Eagle Rock cheese shop Milkfarm witnessed molten raclette being shaved in outrageous globs over the fried chicken. Half the chefs in town show up to eat at these events. And on weekends Pichetrungsi has been creating provocative, reservations-only omakase meals (using the Japanese form to reconsider Thai flavors) set up in the alley behind the restaurant. The man must be exhausted, but he is an inspiration.
Angry Egret Dinette
He’s returned to his brilliant ways with tacos as well; they’re canvases for fried fish slicked with habanero aioli or cochinita pibil blasted with chile arbol or bone marrow or … it’s hard to keep up, and the online carryout menu usually doesn’t list all the day’s dishes. Best to show up and see what’s available. Heads up that he’s branched out into dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, with table service under strings of lights, and the menu (maybe oysters with uni, maybe a wild take on a pupu platter) is even more unpredictable and compelling.
Both menus follow the communal, small-plates ethos that Goin and Styne led the charge to codify in Los Angeles. The bounty is Californian; the oomph in the flavors draws on cuisines from around the continents-spanning Mediterranean Sea. Harissa slashes through the richness of beef cheeks. Za’atar, sumac and preserved-lemon labneh surround lamb chops like a flashing aura. You can trace the calendar months through the desserts: winter apple galette perfumed with the smoke of a wood oven; airy doughnuts with roasted peaches and berries in the summertime.
The Arthur J
Also, the menu is rife with vegetables. Salads of tomato and plum, or figs and nectarines sprinkled with feta and salsa seca, signaled the end of summer during a meal in September. Shishito peppers pinged with za’atar and roasted cauliflower flecked with cilantro pesto are mainstays. In the midst of the city’s birria craze, Bar Amá puts forth an herbaceous mushroom variation. Partly these dishes channel aspects of two Centeno restaurants, Amá•cita and Bäco Mercat, that closed during the pandemic. They also express his overall shift toward more plant-based recipes. The evolving Tex-Cal-Mex equation reckons where he came from with finding a fresh way forward. Who among us can’t relate?
Time, and the sobering work of keeping a new restaurant afloat through a pandemic, have brought Fox and his dream project some hard-won clarity. Birdie G’s has quietly become a community treasure. The side-street location in a former train depot turned out to be the ideal place for an inviting patio lined with young palm trees and other greenery. Some artful editing has kept the menu’s heart intact, though its slimmer size now feels manageable for the kitchen and the customers. Always order the relish tray, with its tour of seasonal vegetables and its slyly complex onion dip. Persian-inspired lamb over a scattering of crisp rice is better than ever. Look for inspired ideas like tomato-burrata oreganata and trust sommelier Chloe Miranda to guide you through the ebullient wine list. If you haven’t been to Birdie G’s since its earliest, buzziest days, it’s time to return.
Burritos La Palma
Food-wise, Chifa pays homage to his mother, Wendy Leon, who returns to the kitchen here, having run her own place in Lima, Peru, four decades ago. The menu is most strongly informed by the deep influence of Chinese immigrants on Peruvian cuisine: sticky spare ribs caramelized in soy sauce and Shaoxing wine, zongzi (steamed sticky rice with meats, vegetables and duck egg yolk bundled in a bamboo leaf, also available in a vegan version), excellent prawns crusted with black peppercorns that pop hot and gritty against your teeth. A sleeper favorite: Popo’s Wellness Soup, a delicious herbal broth that changes with the seasons but whose nutrients you can almost feel rippling through your bloodstream.
Connie & Ted’s
Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen
5 Stars Hue
As the restaurant’s name suggests, its menu focuses on dishes native to Hue, the city in central Vietnam with a long imperial history. Round out the meal with bún bò hue, the spicy beef noodle soup with scarlet broth and ruby blood cakes as soft as tofu, designed to be customized with herbs and lime and tangles of fresh and fried onions.
Flavors From Afar
They have the moves to pull it off. In September, for example, Copes and her team eloquently re-created a handful of Lebanese signatures from chef Lina Georges of Mama Lina Cooks, including ouze (cinnamon-scented lamb shanks tumbling over rice scattered with pine nuts and slivered almonds) and siyadiyeh (spice-rubbed fish with tahini sauce). Other menus have featured Guatemalan taquitos, Palestinian musakhan (spiced chicken and caramelized onions over flatbread), Kenyan-style tilapia cooked in coconut milk and an Eritrean recipe for goat marinated in herbs and chiles. The restaurant is an arm of co-founder Meymuna Hussein-Cattan’s Tiyya Foundation, which assists families of refugees, immigrants and displaced indigenous communities. Nearly half of the profits from Flavors From Afar go to Tiyya’s support programs, and diners might gain delicious insight into cuisines that are otherwise rare even in Los Angeles.
Forn Al Hara
For the Win
Gjelina’s patio has always been magnetic, and never more so than over the last two years. I’d never noticed until this year that a nook along the building’s right side, paneled with rustic mixed woods and just big enough to fit four tables comfortably, is one of the city’s loveliest outdoor dining spaces.
Grand Central Market
As to the future, I direct you to the southeast corner of the building and two of GCM’s newest tenants. Shiku, meaning “family” in Korean, comes from Baroo Canteen’s Kwang Uh and Mina Park. Their new project revolves around an ever-changing selection of banchan and to-go meals like fried rice with spicy and citrusy “kimchi’d corn,” fried egg and potato chips. Next door to them is the freshly tiled stand for Fat and Flour, the pie shop (but also cookies!) from superstar baker Nicole Rucker.
Hawkins House of Burgers
The intimate theater of the meal gives the experience heart. Go always begins the evening quiet and focused, but halfway through 10 to 12 courses — in July it was between the corn and scallop tempura and a sumptuous mound of Dungeness crab in a broth electric with umami — he grows chattier. “Okra is more important to Japanese people than to American people,” he might remark when pairing the vegetable with roasted Santa Barbara prawns. And soon you’re learning that Go was dorm mates with Broken Spanish’s Ray Garcia at UCLA, who was pre-law while Go was studying molecular biology.
By the time you’ve had seconds (or thirds) of the king mackerel with rice and Harry’s Berries strawberries with cream for dessert alongside green tea, the city outside feels very far away. Scoring a reservation for Hayato is an ugly competitive sport; comparisons to finding a golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory aren’t far off the mark. The winners score one of the most remarkable experiences in Los Angeles — in America, really. Set your alarm for 10 a.m. on the first of the month and good luck.
Traffic is hell on Holy Basil’s block of Los Angeles Street. A few minutes of illegal parking may be in order. The food merits the risk.
Jiang Nan Spring
Dishes like “Shanghai leek rice cake” stir-fried with greens and julienned pork; tilapia fried in a batter striated with seaweed; and dong po rou, the Hangzhou masterpiece of pork belly slowly braised in rice wine, soy sauce, ginger and sugar, usher diners into Jiangnan’s culinary affinity for restrained seasonings and flickers of sweetness. Chef Henry Chang, a native of Taiwan, has cooked the specialties of Shanghai for 30-some years and has more than earned his mastery.
Jon & Vinny’s
The pies are still around (and great), though breakfast is on hold while Kramer and Hymanson focus on dinner. A quieter spirit has been stirring through the menu: Dishes such as clams in Meyer lemon and fig leaf broth and a lovely black cod arranged around sweet peppers, braised leeks and preserved mandarins join the long-standing lamb meatballs and fried cauliflower with caper yogurt. Pastry chef Meadow Ramsey nails a ricotta cheesecake with tart-sweet passion fruit caramel. Kismet is evolving subtly and meaningfully.
In March I had an unforgettable dinner at Knife Pleat celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The kuku sabzi (its closest Western equivalent is a frittata, but it’s in a category of egg dishes all its own) was dense with herbs but nearly as light as mousse; it preceded braised lamb shank over pilaf sweetened with dates and raisins. Sarmadi’s mother oversaw the meal, as she did when the couple hosted the feast at Spring. I can’t help hoping, though, that the glories of Iranian cuisine might occasionally carry over to the regular menu as well? A guy can dream.
Macheen at Milpa Grille
His breakfast burritos are among my favorites in the city (and I’ve eaten my share). Perez lines flour tortillas with creamy scrambled eggs enriched with nutty Swiss cheese and then piles on spiced, deep-fried Tater Tots. Meaty options include birria with chipotle aioli, pork belly with avocado salsa and (the standout) Filipino longanisa with salsa macha. For vegetarians, there are Brussels sprouts frizzled to papery curls and glossed with chipotle aioli.
Milpa Grille still serves owner Deysi Serrano’s Mesoamerican-inspired bowls, built on beans and corn, and enchiladas bathed in guajillo chile sauce. She also hosts baristas Xuan Carlos Espinoza and Joel Espinoza — they call their pop-up Cafe Cafe Mobile and make espressos or pour-overs with beans from places like Puebla and Oaxaca. The crisis has challenged the restaurant industry to reconsider its entrenched models of business; this kind of under-one-roof symbiosis might be a blueprint to help lead the way forward.
This being the strongest West Coast arm of David Chang’s vast empire, Majordomo will always accommodate groups of diners who demand the gargantuan short rib ssam. But also consider the boiled chicken served in two courses: masterclass-level poached breast meat sliced and served over rice with two sauces (ginger-scallion and a heady red chile paste), followed by soup made from double-rich stock and teeming with hand-cut noodles. It might not have the swagger of the ssam, but I’d argue that it’s even more delicious.