3 spontaneous, no-reservations restaurants for great dining in L.A.

Wood-grilled sea bream at Yangban Society in Los Angeles' Arts District.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

Eating well in museums, SoCal power among Beard Award finalists and the joys of no-reservations dining. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, with this week’s Tasting Notes.

Spontaneous consumption

Bar Ama's grilled squid tostada and a mezcal negroni.
Bar Amá’s grilled squid tostada and a mezcal negroni.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

Getting into Los Angeles’ best restaurants takes more strategic planning than ever these days. Yes, there were tough reservations before the pandemic, but the list of plan-ahead and hard-to-book restaurants seems to have grown exponentially over the past year or two. The best tables often go to those who own computers with quick-refresh browsers and have little need for sleep, or well-connected diners who can jump the line with a phone call to the right person at an in-demand restaurant. For those who stay up late, the modern Indian American sports bar Pijja Palace (No. 54 on Bill Addison‘s 101 Best Restaurants in L.A. list) releases reservations for the following week every day at midnight; by the time most of us wake up, the tables are already booked.


What about those times when you find yourself with a night free and want to pop into a great restaurant? Are there workarounds?

Sometimes revisiting favorite spots that have been open more than a couple of years is a good approach. This week, a friend and I walked into Josef Centeno‘s homage to Tex-Mex cooking, Bar Amá, without reservations and had a terrific Tuesday-night dinner with a grilled squid tostada that came with a lovely salad between the blue-corn tortilla and a scattering of lightly fried squid rings, as well as an excellent grilled hamachi collar. I hadn’t eaten at Bar Amá since The Times moved its offices from downtown L.A. to El Segundo. But as I was wrapping a tortilla around pieces of lustily sauced duck leg guisada and dressing it with the platter’s pickled onions and tart green salsa, I thought it was a mistake to have stayed away so long.

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Another old favorite I recently revisited is Angelo Auriana‘s first Arts District restaurant, Factory Kitchen. The place was full on a late weeknight evening, but still had a few open tables. Two of us were delighted to get a table with a view of the kitchen action and share Auriana’s still-great mandilli di seta, handkerchief pasta with Ligurian-style pesto made with basil and almonds instead of pine nuts.

Wood-grilled sea bream at Yangban Society.
(Laurie Ochoa / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes even relatively new restaurants can immediately seat walk-ins if you go on a less-hectic night. One Monday night — when so many restaurants are closed — Yangban Society had open tables in its heated outdoor area. Though you can go full-on stoner with Katianna and John Hong‘s twice-fried chicken wings and biscuits with kare (curry) gravy, I shared a beautifully simple dinner for two: avocado and Shinko pear salad dressed in a wonderfully sharp vinaigrette followed by wood-grilled sea bream, which has become one of my favorite fish dishes in L.A.

SoCal James Beard energy

Chef and owner Brandon Hayato Go of downtown L.A.'s Hayato is a James Beard Award finalist for best chef in California.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

There are years when Southern California seems to be underrepresented when finalists are announced for the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards. Not this year.

As Stephanie Breijo reports, four of the five finalists for best chef in California — Holbox‘s Gilberto Cetina Jr., Hayato‘s Brandon Hayato Go, Justin Pichetrungsi of Anajak Thai and Carlos Salgado of Taco María — are from Southern California. The fifth nominee team is Kyle and Katina Connaughton of SingleThread in Healdsburg. L.A. did well in the overall categories too. Niki Nakayama of n/naka is up for outstanding chef, Greg Dulan of Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen and more is a finalist for outstanding restaurateur, Ototo is up for outstanding beverage program, Margarita Manzke of République and more is up for outstanding pastry chef, and Rashida Holmes of Bridgetown Roti is up for emerging chef.

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Best museum food

Assistant food editor Danielle Dorsey put together a terrific guide of the best museum and museum-adjacent eating. As she writes, “a promising trend emerged among L.A.’s modern museum restaurants since pandemic shutdowns ended. Hoping to attract Angelenos and tourists back through their doors, many institutions took the opportunity to reshape their food programs, bringing in new chefs, debuting fresh menus and, in some cases, revamping entire spaces.” David TanisLulu at the Hammer and Chris Ono‘s residency at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo are just the start of her list, which has 18 great picks.

More from L.A. Times Food

—In Stephanie Breijo’s restaurant news column, the reopening of red-sauce haven La Dolce Vita; the opening of Loreto, inspired by Sonoran grilling and Sinaloan seafood; and a new Portuguese restaurant, Barra Santos, from Mike Santos.

—Busy Breijo also writes about California’s proposed Assembly Bill 418, which “could ban five chemicals prevalent in thousands of U.S. food items, including certain brands of fruit cups, sliced bread, fruit juice, cake mixes, trail mix and more.” Among the targeted substances: red dye No. 3. That’s the stuff that makes your Skittles red. Which means the rainbow will need a redo.

Jenn Harris writes about her impatience with social media hype (a tuna sandwich so many tout is not something she’ll be eating again) but then admits that sometimes the crowd is right, at least in the case of the bourekas from Borekas Sephardic Pastries. Her other recent obsessions: the “120 pepperoni pizza” with black garlic from Burattino Brick Oven Pizza and lemon poppy seed pancakes from Lady Byrd Cafe.