It has been a radical decade in dining for Los Angeles — a time when once-quiet neighborhoods became restaurant destinations, when voices at every tier of the industry diversified, when culinary spaces decentralized, when a sense of ownership and pride in L.A.’s uniqueness settled into the city’s marrow.
Sometime around 2013, a refrain began echoing through the national media: Los Angeles had become the most exciting food city in America. Editors and writers latched on to that specific adjective: exciting. They might not go so far as to say “best,” but they clearly saw the city as a reflection of the changing tastes and values around dining in the United States.
The reasoning behind the excitement went — and still goes — generally like this:
L.A. dining culture thrives on plurality. Restaurants in the region’s many rooted immigrant communities cook remarkable foods to please their own populaces. Second-generation chefs graft traditions and innovations in singular ways, often returning to the dishes of their heritage after stints in fine-dining kitchens. Among food lovers, $2.25 fried shrimp tacos from Mariscos Jalisco carry capital equal to Spago’s $28 smoked salmon pizza.
My own feelings around L.A. dining veered from admiring to ardent in early 2016, during a trip that included my first meal at Baroo, the tiny fermentation-centered restaurant that was then in a beleaguered Hollywood mini-mall. Kwang Uh’s noorook connected new pathways in my cortex. Uh mixed pureed beets with nurukgyun (grains inoculated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae), which reinforced the pleasant but otherworldly nuttiness of the fermented vegetable mixed with Job’s tears, kamut and farro. A blast of garnishes offset the flavors, including sunflower and pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts, finger lime segments and onion slivers pickled with rose.
I’ve never had anything quite so strange and wonderful before or since. The cooking at Baroo mirrored national trends (vegetable centrism, the fascination with fermentation, the advance of Korean cuisine) but the overall impression — and the restaurant’s very existence — felt so of its place.
Months before, I’d disappeared into a day of eating, a condensed tour of the zeitgeist. It started with a sorrel rice bowl and ricotta toast with mulberry jam for breakfast at Sqirl. Xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung’s location at the Americana at Brand in Glendale came next, followed by a righteous falafel sandwich at Dune in Atwater Village en route to downtown, where Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos truck had parked for the afternoon. Dinner was a ticketed tasting menu at the counter of Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec. Wild, exhilarating dishes, including a particularly striking plate of beef strips arranged among slicks of smoked peanut butter and charred broccoli under a flurry of fried shallot bits, arrived in rapid succession.
That’s one blurred image. There are a million itineraries to eat through, each telling different stories about what and how Los Angeles eats, and why.
Fast forward to January 2019, when Patricia Escárcega and I began writing restaurant reviews for The Times. In my first year here, I’ve consumed enough to understand how the city’s culinary greatness existed long before recent outside recognition ramped up.
Exciting? A more sweeping superlative is warranted. L.A. doesn’t need any more affirmation at this point but I’ll say it anyway: Its wondrous complexity does indeed make it the best food city in America.
One year on the ground isn’t enough time to fully grasp the arc of the last decade; ten local food writers graciously stepped up to recount the phenomena they witnessed firsthand. They tell us what happened, what it meant and what could be next.
How we kicked off the decade
Lesley Bargar Suter, travel editor, Eater; former food editor, Los Angeles Magazine
When I began my job as Los Angeles Magazine’s food editor in 2008, it was explained to me that I’d be spending much of my time covering glitzy restaurant openings in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. If that had actually been my job I probably wouldn’t have lasted long. Instead, I ended up chasing food trucks via Twitter tips, hopping backyard fences with Bill Esparza in search of the city’s latest amazing taquero, and racing to find out where the next LudoBites was popping up.
What gave Los Angeles its energy at the start of the decade? The economy had fallen apart. Chefs of all kinds had to get scrappy to make money. Using restaurant spaces that were empty at night, taking inspiration from street food, filling vacancies in unexpected neighborhoods, particularly downtown’s Arts District: There was sort of a punk rock attitude that came from scarcity.
The aspirational part of L.A.’s food culture had always looked with envy at New York and Paris. How do we pull off fanciness with substance the way they do? Really, though, we’re a blue jeans and taco town. When we finally started feeling comfortable as our resourceful, casual selves, I think we moved into our greatness.
It helped that, in a challenged economic environment, L.A. proved to be more nimble than New York. When Alma opened in 2012 on what was then a fairly seedy stretch of Broadway downtown and Andrew Knowlton named it Bon Appetit’s restaurant of the year, it validated what became a very L.A. aesthetic: hyper ingredient worship, bare-bones staff, non-scrappy food in a very scrappy environment. We felt like the new cool kids. The national recognition empowered chefs from all kinds of backgrounds to open restaurants where they could, cooking the kind of food they really wanted to make, and to trust that the audience would show up. And if the food was great, people did.
Vitality, then and now
Patric Kuh, manager, the Arthur J; former restaurant critic, Los Angeles Magazine
L.A. has always had a vital dining scene. I think of 1979 when Michael’s opened, 1982 when Spago opened, 1986 when Citrus opened and 1989 when Campanile opened — we’ve always had stellar, influential restaurants. We have had our time before.
The current moment is different. It is more reflective of the city. It was a decade of the deep dive: Carlos Salgado with corn at Taco Maria, Charles Olalia with heirloom rice from the Philippines at [now-closed] Rice Bar, Steve Samson cooking the foods from Bologna, from where his grandmother is from, at Rossoblu. It was the decade we got over the idea of “ethnic cuisine.” This is how millions of people eat, so no more boxing the cuisines of myriad populations into this reductive term. Finally we acknowledged that not everyone grew up on normative American cooking. Let’s all bring our sriracha to the party and let’s just call it food.
The big picture
Besha Rodell, global critic for Food & Wine/Travel & Leisure; Australia Fare columnist for the New York Times; former restaurant critic, L.A. Weekly
L.A. came to represent shifts in the larger cultural conversation, nationally and globally, around food this decade: The food world started to become less Eurocentric, to value diversity more, and to finally have the conversations about authenticity: whether it matters and who it discounts and who is making those kinds of calls. Places that might have existed and gone under the radar 15 years ago ended up having real clout. If Baroo had opened five years earlier, would people have gotten it the way they did? I’m not so sure.
Also, chefs like Ray Garcia at Broken Spanish and Bryant Ng at Cassia showed us that they could open in big, glitzy spaces and retain the heart of their cooking. They succeeded in appealing to wide audiences without watering down their ideas.
Operating a restaurant in the city is more expensive than ever before. So is living in L.A. How, given rising costs, does L.A. remain a breeding ground for ambitious, original cooking — a place where cuisines from around the world can be experienced in so many ways? That may be the story of the next decade.
Downtown rises and rises
Betty Hallock, writer; former deputy food editor, Los Angeles Times
I moved to Little Tokyo in 2005, and there weren’t many great places to eat. Downtown back then was known for the Original Pantry Cafe, Philippe’s and the Mexican markets along Olvera Street. Lazy Ox [by Josef Centeno, Hallock’s partner] opened in Little Tokyo in 2009 (around the same time that Cedd Moses, Eric Alperin and Sasha Petraske opened the Varnish), and it shifted critical attention. They made downtown a destination for anyone interested in what was happening in food and cocktails.
Josef opened Bäco Mercat in 2011, and when Bon Appetit recognized it as one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country, I think it really piqued the interest of both restaurateurs from across the city and downtown’s landlords. Deals were happening for these architecturally interesting spaces and, compared with places in Hollywood and Santa Monica, had reasonable rents. (That is not the case now.)
Alma and Bestia opened in 2012. Bottega Louie was big — in the size of its footprint, ambition and impact. I was living at 5th and Spring then, and I really did not know if a restaurant of that size could attract the customers to fill it. It was crowded all the time from the beginning.
It still feels as if downtown is constantly changing from month to month. So many restaurants! I continue to see old buildings empty out and new construction beginning. It feels as if some of the biggest changes might still be on the horizon.
What Mexican (and other) cuisines mean to L.A.
When I landed back in L.A. in 2016 after living in Mexico, I saw how the food truck scene had transformed the way the city eats. But what I also saw was a real transmigration of contemporary Mexican traditions, methods and ingredients. It was so different from the 20th century “conquistador” style of Mexican food.
Now what we have in Los Angeles is tlayudas and queso Oaxaca straight from Oaxaca, the best flour tortillas straight from Sonora, the [rolls] for the tortas ahogadas straight from Guadalajara. That was a quiet transformation that occurred over the last 10 years, as the Mexican immigrant communities that formed in the late ’90s/early 2000s settled in. Some also fled violence in Mexico; you have skilled taqueros who never wanted to leave their little towns in Michoacán, but one day they had to, and they’re cooking with the immediate techniques used on the street.
What also happened was a sort of unofficial assumption that Mexican/Latin street-food-style eating is the everyman eating of L.A. In the very core of L.A., I would say it’s Mexican-Latin-Central-American cuisines and Korean cuisine that’s become what we eat and who we are, regardless of color or nationality.
Finding language to describe L.A. cooking
Tien Nguyen, food and culture writer
When I was writing the Rogue 99 list [L.A. Taco’s analogue to L.A. Weekly’s Essential 99 Restaurants; Nguyen cowrote the list with Katherine Spiers], I wanted a term that could describe L.A. cooking that wasn’t the word “fusion.” I came up with “nonhyphenated cooking.”
Journalists of color have been having conversations for a while now about the hyphen in words like Asian American and Mexican American. Specifically, there has been a strong movement to convince style guides to remove that hyphen — for lots of reasons but, among them, the idea that the hyphen connotes some sort of dual or partial identity (which often then gets weaponized against communities of color, but that’s a whole other conversation). Once you remove that hyphen, the first word modifies the second, and gives it a whole new meaning.
The discourse around immigrant cooking so often focuses on this idea of people being caught between cultures or identities when the reality is — at least in L.A. — there really is such an embracing of all those cultures simultaneously. I’m thinking of cooking that represents the ways in which L.A.’s cultures and communities live in such proximity to each other. Chefs and restaurants from the last decade that come to mind: Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos, Nyesha Arrington, n/naka, [pastry chef] Isa Fabro, Susan Yoon (the executive chef at Orsa & Winston), Josef Centeno and Chris Yang.
A city that honors specificity
Gustavo Arellano, features writer, Los Angeles Times; former editor of OC Weekly
As food media democratized itself this decade — via Twitter and then Instagram, and then sites like Eater and L.A. Taco, and national media joining Jonathan Gold’s voice — we found an audience, particularly in younger generations, that embraced nuance. It’s not just Chinese food these chefs are making: It’s Sichuan, Pekinese, Uyghur food. It’s not just Mexican food: It’s Oaxacan, Sinoalan. It isn’t just foods of the Middle East: It’s Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese. As a native of Orange County, I never would have thought that Georgian food would be a thing here in Southern California. The culture has shifted so that now chefs are unafraid to say, “This is where I’m from, this is what I cook.” And people love it.
What’s the pitch?
Matthew Kang, editor, Eater Los Angeles
I think one L.A. truism — something that stems from our specific creative class — remains more important here than in other cities: A restaurant needs a strong log line. What is Ma’am Sir? It’s modern Filipino cooking by a Filipino chef. Pasjoli? It feels like eating in a bistro in Paris but with a modernist American chef who uses California ingredients. Night + Market, Bestia: They’re easy one-liners. You know immediately what these places are, and people latch on to the idea and concept quickly. Restaurants that struggle here often haven’t worked out a succinct identity. They’ve got to have their selling pitch down.
Food plus tech equals fetishization
Jenn Harris, Food senior staff writer, L.A. Times
The phenomenon of using social media to obsess over the latest dish started in Los Angeles with Kogi and Twitter. Over the decade the action migrated to Instagram, and the effect has been polarizing. Food-focused social media can be a way to learn (instantly) about other cultures’ cuisines and to track how specific dishes and trends across a city, across a country and across continents.
It also meant that chefs started to create food specifically to go viral — looks sometimes became were more important than taste. Instagram creates food FOMO: In L.A. it’s anything with a cheese pull, and smashburgers, anything that’s bigger than it’s supposed to be, and that rainbow glitter unicorn pizza at Dagwoods in Santa Monica. I feel it: If everyone’s posting that oozing beef-and-cheese sandwich from All Day Baby, I want to try it too.
The impact of Jonathan Gold can never be underestimatedLaurie Ochoa, deputy editor
for entertainment and arts, Los Angeles Times, and Jonathan Gold’s wife
When Jonathan won the Pulitzer in 2007, it was recognized that something interesting was going on in Los Angeles. He was shortlisted again in 2011. I think it affirmed that restaurant criticism was a valuable, important form of the conversation — and it made people want to come here and see what was happening.
What came with the Pulitzer was the loss of anonymity. He was really upset about that at first, but in the end he came to really love talking with people who were as excited about what was happening in restaurants as he was.
There was a kind of joy when people would see him. We were walking out of Freedman’s in Silver Lake one day, and a woman who was driving down the street stopped her car in the road and left it running. She ran over to Jonathan, gave him a big hug and said, “You’ve changed how I see Los Angeles.” And then she got back in her car and drove away. I’m glad he got to have those moments.