The wine list at Kismet in Los Feliz — printed on six or so loose sheets of marigold-colored paper, clasped in a small silver binder clip — has no descriptions for the biodynamic Alsatian whites and the sulfur-free Rhône reds it catalogs.
The only extraneous information appears in the Skin Contact/Orange category. Under the names and prices of the wines, beverage director Kae Whalen notes the length of time the grapes macerated with their skins during the winemaking process: three weeks for a Roberto Henriquez Semillon, for example, or 2½ years for the Vodopivec “T” from Venezia-Friuli.
It’s a magnificent bit of wine geekery, and to some the response may be: Who cares? But for diners curious about the whole skin contact/orange wine movement making waves here and across the United States, it’s one potential conduit into a conversation with a Kismet staffer that can lead to some fun, mind-expanding drinking.
All kinds of settings for wine drinking thrive in Los Angeles: the cool-kids wine bars; the bastions of wealth with cellars full of vintage Bordeaux to pair with rib-eyes; the escapist havens mimicking European cafes; the tiny, idiosyncratic neighborhood restaurants selling small-production Gamays made by the owner’s winemaker friends.
Plenty of restaurants and wine bars are deep into natural wine at the moment. What does the term even mean? In her excellent primer, “Natural Wine for the People,” Alice Feiring states it this way: “You farm your grapes organically. Then, once the grapes are harvested and you start the winemaking process, you don’t add anything foreign or remove anything from the wine, nor do you shape it with machines.” That’s a broad definition, and there are exceptions to the unwritten rules. Point is, you really have to taste them to know their aliveness.
When I think about where I most enjoy drinking wine in the city, what comes to mind isn’t coveted vintages or esoteric producers — it’s places where pros like Whalen translate their personal curiosity into a language of delight. I think of the restaurants where an engaged sommelier asked gentle questions and said, “I have something that I bet you’ll love.” The best of them perform their own miracles of transubstantiation: They turn wine into joy.
These are 30 places — wine bars and smaller restaurants with wine lists like diaries, temples of cuisine with the kinds of cellars that require ladders and flashlights — where the wine service makes the experience, and where generally I like to eat as much as I like to drink.
Great drinking by the glass
It is thoroughly pleasant to settle into Augustine’s scruffily handsome Sherman Oaks space and request, say, a $13 pour of Müller-Thurgau off the standard list of three dozen glasses; enjoy it with a hunk of Manchego or a bowl of curried mussels. For the wine nerds, there is another dimension to drinking here. The chalkboards behind the bar spell out the daily-changing vintage selection, drawn in part from co-owner Dave Gibbs’ personal collection. Wines can appear that date back decades. A glass of 1981 Chateau Cos D’estournel for $75 is a fair price for a St.-Estèphe drinking so silken and smoky; plenty of the bar’s rare, mind-expanding options cost half that.
13456 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 990-0938, augustinewinebar.com
This Echo Park bar, owned by Jason Piggott, Joshua Weinstein and Michael Lippman, leads the city in its selection of quality kegged wines from small West Coast producers. They pour natural rosés and oranges that glow in the glass like lollipops in sunshine. They’re also excellent talent scouts: On the patio Bandini hosts pop-ups for up-and-comers like the chef who calls himself Avi_Cue and carves Wagyu shawarma on the spot for pita sandwiches spiked with arak-infused tahini.
2150 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, barbandini.com
Covell, a modern Los Feliz institution (it’s coming up on its 10th anniversary), doesn’t print, possess or publish a wine list. Instead, a conversation happens: A studied staffer finds out what you’re in the mood to drink and returns with some glasses and bottles. Their commitment to the approach makes it successful in practice. Matthew Kaner and Dustin Lancaster (who also run Augustine wine bar) keep as many as 150 options open at a time. They will find something that brings you joy. Sustenance is basic: cheese and charcuterie.
4628 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, (323) 660-4400, barcovell.com
Esters Wine Shop
Kathryn Coker is beverage director for the Santa Monica-based Rustic Canyon Family group, though Esters in particular is her domain: She co-owns the shop-bar-restaurant hybrid with her husband, Tug Coker. It’s in the same building as Cassia, another RCF project; Cassia is boisterous (and wonderful), Esters is far quieter. Coker’s succinct, savvy list of two dozen by-the-glass choices manages to cover ample ground. A round, citrusy Lingua Franca Chardonnay from Oregon makes for effortless sipping; a dry Chateau Miniere pét-nat red from the Loire blasts with funkier freshness. The latter slashes through a gushy, crusty grilled cheese with speck. Open a bottle from the shelf for no corkage fee.
1314 Seventh St., Santa Monica, (310) 899-6900, esterswineshop.com
Garçons de Café
Snug in downtown’s Spring Arcade building, this charmer is an ideal place to kick off a night. Soft light from bare dangling bulbs glints off the marble bar and concrete walls; tables angled cleverly around the room create a sense of privacy. Young, easy-to-drink French wines dominate the list: crisp, mineral whites; peppery, berry-forward reds. Share a plate of brie and prosciutto or smoked salmon toast, maybe ask for a second glass of Picpoul or Croze-Hermitage … and then keep the evening rolling.
541 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 278-0737, garcons-de-cafe.com
Paloma Rabinov and Eric Tucker write first-rate captions for their natural wine list: regions, producers, points about minimal sulfur and low-intervention winemaking — with lots of joyful “rich and vibrant with apricot, citrus, honey and salinity” language in the mix too. (That description details an Agricola Virà Catarratto orange from Sicily. It’s on point.) It’s hard to imagine a more perfect location for a Virgil Village wine bar than this converted A-frame bungalow on a leafy street. Dinner comes from two pop-ups in weekly residency: Metztli Taqueria (I vouch for the oozy hot chicken molita) and Adia Pasta.
751 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 922-6037, melodyla.com
Sushi Note’s beverage list is brief: a dozen or so wines, six sakes and a few Japanese beers. But the restaurant has a secret weapon: wine director Andrew Pattison, who radiates bright-eyed enthusiasm. After a tableside chat he might be pouring glasses from rarer bottles of Rieslings or white Burgundies he might happen to have open (they’re often listed on a chalkboard near the entrance), and he’s keen to create a pairing to match chef Kiminobu Saito’s omakase that’s tailored to your interests. Sushi Note sits across the street from Augustine wine bar, which is no coincidence; serious oenophile David Gibbs co-owns both places.
13447 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 802-3443, sushinotela.com
Zach Negin’s Thai Town draw feels mercurial in the best ways. Some weekends it may be nearly empty of customers, some Wednesday nights the place is raucous. The staff might be pouring a spontaneous tasting of orange wines from obscure West Coast growers, or a new Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru Brut may have arrived that they’re excited to share. Live jazz may or may not be playing. For months La Morra Pizzeria held weekly pop-ups in the back lot; lately Burgers by Standing’s grass-fed cheeseburgers have been feeding crowds on Thursdays. Whatever is happening, Tabula Rasa has a steady, vital presence in its community.
5125 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 290-6309, tabularasabar.com
The wine bar in the center of Costa Mesa’s outdoor retail complex the Camp stages a gimmicky conceit: Flights, organized by region and texture (light, medium, full-bodied), are presented in thin test tubes and lined up in racks. Look beyond the shtick: Owner Edwin Ferrer and his crew assemble compelling, ever-rotating lists that appeal to a broad array of tastes, with proper stemware if you prefer. There’s a courtyard area in the back that includes a hammock; I intend to be swaying this summer with a glass of peppery Von Winning rosé in hand.
2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 850-1780, winelab.net
Individualistic wine lists
Ashley Wells — who runs this Los Feliz all-day restaurant (and its new takeout adjunct, Part Time) with her husband, chef Tyler Wells — was previously sommelier at Osteria Mozza and general manager at Animal. Her hand-scrawled list reads with the exuberance of a wine obsessive reveling in selling whatever she pleases. Of a $90 Homonna Tokaji Furmint and Hárslevelű, she writes, “Feels like a Jolly Rancher but sexier, smokier, more mysterious!” Sold.
2040 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 660-3868, alltimelosangeles.com
The pearl of Kevin Caravelli’s versatile list is the “Vino Antico” section, a collection of 50 or so wines bottled in the 1970s through the 1990s — and plenty of them in the $100 to $200 range. A gamble on a 1988 Duca di Salaparuta from Sicily (Caravelli hadn’t opened one yet; I shared it with him so we could discuss) paid off with raisiny, still-layered richness. The flavors wrapped themselves around dishes like Chad Colby’s fazzoletti with beef cheek and veal tongue Bolognese.
4653 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 510-3093, antico-la.com
Sommelier Rick Arline once worked in radio; the soothing rumble of his voice in Auburn’s dining room calms heart rates and blood pressures. His choice of wines can quicken the pulse, though. For deft pairings with Eric Bost’s short, ever-changing, mix-and-match tasting menus, Arline’s list remains nimble. He thinks both globally and locally: There’s plenty of Old World natural-leaning geekiness, but he isn’t afraid to recommend California Zinfandels and Syrahs with age and unusual finesse.
6703 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, (323) 486-6703, auburnla.com
Faith & Flower
When I told wine director Jared Hooper that I had an open mind about Riesling, his favorite varietal, the evening became a show. Hooper asked if we’d be willing to participate in an exchange between two other tables who ordered similar wines — they try some from our bottle, and my friend and I try some of theirs? Big yes. He pulled off the juggling seamlessly, and then he poured a 1999 half-bottle from Lebanon’s Chateau Musar into a decanter shaped like a stiletto. The food at Faith & Flower is standard Cal-Ital stuff, but Hooper is such a presence I’d return solely for his joie de vivre.
705 W. 9th St., Los Angeles, (213) 239-0642, faithandflowerla.com
To frame the wine situation at Hippo: In the far back left corner of the building resides Highland Park Wine Shop, run by Randy Clement of Silverlake Wine, who is also an owner of the restaurant. He’s a Nancy Silverton alum; so are chef-partner Matt Molina and general manager David Rosoff, who was once in charge of the Mozza wine programs. That’s a lot of expertise under one roof, but the selection isn’t unwieldy. It’s streamlined and quirky and brainy: the Dan Levy of wine lists. Rosoff pointed me toward a lemony, almond-scented delight from the Grecian island of Tinos that I daydream about like a sunny vacation. With many bottles in the $40 to $60 range, this may be the most affordably provocative list in town.
5916 ½ N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, (323) 545-3536, hipporestaurant.com
Kae Whalen’s lineup of deep-cut natural wines will probably be unfamiliar terrain. The Kismet staff knows this; you need only gaze down at the bottle list and someone is by your side to help you wade into this fizzy-fresh, ultrabright, electric, eccentric world. I brought a natural wine skeptic with me recently: He hates the cidery qualities of skin-contact wines but was won over by a Domaine Sauveterre Jérôme Guichard Gamay that was all dark fruit and profundity and vibed with Kismet’s “rabbit for two” feast. The cynics can be converted.
4648 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 409-0404, kismet.family
Night + Market
Kris Yenbamroong became a national trendsetter last decade when he made his natural-wine-focused lists an inextricable part of his full-blast, only-in-Los-Angeles Thai restaurants. He and his wife, Sarah Yenbamroong, sustain the edge and the fun of their lists: They favor the Loire, but who can resist a Sicilian Nerello Mascalese with tasting notes of “hot rocks, bacon fat and cherry pie?” Not me; it was amazing alongside beef short rib penang.
3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 665-5899, and other locations, www.nightmarketsong.com
Orsa & Winston
Like most everything about Josef Centeno’s tasting-menu restaurant, Orsa & Winston’s list — a natural-wine fest featuring small European producers — veers avant-garde but doesn’t make big proclamations around its intentions. The cloudy, biodynamic Burgundies; the dark Austrian rosés with traces of pomegranate; the wild Gabrio Bini Serragghia orange number from the Sicilian island of Pantelleria near the coast of Tunisia: They make winning mates for rice porridge with uni and Parmesan or grilled flank steak with matsutakes and caramelized onions.
22 W. 4th St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-0300, orsaandwinston.com
Co-owner Jordan Ogron assembled a two-page, smartly edited wine list that runs the gamut of styles, prices and geography — many of them wonderful foils for the stellar charcuterie made by chef Raphael Francois. Tesse’s major wine bonus, though, is its next-door shop, Boutellier, which stocks an even broader range of bottles (including natural wines in a section called “The Forgotten”); bottles can be purchased at the store and opened in the dining room for a sensible $15-per-pop corkage fee.
8500 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 360-3866, tesserestaurant.com
With Tsubaki and its sibling bar, Ototo, Courtney Kaplan has earned a deserved reputation as one of the country’s most erudite sake experts. Kaplan worked previously as a sommelier, though, and Tsubaki’s list is a precise encapsulation of her love for French wine: two dozen bottles, grower Champagnes, floral Gamays, a handful of Rhônes with grippy tannins. The variety syncs with the range of steamed, fried and grilled dishes on Charles Namba’s izakaya-inspired menu.
1356 Allison Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 900-4900, tsubakila.com
Big, impressive wine lists
At Joshua Skene’s luxury seafood restaurant in the Beverly Center, Burgundies take up nearly a third of its 100-plus-page tome. Wine director Peter Carrillo directed me to a 2014 Domaine Douhairet-Porcheret Les Duresses ($128). Its flavors of coconut and spice brought to mind a South Indian fish curry — a first for me in a Chardonnay. The staff tends to nudge customers toward three-digit options; the restaurant is built for that kind of clientele. The double-digit gems conveniently huddle together in the “Under the Radar” sections for whites and reds. While we’re discussing cost: Go ahead and splurge on the outrageous caviar service with banana pancakes.
8500 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (424) 332-4082, anglerrestaurants.com
Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s West 3rd Street institution has always split its identity between restaurant and wine bar. The broad appeal of the food — wood-oven warmth, herb-flecked Southern European richness, California bounty — is mirrored in its egalitarian mix of wines. A sparkling Nebbiolo rosé lightens the signature fried chicken with chile-cumin butter and romesco aioli. Help from a sommelier can be scarce when the restaurant is full-tilt busy; knowledgeable servers step up to offer assured, on-point guidance.
8700 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (310) 859-9859, aocwinebar.com
Capo’s wine binder is nearly as thick as a Langer’s pastrami sandwich. It may well be the region’s most expensive list. A 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild Premier Grand Cru is available if you have $8,200 to spend; the reality-warping prices make a 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet Heitz-Lochardet Premier Cru feel like a relative bargain for $225. Art-filled Capo opened in the late ’90s and is beloved by its loyal clientele, though I do wonder if this is where the people who were mean to Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” would eat. The Italian steakhouse menu, like the wine, is costly but rewarding: properly al dente risotto with lobster or Dungeness crab, penne in vodka sauce with smoky guanciale, steaks grilled over the hearth and a garlicky potato gratin worth ordering on the side.
1810 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, (310) 394-5550, caporestaurant.com
Jon & Vinny’s
Helen Johannesen has had a hand in the wine programs of all the restaurants owned or partly owned by chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Animal, Son of a Gun, Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Jon and Vinny’s, Kismet). At the two locations of Jon and Vinny’s, where Johannesen is a co-owner, she also runs the tiny but mighty wine shops called Helen’s. The wine lists are extensions — emissaries, really — of the retail space, where a $39 Vinho Verde and a $7,000 Corton-Charlemagne share equal billing. Gravitating to a Sicilian red to pair with a burrata-crowned L.A. Woman pizza and a bowl of rigatoni would be logical, but the roll call of Loire whites also beckons, as does an acidic, untamed Negroamaro Rosato by Martha Stoumen from Mendocino’s Benson Ranch.
412 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 334-3369, and 11938 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 442-2733, jonandvinnys.com
Extensive but not unwieldy, the roster of wines at David Chang’s California outpost unites established players with natural wine and small-producer upstarts. A Bandol from Provence’s famed Domaine Tempier would hold its own with the meaty onslaught of bo ssäm or smoked short ribs; a heady, almost gingery Furmint from Austrian producer Michael Wenzel would make superb day drinking alongside the grilled dduk galbi served during weekend lunch. 1725 Naud St., Los Angeles, (323) 545-4880, majordomo.la
Bad news first: Former Make It Nice partners Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are no longer involved with the downtown hotel and its restaurant; during this moment of transition the food lacks the ambition it showed when the project opened in early 2018. Still, the space is gorgeous and the wine options remain extravagant. The selection of half-bottles of Champagne alone is longer than the entire list at your neighborhood bistro. Beyond four pages of expense-account California Cabs, things lean heavily Old World.
649 S. Olive St., Los Angeles, (213) 358-0000, thenomadhotel.com/los-angeles/dining
Behold the full glories of Italian viniculture: wines poured by the quartino (one-third of a bottle), verticals — a tasting of multiple vintages of the same wine — from Italian wine god Angelo Gaja, and medicinal amaros to ease your stomach after you’ve filled it with ricotta and egg raviolo and pancetta-wrapped quail. Ten years ago, eating at Mozza’s central marble bar, I had a bottle from the Venezia Giulia producer Zidarich that changed how I felt about orange wines; nothing has ever tasted more perfect alongside Puglian burrata with a confit of leeks. Rely on beverage director Sarah Clarke and her corps of somms for thoughtful expertise.
641. N. Highland Ave., (323) 297-0101, osteriamozza.com
This is the L.A. restaurant where I feel most comfortable naming some dishes I’m ordering, tossing out a price range, and conjuring a few adjectives to describe what I’m in the mood for — knowing that something delicious and offbeat will find its way into my glass. The 2,000-bottle list covers every corner of France before branching out across the rest of the world. To bring it home: A glass of late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley will go beautifully with the strawberry tiramisu.
624 S. La Brea Ave., (310) 362-6115, republiquela.com
Citrusy pozole verde with mussels; “beets and berries” salad riddled with red quinoa, chunks of avocado and pistachio; sausage-stuffed pancetta with a side of garlicky romanesco: Rustic Canyon’s declaratively California menu feels designed for drinking West Coast Pinot Noir. On their far-reaching list, wine director Kathryn Coker and sommelier Ferdinando Mucerino showcase over 90 Pinots. Fair warning: Most surpass $100. Look for Failla Seven Springs Vineyard, which is $150 and delivers all the quintessential shades of ripe-cherry, restrained-spice earthiness.
1119 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, (310) 393-7050, rusticcanyonrestaurant.com
I recently polled sommeliers for advice on L.A.’s finest encyclopedic list, and all of them pointed straight to Wolfgang Puck’s Beverly Hills flagship. Its cellar is 19,000 bottles strong, ready to serve power diners their cult Cabs, key Bordeaux vintages and, befitting Puck’s heritage, choice Austrian whites. Sommelier Phillip Dunn and his team are serious but not snobbish; they’ll find the gem that fits your budget and complements a smoked salmon pizza.
176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880,wolfgangpuck.com/dining/spago
Wally’s began as a West L.A. wine and spirits store; in its 52 years the business has burgeoned into a restaurant-wine bar-cheese shop hybrid with locations in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. The wine lists have some amazing 1-percenter bait: a glass of 2014 Penfolds Grange Shiraz for $225, perhaps? The bottle list does cover an astounding range, diligently organized by global regions with enlightening headers. If you want to know what a $75 Uruguayan dessert wine tastes like, this is the place to find out.
447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 475-3540, and 214 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 475-0606, wallywine.com