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Looking for special-occasion takeout? Our critic has 15 suggestions

To-go sushi bento from Shunji in Sawtelle.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

The crisis we’re living through has paralyzed our economy, our mobility, our way of life. Relentlessly, the calendar keeps marking time: Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays arrive. A reason to splurge on exceptionally good takeout might arise, even to ease the soul after a particularly rough day. I have suggestions.

Fighting for the survival of their businesses, many of our most decorated chefs swiveled from opulent tasting menus to family-style comfort foods. Ordering from their places now doesn’t — can’t — compare to experiencing meals in their dining rooms. Many have nonetheless found ways to cram their imagination, skill and optimism into carryout boxes we then unpack in our own kitchens.

Since the shutdown, readers have asked consistently for takeaway recommendations to brighten a special occasion. I don’t put these forth blithely. A boggling number of factors cross the brain when eating away from home right now. Chief among them is safety — for ourselves and for the people making the food.

Each of these places follows practices for organized, contactless pickup. I started my research either by calling each restaurant, rather than using delivery systems that might charge unreasonable commissions, or by following links on their respective websites. More and more upscale L.A. restaurants have joined Tock’s to-go reservation platform; it’s worth a look to see who’s there.

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And if you happen to need a birthday cake (or pie) but can’t bring yourself to make one? I’m a big fan of Cake Monkey on Beverly Boulevard.

Update: Auburn and Bon Temps have permanently closed.

Auburn

Eric Bost’s mix-and-match tasting menus, when we could linger in the restaurant’s terrarium of a dining room, balanced braininess with earthly pleasure. The precision technique remains, though now his cooking calms like soothing words. Weekly-changing to-go menus, priced at $39 per person, include a salad, entree, vegetable side, bread and dessert. Bost’s background in French cuisine came ringing through in a recent main dish of braised oxtails, the delicate meat pulled from the bones, over polenta so rich it registered as custard. Pickup only, Wednesday through Saturday.

6703 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 486-6703, auburnla.com

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Family-style meal (with pizzas occasionally available as specials) from Bestia in the Arts District.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Bavel/Bestia

It is surreal, when picking up meals from either of Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis’ Arts District restaurants, to peer into their emptiness. These dining rooms have been among the most consistently raucous draws in Los Angeles. People are still clamoring. The couple’s family-style meals (packaged for two, four or six people at $49 per person) usually sell out weekly; check early in the week to reserve.

Bavel whirls together Israeli, Egyptian, Moroccan and Southern California flavors; there will be a variation on hummus and a sunny centerpiece like chicken leg fragrant with saffron or short rib tagine over couscous.

Bestia still goes full-blast Italian. Expect house-made salumi to kick off a meal of endive salad, butternut squash soup garnished with pickled shiitakes, and nicely rendered duck confit over celery root purée. At either restaurant, Gergis’ pastries reassure; the strawberry crostata that completed the Bestia feast last week felt more like springtime than a brisk walk. Pickup only.

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Bavel: 500 Mateo St., Los Angeles, (213) 232-4966, baveldtla.com; Bestia: 2121 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles, (213) 514-5724, bestiala.com

A selection of pastries available on weekends from Bon Temps in the Arts District.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Bon Temps

Looking to celebrate at breakfast time? Lincoln Carson is one of California’s most accomplished pastry chefs, and his weekend assortment of viennoiserie is a spectacular display of talent. Two favorites: the shattering danish filled with ricotta and strawberries, and the everything croissant filled with cream cheese that is, indeed, everything. Carson’s banana bread with burnt honey ganache is among the delights; find the recipe in our online database to replicate it at home. He’s also creating $32.50-per-person family dinners starring Gallic-inspired mains like chicken paillard with green olive pistou or lamb roulade with chermoula. Pickup only.

712 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 784-0044, bontempsla.com

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Broken Spanish

The entrees on Ray Garcia’s family meals ($32 per person) rotate weekly — maybe achiote-roasted chicken or pork chile verde, and there’s always a vegetarian option — but fragrant blue corn tortillas and creamy refried lentils always anchor the spread. On Tuesdays only, Garcia reincarnates the spirit of his B.S. Taqueria (which closed last year) into a build-your-own-taco set, with fillings (carne asada, chorizo and potato, garlicky mushrooms), salsas, tortillas and beans included. Pickup only.

1050 Flower St., Los Angeles, (213) 749-1460, brokenspanish.com

Nigiri and a cut roll from the Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

The Brothers Sushi

Mark Okuda, a longtime chef at Studio City’s Asanebo, took over this Woodland Hills sushi staple in 2018, keeping the name but making the menu entirely his own. I had a reservation to review the restaurant the week the shutdown was announced. Okuda is still making an ambitious number of dishes: For a lunchtime splurge, opt for the $50 chirashi bowl, a piscine rainbow over sushi rice. (If you’re avoiding bluefin tuna, be sure to let them know.) It’s an equal pleasure, though, to order a yellowtail-scallion hand roll alongside a few pieces of nigiri (buttery nodoguro, silky hotate, mild kanpachi) or a sashimi plate like halibut and cucumber dressed in yuzu vinegar and shiso oil. Pickup only.

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21418 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 456-4509, thebrotherssushi.com

Cassia

The crunch and herbaceous nip of Bryant Ng’s green papaya salad tastes especially vitalizing right now, as does his beef rendang electric with lime and sambal. Cassia’s menu has narrowed but the singular merge of cultures (Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean and Southern Californian among them) is as honed as ever. Order standouts like kaya toast sandwiching coconut jam; wontons filled with shrimp, cod and country ham in chile oil; and the ever-wonderful seafood laksa. They’re available as individual meals or bundled into family meals with multiple choices. Delivery or pickup.

1314 7th St., (310) 393-6699, cassiala.com

Crustacean

Helene An’s garlic noodles have been famous for decades. She developed the recipe in the 1970s at her family’s first restaurant, Thanh Long in San Francisco, combining Vietnamese traditions with the spaghetti aglio e olio she tried in the city’s North Shore Italian restaurants (and thought she could improve upon). She brought the recipe to Los Angeles with Crustacean in 1997. Currently you can order luxe versions of the noodles with roasted Dungeness crab or lobster or massive tiger prawns, but their savory-sweet pungency also gratifies unadorned or with simpler shrimp. An’s cooking has always been eclectic; round out the meal with grilled chicken oyster satay, an extra-citrusy take on crisp orange chicken or a banh mi-Philly cheesesteak hybrid that improbably works. Delivery or pickup.

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468 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 205-8990, crustaceanbh.com

Fried chicken and black truffle pot pie from Dialogue in Santa Monica.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Dialogue/Pasjoli

Dave Beran has to channel his perfectionism somewhere. If he can’t be directing his energies into cerebral tasting menus, he’s shifted to fussing over deftly engineered beef Wellingtons or an outrageously good fried chicken pot pie with black truffles and ornate puff pastry. His three-course family meals (typically $35 to $69 per person) rotate weekly, though he wouldn’t dare change the dessert — a slice of his near-molten Basque cheesecake.

Two miles away, the team at Beran’s Pasjoli (led by chef de cuisine Matthew Kim) funnel their restlessness into French-influenced menus that can change three times in a week; cassoulet with apple-fennel salad and profiteroles; chicken fricassee over buttered noodles with salad and opera cake; soup au pistou with bread and lemon frangipane cake. One constant: Kim’s Gruyère and cheddar grilled cheese with Mornay and caramelized onions, a ready-to-heat masterpiece. Pickup only.

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Dialogue: 1315 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica, dialoguerestaurant.com; Pasjoli: 2732 Main St., Santa Monica, (424) 330-0020, pasjoli.com

Felix

Focaccia and pizzas from Evan Funke’s Venice trattoria reheat beautifully, and a lemony chicory salad jolts the palate out of hibernation. Pasta, though, is the center of Funke’s universe; he recently published a book on mastering it at home. Rather than preparing hot pasta to-go at Felix, the restaurant sells kits of freshly extruded rigatoni, pappardelle, spaghettone and other shapes with sauces — an easy boil-and-serve situation. Funke, resolutely and perhaps infamously, prefers his pasta molto al dente, and he serves it that way in his dining room. Now’s the opportunity to prepare his take on a classic like rigatoni all’Amatriciana to your own taste. It will be magnificent. Delivery or pickup.

1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (424) 387-8622, felixla.com

Kaiseki jubako from n/naka.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

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n/naka

A 2015 episode on Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” introduced Niki Nakayama and her kaiseki restaurant in Palms to the world; it’s been one of the country’s hardest reservations to score since. That remains true: Weekly bookings for her takeout options go live every Saturday at 10 a.m. and sell out in seconds. There are two options. A $38 bento combines several pieces of nigiri and a sushi roll with grilled miso black cod over sunchoke purée, a panko fried shrimp, koji-roasted sweet potato and matcha white chocolate cake. The $85 jūbako distills the crux of her kaiseki meals into a two-tiered box: a sliver of braised abalone draped back into its pearl shell; gingery Wagyu tataki salad; a couple bites of marinated and fried lobster; and mochi filled with a bright strawberry and red bean paste. Some of the 16 small dishes are hot, so eat this quickly, perhaps with one of the chilled bottles of sake you can order with your boxes. Pickup only.

3455 Overland Ave., Los Angeles, n-naka.com

Shunji

Nothing contained in a box can match the unbridled omakase Shunji Nakao serves from his sushi bar, but the bento boxes he composes still communicate his creative essence. If you find yourself celebrating solo, this might be the ticket: Ten exquisite pieces of nigiri, the rice underneath tinted with red vinegar, and a crab roll sliced into six uniform pieces. Its purity clears the mind and encourages a few moments of stillness. A deluxe sushi bento for $70 adds an appetizer box (tamago, pickled vegetables, fried meats and seafood in artful geometries) that gives the meal a grander sense of occasion. Pickup only.

12244 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 826-4737, shunji-ns.com

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Vaca

Paella Valenciana is always a festive dish. Aromatic with saffron and shot through with chicken, chorizo, scallops and shrimp, the version by chef Amar Santana is a menu highlight at his Spanish restaurant near Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. It nabs the spotlight again among several options for takeout family meals. Portioned for two, four or six people (and priced respectively at $85, $160 and $210), it comes with three filling vegetable sides and both flan and tres leches cake for dessert. Important: Order same day before 5 p.m. for pickup only between 1 and 7 p.m.

695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (713) 463-6060, vacarestaurant.com

Vespertine

We need artists in the heart of darkness; Jordan Kahn is as much an artist as he is a chef. Among restaurants serving takeout, unearthly Vespertine was perhaps the biggest surprise: How would Kahn, whose food can look like astronomical phenomena, express himself in the medium of to-go containers? Beautifully, it turns out. His first family-style meal was a generous, eclectic expression of comforts: chicken thighs overlaid with herb sauce, Wagyu beef brisket for wrapping in roti, squash gratin with shishito peppers, farro risotto and a black carrot salad buried among endive petals that was, indeed, the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen in a cardboard bowl. Kahn’s second menu revisited dishes from his time at Red Medicine, including rice porridge with egg yolk, broccoli and hazelnuts, and caramel-glazed brisket aromatic with nuoc cham. Then, in a head-spinning pivot, he delved into Low Country recipes from his coastal Georgia childhood. Who can know what comes next? Kahn’s menus sell out in minutes. Keep an eye on the restaurant’s Instagram account. Pickup only.

3599 Hayden Ave., Culver City, (323) 320-4023, vespertine.la


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