Downtown Los Angeles has come a long way in a couple years. Sure there were great places to eat in Downtown before this recent renaissance. But the choices were limited. Not anymore. Great chefs and visionary restaurateurs have created a thriving dining scene in Downtown LA, and not just in the obvious pockets. Now deciding where to have lunch, dinner, or even breakfast can be positively confounding, in a good way. Need guidance? You can’t go wrong with this list of a baker’s dozen favorites, a delicious mix of new kids and classics.
THE NEW KIDS
Ari Taymor. Remember this name. Because Taymor and his crew of tattooed cooks are doing something exceptional in an unlikely, understated spot next to Club Las Palmas on the southern end of Broadway. We expect to hear a lot about Taymor and Alma in the year ahead. Eating at Alma is like eating in someone’s loft; granted, a well-kept and smartly designed loft like you'd see in Dwell Magazine. There are just half a dozen tables as well as eight seats at the counter, where you can enjoy an unobstructed view of the compact kitchen and the quiet, focused magic behind dishes like supple rabbit liver, smoother than the best pick up line, served with buttery toasts smeared with date jam and a small salad of light, crunchy frisee, the perfect counter to the rich, heavenly liver. Another recent highlight: baby broccolini, deep fried until it’s nearly crunchy as chips, drizzled with a zippy espelette aioli. (Taymor says one of his farmers snuck the espelette pepper seeds back from a trip to Spain.) Taymor changes the menu frequently. Of the house-made, refreshing sodas, the black lime is a standout, though they now have beer and wine, too.
We first met Josef Centeno and his stellar food several years ago, when he helmed the kitchen at the long gone Opus on Wilshire Boulevard. It was there he unveiled his signature creation, the Bäco. Then came a series of restaurants, most recently a three-year stint at Lazy Ox Canteen. In 2011, he opened Bäco Mercat, a casual space with a small bar, exposed ducts overhead and well-worn wood chairs reminiscent of a school house. There are also a few tables outside. The restaurant features about half a dozen different bäcos, sandwiches on soft, house made bread like a puffy pita, filled with oxtail hash or crispy shrimp and sriracha. Cocas are crispy flatbreads. But it’s Centeno’s vegetable preparations that are most memorable: caramelized cauliflower, napped in garlicky tomato sauce and drizzled with creamy lebni, a rich yogurt; or shredded Brussels sprouts served warm in a Caesar-like dressing, the richness countered by slivers of pretty pink pickled onion and perfect tiny discs of radish. Sodas are made in house from homemade shrubs (fruit essences). These also provide the base for several of the tasty cocktails. Centeno is home at last.
Chalk up another winner for Bill Chait, the restaurateur who brought us popular spots such as Rivera, Picca and Sotto, with various chef partners. Bestia is housed in what looks like an old, weathered metal barn. Supposedly it once housed a factory, now it’s lofts. At the base is a great looking Italian restaurant with a copper-topped bar and pizza oven. The smart drink program is courtesy of longtime Chait collaborator Julian Cox, and manning the stoves is Ori Menashe, who cooked with Gino Angelini for many years. But first you have to find it, located between Santa Fe and the Los Angeles River on East 7th Place, where few of Bestia’s patrons have likely ventured before. The staff is as hip and good looking as the restaurant itself, and they’re really nice to boot. As for the food, it’s not your standard Italian. Grilled octopus is paired with warm, earthy lentils. Various excellent salamis and other cured meats are made in house, sliced, draped lovingly on wood boards and served with thick slices of olive oil-slicked grilled bread. Pastas are the sort few of us could even think of turning out at home, like tender agnolotti alla vaccinara, the supple dough tinged with cacao and filled with robust long-braised oxtail. Menashe finishes the plate with tiny currants and roasted pine nuts.
“This is my fantasy,” said one wide-eyed boy as he stood before a rainbow display of macaroons at Bottega Louie. Apparently, Bottega Louie is on a lot of people’s lists, because the restaurant and patisserie is always hopping. This is a fine place to pick up a holiday gift for the friend who has everything: perhaps a library of chocolate books packaged in pretty pastels. The noise level often makes quiet conversation difficult, but the energy is all part of the lively atmosphere. At brunch, big parties and hipster couples tuck into fluffy powdered sugar-dusted French toast, textbook eggs Benedict, beignets nearly as big as baseballs and smoked salmon mille feuille, a stunning construction of salmon-topped savory pastry. Later in the day, pizzas rule. You could also make a satisfying meal of small plates. Paper-thin duck prosciutto napped over pesto on crostini is tasty, as are the portobello fries, which might as well have their own fan club. These are big wedges of meaty portobello, battered, deep fried and finished with salt, shredded parmesan and parsley. They are served with a sumptuous aioli.
Good things come in unexpected locations. To wit: Bread Lounge, baker Ran Zimon’s bakery south of Little Tokyo. Zimon had been wholesaling his crusty baguettes for a couple years from this industrial location. But in May of 2012, he decided to add retail and put in some café tables and a trellised patio out back. It’s an attractive, modern, minimalist space with polished concrete floors, a soaring ceiling and the scent of flour and butter in the air. The menu is still evolving, but of course you can get one of those baguettes. There are also perfect croissants and boxes of crunchy almond-anise biscotti, an excellent alternative to the dreaded fruit cake for holiday gifting. And there are substantial sandwiches on your choice of bread. Tuna lovers need look no further than the “Plenty of Fish,” which is what your tuna sandwich might be if it vacationed in the Mediterranean: tuna in creamy aioli paired with slivered black olives, a smear of harissa, thick slices of tomato and snappy arugula. Get it on the signature olive stick, a chewy roll shot through with kalamata olives.
Ian Gresik is a Los Angeles native, but he cooks better than your nonna. This is sophisticated Italian cooking, plated beautifully and served in a setting worthy of a serious business lunch or high stakes first date. Butternut squash agnolotti, lovely little pasta pillows filled with squash and finished with perfect, tiny al dente cubes of that same squash and a flourish of dreamy truffle foam is just one example of the kitchen’s pasta prowess. Burrata with wedges of artichoke heart, olive crostini and syrupy balsamic vinegar is spot on. Ditto the branzino, its white flesh moist and tender, skin impossibly crispy. To pair with the outstanding food, there is plenty of good drink. In addition to an interesting list of mostly Italian wines, the bar features a menu of food-friendly craft cocktails, including our favorite Italian classic, the Negroni, along with seasonal creations such as the American Hillbilly, made with pancetta and rosemary-infused maple syrup, among other things.
At Ricardo Zarate’s Peruvian spot, toe-tapping Latin music is playing on the sound system, mixologist Deysi Alvarez is shaking drinks like her life depended on it, the semi-open kitchen is abuzz and there are bursts of color throughout. In other words, it’s a party. And the food is just as vibrant. If you’re bored of the same dishes and flavors at your usual spots, try Zarate’s ceviche carretillero: big chunks of fresh sea bass in a zippy marinade made with rocoto, a Peruvian pepper said to be hotter than jalapenos. His lomo saltado might be the best in town: the beef is juicy and well seasoned and tossed with wedges of caramelized red onion and tomato. A simple construction of salty, outsized Kennebec fries, each nearly an inch thick, finishes the plate. If you want to experience pure happiness, drag a fry through the flavorful juices on the plate. Lunch specials, all priced at $15, including that lomo saltado, come with two sides, rice and dessert.
You’ll never look at an Egg McMuffin the same way after you’ve eaten one of the breakfast biscuits at The Parish, Casey Lane’s cool New American spot located in the old Café Angelique space, where Spring and Main converge. Not that there’s really any comparison. These are beautiful assemblages that begin with good, substantial, crumbly biscuits. The classics with ingredients like Grafton cheddar and sausage are delicious and satisfying. The juicy fried chicken version features slivers of crunchy pickled fennel, slices of sweet pickle, arugula and a touch of maple dijon dressing. Equally good is the one stuffed with tender smoked trout, a luxurious gribiche (a sauce made with egg, caper and dill) and slices of fresh jalapeño. At just $4 a pop, these are surely one of Downtown’s true foodie bargains. The restaurant may be better known for dinner. The upstairs dining room with its sizable bar is dimly lit and sexy. Besides bar manager John Coltharp's cocktails, there are nearly two dozen So Cal beers on tap. But it’s worth checking out in the a.m. as well.
Bryant Ng’s two-year-old Southeast Asian restaurant, in the heart of Little Tokyo, is a perfect date destination. We especially love the back room, with its weathered brick walls, soaring ceiling, empty birdcages suspended overhead and lights turned down low. Many dishes are designed for sharing: juicy lamb belly satay for instance, cooked over an open grill, and Kaya toast. Ng’s version is irresistible: crisp, buttery rectangles of white bread, sandwiching the barest touch of coconut jam. Served with the toast is a gently cooked, runny egg the waiter will crack into a bowl for you, a small dish of soy sauce and another of white pepper. The protocol here is to mix these ingredients together and then dip the toast into the rich, yolky goodness. One could easily make a meal of the small plates alone. Fried cauliflower in a light, tempura-like batter is another crowd favorite. But there are more substantial dishes too, including rich, aromatic, tongue-searing laksa, a coconut and curry based soup laced with fat, slippery rice noodles, whole shrimp, strips of fish cake and bits of tender mussel.
Dark, sexy and glamorous come to mind when we think of WP24, Wolfgang Puck’s sleek ode to Asia on the 24th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles. It’s an enormous space with killer views. The lounge features fantastic, cage-like pods, which make the large space more intimate. The main dining room has architectural fixtures overhead that look like lit-up skyscrapers—miniatures of what’s outside the massive windows—comfy black leather chairs with gilt touches and three oversized C-shaped gold booths. The whole place feels very money. The lounge menu is a little more accessible for those not on an expense account. Choose from a couple dozen items including cut sushi rolls, dumplings and pork belly bao, miniature two-bite versions of the Chinese classic served open faced. Instead of minced pork, tucked into each pillowy bun is a swatch of rich, meltingly tender pork belly touched with hoisin sauce and a single sprig of green onion for crunch. At the bar they serve a grown up, spicy version of Cracker Jack for munching.
Even after all these years, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s restaurants feel as hip and current as the day they opened. The Downtown Border Grill is no exception. With its splashes of bright color and outsized cartoonish murals on the walls, it’s not hard to feel festive. Add a good margarita or mojito and it’s pretty much guaranteed. Fresh and spunky ceviches are delicious, especially the Peruvian and the Baja. The former is served on plantain chips and topped with wedges of ripe avocado; the latter arrives on a crispy mini tortilla and is finished with a creamy cilantro aioli. If you want to sample a few of Border Grill’s popularity contest winners, the Border Classics is a good way to go. It features two mini green corn tamales, corn husk packages you open to reveal an irresistibly rich, custardy, sweet corn pudding; two plantain empanadas filled with black beans that substitute plantain for the usual dough ‘crust’; and lastly, two chicken panuchos, fat corn tortillas filled with black beans and topped with juicy chunks of grilled chicken.
Everybody eats at Philippe the Original: bus drivers and suits, locals and tourists. They share community tables and squirt bottles of sinus-clearing mustard. If you're not comfortable rubbing elbows with strangers, Philippe may not be for you. But for everyone else, even first-timers, Philippe feels like an old friend, with its vintage phone booths by the entrance, sawdust on the floor, seasoned servers in tailored '50s-style uniforms and 45-cent coffee. Though you can order a salad, at Philippe it’s all about the French Dip. The classic is the beef: mild, thinly sliced beef piled into a soft, torpedo-shaped roll. You can also get turkey or lamb. Get it dipped once, twice, or with the jus on the side. Try a few squeezes of the aforementioned mustard, and if you still have room, a big wedge of pie, perhaps blueberry or chocolate cream. Philippe surprisingly has a smart little list of wines by the glass. How about some Frog’s Leap Merlot with that dip?
Judging by the throng of people loitering outside Sushi Gen on a weekday at 11:30 a.m., you might get the impression that this is the only sushi bar around. In fact, there must be at least dozen within a couple of blocks. Sushi Gen is simply the best of the bunch. And their lunch specials are superb. If you don’t want to hear the dreaded “It will be about half an hour” at lunchtime, come a few minutes before opening or after the rush, around 1:15 p.m. The sizable sushi bar is reserved for those ordering a la carte. You'll need a table if you want to order one of the specials. The $15 sashimi special is excellent. Like all the lunch specials, it includes a tiny salad of pickled cabbage and cucumber, cubes of lush, warm tofu scented with soy sauce, and miso soup. The quality of the fish here is stellar and cuts are generous. Witness the thick swatches of kanpachi and tuna in the center of the plate. The fish is meaty and buttery. Bits of salty, cooked tuna, almost like tuna jerky, are a revelation. There’s also crab, spicy tuna, spicy salmon and toro. It’s plated beautifully and comes with a bowl of warm, toothsome rice.
952 S. Broadway Ave., Los Angeles, 94110
408 S. Main St., Los Angeles, 90013
2121 7th Place, Los Angeles, 90021
445 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, 90071
700 S. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, 90017
700 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles, 90021
525 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, 90071
514 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, 90014
840 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, 90015
Philippe the Original
1001 N. Alameda Street, Los Angeles, 90012
114 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, 90012
422 East Second Street, Los Angeles 90012
900 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, 90015