Few neighborhoods in America conjure more iconic West Coast imagery than Venice Beach. From its conception as a seaside resort town modeled after Venice, Italy (a few of the original canals remain) to its counterculture status as the birthplace of skateboarding and a wellspring of all things cool, Venice Beach has occupied a whimsical place in our collective imagination for more than 100 years. From the bohemian bones of the 60’s cultural revolution that brought artists, seekers and beach bums of all stripes to Venice, a neighborhood rooted in a deep sense of self thrives today. People still flock to Venice Beach for an iconic L.A. experience, but now in addition to the sand,surf and circus-like atmosphere, a burgeoning food scene has taken root and given the neighborhood a new identity: an exciting culinary destination that's ripe for exploration.
I recently participated in a guided tour to pull back the layers of Venice Beach and reveal its tasty underbelly. Avital Tours is a food + storytelling "walking-talking dinner party" tour that has a small group discover a fascinating chunk of the city with a prix-fixe menu of some of the best food in a 20-block radius.
Appropriately, we began our Venice Beach Tour at the beach - or near enough. Venice Ale House is an always-busy casual gastropub on Ocean Front Walk, located a stone's throw from the sand and the sea. On sunny days - which is to say most days - seats on the outdoor patio are coveted, as is standing room inside the cozy bar, where thirsty patrons try to catch the eye of busy bartenders and peer at the chalkboard list of rotating craft beers.
I ducked into Venice Ale House and scanned the buzzing bar for the Avital group. Madeline Barbour, the Avital Los Angeles City Manager and our guide, had already started to gather the rest of the curious foodies I’d be sharing the next three hours with. Madeline’s face broke into a disarming smile as she doled out the welcome drinks - samples of Venice Hi Hop IPA - and we raised glasses for our first (but not the last) toast of the tour.
Outside, Madeline introduced our little group of adventurous epicureans to the storied history of Venice Beach as we stood on the pedestrian path that divides the beach from the parade of quirky storefronts, head shops, bars and restaurants. She talked us through the 60’s and 70’s as Venice took on its now iconic status as a beachside haven of counterculture. Then she brought it back to the present and a Venice Beach that's transformed into a food and culture hub but still staying true to its roots.
"What's so cool about Venice Beach and the food scene that's going on there right now is how it embraces the rich counterculture history that made Venice famous. You have places like Gjelina that are owned by people who have lived in Venice for 40+ years, that have seen a movement towards produce-driven organic food from the hippie days of the 1960s, but are still trying to make it accessible and creative. The chefs and eateries populating this neighborhood are doing their best to bring that rich history into their restaurants and pay homage to what has allowed them to be the revolutionaries, the creatives, and artists in their own right through the medium of food."
2 Rose Ave, Venice
As we approached the entrance, Madeline told us, "The Anchor is awesome for so many reasons. It's this tiny place, about 700 square feet I think, right off Main Street. It’s one of those places where every time you go in there, you become family. Kristin, the owner, is there most days and she’ll personally pour you a beer and crack open some oysters."
Madeline explained that Kristin is originally from New Jersey and when she moved to L.A. she missed the great seafood from back home. So, having owned a few bars back in New York, she decided to bring East Coast seafood sensibility about as far west as you can get without wading into another ocean. It wasn't easy either.
"She went through 30+ different recipes and god knows how many pounds of lobster meat before finally coming to their signature black truffle lobster roll. And man, it was worth it! The roll starts with fresh Maine lobster that is flown in every day. It's tossed in the slightest bit of mayo and black truffle salt and served cold on a warm toasted King's Hawaiian Roll with a streak of butter on the bottom. Then they top it off with shaved black truffle."
As we eagerly crunched into the lobster rolls (what an epic way to start a food tour, we couldn’t wait to dig in!) and rolled our eyes in epicurean ecstasy, Madeline unpacked what was happening in our mouths. "The lobster roll has all this great umami stuff going on with it: it's cold meaty lobster, warm sweet crispy bread, earthy truffle, salty butter, and it all combines in this really spectacular way. The sweetness of the bread plays off the natural sweetness in the meat of the lobster, and the truffle balances it all out with earthy silkiness. It isn't traditional by any means, but damn is it good!"
It WAS damn good. And like so many of L.A.’s culinary treasures, it’s tucked into a fairly nondescript block of stucco-fronted businesses, sandwiched between a Subway and a tanning salon. If I didn't have a guide like Madeline leading the charge, I would have walked right past possibly the best lobster roll in L.A.!
235 Main St., Venice
We hit the sidewalk again and strolled for the longest stretch of the tour. On the way we swung a detour for a block to see the dedicatedly musclebound enter and exit the famous Venice Beach Gold’s Gym. We then strolled through side streets and along Abbot Kinney - that boho stretch of boutique shopping and dining - and found Gjelina, a busy, rustic farm-to-table favorite for those who know. We took a seat outside at Gjelina’s adjacent "little sister," GTA (Gjelina Take Away). We sat at low tables under a giant arbor and the servers, who were expecting us, immediately placed perfectly baked thin crust pizzas in front of us. I grabbed a slice topped with lamb sausage, pecorino, asiago, confit tomato, rapini with just a hint of mint. Crazy good. And after the 15-minute walk from Anchor I was ready (sorry lobster roll, I’ve moved on!).
I peeked in Gjelina and it was packed. It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon, but the cliche and apt phrase "local favorite" burst to mind as I watched the machinations of a busy eatery buzz and clink. Between Madeline’s observations and backstory tidbits she simply let the pizza, the buzz of the guests, and the flow of pedestrians strolling down Abbot Kinney distract us as we happily chewed. A good guide knows when to talk and when to fade into the background and let the experience sweep guests into individual daydreams and discoveries - Madeline deftly performed this disappearing / reappearing act.
1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice
Our next stop was Chef Matthew Kenney’s Plant Food + Wine. We entered through a glass door in a nondescript white building. The interior is beautiful, spare and modern, favoring clean lines and white and black. We were greeted by a dapper staff member, Joey, and escorted upstairs to the Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy, where students learn the techniques of preparing and presenting world class, locally sourced, raw, plant-based dishes. Again, the space is modern and immaculate. Paying us no mind, a few students in chef’s whites fussed over a colorful dish delicately topped with edible flower petals.
"Plant Food + Wine is one of those restaurants that flips everything you know about a certain genre of food on its head. This place turns out some of the most beautiful food I have ever seen. Plant Food + Wine is a vegan restaurant that brings a fine dining and flavorful approach to food that people typically think of as just bowls of quinoa and kale. The perfect example of this is their raw zucchini lasagna."
Madeline and Joey led us back downstairs through the restaurant and outside to a seating area shaded by olive trees and enclosed by a tall hedge.
We took our seats at a long communal table as she explained the next course in our walking-talking tour. "They marinate thinly sliced, bright green zucchini in olive oil and salt, then layer it with house-made macadamia nut ricotta, sun-dried tomato marinara, and basil pistachio pesto. Each sauce is dolloped out individually, so you’re able to taste each ingredient on its own. It's flavorful, filling, and refreshing. My favorite part is bringing guests here and seeing how hesitant they can be in the beginning, 'I don't know....RAW lasagna?!' but once they eat it they’re blown away!" And that was our invitation to eat.
As a dedicated carnivore, I must admit that raw, vegan lasagna did not sound nearly as exciting to me as the lobster roll or lamb sausage pizza. You can’t blame me, can you?
I expected that the admittedly beautiful tower of stacked zucchini to be somehow plain and inferior when it touched my tongue. But what I was met with was rich, spicy, earthy and hearty in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I’m not going vegan, but I would come back for this lasagna any day of the week.
We cleaned our plates, thanked our hosts and stepped back out onto the sidewalk, visibly content with the easy happiness that only good food enjoyed intentionally can provide.
1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice
A few short blocks away a dense and whimsical hidden garden was revealed, The Cook’s Garden. We filed between the raised boxes - chunky wood chips crunched softly underfoot. Green leaped from the soil in edible ecstasy and drooped in branches and vines heavy with produce. We were standing in one of the most prominent and productive outdoor/urban gardens in L.A. Top restaurants and chefs use The Cook's Garden to cultivate fresh, seasonal produce according to their individual needs.
With its unpolished simplicity, this place provided me with more inspiration for my own relationship with food than any dish we tried that afternoon. Seeing the raised beds bursting with fresh food invited me to imagine what it would take for me to grow some tomatoes and beans and kale of my own. Someday.
1033 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice
Our last stop was a short walk to Blue Star Donuts, a minimalist cafe that crafts hand-made brioche ‘Donuts for Grownups’ from a recipe harkening back to the south of France. Our group enters the kitchen at Blue Star and hungrily encircles a tray of Strawberry Mojito donuts. The smell wafting from the sweet, warm fried dough makes my knees weak and I nod and pretend to listen as the 18 hour process of creating the Wonka-like donuts is explained by the baker on duty but all I care about is the moment I can pop the sticky sweet morsel in my mouth and deliciously complete Avital’s 3 hour culinary exploration of Venice Beach.
1142 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice
Avital Tours offers food + story walking tours in the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Venice Beach, Downtown L.A. and Koreatown. Special thanks to Madeline Barbour for leading our group and assisting in the writing of this article.