GQ Magazine has called Downtown Los Angeles “America’s Next Great City” and “the coolest new downtown in America.” Downtown L.A. has certainly come a long way in recent years. There were great places to eat in Downtown before its current renaissance, but the choices were limited. That's no longer the case, as acclaimed chefs and visionary restaurateurs have created a thriving dining scene in Downtown L.A. With so many restaurants opening in Downtown, deciding where to eat can be a tough choice. Read on for a guide to Downtown L.A.’s newer restaurants and classic dining spots.
BADMAASH - DOWNTOWN LA
In Hindi, "badmaash” roughly translates to “badass” or naughty and mischievous. It’s also the name of an Indian gastropub opened in May 2013 by chef Pawan Mahendro and his sons Nakul and Arjun. The modern interior features a double-height wall that’s covered in brightly colored stripes. The upper level decor includes Bollywood posters and playful images of Gandhi wearing sunglasses. Pawan’s multicultural take on Indian food is grouped into Bombay Street Cart, Tandoori Clay Oven and “#FoodPorn” categories. The chicken tikka poutine gives the hearty Canadian dish an Indian twist with crisp masala fries topped with chicken tikka and mozzarella and drizzled with brown gravy. Another highlight is the spiced lamb burger with red onion, iceberg lettuce, Roma tomato, cilantro and paprika spiced mayo, all on a Breadbar brioche. Traditional dishes include Classic Butter Chicken and Good Ol’ Sag Paneer. Indian food and beer are a natural fit - Badmaash offers a selection that includes IPAs, pale ales and wheat beers. There’s also wine and Indian sodas “straight from the motherland.”
In a recent Facebook post, New York Times Op-Ed columnist (and former NYT food critic) Frank Bruni posted a note about Bestia: “Loved the scale and sprawl of the place and all of the small plates we had, especially the bone marrow, served with a kind of crunchy spinach spaetzle instead of toast. Really smart, totally delicious. And they had terrific wines by the glass, not the usual humdrum lineup.” Chalk up another winner for Bill Chait, the restaurateur behind popular spots such as Sotto and Barrel & Ashes. Discreetly located in the Arts District, Bestia is housed in a mixed-use space that resembles a weathered metal barn. The industrial interior features a copper-topped bar and handcrafted pizza oven. The smart drink program is courtesy of longtime Chait collaborator Julian Cox. Ori Menashe, who cooked with Gino Angelini for many years, offers a menu that goes far beyond standard Italian. Grilled octopus is paired with warm, earthy lentils. The stellar charcuterie plate features various excellent salamis and other cured meats that are made in-house and served with thick slices of olive oil-slicked grilled bread. Next-level pastas include tender agnolotti alla vaccinara with supple dough tinged with cacao, filled with robust braised oxtail, and topped with tiny currants and roasted pine nuts.
Ran Zimon’s Bread Lounge is located around the corner from Bestia. Zimon had been wholesaling his crusty baguettes from this Arts District location for a couple of years before he decided to add retail and put in café tables and a trellised patio in May 2012. Regarded as one of the best places in L.A. for bread, it’s a modern, minimalist space with polished concrete floors, a soaring ceiling, and the scent of flour and butter in the air. Besides the baguettes, there are also perfect croissants and delicious Kouign Amann, an excellent alternative to the dreaded fruit cake for holiday gifting. And there are substantial sandwiches available on your choice of bread. The Plenty of Fish 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.
At Drago Centro, chef de cuisine Ian Gresik serves sophisticated Italian cooking that’s plated beautifully, in a modern setting worthy of a serious business lunch or a classy date night. Gresik offers a fixed five-course tasting menu for $75, with delicious servings of seared tuna, fettucine alla vodka, and beef toungue and cheek. The bar menu is one of L.A.’s great dining deals, featuring $6 items like west coast oysters, a margherita or sausage pizza, and a charcuterie plate. To pair with the outstanding cuisine, there's an interesting list of mostly Italian wines, as well as a selection of craft cocktails, including the cleverly named Sip your Caraway, along with seasonal creations.
Located in the Historic Core of Downtown L.A., KazuNori is a new concept from Kazunori Nozawa, founder of the burgeoning SUGARFISH restaurant group. KazuNori features a 22-seat bar and no tables - the minimalist interior was designed by Glen Bell of DEX Studio, who designed several SUGARFISH locations as well as Badmaash. The first restaurant of its kind, KazuNori offers a single-page menu of freshly-made hand rolls - crispy nori (seaweed) is wrapped around warm rice and ingredients like salmon, bay scallop, lobster and of course Nozawa’s signature blue crab. Hand rolls and sashimi can be ordered a la carte, while to-go combos feature cut rolls and sashimi. For the best bang for the buck, opt for the set menus with three, four or five hand rolls. The hand roll combos include a daily roll that alternates between toro and yellowtail.
Orsa & Winston
Named one of the 25 Best New Restaurants in America by GQ Magazine, Orsa & Winston follows chef Josef Centeno's previous Downtown successes, Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá. Located next door to Bar Amá, Orsa & Winston is a high-end showcase for exquisite presentations of Centeno’s multicultural small plates. Billed as “Japanese/Italian omakase,” the tasting menus change daily and are available with wine pairings. Omakase options include six courses for $80 per person or ten+ courses for $120. The Super Omakase is $225 for 20+ courses; 72-hour reservation is required and it’s only available at the chef’s counter.
THE CLASSICS: BORDER GRILL
Even after all these years, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s restaurants feel as current as the day they opened. The Border Grill in Downtown L.A. is no exception. With its splashes of bright color and wall-sized murals, 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. The Theatre Prix Fixe option is a great sampler plate of favorites. It features a sample of the classic appetizers, your choice of an entree, and your choice of dessert.
THE CLASSICS: GRAND CENTRAL MARKET
Visit the landmark Grand Central Market at any time of day, and you can catch a glimpse of L.A.’s past, present and future. Opened in 1917 and in continuous operation ever since, the 30,000 square-foot market houses dozens of stalls that celebrate L.A.’s diverse cultures and cuisines. While longtime favorites like China Cafe and Tacos Tumbras a Tomas continue to serve hungry diners, a new generation of vendors has reinvigorated the historic market, including Belcampo, DTLA Cheese, G&B Coffee, Eggslut, Horse Thief BBQ, Sticky Rice, and Valerie at GCM. More recent additions include Berlin Currywurst, Olio GCM Wood Fired Pizzeria, The Oyster Gourmet and Wexler’s Deli.
THE CLASSICS: PHILIPPE THE ORIGINAL
From bus drivers to politicians, whether you’re a tourist or a lifelong Angeleno, everyone eats at Philippe the Original. They share community tables and pass the squirt bottles of sinus-clearing mustard. If you're not comfortable rubbing elbows with strangers, Philippe may not be for you. But for pretty much 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. You can order a salad, but 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. Add a few squeezes of the aforementioned mustard. If you still have room, try a big wedge of pie, perhaps blueberry or chocolate cream. Philippe surprisingly has a smart little list of wines by the glass - how about a Frog’s Leap Merlot with that dip?
THE CLASSICS: SUSHI GEN
The throng of people gathered outside Sushi Gen on a weekday at 11:30 a.m. lets you know that it's one of the best sushi spots in an area with dozens of worthy destinations. To avoid the inevitable wait for their superb lunch specials, 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 $17 sashimi special is excellent and like all the lunch specials, it includes a tiny salad of pickled cabbage and cucumber, cubes of warm tofu scented with soy sauce, and miso soup. The quality of the fish is stellar and cuts are generous - note 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, plated beautifully and served with a bowl of warm, toothsome rice.