Venice, my how you’ve changed. It seems like not too long ago when America’s favorite Bohemian beach enclave offered not much more than cheap, fried fish tacos of questionable origin. Those days are long gone. Nowadays, the neighborhood is a culinary destination, home to modern fare, chef-inspired cuisine, and some of the city’s best bakeries and artisan sandwich shops. Of course, in the interim, rent has also become prohibitively expensive. But thankfully you don’t have to live here to enjoy Venice’s ever-burgeoning bounties. Whether you hang your hat a stone’s throw from Abbot Kinney, or you’re visiting from half a world away, these are the restaurants you can’t afford to miss.
It’s all about the eclectic small plates at Barlo; crispy pig ears, succulent short rib poutine, beer-battered mahi fish sticks. A small group of diners could reasonably build the entire meal — start to finish — from this section of menu. But you wouldn’t want to rob yourself of that show-stopping rabbit and marrow pie, oven baked with the bone protruding several inches beyond its flaky pastry crust. All this savory fare will surely work up a thirst. Thankfully, as the kids would say, Barlo’s cocktail game is ‘on fleek’. In addition to their alluring barrel-aged cocktails, the menu flaunts seasonal selections built around unexpected ingredients. Their Gin Up, for example, harnesses mint tea syrup and an absinthe mist to dole out the herbal complexities of its namesake spirit. Conveniently located through the lobby of the Hotel Erwin, blocks from the Venice Beach boardwalk. So if you end up staying here, you have the added convenience of being able to stumble home after all those unavoidable cocktails.
Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin’s newest project opened just south of the Venice canals at the end of last year. It didn’t take long for the conceptually-driven restaurant to dominantly assert itself within the local culinary landscape. The theme here is ‘Backyard BBQ’; deep smoke flavors, and a singed edge to virtually everything that hits the dish. This includes the unexpectedly relevant vegetables. Try to remember that as you get lost in the dozen or so protein options coaxing you with the promise of house made condiments like paprika mustard chimichurri, and red wine chipotle sauce. Back to those veggies. The coal roasted carrots, caked in herbs, honey and sheep’s milk ricotta are enough to merit pause. As are the Brussels sprouts, charred with portobello mushroom, Calabrian chili, a hard-boiled duck egg plopped in the center. Shockingly, diners here are apt to sing the praises of a vegetable typically associated with blandness: cabbage. A sturdy wedge makes direct contact with the embers of the fire, burning the exterior, while allowing slightly caramelized flavors to sweat their way to the center. The lemon zest infused yogurt smothers the smoke with fat and acidity. If they can do this much with cabbage, just imagine what that bone-in short rib is going to taste like.
Firestone Walker - The Propagator
When Firestone Walker moved into town earlier this year, after many months of delay, the local craft scene intensified overnight. Founded in the Central Coast, Firestone is one of the ten biggest craft breweries in the country. This satellite brewpub marks their first expansion south of Santa Barbara. Although it houses a fully functional production facility, as for now, the brewing has been stalled due to bureaucratic red tape. In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with two dozen taps of award winning suds, spanning every imaginable style. Backing those pints are a collection of culinary specialities putting your standard pub grub to shame. Highlights include the 18-hour smoked brisket, beer-braised pork belly tacos served on house-made corn tortillas, and seasonal market green salads. The spacious interior incorporates furniture and fixtures repurposed directly from the brewhouse. The compound also features a standalone bottleshop/tasting room where you can score growler fills, and rare bottles to go.
The perennial Venice hotspot. Although people-watching is something of a sport in these parts — you’re almost guaranteed to spot some celebrity — you’re here for the food. And in that regard, Gjelina’s flawless kitchen is the real star of the show. It’s hard to go wrong with this menu. An esoteric charcuterie featuring wild boar rillette and porcheta di testa, is no more or less magical than the wood roasted cauliflower, or the braised fava beans with mint and pecorino. It’s modern American fare forever longing for Italian affirmation. Their sexy outdoor courtyard is always in high demand, so don’t expect too much coddling from the servers; they’ve got plenty of other tables to attend to. On the drinks side, it’s all beer and wine, although they do use elegant vermouths to build a limited selection of liqour-free cocktails. Small plates reign supreme, so its best to come with a group of four or more to try just about all of them. Just make reservations, or allow for an extended amount of time window shopping along Abbot Kinney -- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
To regard Gjusta as a mere bakery is to miss much of the point. Do they produce some of the best bread on the West Coast? Certainly. But that stately starch serves mostly as a vehicle to deliver some of the most vibrant, flavorful sandwiches you’ll ever wrap your mouth around. Need proof? Look no further than the porchetta melt; moist, supple pork flanked by fontina cheese, broccoli-like rapini, and grilled onions inside a baguette. If you think that can be outperformed, for $9 you can build your own sandwich, with a small army of meats, cheeses, fresh veggies and spreads at your disposal. Carb-load for the car-ride home with a cornucopia of pastries and fresh-baked breads, ranging from babka to buckwheat, banana and walnut loaf. Asking for sourdough here is hardly specific enough. Seeded rye, sesame wheat, and country loaf are but a few of the variations worth investigating. Wear your gluten tolerance like a badge of honor.
Newly reopened after a lengthy renovation, Rose Cafe is back and better than before. The bright, loft-like space displays local artwork on the walls, while plantlife and globular lighting fixtures dangle from the ceiling on braided rope. As a multi-purpose concept, Rose Cafe is part restaurant, part coffeeshop, part bakery, functioning fluidly as an organic whole. Their food menu caters to the diverse dietary demands of the surrounding neighborhood. A Farmer’s Market component showcases seasonal vegetables, including fire-roasted carrots, charred to perfection and emboldened by kale pesto and a delicately whipped ricotta. Unapologetic meat-eaters may indulge in an outsized tomahawk steak, or crisp pork belly bathed in a slightly sweet, Thai-style coconut broth. There’s house-made charcuterie from the butchery, artisan pasta, pizza laced with pickled chili peppers. On-the-go folks can roll out quick, gourmet coffee in one hand, buttery, French-inspired pastry in the other. And we haven’t gotten to the impressive mixology taking place behind the bar, or the expansive wine cellar set off to the corner of the dining area. Offering so many things to so many types of diners is impressive in its own right. But superior execution in all these arenas, simultaneously, is the rarified mark of an exceptional eatery.
Scopa Italian Roots
Scopa is the optimal collision between a classic and modern approach to Italian cooking. You can order a veal chop Milanese here. And you should. It’s tremendous. But rather than the arugula salad treatment you’ve come to expect, a garden of dandelion greens, fennel, cress, and sorrel assumes its place. The lasagnette might appear somewhat standard, into you tear through its pillowy layers, exposing rabbit meat at its core. Fried calamari, that reliable staple of Italian appetizers, is augmented with squid ink, arriving at the table in a striking, jet black hue. It’s all so familiar, yet somehow altogether different. Then there’s the liquor. Scopa is a cavernous affair, and their bar seems to perpetually loom overhead, dominating an entire wall — floor-to-ceiling. Crowding the shelves is one of the most purposefully curated collection of spirits in Southern California. Spanning every imaginable category, all served by mixologists with the expertise to work a dizzying number of these bottles into unforgettable tipples. Oh, and don’t forget dessert. Ricotta cheesecake is easy to make serviceable, but establishing its ideal texture proves maddeningly elusive. They’ve grabbed it, and won’t let go. The zeppole — essentially funnel cake in ball form — is dusted with an unhealthy amount of powdered sugar and served in a nondescript, brown bag.
South End Wine Bar
South End is a prime example of why you don’t judge a book by its cover. Sandwiched in the middle of a strip mall off of Abbot Kinney’s eastern terminus, its exterior is entirely unassuming. Inside, sleek and modern decor surrounds, in the form of polished oak siding, and a mural of a glamorous starlet evoking a younger Sophia Loren. You come here for three things, all equal in significance: authentic, Roman style pizza — the best of its kinds in the city; top notch hospitality, spearheaded by the infectious personality of owner and chef de cuisine, Mario Vollera; and a succinct list of Italian wines, priced to drink, in abundance. Carnivores clamor for the District 11 pie — perfectly crisped, housemade dough, blanketed in fresh mozzarella, crushed Roma tomatoes, pork salciccia, smoked bacon, and artisanal pepperoni. Buon appetito!
The Tasting Kitchen
Charming in its approach — from the bookshelf-lined walls, to its advice to conserve water by drinking wine — The Tasting Kitchen is a hip hideaway smack dab in the middle of Venice’s hippest street, Abbot Kinney. Justifying that prime real estate, the kitchen comes correct with modern American fare, backed by thoughtfully-crafted cocktails. Standard bar fare such as chicken wings and burgers are given the gastropub treatment, the former jazzed up with apple cider and flax, the latter with braised bacon and a chile chutney. Old World cheeses are paired artfully against a focused collection of charcuterie. Ingredient-forward drinks change with the season, but generally incorporate off-beat tonalities such as cardamon, lavender, and fennel. Living up to its billing, the Connoisseur resonates with seasoned drinkers, merging mezcal with Campari and a French aperitif, for a barrage of smoke, spice, and bitter. The wine list is equally slick, straddling all major regions of France and Italy. But for all the aforementioned accomplishments, the Tasting Kitchen is perhaps best known for their formidable brunch game. Short rib hash, omelettes served with bacon jam and fried oysters, and a show-stopping croque madame are a few of the specialities you have to look forward to if you’re willing to brave the weekend crowds.