LA's Most Iconic Dishes: The Classics

Los Angeles dishes that have stood the test of time

Strawberry Donuts at The Donut Man
Strawberry Donuts at The Donut Man | Photo: The Donut Man

By Daniel Djang and Stacey Sun

Los Angeles has one of the most exciting and influential dining scenes in the country. Contemporary LA chefs are creating globally inspired dishes that are already considered modern classics. For generations, many dishes that were created in LA have become culinary icons, featured on menus across the country and around the world. Here are classic LA dishes that have stood the test of time.

Strawberry Donuts at The Donut Man
Fresh strawberry donuts at The Donut Man | Photo: @donutmanca, Instagram

Strawberry Donut - The Donut Man

Founded by Jim and Miyoko Nakano in 1972, The Donut Man has been featured on numerous TV shows, including the Food Network, Cooking Channel and Huell Howser. Located on historic Route 66 and open 24 hours a day, the beloved little Glendora shop is renowned for its fresh strawberry donut. Made fresh with the season, the donuts are overflowing with large, ripe strawberries and smothered in a signature glaze. The donut is large enough to require two hands to enjoy it, hamburger-style. Following strawberry season - roughly February to July - The Donut Man features its other signature item, the equally popular fresh peach donut.

In March 2020, The Donut Man opened a stall at the landmark Grand Central Market in Downtown LA. Located on the Broadway end of the market, the GCM location is open daily from 8am to 9pm.

"Obama's Special" at Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles in Inglewood
"Obama's Special" at Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles in Inglewood | Instagram: @baobeieats

Chicken and Waffles - Roscoe’s

Harlem native Herb Hudson opened Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘N Waffles in 1975. Roscoe’s has grown from the original Hollywood location on Gower to seven locations, including the flagship restaurant that opened on La Brea in October 2021. The soul food chain’s signature chicken and waffles is a delicious mix of salty and sweet, featuring juicy fried chicken and massive waffles. Options range from the basic quarter chicken and two waffles to Herb’s Special, featuring two waffles and a half chicken smothered in gravy and onions. Soon after opening, Roscoe’s began attracting Hudson’s famous friends like singer Natalie Cole and comedian Redd Foxx, who told audiences at his stand-up shows about Roscoe’s. After President Barack Obama visited the now-closed Roscoe’s on Pico in October 2011, the three-wing "Country Boy" plate was renamed "Obama's Special." Roscoe’s has appeared numerous times in pop culture, including films like Jackie Brown and Rush Hour, Snoop Dogg's reality TV show and a name check in "Going Back to Cali" by The Notorious B.I.G.

French Dip with pickled eggs at Philippe the Original in Downtown LA
French Dip with pickled eggs at Philippe the Original  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

French Dip - Philippe The Original

The true origin of the French Dip sandwich has been lost over time, but luckily for Angelenos the two landmark restaurants that claim to be its originator, Philippe and Cole’s, are both located in Downtown LA.

Philippe the Original was opened by Philippe Mathieu in 1908 and has been at its current location on the edge of Chinatown since 1951. Philippe’s “official” version of the legend says the French Dip was born when Mathieu accidentally dropped a French roll into a roasting pan filled with drippings, and the policeman who ordered the sandwich agreed to eat it anyway. He and some friends returned the next day asking for the “dipped sandwich.” The cafeteria-style ordering routine at Philippe hasn’t changed in decades - queue up in front of the long deli counter and order from a “Carver.” The iconic sandwich can be made with roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham and is served on a French roll with several cheese options. You can ask for “single-dip,” “double-dip” or “wet.” Find a seat at a communal table and top your sandwich with a squeeze of potent hot mustard.

Dipping and sipping at Cole's French Dip
Dipping and sipping at Cole's French Dip  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

French Dip - Cole's

Cole’s also opened in 1908 and is still at its original location in the Pacific Electric Building. According to Cole’s, founder Henry Cole dipped a French roll in jus because it was too hard for a customer with sore gums. Other customers saw this and requested the same. Cole’s has been serving French Dips ever since, with the exception of the 21-month renovation in 2007-08 that restored the original glass lighting, penny tile floors and the 40-foot mahogany Red Car Bar. Pouring With Heart proprietor Cedd Moses brought chef Neal Fraser on board to tweak the menu, so patrons can now order French Dips with lamb and goat cheese or French Dip sliders along with the classic options. One advantage that Cole’s has over its longtime rival: you can keep the night going at The Varnish, the award-winning speakeasy located in the back of Cole’s.

Dodger Dogs and more from MLB Home Plates
Dodger Dogs and more | Photo: MLB Home Plates

Dodger Dog - Dodger Stadium

Generations of Angelenos have cheered for the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, one of the true cathedrals of Major League Baseball and the site of some of the greatest moments in baseball history. The Dodger Dog is as much a part of attending a Dodger game as the national anthem or the seventh-inning stretch. The Dodger Dog was created in 1962 by Thomas Arthur, the ballpark’s opening concessions manager. Arthur originally called the 10-inch frank a “footlong” but after fans complained he renamed it the Dodger Dog, and the rest is hot dog history. Vernon-based Papa Cantella’s took over the hot dog making duties from longtime supplier Farmer John in April 2021.

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Dodger fans set a single-season record of more than 3 million hot dogs consumed at one stadium in 2014. You can order your Dodger Dog steamed, but purists usually opt for grilled, topped simply with a squirt of ketchup or Morehouse mustard. Variations on the icon include Chili Cheese, Super Dodger Dogs, gluten-free, and the plant-based Signature Stadium Dog from Seattle's Field Roast. Dodger Stadium food options range from carne asada taco plates to chicken kebab helmet bowls to King's Hawaiian pulled pork sandwiches to chains like CPK and Shake Shack. But baseball is also about tradition, and devouring a couple of classic Dodger Dogs on a warm summer night is as good as it gets.

Original #19 at Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant
Original #19 at Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Original #19 - Langer’s Deli

Fans of the Original #19 at Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant consider it more than the best pastrami sandwich in LA - they tout it as the best in America. Langer’s is at the same location on the corner of Alvarado and 7th since it opened in 1947. The #19 is the restaurant’s most popular sandwich, made with hand-cut pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing and a slice of Swiss cheese on double-baked rye bread. The #19 has a formidable one-two punch - the pastrami is specially cured, smoked and steamed, then served at a specific temperature to preserve its juicy, delicious flavor. The rye bread is double-baked - the bread is received from the bakery then re-baked at 350 degrees for 30 minutes to give it that famous crispy crust. In 2001, Langer’s received the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award, presented each year to “a select few restaurants noted for timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the history and character of their communities.”

Pink's Hotdog
Pink's Hotdog  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Chili Dog - Pink's

Paul and Betty Pink founded Pink’s Hot Dogs in 1939 as a pushcart near the corner of La Brea and Melrose in Hollywood. Their eponymous restaurant opened on North La Brea in 1946 and guests from around the world have been lining up ever since. It all began with a 10-cent chili dog made with Betty’s chili recipe, mustard and onions on a steamed bun. Today, the menu features 30 hot dogs, many named after celebrities and chefs like the Martha Stewart Dog (9" stretch dog, relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut, sour cream) and the Emeril Lagasse Bam Dog (9" stretch dog, mustard, onions, cheese, jalapenos, bacon, coleslaw). Pink’s hot dogs can also be enjoyed at Universal CityWalk, The Forum, Raging Waters, and the annual LA County Fair.

Gin Martini at Musso & Frank Grill
Classic Martini at Musso & Frank Grill | Photo by Daniel Djang

Martini - Musso & Frank Grill

Open in Hollywood since 1919, Musso & Frank Grill has been a favored destination for generations of celebrities, from Charlie Chaplin to Johnny Depp. Some of the 20th century’s greatest writers were Musso’s regulars, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler. The extensive menu features classics like flannel cake, grenadine of beef and welsh rarebit, and daily specials like the famous chicken pot pie. Even more than these favorites, the true Musso’s icon is the classic Martini, made with 2.5 ounces of gin and a half ounce of vermouth, stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. It’s served with an olive garnish and a small carafe with the remaining cocktail on the side, a classy touch that’s rarely seen these days. Some guests prefer a Gibson (a la Cary Grant in "North by Northwest"), the same cocktail but garnished with an onion. Whether it’s an olive, a lemon twist or an onion, be sure to sip slowly and drink in the history of the room.

Lawry Cut with creamed corn and mashed potatoes | Photo courtesy of Lawry’s The Prime Rib Beverly Hills, Facebook

Prime Rib Dinner - Lawry's Prime Rib

The original Lawry’s The Prime Rib opened on Restaurant Row on La Cienega in Beverly Hills in 1938. Since then, Lawry’s has opened a few locations across the country and several in Asia. Dining at Lawry’s is a familiar ritual that begins with the “three steps down” into the elegant dining room. Servers take orders for the iconic prime rib dinner and serve the “Famous Original Spinning Bowl Salad” - romaine and iceberg lettuce, baby spinach, shredded beets, chopped eggs and croutons, tossed with Lawry’s Vintage Dressing. The standing rib roasts are carved to order from gleaming silver carts and served with mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and whipped cream horseradish. Sides include creamed corn and buttered peas. The most popular order is the Lawry Cut - options range from the California Cut for lighter appetites to the massive Beef Bowl, a double-sized cut with rib bone that was originally served exclusively during the Tournament of Roses. Lawry’s offers daily fish and vegetarian specials, but for carnivores this is nirvana.

Smoked Salmon Pizza at Spago Beverly Hills
Smoked Salmon Pizza at Spago Beverly Hills | Photo: Wolfgang Puck

Smoked Salmon Pizza - Spago

In 1982, legendary chef Wolfgang Puck opened the original Spago on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It instantly became a celebrity hotspot and Puck continues to be synonymous with the entertainment industry. The opening pizza chef at Spago was Ed LaDou, who later developed California Pizza Kitchen’s first menu before opening his own restaurant, Caioti. The smoked salmon pizza is Spago’s signature dish and a staple of California cuisine. According to Puck’s website, the dish was created when the kitchen ran out of brioche. The game-changing pizza is made with smoked salmon, chili and garlic oil, red onion, dill creme fraiche and chives. Puck says, “If you feel decadent, you can top the pizza with Sevruga, Beluga or Osetra caviar." Now located on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, Spago still offers the smoked salmon pizza during lunch and as a bar bite.

Chopped salad | Photo courtesy of La Scala of Beverly Hills, Facebook

Chopped Salad - La Scala

Opened by Jean Leon in 1956, the Italian fine dining restaurant has been at its current location on Canon Drive since 1989. A favorite power lunch spot for the entertainment industry, La Scala has served six U.S. presidents and was the setting for Robert Wagner’s proposal to Natalie Wood. Leon’s claim to culinary fame is the now-ubiquitous La Scala Original Chopped Salad: lettuce, salami, mozzarella cheese, marinated garbanzo beans and the secret “Leon dressing.” The salad was originally made with julienned salami and cheese and was reportedly a favorite of Marilyn Monroe, Debbie Reynolds and Warren Beatty. After customers complained about the difficulty of eating the salad and still looking glamorous, the chef chopped it up. The iconic salad has since been enjoyed by Elizabeth Taylor, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow. Chopped salads can now be found on menus from Mozza to California Pizza Kitchen.

Hickory Burger at The Apple Pan | Photo courtesy of ChrisGoldNY, Flickr

Hickory Burger - The Apple Pan

With the motto “Quality Forever,” The Apple Pan continues to serve loyal customers who hover for a seat at the always busy U-shaped counter. Not much has changed at the landmark restaurant since it opened in 1947. It’s still cash only, your order arrives on paper plates and your canned soda is served in a paper cone with a metallic cup holder. There are only two burgers on the menu - the standard Steak Burger and the iconic Hickory Burger. The latter features a beef patty with a sweet-smoky hickory sauce, mayo, pickles and chilled iceberg lettuce for crunch. Melted Tillamook cheddar is 50 cents extra. Add a side of old school fries and finish with a banana cream pie, which has a following as devoted as the Hickory Burger. Johnny Rockets founder Ronn Teitlebaum has said he modeled his diner-themed chain on The Apple Pan - to experience the real deal, head to the classic burger shack on Pico Boulevard.

Bay Cities Godmother
The Godmother at Bay Cities  |  Photo: Joshua Lurie

The Godmother - Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery

Opened in Santa Monica in 1925, Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery specializes in homemade, authentic Italian specialties like freshly baked pasta dishes, bread and rolls. Bay Cities features dozens of cold sandwiches and daily hot specials, but its claim to fame is the Godmother: Genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham and provolone cheese on Italian bread. Offered in small or large sizes, the sandwich can be topped with “the works” - mayo, mustard (yellow, honey or Dijon), onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, Italian dressing, and a mild or hot pepper salad. In his dineL.A. guide to the best bread in LA, writer Zach Brooks notes that the secret to the Godmother is the bread: “Their in-house, freshly-baked filone, with a crackly crust that's easy to bite through, is everything that is right and good about Italian bread.”

Fried egg rolls at Golden Deli | Photo courtesy of CurryPuffy, Flickr

Egg Rolls - Golden Deli

Opened in 1981, the original Golden Deli is the first Vietnamese restaurant experience for many Angelenos. But it’s not the generous portions of phở tái or bún bò Huế that attracts diners to line up in a San Gabriel strip mall - it’s the famed chả giò, or fried egg rolls. The hefty chả giò are filled with pork, mushrooms, cellophane noodles and carrots, wrapped in rice paper and fried until they’re crisp and golden. The glistening chả giò are served five to an order with a side of greens and nước chấm (dipping sauce).