Times are uncertain, but L.A.’s dining scene is a sure bet. With delicious, dazzling openings from both established power chefs and hot young talent, now is the time to get out and dig in.
Order a cheese-and-charcuterie board at Vanessa Tilaka and Thomas Kalb’s endearing restaurant/cheesery/market (above), and it comes with crackers, corn nuts, and fruit preserves. Order a tin of marinated mussels and you get ciabatta crostini, seasonal pickles, and country mustard. These might seem like small details, and that’s the point. This is food that’s fairly familiar, but every ingredient and every aspect of the presentation is carefully calibrated. Kalb, who met Tilaka when they worked at San Francisco Cal-Italian trailblazer Flour + Water, makes pastas with whimsy and grace. A soul-warming lamb Bolognese is a successful riff on Hamburger Helper. A tomato-forward plate of bouncy little radiatore starts to resemble vodka sauce when you stir it. For dessert, there’s a comforting seasonal fruit crisp that will easily delight two people at the restaurant or double as breakfast the next morning. The space—once home to the Pasadena Fire Department’s horse stable—features a bar, a comfortable lounge area with low-slung seating by the cheese counter, plenty of outdoor tables, a bright and airy dining room, and an open kitchen where large-format meats and fish are cooked in a hearth. Tilaka and Kalb are first-time restaurant owners, but Agnes is a fully formed powerhouse that already feels like it has everything. 40 W. Green St., Pasadena, agnesla.com.
Walter and Margarita Manzke’s charming follow-up to République pairs silky duck-liver mousse with a perfect baguette that’s chewy, crusty, and ultimately yielding. This is a bistro that’s happy to shut up and play the Parisian hits, so order a textbook version of onion soup with oozy cheese before indulging in the hearty short rib bourguignon or a luxurious bouillabaisse with rock cod, mussels, clams, and prawns (below). Of course, potato mousseline is on the menu and, of course, they’re made with wonderful Normandy butter. (You can also have Normandy butter with a baguette, of course.) Chocolate sauce is poured over profiteroles tableside, making for a sweet moment that’s great for a date night and/or Instagram. Showy moments aside, the dessert is truly transporting. The sauce is warm, the ice cream is still cold, and the exemplary pate a choux holds everything together. Bicyclette’s staff, including chef Joe Garcia and wunderkind wine expert Andrey Tolmachyov, is knowledgeable and accommodating, even if you don’t have a reservation. The dimly lit room feels sexy and correct, and walk-ins who are lucky enough to snag a bar seat are right next to all the action in the gleaming kitchen, where a tray of those baguettes sits majestically on the counter. You’re not in Paris, but it’s pretty close. 9575 W. Pico Blvd., Pico-Robertson, bicyclettela.com.
The torresmo (below)—small chunks of pork belly that are remarkably crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside—at Brazilian superstar chef Rodrigo Oliveira’s first restaurant in America is a statement of purpose. On one level, it’s an ultrasimple dish that’s made with just pork and salt. But preparing the torresmo is a two- to three-day process that involves at least ten hours of brining, cooking the pork belly three different ways in an oven, refrigerating it, frying it twice, and then reheating it. The effort pays off in delectable dividends. Oliveira and fellow chef/partner Victor Vasconcellos are here to show Los Angeles that there’s a lot more to Brazilian food than churrascarias, so they’re serving habit-forming fried tapioca cubes and a vegan stew (moqueca de caju) headlined by cashew fruit that’s startlingly complex. Wash it all down with refreshing caipirinhas—the bar makes no less than five different kinds. The room’s amber lighting and a mural of a strapping shirtless man by Brazilian street artist Speto set a provocative mood. The space buzzes with hot-date-night energy and the seductive power of fried pork. 1850 Industrial St., Arts District, cabocola.com.
As much as anyone else in Los Angeles, A.O.C. chef-restaurateur Suzanne Goin and her business partner and sommelier, Caroline Styne, are responsible for the shared-plates, all-over-the-map-food, good-wine philosophy that fuels crowd-pleasing restaurants across the city. Caldo Verde, which is the Portuguese-leaning cousin of the Spanish-infused A.O.C., loads up its namesake seafood stew with a generous amount of local rock crab as well as grilled linguica, mussels, kale, and potato (above). It’s a tremendous example of the rough-and-tumble food that Goin loves—dishes in which she deftly balances salt, fat, and bold flavors with California brightness. A starter of Iberico ham, anchovies, and olives is called “a small plate of salty favorites” because Goin understands that you visit restaurants to be jolted and enjoy food that’s a bit more intense than what you typically eat at home. So get the tender beef cheeks, make a mess smearing them into avocado, green chile, and crema, and then take a bite that’s a study in different levels of creaminess. And maybe head upstairs to Cara Cara, the Proper hotel’s rooftop restaurant, for some breathtaking views and an equally stunning piri-piri version of Goin’s famous fried chicken. 1100 S. Broadway, Downtown, properhotel.com/downtown-la.
Cobi Marsh and Lance Mueller’s beautifully ferocious devil chicken curry, amped up by both fresh and dried bird’s-eye chiles along with ghost peppers, is accompanied by a saucer of habanero vinegar that magically cuts the heat and enhances it at the same time. Fragrant and funky, the dish also bursts with the flavors of brown mustard seeds, shallots, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, galangal, cilantro root, shrimp paste, tomato, and coconut vinegar. This is an intense curry, no doubt, but Marsh and Mueller aren’t here to melt your face. They want to celebrate the nuance, power, and high-wire act that is Southeast Asian food. Clean-tasting and tender, dry-aged branzino is intensified but not dominated by a yellow curry with fresh turmeric (below). Terrific beef rendang is aromatic and intoxicating with spices that include black cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves. You’ll want both rice and roti with every meal here to soak up all of the deliciousness on the plate. Cool off your palate with Thai tea pudding or fruity shaved ice. More-is-more retro decor—floral wallpaper, antique plates, and a tropical patio—match the bold flavors. Coming here is like visiting a perfectly art-directed beach house where everything—from the colors on the walls to the curries on the plate—just pops. Grab a date, grab your friends, and get to the party. 2104 Main St., Santa Monica, cobis.la.
Versatile power-couple chefs Liz Johnson (who got extensive national acclaim at Freedman’s) and Will Aghajanian (formerly the chef de cuisine at Vespertine) have created a lively California bistro that feels both old-school and of the moment. Located in the red-boothed and tile-floored space that was home to Ye Coach & Horses (where Quentin Tarantino met Tim Roth to discuss a film called Pulp Fiction) and then the Pikey, the restaurant exudes vintage Hollywood glamour (above). But Johnson and Aghajanian have created a modern blockbuster with mostly European-inspired food that’s rooted in both classic technique and free-spirited cooking. A sobrassada panino with white American cheese and a drizzle of honey is thin, crispy, sweet, savory, creamy, and spicy: an extremely pleasing little bite. Lumache pasta with vodka sauce gets an unexpected and delightful kick from ’nduja. Caesar salad is crisp and properly anchovy-forward. A juicy pork chop, marinated with mustard and cumin, is expertly grilled over vine cuttings that add earthiness. Life is about balance, so both the thick burger (one of the city’s best new ones) and the thin fries it comes with are excellent. Service, led by general manager and wine director Terence Leavey, is polished and convivial, and there’s a general sense of decadence, from the $40 Cornish game hen on the menu to whatever may or may not be happening in the bathroom. Horses is the throwback that the city craves. 7617 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, horsesla.com.
Nan Yimcharoen (above) became an underground sensation during the pandemic, selling jewel box–like chirashi sushi over Instagram to an exclusive guest list of in-the-know Eastside types, among them Eric Wareheim, Jonah Hill, Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes, and Hillary Duff and Matthew Koma. In June, Yimcharoen opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant serving an exquisite Thai-Japanese tasting menu, inspired, in part, by her Bangkok roots and her grandmother’s cooking. The ten-course menu’s standouts have included slices of bluefin tuna larb gorgeously assembled in the shape of a rose and a resplendent crab curry with blue butterfly-pea-flower noodles and a sauce powered by innards and roe. On other nights, Yimcharoen takes things in a different direction, serving up skewers of yakitori and traditional sushi. She’s still figuring out what exactly KinKan is, and that’s more than fine. Eating here, especially if you’re sitting at the counter and conversing with Yimcharoen while she makes dinner alongside some close friends she’s hired, is like watching an artist play around with different palettes and learn that boundaries often don’t matter. This is one of the most surprising and invigorating dining experiences in the city right now. 771 N. Virgil Ave., Virgil Village, instagram.com/kinkan_la.
Prolific restaurateur Jerry Greenberg (Sugarfish, Nozawa Bar, KazuNori, Uovo, HiHo Cheeseburger) and his partners at Matu¯ are convinced that they serve the world’s best beef, prepared in the most optimal way. After trying their five-course, $78 Wagyu dinner featuring sustainably raised, 100 percent grass-fed beef from First Light Farms in New Zealand, you might see things their way. Magnificently marbled steaks are cooked to “warm red,” which is the color of rare and the temperature of medium rare. The result is meat that’s tender, luscious, and strikingly beefy. The set menu might also include bone broth, hand-cut tartare, and eight-hour braised beef cheeks. This isn’t a steak house—Greenberg likes to call it an “exploration of beef”—but you can order à la carte and request that steaks be cooked slightly longer. Still, the best value and experience is the beef tasting. (Just like at Nozawa Bar, put your trust in the chef.) If you must customize, add on some wood-fired lobster tails with yuzu kosho-garlic butter for some fabulous surf along with your turf, 239 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills. matusteak.com.
Some of the best Texas barbecue is actually in Los Angeles. The supple, standard-bearing brisket and fat-flecked beef ribs at Andrew and Michelle Muñoz’s Moo’s Craft Barbecue are meaty, smoky bliss that would be taken seriously in Austin. But Moo’s is very much a vital L.A. restaurant because the Muñozes weave in their Mexican-Angeleno roots with dishes like a cheese-and-poblano-filled pork verde sausage that’s reminiscent of a chile relleno. While Andrew has established himself as one of the country’s most formidable pitmasters, it’s Michelle who came up with this marvelous sausage. Her other creations include an off-the-cob version of street corn and a tres leches bread pudding. Come to Moo’s for a family-style feast or linger with a craft beer and specials such as Frito pie, beef cheek tacos, and a chili-covered smoked burger while you watch a game on the TV. Then maybe get some takeout and spend a few days happily repurposing brisket and sausage into breakfast burritos, nachos, rice bowls, and more. Moo’s started as a backyard pop-up in 2017 before becoming a Smorgasburg superstar and opening its brick-and-mortar restaurant this past June. It’s a new restaurant that already feels like an L.A. institution, 2118 N. Broadway, Lincoln Heights. mooscraftbarbecue.com.
What does a great chef do with premium seafood? Treat it with reverence. So Dominique Crisp, the chef at this Basque-inspired wonderland that shares a lovely courtyard, Spanish Mission-inspired architecture, and an ornate fountain with the Pasadena Playhouse, gets live local spot prawns and serves them raw. What else does a great chef do with premium seafood? Prepare it under brutal conditions. So Crisp also cooks prawns in a 700-degree Josper oven. The result is a spectacular combination of juicy heads, crispy shattering shells, charred crumbling tentacles, and sweet, soft flesh. Meals at Saso are built around a cavalcade of meticulously sourced seafood from California (rock crab claws, spiny lobster, rock cod, tuna, halibut, abalone) and the Pacific Northwest (Dungeness crab, geoduck, oysters, purple clams). Start with chilled crab claws if you want a reminder that California shellfish rivals anything in Florida. Continue with delicate, handmade duck-egg-yolk pasta, swimming in a seafood sauce that makes the wide noodles taste like the ocean and topped with both plump shellfish and fin fish. Like the maritime expanse it mines, Saso’s lengthy menu is full of exciting options that demand further exploration, 37 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. sasobistro.com.
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