It took a while for Los Angeles to develop its current reputation as being one of America’s great restaurant towns. In Hollywood’s heyday of the 1940 and 1950s, restaurants were far more famous for their bizarre look—The Brown Derby leaps to mind—and their glittering clientele than for their food. Glamour endured as an attraction in the 1980s when the city went through a copycat French nouvelle cuisine phase, when the term California chic referred as much to what people wore to restaurants as they did to movie openings.
Most of the city’s fine dining places have disappeared—L’Ermitage, Le Dôme, L’Orangerie, Rex Il Ristorante, Valentino, to name a few—replaced by more modern casual places like Spago and Michael’s, which were in the vanguard of the so-called New California Cuisine movement.
Still, Los Angeles has always had pockets of ethnic neighborhoods that manifested its extraordinary immigrant cultures, not least Mexican, amplified by a new generation from China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
Here are some old and some new restaurants that show the range of Los Angeles’s restaurants where you’ll feel like a star.
If you’re staying at the The Hollywood Roosevelt …
6667 Hollywood Boulevard｜323-467-7788
If the essence of Los Angeles is out with the old and make way for the new, Musso & Frank, opened in 1919 by Frank Toulet and Joseph Musso, never got the memo. Since then changes in ownership and location have been minimal, and the huge dining rooms, done up in Hollywood memorabilia, worn leather booths, forest murals and hanging lamps, are steeped in legends, from the time when Charlie Chaplin challenged Douglas Fairbanks to a horse race down Hollywood Boulevard, with the winner picking up the check, and Raymond Chandler wrote chapters of his novel The Big Sleep while sitting at the bar. Located across from the Screen Writers Guild, M&F’s was a place where, as the Los Angeles Times once put it, if you stood in the restaurant’s exclusive Back Room long enough, “you would have seen every living writer you had ever heard of, and some you would not know until later.”
The menu hasn’t changed much over the decades, with old-fashioned dishes like shrimp Louie and sauerbraten with potato pancakes to daily specials like corned beef and cabbage on Tuesdays and bouillabaisse on Fridays. Little of the food would now rank with the best in town, but it’s solid, it’s consistent and M&F’s legion of fans wouldn’t change a thing about any of it.
If you’re staying at Hotel Normandie …
1121 S Western Ave ｜ 323-734-2773
Four years after Musso & Frank debuted, Alejandro and Rosa Boquez opened a little café they would eventually name El Cholo (a Mexican farmhand). By 1927 the place still had just eight stools, three booths and a stovetop; tamales cost 25 cents for two. But by the 1930s, when a former dishwasher turned cook named Joe Reina added many Mexican dishes to the menu, El Cholo came to typify the Mexican-American restaurant in Los Angeles.
Now with six locations, the fourth and fifth generations of the family run El Cholo with the same warm hospitality and piled-high dishes they always have. With its original neon sign, folkloric murals, wrought iron filigree, Mexican tiles and chandeliers, El Cholo is extremely comfortable, great for families, LAPD cops and always a good place to spot Hollywood stars; Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas are regulars.
Everybody orders the nachos—a waitress brought the idea here via San Antonio—guacamole and the margaritas. You can even trace the history of El Cholo in its dishes, whose dates of introduction are on the menu: Sonora-style enchiladas and corn tamales, 1923; chicken chimichangas, 1967; and fish tacos, 2001.
If you’re staying at the Montage Beverly Hills …
176 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills｜ 310-385-9889
With the financial backing of a dentist, a young Austrian chef in a baseball cap named Wolfgang Puck, who had gained a reputation at the highly exclusive Ma Maison, and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, opened Spago in 1982 in a barn-like building on a dreary corner of Sunset Boulevard. Their intention was to serve upscale fast foods like pasta and pizza, including his invention of the “Jewish pizza,” lavished with smoked salmon, sour cream and caviar.
Overnight, Spago became the new darling of the hippest Hollywood crowd along with the Old Hollywood crowd, and Puck became the leader of a pack of young chefs who flipped the idea of great food in a grand setting upside down. He went on to open restaurants around the world—including L.A.’s best steakhouse CUT—was considered the first celebrity chef and become one of the richest chefs in the world. Yet most of the time, he can still be seen in his chef’s whites at Spago, which now sits in a far more glamorous space in Beverly Hills, where it still reigns among the entertainment industry’s prime venues.
If you’re staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel …
716 Highland Avenue ｜ 323-484-8588
What Wolfgang Puck did with the original Spago in the 1980s, Ludo Lefebvre did on a much smaller scale and with a different approach to French food as of 2013 at Trois Mec (Three Guys). The setting, in a gritty part of L.A. where Philip Marlowe might have had his private eye office, was an old pizza parlor in a small strip mall. Immediately it became the toughest ticket in town—how could it not with just seven stools at the kitchen counter and a few tables?
Lefebrve had a following, and he priced his food right (these days it’s $110 for five courses) and did scintillating turns on classic French dishes, even omelets, to Asian ideas based on the bounty of Pacific seafood, like pan-seared sablefish, green olives, anchovy and capers.
To show how his 21st-century approach succeeded, in 2015, he became a “knight” of France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, usually given only for the temples of haute French cuisine. Last year he earned his first Michelin star. If you’re staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel it’s worth taking the 10-minute drive across Santa Monica Boulevard to enjoy this dining experience.
If you’re staying at the Kimpton Everly Hotel …
5955 Melrose Avenue ｜ 323-460-4170
What’s left of traditional fine dining in Los Angeles, albeit without the pretensions, is found at its best at Providence, which for 14 years has drawn a serious gourmet crowd to its minimalist dining rooms, where you are greeted by owner Donato Poto and chef-partner Michael Cimarusti. With accolades such as two Michelin stars and Los Angeles Magazine’s ranking it as number one on a list of 101 restaurants, Providence goes its own way, which is rigorously seasonal. Cimarusti won’t serve anything not at its peak of flavor.
Poto, born on the Amalfi Coast, has been manager of many of L.A.’s top restaurants, and his clientele knows him as well as he knows their idiosyncrasies. David Osenbach, certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, stocks a superb wine cellar, and he pairs bottles with the tasting menus, which run $135, $185 and $240. After a delightful meal at Providence, head over back to your hotel room at Kimpton Everly Hotel, which boasts a rooftop with an outdoor pool. The views of the hills and the Hollywood sign are priceless.
If you’re staying at The Mondrian …
129 North La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Hills ｜310-659-9639
The combination of a new style of cuisine together with a celebrity crowd desperate to snag a table is always catnip to Los Angeles foodies, so that ever since Nobu Matsuhisa opened his eponymous Japanese restaurant in 1987, there’s never been an empty seat.
Matsuhisa’s principal contribution to the L.A. sushi scene was to introduce dishes and flavors that reflected the years he spent cooking in Peru. Pairing chile peppers with sushi and sashimi and coming up with signature dishes like black cod in miso drew actors perpetually on a diet as well as sushi lovers like Robert DeNiro, who with other celebrity investors, helped Matsuhisa open what is now an empire of 40 Nobu restaurants and hotels around the world.
The original Matsuhisa still retains bragging rights as the first and most representative of his style, which is low-key, while the rest are mostly extravaganzas in size and design. The menu is enormous, from soup and noodles to teriyaki and steaks, and at dinner there is an omakase menu that begins at $100 and goes up from there. If you’ve booked one of the chic and stylish rooms at The Mondrian, it is worth making reservations at Matsuhisa.
If you’re staying at SLS Hotel …
465 La Cienega Boulevard ｜310-246-5555
For his groundbreaking Spanish food and his truly heroic philanthropic efforts that included feeding all of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria obliterated the island, Jose Andrès is one of the most famous chefs in the world—even said to be proposed for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Andrès began serving trapeze-wire daring tapas at his restaurant in Washington, D.C., but he really brought to the fore everything he knew and wanted to do when he opened the Bazaar in Beverly Hills in 2008. Tapas were served in profusion, but the rest of the menu dazzled with its color, modernist experiments and sheer theatricality throughout the dining areas, designed by Philpppe Starck.
Even back in 2008 Andrès spoke of his desire to make changes in the way the America eats, saying, “Restaurants like mine feed only 2-3% of all the people in the country. In all my restaurants I maybe feed 5,000 people a day. That is a very small influence. We cooks have to be more active with our politicians and health officials about how we eat. I truly believe that food can change America.” Little did he know he might end up changing the world. If you’re staying at the SLS Hotel, reservations at The Bazaar is a must.
If you’re staying at Hotel Sofitel Los Angeles …
419 North Fairfax Avenue ｜323-651-2030
Canter’s doesn’t mind bragging: On its website it has a whole page of photos of its celebrity diners—from Mick Jagger to James Corden—and the place was featured in Mad Men. Nicolas Cage proposed to Patricia Arquette at Canter’s, and Arthur Miller introduced Marilyn Monroe to deli food here.
It opened in 1931, after the Canter brothers left their New Jersey deli when the stock market crashed and moved to L.A.. Later they moved up the street, so its décor is more 1950s Southern Cal, with snug booths and straight-backed chairs, Googie-style lighting, a glass case of baked goods and a fine long counter.
None of which would matter except that Canter’s is considered the best deli on the West Coast, and even New York City feinschmeckers grudgingly agree that the pastrami is close to perfect. If you’re staying at the modern and spacious Sofitel, stop by Canter’s for some comfort dishes.
If you’re staying at The Standard …
8474 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood ｜323-655-6277
It hardly seems possible that Lucques is more than 20 years old, in a city where a 1950s car wash can be considered for landmark status. But Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne, in their own cordial, unassuming way, have kept their charming restaurant carved from a vine-covered carriage house once owned by Harold Lloyd, in the first rank of laid-back Southern California cuisine. The fact that they were among the first women to open their own restaurant was significant, but they proved that a consistent vision that focused on the best seasonal provender and careful, simple cooking techniques would coast right through all the culinary fads and trends that have come and gone.
Intended as a homey space, Lucques offers a Sunday Supper at $52, and at dinner vegetables take center stage as appetizers, followed by Pacific seafood and meat dishes like merluza grilled in a fig leaf with rosemary, buttery black lentils and blistered tomato, and za’atar-spiced lamb chops with charred eggplant, purslane and preserved lemon.
No one skips desserts—like stone fruit buckle with toasted almond ice cream and peach sorbet, or hot chocolate with marshmallows and almonds. Head to the outdoor lounge at The Standard and cozy up by the firepit or enjoy a game of foosball, with cocktail in hand.
If you’re staying at The Arts District Firehouse Hotel …
2121 E. 7th Place ｜213-514-5724
True, Bestia (meaning beast) is not for everyone. The restaurant is very loud, decorated with unfinished surfaces, steel, marble and wood and wall coverings in “a pattern of bar-fight weapons” and a staff in T-shirts and bandanas—the kind of hipster hot spot that looks destined to flare out. But after seven years Bestia has become a totem for the kind of Los Angeles cutting-edge style of the second decade of the 21st century, while owners Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis (both born is the area) work diligently to produce menus that change just enough to entice regulars back and to surprise newcomers.
The food is Italian and Mediterranean, rife with chilies and Middle Eastern spices. The starters, pizzas and pastas are where the real excitement is, in dishes like house-cured charcuterie, cavatelli ricotta dumplings with pork sausage and black truffles, spaghetti with lobster, tomato and Calabrian chilies, and pizza topped with red hot ’nduja condiments, mozzarella and Tuscan kale.