California, for those of us who live to eat, is everything. Its very name invokes a thousand different ingredients and dishes. Forty years ago, its chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs, activists, visionaries, and romantics began jolting this country from a canned-soup stupor into a Technicolor world of freshness. Yet it’s also the birthplace of the fast-food cheeseburger and Taco Bell, of fortune cookies and French dips and ranch dressing. The state shapes our dining culture — which is to say, our overall culture — more than ever. Cue, then, an impossible exercise: to identify California’s 38 most important and defining restaurants right this minute.
Previously, Eater’s “Regional 38” series pinpointed the crucial dining destinations in the South, New England, the Great Lakes region of the Midwest, and Texas. The project takes inspiration from our city sites’ 38 lists and our annual guide to the essential restaurants in America. California is more than a region unto itself: It’s a state of mind. The restaurants that best define how we think and feel about dining, within California’s borders and beyond, deserve to be singled out.
In total I’ve spent almost two months in California this year, including a recent month traipsing from San Diego to Sacramento, along the coastline and inland and then back again skimming the Pacific. Tacos, tostadas, shrimp Louis, dim sum, falafel, pho, kebabs, the supplest pastas, pastries filled with fruits so complex and ripe they left my brain addled, adobo and cornmeal waffles and fiery Sichuan stews and so many tasting menus: What emerged from all the gorging was an evolved definition of California cuisine.
Eating here isn’t simply about chasing the perfect peach. At its most optimistic, it’s about celebrating the fluidity and integrity of immigrant cooking, about creating and sustaining community. One skilled chef can painstakingly recreate her grandmother’s Shanghainese pork soup dumplings. Another westernizes hers with a filling of truffle and Parmesan and country ham. California shores up both approaches.
A lone palate couldn’t, and shouldn’t, compile a guide of this breadth. A dozen California writers joined me in agonizing over this list, including many of the staffers who run our Eater LA and Eater SF sites, led by Matthew Kang in Los Angeles and Ellen Fort in San Francisco. (Voices weighed in from Eater HQ in New York as well, because the open secret around the office is that half of us want to move to LA.)
Given the blinding spotlight trained on California, any endeavor like this invites debate. Of course the fineries of Los Angeles and San Francisco dominate. They are, in my well-fed opinion, the two best dining cities in the country. Of course, with only 38 slots, some difficult omissions occurred. For one: no Thomas Keller restaurant? Correct. His influence is indelible and undeniable, but at this very moment I’d steer you, for example, to Benu and Meadowood before the French Laundry. We also reached an impasse in crowning one sushi restaurant among literal dozens of near-equals. But please, California sushi is sublime — start with the maps for sushi in LA, SF, and San Diego and go for it.
Among such an embarrassment — or, more accurately, a glory — of riches, I stand by our choice of powerhouses absolutely. Meet you in line at Mariscos Jalisco for spicy fried shrimp tacos; add extra avocado to mine, please.
— Bill Addison, national critic
WHAT: A chic launching pad, with only eight black walnut dining tables, from which to travel the gardens and high seas of Dominique Crenn’s mind. WHY: In 2011, Crenn, a native of Brittany, France, opened her San Francisco tasting-menu restaurant and cracked an impossible code: bridging sci-fi modernist technique and a love of local ingredients in a way that the purist Bay Area crowds could embrace. She and her team grow more adept every year at tilling the middle ground between intellect and emotion. White chocolate orbs may explode with apple cider, and tableside presentations might occasionally billow with dramatic dry ice, but when the smoke clears her seafood- and vegetable-focused menu tastes richly of the time and place of her adopted home. — B.A.
3127 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 440-0460 | ateliercrenn.com
WHAT: San Francisco’s tasting-menu pinnacle, bridging spans of cultures and cuisines like nothing else in America. WHY: The Bay Area has a ridiculous number of laudable luxury-dining options; if I were ranking them, I’d place Benu at the very top. Chef-owner Corey Lee took his impeccable resume (which includes four years at the French Laundry) and reshaped the European-model prix fixe to his own blueprints. Looking chiefly to his native Korea and to the vast cuisines of China to spur his vision, Lee devises a panoply as riveting to the eyes as it is to the palate. Meals begin with tiny marvels: a pork-and-oyster dumpling that shatters like glass, or a mussel wrapped in noodles, cucumber, carrot, and egg that looks like the cocoon of some fantastical species. And they conclude with a spiky orb flavored with osmanthus, almond, and apricot that resembles a 1990s-era Jean Paul Gaultier bombshell. In between there will be courses that register as both spectacles and meditations, featuring ingredients like sea cucumber, bamboo shoots, and thousand-year eggs. A sedate room keeps eyes focused on the plate — or on the stemware filled with wines, sake, and beers selected by master sommelier Yoon Ha. — B.A.
22 Hawthorne Street
San Francisco, CA
415-685-4860 | benusf.com
WHAT: A San Francisco seafood pacesetter from one of Mexico City’s visionary chef-restaurateurs. WHY: At Cala, Gabriela Cámara — who runs Contramar, which for years now has been the place to be seen for lunch in CDMX — brings her two signatures to the Bay Area: rockfish, smoky from the grill and brushed with two sauces (red chile and a parsley-cumin number), and tostadas that double as jeweled canvases. Crisped tortillas provide the framework for trout overlaid with avocado, chipotle mayo, and fried leeks, or for lobes of local abalone with trout roe and bonito aioli. She also delves subtly into carne: A massive sweet potato, looking prehistoric and yanked straight out of ashy embers, comes with a stack of tortillas and a salsa negra glossy with beef bone marrow. Beyond the virtuosity of Cala’s food, Cámara has been praised for her hiring philosophy, which includes employing people who have been previously incarcerated. — B.A.
149 Fell Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 660-7701 | calarestaurant.com
WHAT: A reverie of a California-Italian trattoria, complete with an oven in which oak logs crackle, a dining room lined with brick and mixed woods, and a menu that includes some of the most exquisite pastas made in the country — if not the world. WHY: Michael Tusk is San Francisco’s pasta savant. He and wife Lindsay Tusk also spotlight his dough mastery at Quince, their hushed tasting-menu sanctuary next door. But Cotogna, with its humming, rustic atmosphere and its menu that reads like a “what’s in season” checklist on a Bay Area farmers market website, is the upstart sibling. Gild the meal with a crackery pizza and dishes like baby shrimp with avocado and little gems dressed with green goddess, sardines with green garlic salsa verde, and lemon verbena sherbet with peaches and green gage plums. But know that you’re really here for the superlative pastas, especially the ridged, rectangular agnolotti del plin (filled with rabbit, veal, vegetables, and Grana Padano), the silky ravioli with farm egg and brown butter, and fluttery tagliatelle ensnaring Dungeness crab. Dinnertime is wonderful; this is also easily my favorite place for lunch in SF. — B.A.
490 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA
415-775-8508 | cotognasf.com
WHAT: The ever-popular community hub for savoring, surveying, and debating the Bay Area’s Mission-style burrito. WHY: Of course there’s no one absolute forever-best burrito in San Francisco. I learned that when I was a critic at the San Francisco Chronicle a dozen years ago and visited a punishing 85 taquerias to test that hypothesis. But the Mission stalwart, which Miguel Jara began in 1973, stays eternally packed with a crowd that comprises the breadth of humanity. The reason: His burritos lull customers into exceptionally happy trances. No rice bloats Jara’s tortilla wrappers, which you should ask for “Dorado style,” or griddled on the plancha. Meat choices include carnitas, chorizo, chicken, and beef tongue; at La Taqueria I gravitate first to carne asada, joined by pinto beans, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, guacamole, and a splash of homemade hot sauce. Every time I say to myself, “You don’t have to devour this whole beast.” Every time, I’m left holding nothing but the burrito’s crumpled tinfoil, wishing that I had the capacity to immediately down another one. — B.A.
2889 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 285-7117 | facebook.com/LaTaqSF
Swan Oyster Depot
WHAT: An institution among institutions — the requisite San Francisco seafood dining experience that contextualizes all meals in the city thereafter. WHY: Only 18 seats line the counter that stretches the length of the scrunched, scruffy room; they fill the moment the place opens at 10:30 a.m. The Sancimino family has run the operation since 1946, though its history reaches back nearly a half-century before they took over. This clan can be a salty bunch (it’s part of the shtick), but there’s no gimmickry adulterating the seafood. Their work space, cluttered with condiment bottles, papers, and stacks of takeout containers, belies the fastidiousness that goes into the exuberant plates they prepare. Start with a few oysters, and then order the cracked crab; a combination salad (bay shrimp, larger prawns, fresh Dungeness crab in season); uni, if you spy the spindly sea urchins in the window; and the off-the-menu, caper-flecked “Sicilian sashimi.” Dressing for the salad? Pass on the standard Louis for the olive oil and vinegar, a baptism blessed by a secret ingredient: crab fat. — B.A.
1517 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 673-1101 | swanoysterdepot.us
WHAT: A day-to-night showstopper from the team that brought San Francisco its most famous bakery. WHY: One of the most exciting restaurants to open nationwide in the past few years, Tartine Manufactory delivers on every high expectation that comes with having powerhouse pastry chef Liz Prueitt and bread revolutionary Chad Robertson at the helm. Go in the morning to add an order of executive chef Christa Chase’s coddled eggs and za’atar toast and a slice of whatever tea cake beckons to the famous Tartine morning bun. At lunch, try one of the impressive sandwiches — the grilled cheese with Wagon Wheel and squash blossoms ought to do the trick — and soak in the light-filled space. Dinner reservations are deservedly hard to come by, but it’s worth the effort for the opportunity to go deeper into the thrilling wine list, the elegant pastas, and the celebratory dry-aged rib-eye, all of which thread the needle of capturing an utterly “now” sense of California cool as well as timeless good cooking. — Hillary Dixler Canavan
595 Alabama Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 757-0007 | tartinemanufactory.com
WHAT: The California template for the all-day, all-American neighborhood restaurant. WHY: “Perfect” is usually a forbidden word in food writing, but it’s apt for the roasted chicken with bread salad for two refined to faultless consistency by the late chef Judy Rodgers, the architect of Zuni’s success who introduced the dish in 1987. It’s only one of the cornerstones of Rodgers’s repertoire, casual in presentation but unerring in execution, that informed how our whole nation came to eat. The carefully dressed Caesar salad, the fussed-over burger, the platter of small, briny oysters to begin a rosé-fueled lunch: Decades ago, Rodgers took the lead on these now-ubiquitous dishes. (Her impeccable ways with composed salads should be more widely imitated.) Owner Gilbert Pilgram upholds her legacy — and also maintains the charm of the timeless dining room in all its angular, pastel 1980s glory. — B.A.
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 552-2522 | zunicafe.com
GREATER BAY AREA
Brown Sugar Kitchen
WHAT: Chef Tanya Holland’s soul food oasis in West Oakland. WHY: When Holland, who has starred on Top Chef, brought her classically trained take on Southern cooking to a then-industrial neighborhood 10 years ago, she became one of the pioneers of modern Oakland. Her brunch classics like biscuits, cheese grits, and fried chicken with cornmeal waffles have made the unassuming restaurant a beloved destination for locals as well as visitors from across the Bay Bridge. (Unlike most waffles playing second fiddle to the fried chicken, these stand alone and are often ordered that way, accompanied by melted butter, syrup, and fresh fruit.) Lunchtime brings more of the Southern-style dishes so often missed on the West Coast, including smoked chicken and shrimp gumbo, oyster po’ boys, and Creole barbecue shrimp. Since opening a decade ago, gentrification has made that area of West Oakland unrecognizable, but the vital spirit of this place remains unchanged. — Ellen Fort
2534 Mandela Parkway
(510) 839-7685 | brownsugarkitchen.com
The Café at Chez Panisse
WHAT: The casual upstairs dining room of Alice Waters’s legendary Berkeley restaurant, and the true keeper of the California cuisine flame. WHY: Every ingredient is cooked to its fullest potential in the relaxed cafe above Chez Panisse. Standouts from a recent trip included a supremely earthy roasted beet soup with horseradish cream, a shockingly light pizzetta topped with halibut brandade, and a plate of braised short ribs with mashed potatoes that is exactly what you want whenever you order braised short ribs with mashed potatoes. The handful of untouchable dishes, like the baked goat cheese and seasonal fruit galette, are always right on the money. And the servers — some of whom have been working with Waters for decades — will happily help you put together a set list that will showcase the range of the kitchen. The Restaurant at Chez Panisse still offers a great, seminal California cuisine experience, but the bustling Café is where you want to go to kick back and enjoy the style of eating that Alice Waters pioneered. — Greg Morabito
1517 Shattuck Avenue
(510) 548-5525 | chezpanisse.com
WHAT: The (relatively affordable) tasting-menu restaurant that typifies the communal, plucky spirit of Oakland’s energized dining scene. WHY: James Syhabout’s slow-poached egg yolk, for starters. He surrounds it with soubise (a trompe l’oeil puree of alliums resembling egg whites) that hides smoked dates underneath. It’s a signature dish whose playfulness and serious precision says so much about Syhabout as a chef. He runs other restaurants — most notably San Francisco’s Hawker Fare, where he serves takes on Thai-Lao street food that also reflect his heritage — but Commis remains the flagship where he shows off his haute chops. The space feels as intimate as an after-hours jazz club, with the chefs performing their sets in a narrow open kitchen. The menu never stays still but dazzles with odd, wholly winning juxtapositions like turnips in ham cream, scented with pine and covered in pear ice. Among the Bay Area highfliers, Commis comes off like a deal with eight courses for $155 per person. Finish the night with a cocktail at Syhabout’s new adjacent bar, CDP. — B.A.
3859 Piedmont Avenue
(510) 653-3902 | commisrestaurant.com
El Molino Central
WHAT: An embellished taco stand and wine industry purlieu along the Sonoma Highway. WHY: As the name suggests, freshly milled corn is the restaurant’s foundation — organic stone-ground kernels metamorphosed into exceptional tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and (very) stout corn chips. The masa wonderland has that unique quality of feeling simultaneously like a secret, but also like an essential destination — so charming that those in the know can’t bear to keep it to themselves. Bay Area eaters will know chef Karen Taylor’s work by way of Primavera, a portfolio of exquisite seasonal tamales, tortillas, and salsas that are ubiquitous at fine food retailers throughout Northern California. At El Molino, Taylor’s tamale is a standout any time of year, but for summer, the most inviting menu options are the seafood ones, and in particular, the tostada — a crisp, round tortilla that, depending on the season, is topped with pozole verde, avocado, and crema. Resist the urge to overthink a better alternative than the pedestrian-sounding Modelo-battered fish tacos. Enjoy with the lightest or localest available cerveza. — Stephen Satterfield
11 Central Avenue
(707) 939-1010 | elmolinocentral.com
Hog Island Oyster Co.
WHAT: A scenic oyster farm on the edge of bucolic Tomales Bay — a narrow inlet surrounded by wide-open farmland and accessible only by long and winding roads — that boasts picnic areas, barbecues, and a bar stocked with beer, wine, and the option to shuck ’em yourself. WHY: If there’s something better than an ice-cold oyster that’s been shucked and served in its place of origin, show me. Hog Island, uniquely positioned on a submerged portion of the San Andreas Fault, produces oysters that are sweet, salty, briny, and perfectly paired with a foggy summer afternoon — most likely what you’ll get during June or July. Make reservations ahead for the highly desirable picnic tables in a gravel lot overlooking the bay, each of which comes with a grill for putting a little smoke and heat on the oysters. Bring your own bottle of crisp white wine or grab something by the glass from the Boat, the farm’s oyster bar that also offers grilled and shucked oysters for those less interested in working for their mollusks. Bring both a jacket and sunscreen, as the weather on the coast tends to shift quickly between fitful and sublime. — E.F.
20215 Shoreline Highway
(415) 663-9218 | hogislandoysters.com
WHAT: Irresistible dim sum destination in a part of the country that does it exceedingly well. WHY: Just making it through the door at Koi Palace can feel like an achievement. The theatrics begin upon arrival as hordes of soon-to-be diners anxiously await the call of their number at the entrance. In the dining room, uniformed servers pirouette around koi ponds and large tables that make for that wondrous frenetic energy of a dim sum service. Stacked bamboo baskets of xiaolongbao pile high while you’re still navigating the menu, comparing what’s arrived to what’s anticipated. It’s impossible to have it all, and the parade of buns, balls, rolls, and rice noodles can be a lot to digest. Good options are endless, but skipping the sugar egg puff — a sugar-crusted fried dough ball with a steamy, custardy center — is not one of them. — S.S.
365 Gellert Boulevard
Daly City, CA
(650) 992-9000 | koipalace.com
WHAT: A pioneering Northern Californian restaurant that gently fused modernism with direct-from-the-farm ingredients — and remains as germane as ever. WHY: David Kinch is a chef’s chef. When he opened Manresa in 2002, he not only impelled the practice of the farm-restaurant relationship, partnering exclusively with nearby Love Apple Farm (the association inspired the documentary The Farmer & The Chef) but also pushed forth notions around stark minimalist plating and purity of flavors that have since become fine-dining standards. Kinch’s creative freedom emboldened his Bay Area peers to stretch their own ambitions, talents, and imaginations. His “Into the Garden” dish, an exuberant kaleidoscope composed from the daily harvest, is his most famous creation: It reframes the workaday American salad into essays on ephemeral textures. Dinner might also embrace regional nods (a free-form bowl of cioppino, San Francisco’s hometown fish stew) and artful hedonism (a disc of caviar surrounded by piped creme fraiche and tiny shiso leaves, crowned with gold leaf). Kinch operates beyond the big-city fray — Los Gatos sits at the end of the Santa Cruz Mountains 55 miles down I-280 from San Francisco — and it’s a beautiful drive. — B.A.
320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA
(408) 354-4330 | manresarestaurant.com
The Restaurant at Meadowood
WHAT: Flat-out, leading-edge American luxury dining in Napa Valley — a standout among standouts in a region rife with worthy upscale binges. WHY: Consider chef Christopher Kostow and restaurant director Nathaniel Dorn’s collaboration as the star-pupil progeny of Chez Panisse and the French Laundry, blending the sense-of-place evangelism of the former and the refined Yankee wit of the latter. Kostow embodies the avant-garde of great American chefs. His sauces are bogglingly layered acts of chemistry, but his flavors always come across as clean and pure. Dinner might start with tiny potatoes or other vegetables yanked straight from the garden, but soon each forkful will contain multitudes. The kitchen is ceaselessly inventive and playful, whether combining earthy tepary beans and Sea Island rice peas with white sturgeon caviar, or sculpting a culinary portmanteau called “foievocado,” or subbing in eggplant for a savory take on bananas Foster. Dorn’s service team duly bring polish, personality, and humor to their jobs. The cost is steep — $285 for a dozen or so courses in the clubhouse of a dining room, or $500 for a worth-the-splurge thrill ride at the kitchen’s four-seat counter, which could include a wheel of cheese hidden in a candle. — B.A.
900 Meadowood Lane
Saint Helena, CA
(707) 967-1205 | therestaurantatmeadowood.com
[Update: Shed closed on December 31, 2018.]
WHAT: An airy cafe, market, and boutique with an intensely farm-to-table ethos. WHY: Because Northern California is where people go to experience the Good Life™, and Shed is here to sell it to you. And it’s not just the lovely cooking utensils or Instagram-ready shovels (it’s a thing!) for sale, it’s also the gorgeous plates that chef Perry Hoffman serves in the cafe. It’s a salad with trout and sea buckthorn, covered in edible flowers; it’s fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes with perfectly ripe blueberries; it’s a tartine topped with anchovies and kicky Meyer lemon aioli. Shed’s the place where all your “wouldn’t it be nice to live in Sonoma” fantasies come to life, better than you even imagined, if only for a couple hours. — H.D.C.
25 North Street
(707) 431-7433 | healdsburgshed.com
OTHER CENTRAL/NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
WHAT: A Central Coast restaurant that should top the food lover’s travel agenda, quintessentially Californian in its warmth and celebration of the state’s bounty. (That it’s secreted away in a sleepy coastal town is all part of the charm.) WHY: Like a first-rate syrah from one of the wineries in this cool-climate growing region, Ember is a model of big, bold balance. Locals (and in-the-know visitors) fill the dining room nightly for obvious reasons: The comforting, big-hearted cooking matches the restaurant’s woodsy coziness. Chef Brian Collins returned to his Arroyo Grande hometown after six years at Chez Panisse, which clearly influenced his generous style of cooking. Pizzas, pastas, salads, easy pleasures like grilled peaches and baked goat cheese, and hefty entrees (rib-eye grilled over local oak, chicken baked under a brick and served over polenta) hold broad, finessed appeal. The beverage list, no surprise, showcases star local wineries and craft brewers. — B.A.
1200 East Grand Avenue
Arroyo Grande, CA
(805) 474-7700 | emberwoodfire.com
WHAT: The jewel of Sacramento’s homegrown “Farm to Fork” movement, where chef-owner Chris Barnum-Dann carves out a unique culinary perspective through small scale, hyperlocal sourcing. WHY: Sacramento has yet to fully shake its cow town reputation, and the looming shadow of its neighbor 90 minutes to the west, San Francisco. Slowly but surely, however, the capital city is finding its own voice, and Localis is the microphone of the moment. Cooking with local ingredients at their freshest is no longer on its own a revolutionary act, but it carries extra significance in this part of the San Joaquin Valley — the agricultural heart of the state that feeds the nation. Barnum-Dann understands this, and runs the kitchen every night with the singular goal of creating innovative plates powered by just-picked produce and incendiary flavor. Coconut green curry ceviche blends the slow burn of Thai chiles with chard and parsnips, while harissa-smeared, fire-roasted octopus gets a sunny pairing with local peaches and delicate summer squash. — S.S.
2031 S Street
(916) 737-7699 | localissacramento.com
GREATER LOS ANGELES AREA
WHAT: A genre-defining Cal-Med small plates restaurant whose California-heavy wine list, dreamy patio, and genuinely warm service will remind you why we all wanted to dine this way to begin with. WHY: There’s a restaurant you are looking for in Los Angeles: one serving a menu that speaks directly (and never self-consciously) to the city’s Mediterranean climate; a patio dotted with greenery and bedecked in Spanish tile; a wine list that will always surprise and satisfy with the best California has to offer; service refined enough for an anniversary and friendly enough to make you a regular; an originator of dining trends that always transcends them. A.O.C. is the real one. Business partners Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne have been redefining what a Los Angeles restaurant can do since opening California-French Lucques in 1998, and A.O.C. is where their vision and talents are, at the moment, most fully realized. Bring a date, bring your mom, bring out-of-towners or your best friend, and don’t skip the large-format “Ode to Zuni” roast chicken. — Meghan McCarron
8700 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA
(310) 859-9859 | aocwinebar.com
WHAT: The legendary West Coast-style Jewish deli that rivals America’s best. WHY: There is no denying the allure of Langer’s, the daytime-only Jewish deli in historic Westlake. The family-run restaurant has held down the same corner for more than 70 years, seating hungry locals and tourists by the hundreds in the wood-paneled dining room while waitstaff flit past in white shirts and, for the men, bow ties. Nearly every table gets at least one iconic #19, the house-made pastrami and coleslaw behemoth that is on par with (or better than) anything New York City has ever produced. Others know to order the under-the-radar pastrami chili cheese fries, a newish nod to the city’s modern infatuation with photo-ready cuisine, and to its history of cultural cohabitation — especially when it comes to food. It’s a simple, delicious execution that explores Langer’s continued willingness to grow and to serve, even as the rest of the country largely leaves its Jewish deli roots behind. — Farley Elliot
704 S. Alvarado Street
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 483-8050 | langersdeli.com
Luv2Eat Thai Bistro
WHAT: The best pungent, tongue-numbing, face-burning southern Thai in Los Angeles, with a kitchen firing on all cylinders. WHY: Los Angeles’s Thai Town, located on the eastern side of Hollywood, is the densest collection of excellent Thai cooking in America. But the next wave of Los Angeles Thai is two miles away, in a restaurant opened by a pair of chefs, Noree Pla and Fern Kaewtathip, who hail from the beachy paradise of Phuket. Luv2Eat is both approachable and ambitious, where a warm welcome accompanies the chiles. What you’re here for are the pungent, spicy, utterly unique Southern Thai dishes like the crab curry, based on Pla’s mother’s recipe, or the “OMG!” papaya salad loaded with raw seafood and fermented fish sauce. Order dishes as hot as you can possibly stand — funk combined with blazing spice is what makes a meal here truly exceptional. — M.M.
6660 W. Sunset Boulevard P
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 498-5835 | luv2eatthai.com
WHAT: A mobile institution on the corner of Olympic and Dakota in the eastside Boyle Heights neighborhood, wowing locals, critics, and TV food stars with its famed shrimp taco and spicy tostadas since 2001. WHY: In the state with all the tacos, if you try just one it should be Raul Ortega and cook Martín Ramirez’s taco dorado, or golden taco, inspired by a crisp specialty of San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco. A shrimp filling is stuffed inside a corn tortilla that’s sealed and deep-fried, then finished with a fermented tomato salsa and a couple slices of spoon-cut avocado. The delicacy is best enjoyed with a brimming Styrofoam cup of seafood cocktail or the sweet, fiery, sangria-hued aguachile tostada. Joyfully eating seafood tacos and cool ceviches while seated on a concrete ledge is the epitome of Eastside LA’s endless summer. — Bill Esparza
3040 E. Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 528-6701 | facebook.com/mariscosjalicso
WHAT: A 225-square-foot embodiment of LA’s vast Armenian community, where grilled meat reigns supreme. WHY: Large platters of smoky, flame-kissed shish and lule kebabs constantly fill the three (yes, only three) tables at this aptly named restaurant tucked away on a residential street. The rice, the whipped garlic, the pear soda, the smiles, and the arguments are all part of the stunning show that owners Ovakim and Alvard Martirosyan put on every day, cooking for happy diners out of what amounts to a single grill and upright fridge. Dining in means rubbing elbows with the family, quite literally, and listening to stories of the old Armenia while modern America zips by outside. From a tiny seat in one small corner of the restaurant’s only room, it’s easy to pass an hour watching the majesty of big pots of Armenian ikra — eggplant caviar — cooking slowly over low flame, while Alvard flips fat skewers of beef over with a skilled flick of the wrist. Stay long enough, and you might even catch the happy couple dancing to whatever’s on the radio. It’s just that kind of family. — F.E.
313 1/2 W. Vine Street
(818) 244-1343 | mini-kabob.com
WHAT: Chef Niki Nakayama’s singular kaiseki restaurant, where she forges a cuisine melding her Japanese heritage and Californian upbringing. WHY: Nakayama blurs the lines between craft and art in cooking more poetically than any other chef in America. She follows the fundamental tenets of kaiseki dining (13 courses of rigorously seasonal ingredients highlighting different culinary techniques) but doesn’t overly fetter herself to tradition: Among sushi, sashimi, and steamed seafood presentations, she’ll also roll out her signature spaghettini with abalone, pickled cod roe, and truffles. The exceptionally caring staff propels the meal, including the superb sake pairings, seamlessly. The fame following a Chef’s Table episode devoted to Nakayama made reservations a pitiless process: Check the restaurant’s website on Sundays at 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) for slots three months in advance. — B.A.
3455 S. Overland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
(310) 836-6252 | n-naka.com
WHAT: The finest example of Korean-style barbecue in LA, period. WHY: Tabletop grilled meat has been, and always will be, one of the greatest celebration meals in Korean culture, but perhaps the ever-popular format has never had a better context than at Park’s BBQ in LA’s Koreatown. Boasting incredible, pristine beef in a variety of cuts in a sleek, though often smoke-filled, strip mall dining room, chef Jenee Kim elevates the format with some of the city’s best banchan and side dishes. Start with some thinly sliced kkotssal or prime-grade short rib, then splurge on even fattier American-grown wagyu beef. There’s a reason why this was the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place to eat in all of Los Angeles. — Matthew Kang
955 S. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 380-1717 | parksbbq.com
Pie ‘n Burger
WHAT: The California-style burger by which all others should be judged. WHY: In the mid-20th century, the Golden State helped popularize the burger construct adopted by fast-food chains and replicated around the nation: a well-griddled beef patty stacked on a billowy white bun and dressed with melted American cheese, lettuce, onion, sliced pickle, and a smear of tangy Thousand Island. Pie ‘n Burger opened in 1963, a generation younger than LA’s venerable burger classic Apple Pan. Day after day, decade after decade, the Pasadena time warp cranks out superior burgers: crunching, squishing, oozing marvels of architecture that stand as tall and as iconic as the Capitol Records Building. For In-N-Out devotees looking for temptation to stray from the ubiquitous chain to an indie survivor: The pie here is a fantastic bonus. Home in on seasonal fruit specials like strawberry, peach, and olallieberry. The place is cash-only; change is made from an old-timey register set atop a Formica counter. You get the picture. — B.A.
913 East California Boulevard
(626) 795-1123 | pienburger.com
WHAT: The casual wing of Nancy Silverton’s Mozza empire that doesn’t skimp on quality or face time with the chef herself. WHY: Outside of the original La Brea Bakery, there may be no better display of Nancy Silverton’s ability to bend the forces of bread to her will than the pizzas of Pizzeria Mozza, the easygoing arm of her sprawling collection of restaurants hugging the corner of Highland and Melrose avenues. (The group also includes an upscale Italian chophouse of sorts, the more refined Osteria Mozza, and a takeout counter, with Silverton tasting and instructing across each kitchen most nights.) At once airy, crispy, and full of hearty flavor from just the right amount of browning, her Pizzeria Mozza pies are an immaculate reflection of one chef at the top of her game. And as a James Beard winner for both pastry chef and outstanding chef, Silverton possesses the ability to make each pizza its own California calling card, a restrained ode to the produce and terroir that make this state such an incredible place to dine. Add in some Italian burrata, flown in weekly, and a crisp glass of California white wine to round out America’s most resonant Cal-Ital meal. — F.E.
641 N. Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 297-0101 | pizzeriamozza.com
WHAT: A world-class pastry destination that doubles as an ideal spot for a romantic dinner, family brunch, solo breakfast, or meeting. WHY: Margarita Manzke’s pastries alone, abundant and borderline obscene, sprawled along the long entrance counter, would merit a trip to République along LA’s historic Miracle Mile. But there are pleasures here beyond the petite and perfect cream-filled cornetti and rows of shining caneles and glazed bomboloni — like a luxurious burger-like breakfast sandwich, crisp, fresh salads, and, at night, local seafood, pastas, steaks, and cheese boards with bread fresh from the oven. République’s dinner satisfies, but the restaurant is best treated as the ultimate all-day neighborhood canteen. — Amanda Kludt
624 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
(310) 362-6115 | republiquela.com
WHAT: The counter-service cafe that revolutionized tradition-bound American breakfast and lunch. WHY: Sure, you could do it just for the ’gram. The thick brioche toast slathered in ricotta and painted with stripes of purple-hued jam, or the rice green with sorrel pesto and topped with pink watermelon radish, elegantly misshapen egg, and a curl of thick bacon, demand to be photographed as much as any other LA landmark. But visiting Sqirl just to photograph its famous dishes is like visiting Los Angeles to photograph the Hollywood sign. They symbolize the place, and they’re hardly the point. Jessica Koslow, Sqirl’s mastermind and owner, is one of the most creative chefs in the country, not just in how she cooks, but in her approach to restaurants as community hubs, vehicles for pleasure, and art. A tongue-in-cheek T-shirt for the restaurant reads, “The Center for Contemporary Breakfast and Lunch,” and there’s no better installation capturing where American food is headed in the 21st century. — M.M.
720 N. Virgil Avenue #4
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 284-8147 | sqirlla.com
WHAT: A quirky, tiny, game-changing tasting-menu restaurant, created by three Los Angeles powerhouses and concealed in a nondescript strip mall. WHY: Chef Ludo Lefebvre pioneered a culinary style I once dubbed New Romanticism: dishes rendered as beautiful, wild, geometric landscapes, conjuring as much emotion and whimsy as they do desire. With partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the chef-owners of Animal and several other LA sensations), Lefebrve keeps the ticketed prix fixe genre consistently fresh: Five courses (with plenty of extras) cross the table or dining counter at a smooth, well-paced clip. Flavor combinations can sound wholly bizarre — slices of eel over layers of white chocolate mashed potatoes and apples at a recent meal — and yet they make utter sense to the palate. The trio’s adjacent bistro, Petit Trois, arguably jump-started the resurgence of French cuisine currently gripping the country. But as both a casualizing and mind-opening force in American upscale dining, Trois Mec remains Lefebvre’s most revolutionary act. — B.A.
716 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 484-8588 | troismec.com
OTHER SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
WHAT: An oasis of welcome and no-pretense cooking in California’s high desert. WHY: In its solitude and its paradoxical ability to attract a colorful clientele, there’s a cinematic quality to La Copine. In 2015, East Coast transplants Claire Wadsworth and her wife Nikki Hill renovated a dilapidated diner off Highway 247 in the Flamingo Heights area of Yucca Valley. With little but cacti and mountains for company, their sun-drenched haven has nonetheless found the loyal and steady patrons it merits: Food-obsessed locals and vacationers drive the 45 minutes from Palm Springs without hesitation. Wadsworth charms her way through the dining room while Hill runs the kitchen, composing generous salads and turning out Americana paragons like a gloriously unwieldy BLT and righteous fried chicken over grits with pickled green tomatoes. Be aware of La Copine’s idiosyncratic hours: 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and the whole operation shuts down annually for the hot months of July and August. — B.A.
848 Old Woman Springs Road
Yucca Valley, CA
(760) 289-8537 | lacopinekitchen.com
WHAT: The standard-bearer for pho in Orange County’s Little Saigon, and a forefather of America’s Vietnamese restaurant industry. WHY: When Lieu Tran opened her restaurant in the town of Garden Grove in 1982, she hoped to provide a taste of home for the community of Vietnamese refugees that had concentrated in the area. As one of the earliest Vietnamese restaurants in America, Pho 79 helped create a blueprint for Vietnamese entrepreneurship in this country, from naming conventions to pricing to menu offerings. For the past three-and-a-half decades, crowds have descended upon the shop for tremendous bowls of pho dac biet brimming with brisket, tripe, and beef meatballs. Fixings can be added and subtracted based on individual tastes, but the broth — rich from long-simmered oxtails and fragrant from charred onions and star anise — is universally slurpable. While Tran has since retired, her recipes have been passed down to members of the family, who continue to prepare pho for the community with the same skill and dutiful sensibility. — Cathy Chaplin
9941 Hazard Avenue
Garden Grove, CA
(714) 531-2490 | pho79.com
WHAT: A Gujarati restaurant serving an endless, staggeringly delicious array of vegetarian dishes as an all-you-can-eat thali. WHY: Pioneer Boulevard, especially the stretch of it running through Artesia’s charming town center, is a hub of Indian-American groceries, sweets shops, and restaurants. Located on the second floor of a groovy ’90s-style shopping center, Radjhani specializes in thali, a collection of small bowls arrayed on a large metal tray, filled with appetizers, breads, soups, curries, and rice. Servers arrive with platters of dhokla (a fluffy chickpea cake), piles of hot rotis slick with ghee and freshly fried puri, and serving bowls of dal and complex spiced curries — and they continue to arrive, in an endless, friendly parade. The head chef, Ranjan Patel, is from India’s westernmost state of Gujarat, where this style of dining is popular, and her recipes are among the most subtle and complex interpretations of Indian cuisine in Southern California. A sign near the door exhorts diners to “leave your diet here!” and it’s good advice — you will depart wonderfully, utterly stuffed, and yet already dreaming of coming back for more. — M.M.
18525 Pioneer Boulevard
(562) 402-9102 | rajdhaniofartesia.com
WHAT: The casual vanguard of a culinary revolution that’s poised to transform the San Gabriel Valley — a suburban hub of Chinese culture just east of Los Angeles — from a repository of nostalgic regional cuisines into an American hotbed of creative Chinese cooking. WHY: The picture-book menu might give the impression of dumbed-down dishes for neophytes, but it is actuality a serious study of traditional Sichuan favorites and new-school concepts, prepared with ingredients of quality. Classics like cold noodles and mapo tofu faithfully retrace the familiar flavors from the ancestral province, while tea-smoked ribs masterfully coalesce a Pandora’s box of tastes and textures into a balanced whole. This isn’t your garden-variety Sichuan joint where boldness is defined only by how much red oil the chefs drape on top of your food. Rather, with each dish the kitchen choreographs a nuanced, history-laden ballet of heat, flavor, and soul. — Carl Chu
1900 W. Valley Boulevard
(626) 283-4622 | szechuanimpressioninc.com
WHAT: Orange County’s polestar for extraordinary corn-based Mexican cuisine, where the tortillas are both showpiece and mission statement. WHY: Chef-owner Carlos Salgado pulls from his time cooking haute cuisine in the Bay Area to reframe classic Mexican flavors. At night, the restaurant serves a four-course, $79 tasting menu: The ever-changing lineup might include a painterly enfrijolada (a folded tortilla lacquered with bean puree and perhaps filled with lavender-scented onions) or a volcano-shaped tamal blanketed in a sauce made from Gruyere and tempered with a bright puree of nettles. But the auteur is also a traditionalist, and the tensions in his talent are what makes Salgado and his food unique. Each day, his team grinds heirloom maize grown by small, independent farms in Mexico for the masa from which they make fragrant, inky-blue tortillas as well as other dishes. Proper tacos, spectacular as cradles for tempura-battered fish or come-hither blocks of pork belly, appear only at lunch — making Taco María’s daytime appeal a different though wholly equal experience. — B.A.
3313 Hyland Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA
(714) 538-8444 | tacomaria.com
Aqui es Texcoco
WHAT: Paco Perez’s 30-year-old family restaurant, specializing in pre-Hispanic Mexico-style pit-roasted whole lamb and its consomme. WHY: Shortly after opening his Chula Vista location in 2008, barbacoa enthusiast and mechanical engineer Paco Perez designed a patented oven to replicate the unique conditions found in an underground pit. Whether making tacos with tender, glistening hunks of lamb topped with pápalo (a wild Mexican herb); plucking the eyes, cheeks, and tongue from a whole sheep’s head; or digging into the iron-rich pancita (offal-stuffed stomach), this is the closest you’ll get in America to the earthen pit-roasted stuff found in Texcoco. And unlike there — where this kind of indulgence is for weekends only — Perez’s barbacoa is served all day, every day, along with gooey cups of legit pulque, imported from Mexico. — B.E.
Chula Vista, CA
(619) 427-4045 | aquiestexcoco.com
George’s at the Cove
WHAT: The venerated 30-year-old ocean-view restaurant, comprising three individual eateries in one multi-level space, anchored by fine dining stalwart George’s California Modern. WHY: Want to know, and eat, what’s in peak season in San Diego — home to the nation’s largest concentration of small farms? George’s is the largest wholesale client of Chino Farm, the local produce wonderland made famous by Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, and the menu at California Modern reflects what’s growing at any given time. Just-plucked vegetables shine on a Chino Farm crudite plate served with ramp ranch, crispy grains, and sourdough, or in a dish starring local celeriac with Madras curry soubise and lemongrass-carrot jus. And yes, it serves San Diego’s standard-bearing fish taco, but would much rather be known for its spot prawns with fennel and flowers or gougeres with Pacific stone crab “Louie” salad. George’s culinary team, led by chef and partner Trey Foshee, displays an intense singular-mindedness in propelling San Diego cuisine further into the state-wide spotlight. — Candice Woo
1250 Prospect Street
La Jolla, CA
(858) 454-4244 | georgesatthecove.com
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Pho 79 founder Lieu Tran had passed way; she merely retired, and the story has been updated to reflect that fact. Eater regrets the error.