California is now the most influential force in American dining. That’s right, it isn’t New York. Not any longer. Sure, the great city will always produce blockbusters and occasional, wonderful novelties; Queens is an undervalued wonderland of cuisines. But NYC, as an engine of influence, is stagnant. This is a time in Manhattan to fall back in love with neighborhood trattorias. And I’m not the only one who finds it sluggish.
Instead, this is California’s moment. Its brightest food minds are now the ones shepherding what shows up on plates nationwide; they advance the cuisines to which we gravitate. This West Coast cogency is a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, California has for decades been the paradise of plenty, the Left Coast frontier from which chefs, farmers, and dreamers espoused the seasonal, local, farm-to-table philosophy that is now rote. But it has long been New York’s culinary talent — and its relentless media machine — that disseminated the ideas that defined restaurant culture across the country.
Now, with a reach that spans the continent, California holds the space for both deep tradition and wild experimentation. It is the most powerful force in food today. I know this in my marrow. As Eater’s national critic for over four years, I wander some corner of this land nearly every week. But constantly I find myself wanting to return to California, not only to revel in the obvious (but still radical) freshness of its food, but also to witness the unbridled creativity coming out of its two major cities.
What led to such a shift in the poles? What exact combination of factors makes the best of California’s chefs so collectively, thunderously super-charged right this moment? I recently embarked on a month-long journey, nearly covering the state’s entirety. These questions burned behind every mile and every meal.
I began to dwell on all this during the first evening of the trip, as I sat wedged into a snug space along the cedar counter at Rintaro, a 4-year-old Japanese izakaya on a quieter block in San Francisco’s Mission District. In a meal full of high notes (just-set soft tofu over soy milk scented with scallion and ginger; skewer after skewer of smoky yakitori chicken) it was chef-owner Sylvan Mishima Brackett’s chiizu tori katsu — a cheese-stuffed fried chicken breast cutlet — that won the night.
It crunched and gushed in extreme, and extremely satisfying, contrasts, but its components hinted at something deeper at work: The fine, filigreed panko came from loaves baked by Berkeley’s renowned Acme Bread Company. The cheese is Wagon Wheel, a sharp, medium-firm aged variety made vaguely like Asiago by Cowgirl Creamery, the Bay Area’s celebrity dairy (because such things can exist in California).
This concerto of textures represents a distinctly Californian trait propelling the state’s culinary ascent: There’s an assured ebb and flow between tradition and innovation here — between honoring a cuisine’s foundations while also incorporating new ideas for the delicious joy of it. This confidence to poke holes in fossilized notions of cuisine and convention leads to a heightened sense of collaboration. It facilitates the meetings of engaged, ambitious minds so rife in the state’s food culture.
I encountered many other superb examples of this phenomenon across the state: malawach (Yemeni fried bread) served with a zhoug (spicy condiment) made from famed Harry’s Berries strawberries at the brand-new Bavel in Los Angeles. Sopes filled with California sturgeon caviar and crema at Gabriela Cámara’s Cala in San Francisco. Nancy Silverton’s calling-card LA pizza, flecked golden-green with squash blossoms and dolloped with locally made burrata.
Even, in its perfectly California way, Ludo Lefebvre’s Big Mec cheeseburger at his Petit Trois, which sits across busy Melrose Avenue from Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza. This knife-and-fork monster roars all-American in its gloppiness, which Lefebvre stokes with foie gras, bordelaise sauce and caramelized onions — all touchstones of his native French cuisine.
I don’t pluck out these exemplars randomly. Japanese, Mexican, French, Middle Eastern, Italian: These are the cuisine trends currently conquering America. All of them, in some way, have come from California. The state’s love of Mexican, Japanese, and Middle Eastern flavors ushers forth from the purest wellspring of culinary revelation: its longstanding immigrant communities. Their cooking slowly migrated into the state’s populist tastes, and now has serious currency among the nation’s food-obsessed. Also, California shares geographic traits with Italy’s Mediterranean coast; that’s an easy, enduring link.
I’d argue that Lefebvre singlehandedly started the country’s Francophile revival with Petit Trois, which opened in 2014; the fever boomeranged to Manhattan and rippled across the continent. Le Coucou in SoHo came along two years later: It’s glittering and wonderful and also instrumental in the country’s Gallic renaissance. It was Lefebvre, however, who kicked off the whole shebang.
But there’s more to California’s rise than trending cuisines and exalted cultural collusions. I drove its highways, gaped at the Pacific, and fell silent in its mountains. But no matter what corner I visited — whether I was chasing fantastic pie in Sacramento or lamb’s head barbacoa in San Diego, if I was following up on tips for a righteous BLT in Santa Barbara County or even-Southerners-will-approve fried chicken in the high desert — I was drawn back again and again to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The once-blazing rivalry between the Northern and Southern parts of the state is slowly fading into the sunset, as its two urban centers develop ever-more common traits. On yet another drive down Highway 101, I asked myself: Is this the key to California’s newfound dominance? The conceptual and ideological fault that’s so long divided LA and SF has begun to close; each has achieved global financial clout, and neither is seeking validation from the East Coast. On its own each city has culinary strengths and shortcomings, but taken together they are a gastronomic juggernaut, all-powerful in the face of their stagnant competition on the other side of the Mississippi.
At this moment in their individual evolutions, the California siblings complement each other ideally. The Bay Area’s tech boom has infused it with so much capital that it easily ranks as America’s fine dining epicenter. Sorry, Chicago: You’ve got some luxury standouts, but your growing seasons, stunted by comparison, can’t compete.
Boom times, I should add, drive the confidence and the audacity. Between tech executives and rapt tourists, San Francisco and its environs have an audience willing to support creative extremes and lofty ingredients no matter the price.
It’s been widely reported, including by me, that this has driven plenty of SF’s creative class across the Bay Bridge to Oakland. I mean this as nothing but a compliment, Oakland, but the metamorphosis of your dining scene, in its astounding ethnic diversity and its unflagging support of independents, is starting to remind me an awful lot of Los Angeles.
LA. My god. The immensity of choice, the staggering breadth of excellence. I began one recent morning with birria de chivo — roasted goat, the sole specialty at Birrieria Nochistlan — whose broth was as profound and as brooding as Rachmaninoff’s harmonies. Lunch was tea-leaf salad, a chicken rendang riff sparkling with lemongrass and sweet spices, and Sichuan-style pork dumplings at Lukshon. At Shunji for dinner, the omakase careened through tapered lobes of seasonal fish, some over vinegared rice and some not, as well as dishes like corn custard with uni and truffles. It’s but one of scores of stellar options that make LA the zenith for sushi and Japanese dining in the Western Hemisphere.
I could have mixed and matched combinations for similarly uplifting eating days for weeks. The City of Angels is a gastronomic Legoland. You can do this hopping around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, too, but then the argument comes back to ingredients: The raw building blocks on the East Coast don’t have the same life force.
So collectively, Los Angeles and the Bay Area project out into the world enlightened multiculturalism, casual confidence, quality born from exceptional farming, freethinking (dishes can taste of a specific village in Mexico or a chef’s tinkerings; if it truly hangs together both are okay!), luxury, and accessibility.
This sounds broad, I know, but I now clearly recognize these fused elements as Californian when I, increasingly, encounter them elsewhere: at Jean-George Vongerichten’s global-minded Manhattan vegetarian restaurant; at a daring soba enclave in Seattle that serves broccolini tempura with parmesan and miso-anchovy aioli; at hot new Chicago blockbuster Pacific Standard Time where the chef, Erling Wu-Bower, takes cues from his West Coast upbringing and the immigrant cooking of his mother, accomplished chef and journalist Olivia Wu. The essence of California’s messaging dissolves rigidity; it whittles away at the cultural notions of them versus us. It urges chefs to find their own somewhereness in the foods they serve.
Other questions peppered my mind as I ate through the state. Is California’s dining ethos so energized because of the state’s economic engine? (Its domestic gross product is the fifth-largest in the world: It generated $2.7 trillion between 2016 and 2017, besting the United Kingdom.) Are the mythical qualities that have made California a promised land for generations of artists and innovators and entrepreneurs resounding through its restaurant industry like never before? Is the brilliance fueled by a more-sophisticated-than-ever dining public’s rapt engagement? Or is it driven by panic from the astronomical cost of doing business in California?
It’s all these things, and a hundred other hard-to-pinpoint dynamics. Maybe it all comes down to the undeniable magic of California. But then, I’m typing this from an apartment in Brooklyn, where I’m not only missing the specific blue of the Pacific sky but also hankering for cheese-filled katsu and a truly ripe pluot.