This week, Eater published a colossal project: The Essential Guide to Eating California, shepherded by travel editor Lesley Suter. If you’ve read any of these recent newsletters, you know I spent nearly two months throughout spring ambling the state. I doubt, with all sincerity, that I’ll ever eat better during a long-term national project in my career.
As with other undertakings in our “Regional 38” series (we most recently tackled Texas), my central assignment in California was leading the charge to identify the state’s 38 essential restaurants. I remind myself daily what a privilege this job is… but also, this kind of task is tortuous and next to impossible. Lesley and I spent literal days debating this list; we went back again and again to check our thinking with the entrenched and richly opinionated Eater staffers who live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.
I wholly stand by our final roster, but I’ve never felt so exasperated by the limitations of the number 38. (Why 38? There’s no question I get asked more in my travels. Eater co-founders Lockhart Steele and Ben Leventhal liked to say it meant nothing. I tell myself it’s a distinct, satisfying number between 25 and 50, and that “Eater 38” has a nice alliteration.)
So I gave myself permission to imagine what the list might have looked like with 50 slots to fill. Here are a dozen more restaurants I love:
Mourad: Here, chef-owner Mourad Lahlou, a native of Marrakesh, merges the techniques and ingredients of his motherland and Northern California. I most crave his nods to Moroccan cuisine like duck confit and his couscous crowned with whatever vegetables and meats most inspire at the moment. (And I still miss his more overtly Moroccan restaurant, Aziza in SF’s Richmond district, a favorite when I lived in the city last decade.)
State Bird Provisions: Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski adopted cart service as homage to San Francisco’s love of dim sum; that’s only the beginning of their respectful, intersectional cooking that bridges and tunnels through myriad cuisines. Securing a reservation is ridiculously difficult; I’ve always had luck showing up early or late.
Californios: At Val Cantu’s tiny tasting-menu restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, he distills and unites the culinary influences of his Mexican heritage, Texas upbringing, and California home. His tres frijoles dish — the most haute expression of the humble bean imaginable, caviar included, is on its own worth the admission, which is $187 per person (midrange by Bay Area tasting menu standards).
Kin Khao: Wedged into one corner on the Parc 55 hotel near San Francisco’s Union Square, Pim Techamuanvivit’s restaurant delivers Thai flavors in their fullest, fieriest, most nuanced grandeur. Notable for lunch in an area where great daytime dining options are slim, but even better for dinner, when the menu greatly expands with dishes like rabbit green curry.
Gjusta: Some of my Eater colleagues complain openly about the setup of this deli-ish hybrid in Venice; take a number and while you wait, peruse counters filled with pizzas and salads and pastries and smoked fish and charcuterie and more, trying to settle on some choices. I agree the system — and the crowds — can be maddening, but once you find your place in the bionetwork, the scene can be energizing and the food so California delicious. Porchetta melt, people. Porchetta melt.
Night + Market: Thai dining culture in Los Angeles is rich and expansive; chef-owner Kris Yenbamroong reaches deep into the lexicon of Northern Thai street food, marking dishes with his stamp as an aficionado and sociologist. Start with a salad of fried larb “meatballs” (made from pork meat, liver, and blood) and take it from there.
Coni’Seafood: There’s so much astounding Mexican food in Los Angeles. Connie Cossio’s seafood restaurant specializes in recipes from the western state of Nayarit. The grilled whole snook feeds four and draws the most attention on social media (ahem), but start with the shrimp ceviche and maybe throw in some marlin tacos.
Lunasia: I poinpointed Lunasia as the pinnacle dim sum experience in the San Gabriel Valley after eating many dumplings and noodles and baos and egg tarts. When it came to the agony of narrowing down this list, it was a standoff between here and Koi Palace in Daly City, just south of SF. Koi Palace made the cut… but you should still join the lines here for some terrific dim sum.
Bob’s Well Bread Bakery: Central Coasters I know like to brag that this is their Tartine. It’s worth a detour into Los Alamos (a small town about 45 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara) for a breakfast and lunch menu built around Bob Oswaks’s incredible breads. I’m longing for the BLT right now, with a canelé for dessert.
TJ Oyster Bar: Okay, so in San Diego we told you where to go for ocean-side fine dining and lamb’s head barbacoa. But you really want to know where to go for a fish taco, right? This is my answer: TJ Oyster Bar resides in a strip mall in Bonita, a town about 12 miles from central San Diego. Two locations exist nearby one another; go to the original (at 4246 Bonita Rd.) that holds only 17 seats. Here’s your gorgeous crescent of battered tilapia plucked directly from the fryer, draped over a corn tortilla, and cooled by cabbage, chopped tomato, and a streak of crema.
Lawry’s the Prime Rib and House of Prime Rib: Again, no regrets on our decisive list, but I am personally sad that we couldn’t squeeze in more old-school California, of which I’m a fan. Case in point: the flagship Lawry’s the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, first opened in 1938, and the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, founded in 1949. Their focus is obvious; the menus strikingly similar. Both are wonderful. I’ll have more to say about each one of them — and a restaurant in a similar vein that I may prefer over both — in another story.
Yeah. California really is the best.
Your roving critic,