A couple weeks ago, the Frenchman and I flew to Los Angeles for a quick long weekend. It was my first visit, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was desperate for a little sunshine, though, and really looking forward to seeing old friends. True to fashion, I also compiled a laundry list of restaurants I wanted to try.
We managed to pack quite a few activities into a short span of time; nonetheless, the trip was brief, and I feel like we only scratched the surface. I am still unpacking my thoughts about LA, but I wanted to share my impressions, experiences, and favorite places to eat, in the hope that this information will prove useful to future visitors. (Also, these travel records are useful for myself—-I have the memory of a guppy, and I don’t want to forget!)
Farmers Markets–We visited two in three days. I could not believe the produce–favas, snap peas, tomatoes, zucchini–items we will not see in New York for months. I can only imagine what access to this kind of abundance year round-ish would do to my cooking and eating habits. The Frenchman and I found ourselves ordering salads at nearly every meal–so bright, so fresh. They were just what we wanted. Also–citrus, so many varieties of citrus–and avocado at the farmers market. At the farmers market! It was like seeing zebras on the subway. I cradled a handful all the way home, and they were the most deeply flavored avocados I ever tasted.
The Weather–Sunny, but also hazy. I am accustomed to strong, direct light here, but in LA, everything felt strangely out of focus, as if the light was traveling through a color-washed filter.
The Flora and Fauna–I loved the hedges popping with electric flowers, the climbers, the succulents. Every time we passed a citrus tree, I made a kind of giddy squeal, which I’m sure wasn’t annoying or off-putting in the slightest. I shake my head at the French tourists who photograph squirrels when visiting New York, but I was just as bad: stopping to shoot the cacti outside a bank, getting right up close to the lime tree outside the ice cream shop. Ahlala.
Doughnuts–According to my friend, who is from LA but spent many years in New York before moving back, doughnuts are LA’s version of a New York bagel. On the morning we drove from Santa Monica to Zuma Beach, she took us to their local doughnut shop, open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The store looked like it had been built in the 1970s, and then not updated since. We bought far too many doughnuts, and I enjoyed every sugar-spiked bite.
City Planning–In that the Frenchman and I felt there wasn’t any. I knew LA was spread out, but I was struck by how bizarrely the “neighborhoods” were organized–a strip mall next to a residential building next to a highly trafficked road next to the Chateau Marmont. I think this is why I liked Santa Monica and Venice (although not so much Venice Beach) the best–the town layout made the most sense to me. There was a main street. I could walk around.
Where to Eat:
* I will mention as a disclaimer: I was only in LA for a few days; I’m sure I missed so many gems. I only included the spots I really loved and would recommend without reservation. This is as much a record for myself as it is a guide for others. If you live in Los Angeles, I’d love to hear your opinions about my finds (or better yet, what I didn’t find) in the comments. This is where I went and what I saw in April 2014; if you find a broken link to a closed restaurant sometime in the future, I apologize.
On a Thursday night, the restaurant was full and buzzing and although we were an hour early for our reservation, the hostess seated us promptly at the bar. The store is shades of industrial-chic–towering ceilings, exposed pipes, dark metals, but the staff is knowledgable, helpful, and unpretentious. A petit plate of boquerones arrived piping hot, balanced by saffron, honey, and espelette. “El Pesco” was a tasty mess of a sandwich–naan folded over a crisp shrimp patty, sauced liberally with slaw, sriracha, and chive dressing. And I must repeat a cucumber salad tangled with fennel and radish, coated in cool-sour goat cheese yogurt and habanero. Seared albacore sounded pedestrian, but the tuna was dreamily sweet, dotted with capers, and nestled between blood orange and grapefruit segments awash in a soft lemon-brown butter vinaigrette. To finish, we ordered a densely nutty pistachio cheesecake, served in a teacup. Every plate was expertly balanced, and I would return in a second.
Huckleberry serves a large selection of breakfast items, entrees, sandwiches, salads, and sweets. We arrived in the middle of a bustling lunch service, but the staff is organized and helped us find a table quickly. The food here is a prime example of the vibrant, produce-forward dishes I now associate with great LA cuisine. The Frenchman chose marinated peppers, burrata, and prosciutto piled into a baguette, while I had a bacon, tomato, avocado, arugula, and aioli sandwich on country bread. Neither sandwich reinvents the wheel, but both were exemplary versions of a classic. We shared an orzo and broccolini salad, as well as pea shoots, asparagus, and sun golds. Both were wonderful–so light and bright and vegetable-y, which sounds ridiculous, unless you spent the winter in a polar vortex.
Sweet Rose has been on my radar for some time. They make their ice cream entirely from scratch, which is uncommon in the business. I think it shows dedication to quality. The Frenchman ordered a cup of dark chocolate, while I opted for olive oil on a wafer cone. The olive oil flavor was a bit muted, but nonetheless delicious. I also sampled basil, which was too brashly herbal for me personally. Both flavors were really successful from a nerdy, technical perspective. The staff could not have been friendlier or more accommodating.
Perhaps this is a hallmark of Los Angeles dining, but–the store is wedged in the middle of an unassuming street (we actually walked right by it). Inside, it is faintly nautical; at first glance, it could be your average, casual New England restaurant. But then the food started to arrive: Hamachi with galbi vinaigrette, pink lady apple, and radish sprouts. A salad of citrus, kohlrabi, avocado, watercress, and spring onion. A compact square of shrimp toast, buttery with sriracha mayo, bright with herbs and hoisin. And maybe the best, most succulent fried chicken sandwich I have ever eaten, served on a brioche bun with plenty of slaw, spicy pickles, and rooster aioli. For dessert, bananas with a thin, buttery smear of butterscotch pudding and cream. Every dish was balanced really well, and the menu really took full advantage of California products. The service was very good, although the wine list was on the expensive side.
I asked my friend to pick one Mexican spot for us to try–limited time and all–and she brought us to Guisados. We arrived to find a line snaking out the door, but it moved quickly, and in the meantime we watched cooks expertly roll, flatten, and cook corn tortillas through the window as we waited. Guisados makes tacos, about twenty different kinds, broken into Beef, Pork, Chicken, Veggie, and Seafood varieties. I opted for the sampler, which I recommend–it comes with six mini tacos. The meat braises were deep and richly flavored, while the sauces and toppings brought acid and balance. Guisados makes their food with care, and the results are damn delicious.
This is the kind of restaurant I wanted to experience while in LA, because it simply could not exist in New York. The physical structure is half open, like the coolest canteen you have ever seen. Glass, wood, tile; dish and stemware that would be at home in the hippest tablescape photo shoot. We went for brunch and the staff was friendly, attentive, knowledgable. The Frenchman ordered my favorite dish on the table: a thick boat of toasted sourdough, half drenched with rich and spicy Mexican chorizo. On top of that, a sunny-side egg. The whole thing jeweled with a mince of green tomato pico de gallo and scallions. I must recreate it at home soon. Otherwise, a side of biscuits came generously dolloped with kumquat preserves, while “braised bacon” was juicy, fatty, wonderful–what I want in every bowl of ramen from now on. Ask for a seat at the bar, to better watch the chefs move around the open kitchen.
California hipster heaven, and that goes for both the staff and the customers. GTA serves salads, sandwiches, pizza, “Plates” (entrees, really), and a few portable desserts. I was in need of an airplane picnic, so I took a turkey sandwich with avocado, red onion, cucumber, arugula, dijon aioli, oregano, served on sesame whole wheat that did not really hold up. We had better luck with fennel salami and sopressata on a baguette. A pile of romanesco came (heavily) sauced with tahini, pine nuts, and sultanas. We shared a chocolate chip cookie. The pizza looked the best, although we did not try it. The service was slow, considering how many staff labored behind the counter.
Didn’t Have Time to Visit, But Recommended by Locals:
Wurstkuche (lunch or dinner), Ace Hotel (brunch or dinner), Handsome Coffee (coffee) Bread Lounge (lunch), Honeycut (drinks), Daily Dose Cafe (lunch), Animal (dinner), Hart & The Hunter (lunch), Umami Burger (lunch), Father’s Office (dinner), Osteria Mozza / Pizzeria Mozza (dinner), Republique (dinner), Trois Mec (dinner), Barnyard (dinner), Gjelina (all day), Melisse (dinner), Kogi Truck (any hour), Honor Bar (lunch), Jinya Ramen (lunch or dinner), Ink (dinner), Ink.Sak (lunch), Pagliaccis (lunch or dinner), AOC (lunch or dinner), Park’s BBQ (lunch or dinner), Maude (dinner), Chego! (any time), Grand Central Market (breakfast or lunch), Nagao (lunch or dinner), Lemonade (lunch), Toscana (dinner), Fritto Misto (lunch or dinner), Versailles (lunch or dinner), Soowon Galbi KBBQ (lunch or dinner), Church & State (lunch or dinner), Night + Market (lunch or dinner), Bestia (dinner)–We actually did eat here. It is a very “hot” restaurant right now, but I did not love it. The atmosphere, service, and food were all good, but with so many other restaurants to choose from, I did not feel I needed to return there.
What to do:
Drive up the coast to Zuma Beach: On Sunday morning, we drove from Santa Monica to Zuma Beach. It was a lovely drive along a rocky coastline. The beach itself stretches enormous and flat–I am used to the tight, duned beaches on the east coast. We walked up and down the sand, following surfers and swimmers far braver than I. Next time, I might pack a picnic.
Hike Paseo Miramar: It was an odd realization: if I lived in LA, I might never endure the monotony of a treadmill again, not when trails like Paseo Miramar exist. The hike is a fairly vigorous five miles, but beautiful, dotted with plants and flowers and sweeping views of the mountains and the ocean. The summit rewards a spectacular view of the ocean far below. (We did have some trouble finding it initially. Type 899 Paseo Miramar, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272 into your GPS and you will be good to go.)
Walk around Santa Monica and Venice: I enjoyed these neighborhoods best, probably because they resembled neighborhoods I actually recognized as such. I found both to have charming main streets, and it was lovely to be so close to the beach. I loved the small bungalows of Santa Monica, and the modern, pastel and glass versions in Venice. The canals of Venice are worth a look, although the beach was on par with Times Square–gaudy and packed–and it was not my favorite.