So it’s time for my annual list of L.A.’s best simple restaurants. But what’s a “simple” restaurant anyway? It’s the kind of unpretentious, welcoming place we come back to over and over again. These are the kind of eateries to which you can bring your friends or out-of-town relatives, confident they’ll find something they’ll love–and can afford. The menu won’t have items like veal brains with vadouvon that might scare off your dinner date. At the same time, the cuisine will be original, distinctive and authentic. After all, simple doesn’t mean simple-minded.
There are literally dozens of places in Los Angeles that fit that description. And I haven’t tried them all. It was very difficult to narrow the list down to just 10, so I’ve also included some honorable mentions. You won’t go wrong with any of them.
A couple of years ago Charles Olalia was the executive chef at Patina, a marvelous L.A. restaurant, which is housed in the even-more-marvelous Disney Hall. He had command of a mighty kitchen, which served well-heeled patrons the cuisine of their dreams. He was on top of the Los Angeles culinary world. That’s when he decided to give it all up, and open a tiny restaurant, RiceBar, serving the Filipino food of his childhood.
RiceBar is the smallest restaurant you’ve ever seen. It’s literally a hole in the wall. The total space is 275 square feet. Kim Kardashian’s closet is bigger than that. But this labor of love is the embodiment of simple elegance. Try the Chicken Tinola, pictured below, a fragrant bowl of chicken stock with ginger, rice and papaya, or the Pork Longganisa, with sweet and spicy sausage, pickled vegetables and fried garlic chips. You’ll instantly understand why this talented master chef decided to return to his roots. And you’ll be glad he did.
9. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Gus’s Fried Chicken is the kind of place that’s so good you’re glad you don’t live nearby. If I did, a gastric bypass, not to mention a coronary bypass, would be in my immediate future. But this gloriously spicy, tender, juicy chicken with just the right amount of crunch is definitely worth an extra workout, and maybe a trip to the cardiologist. The only competition this joint has for the crown of best fried chicken comes from Honey’s Kettle, and, right now, I just can’t decide which is better. I’ll have to return to both to settle the issue. As a public service, of course.
This chain of restaurants is at the forefront if a welcome culinary trend–healthy fast food. But that wouldn’t be worth a mention if the food wasn’t excellent. From the Harvest Salad, with local fruit, artisanal cheeses and Scarborough farms lettuce, to the warm plates, like the Herb Brushed Albacore with sea salt and lemon olive oil, you’ll never regret giving up your Gordita or McRib when dining here.
What’s up with all the chain restaurants on this list? Frankly, if all restaurants lived up to the standard of impeccable service, splendid fare and casually elegant ambience of this chain, we’d all be eating out a lot more often. And their Hawaiian Rib-Eye is still among the finest steaks I’ve ever had.
6. Taco Maria
Taco Maria sounds like the kind of joint you go to on a Saturday afternoon, hoping to score a fat burrito or a few taquitos with some green stuff on them that kinda looks like guacamole. Fact is, Taco Maria is a pretty darn fancy place. At dinner, you’ll find a prix fixe menu with wine pairings. And at brunch, my favorite, they serve a three-course menu featuring tiny buttermilk pancakes with thyme syrup and fig jam, chilaquiles with queso cotija and oatmeal with strawberries and vanilla butter. There are tacos at lunch, but even those are extraordinary–carnitas with pork cheek and stone fruit and chicken with mole and queso fresco. But the best of all is the bacon with piloncillo glaze, the fattest, sweetest slab of pork on the planet. You’ll never go back to Farmer John.
The problem I had with this Texas BBQ joint is that the meat so tender and went down so smoothly that I barely remember eating it. I recall the arrival of the large platter of charred, perfectly smoked meat at my table. The next thing I remember is sitting in front of a pile of bones on a platter. I don’t remember too much in between. From that simple fact alone, I’m certain the whole experience went very, very well, but I’ll have to go back to confirm.
4. Sycamore Kitchen
Sycamore Kitchen is a humble place with aristocratic DNA. It’s basically a brunch and dessert counter, created by master chefs. The owners are Quinn and Karen Hatfield, the proprietors of the late and great Hatfield’s, which closed a couple of years ago. So even though the menu is simple–Cinnamon Brioche French Toast, Eggs Benedict, Pork Belly Hash–the execution is sophisticated. Try the scrambled egg and chorizo sandwich, served on a grilled house-made bun that’s slightly burnt on the edges. And, whatever you do, please try the Rice Crispy Cookie, which is every bit as good as it sounds.
3. Cafe Birdie
Cafe Birdie was recently reviewed on these pages, so I won’t go into much detail here. This is one of those places that works as a charming neighborhood joint, but is also worth a trip from wherever you call home. The food is much like L.A.–touched by a myriad of influences which combine to create a wondrous, unique experience.
Chef Esdras Ochas has created a restaurant that’s the perfect reflection of Los Angeles–full of sunshine, great Mexican food, and with a palm tree planted smack dab in the middle. Everything is so wonderful here that it’s easy to forget that you’re sitting in an industrial district, eating food cooked up in a forsaken auto mechanic’s garage. Splendid grilled meat and tasty alcoholic beverages tend to have that welcome effect.
Republique is the only place I reviewed twice on these pages. It’s worth a couple more. On one hand, it’s the complete opposite of #10 RiceBar–at Republique, the seating and the menu are expansive. On the other hand, it’s very similar. Both Walter Manzke, chef at Republique, and Charles Olalia, chef at RiceBar, once cooked at Patina. Both restaurants were created by people who could easily be cooking at fancier places, earning Michelin stars. And both are characterized by dishes that reflect the marriage of skill and passion which forms the basis of all true art.
Some of these restaurants were just slightly too sophisticated, expensive or challenging to be placed on a list of simple restaurants (like Redbird and Broken Spanish). Others I just didn’t get to in 2016 (like Mercado and Mozza). I went to a few early in the year, before I started the blog (like Bestia). I’m sure some of them will find their way onto the mid-year top ten list.
- Honey’s Kettle (I was simply too embarrassed to place two fried chicken joints on the list!)
- Salt’s Cure
- Maple Block
- Ramos House
- Trois Familia
- Jon and Vinny’s
- MB Post
- Bulgarini Gelato
- Broken Spanish
- Dog Haus (the absolute wurst!)
- Mendocino Farms
- The Counter
- Vaka Burger Express
- Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen
- Faith and Flower
Places I can’t wait to try in 2017
- Honey Hi (I just like the name)
- Cauldron Ice Cream
- Manuela’s DTLA
- Preux & Proper
- Maple at Descanso Gardens
Many thanks to all who followed my journey in 2016. May you find love, peace and simplicity in 2017!