Rosie Birkett discovers there’s far more to LA than the glitzy and glamorous five star eateries made famous by movie stars and semi-real-life television documentaries.
As you’d expect from the home of Hollywood: a place synonymous with creating and perpetuating illusions, LA is known for its artifice and glamour – and this is something that spills over into its dining scene.
Predictably, celebrity chefs and restaurateurs abound, charging top dollar for a slice of their dizzying status dining and the star-spotting that goes with it. But as well as the swank of places like Jose Andrés’ The Bazaar, and Wolfgang Puck’s CUT, if you can be bothered to search beyond the glossy veneer of its five star hotel lobbies, LA is brimming with more down-to-earth eateries, peddling fare to suit every appetite and budget – and reflecting the city’s diverse diasporas.
As well as hip, ingredient-focused restaurants like meat-obsessed Animal, molecular mecca Ink and hot Peruvian Picca (just named one of America’s best new restaurants by GQ), there’s been a well-documented street food revolution here since the recession, and you’ll find food trucks of every description parked up on the city’s wide boulevards, tapping into the appetite for more austere fare. You can pick up a gourmet fusion meal – such as the delicious Korean-meets-Mexican burrito at Kogi BBQ (@KogiBBQ) for less than what you’d spend on a drink in one of LA’s swankier haunts, or head to a Mexican neighbourhood to taste some of the best carnitas you’ll ever eat. You’ve got to know where to look though, so here’s a selection of LA food haunts that won’t leave you needing to land a starring role to pay for them…
Philippe’s French Dip Sandwich Shop
A trip to LA wouldn’t be complete without wrapping your mouth around one of the city’s speciality French dip sandwiches – a meaty feast crammed into a freshly baked French baguette that’s been dipped in the juices from the roast meats. Philippe’s is a local institution: it’s one of the original sandwich shops and just a stone’s throw away from Union Street Station. From the outside, the place looks like an old fashioned saloon, and inside sawdust strewn floors are trampled by queues of people waiting in line to pick up a tray loaded with bulging sandwiches, bowls of creamy coleslaw and thick slices of wobbling key lime pie. The back wall is illuminated with an array of neon signs, and presiding over the well-stocked glass counters are the Philippe servers, are all wearing classic fitted diner garb and responsible for assembling each customer’s meal. The house speciality of roast beef sandwiches with homemade mustard, pickles, homemade coleslaw, potato salad and lemonade comes highly recommended.
1001 N. Alameda St. Los Angeles, CA 90012
+1(213) 628 3781
If you’re looking for a slice of real old LA, but don’t have the budget for Chateau Marmont, you could do much worse than head to Rae’s Restaurant on Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, for a spot of breakfast. Rae’s is everything you’d hope for in a quintessential American diner – sporting a lurid turquoise exterior and ruby red banquettes which have given rise to some serious cinematic credentials (True Romance’s Clarence and Alabama share a pie and a first date here). But despite being immortalised on film, it’s as down to earth as it gets, with sticky menus and a mixed clientele of LA old timers and Angelenos hipsters all ploughing through stacks of buttermilk pancakes and sloppy pots of black coffee. The staff look like they’ve been working there since it started serving in 1958, and the prices are as retro as the decor, with most breakfasts costing no more than $5.50. Try the fluffy, slightly sweet pancakes with oodles of syrup, perfectly poached eggs and crumbly bacon washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and cups of thin, hot filter coffee.
2901 Pico Boulevard Santa Monica, CA 90405, United States
Just as London can boast the best Indian food outside of the subcontinent, so California can stake that claim for Mexican fare. Of course there are some conventional and poshed-up Mexican favourites in the city, but for a bite of a true Mexican shack, Carnitas Michoacan in up-and-coming Lincoln Heights, is just the place to make the most of the city’s proximity to its tastier Central American neighbour. Devour platters of birria (slow-braised goat meat) and carnitas (pork) with refried beans, rice and corn tortillas or well-laden tacos. A tray of fresh, authentic food big enough to feed two costs around six dollars, and is served from a little hatch in the wall, with big polystyrene cups of ‘horchata’ over ice – a delicious and fragrant drink of tamarind and cinnamon infused rice milk.
1901 North Broadway Los Angeles, CA 90031, United States
Cha Cha Chicken
This Santa Monica stalwart is a happy antithesis to the more expensive haunts of the area. Serving straight-up, colourful Caribbean beach shack fare – think whole jerk-spiced chickens with rice and peas – and boasting a BYO alcohol policy, this al fresco diner is brimming with atmosphere. Run by the Garcia family, Cha Cha chicken also dabbles in fusion cuisine, and is famed for its jerk chicken enchiladas, which combine the sweet, hot, sour flavours of Mexican and Jamaican fare to brilliant effect. Service is friendly, fun and the place is always heaving with youthful clientele enjoying the fact that most items on the menu cost under $10.
1906 Ocean Avenue Santa Monica, CA 90405, United States
Pho Cafe (Silver Lake)
Mexican and Korean are the obvious examples of LA’s ethnic cuisines, but good Vietnamese also reigns here, and slurping your way through a good bowl of pho in trendy Silver Lake’s Pho Cafe is a tasty way to try it. Like many things in this town, the restaurant is essentially set in a car park, next to a liquor store, but that doesn’t stop it being excellent, and is quite convenient for those who like their bun cha washed down with a crisp beer. The room itself is stylishly stark and corridor-like, with quirky light fittings and an open kitchen counter, and is usually heaving with hipsters from the local area, hungry for some fragrant, affordable fare.
2841 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026