LA isn’t exactly the most tourist-friendly city in the world, but that doesn’t mean we’re void of tourist traps. In fact, we’ve got plenty. And when all your friends and family and old college roommates who you have nothing in common with anymore come to visit because it’s winter where they live, you’re going to be spending a lot of time at them. You can’t avoid your visitors and their need to photograph every star on the Walk of Fame, but you can avoid the terrible that finds its way into these kinds of places. For every concerningly-pink $14 hot dog, there are a few places down the block that are actually serving good food. Tip: Go to them. And use this as your guide.
santa monica pier/third street promenade
After a few hours of watching once-wholesome families fall apart in public, you need a drink and some comfort food. Skip all the overpriced and aggressively lame bars in downtown Santa Monica and head to Cha Cha Chicken instead. This order-at-the-window Jamaican spot has absolutely fantastic food, a great patio to soak up the sun your visitors came for, and a beer and wine BYOB policy that’s as relaxed as you’ll find on the Westside.
You’ve walked the length of the Promenade more times than you can count, and your friends are finally done watching that street performer with the sad monkey. Now you get to pick lunch. Don’t waste your time looking for decent affordable food in the packed outdoor mall, because there is none. Instead, head a few blocks away to Wexler’s. This place serves excellent bagels, pastrami sandwiches, and other deli classics, and you won’t have to wait an hour to get them.
If you’re on vacation in America and don’t have a burger at least once, you haven’t really been on vacation in America. And this little spot a couple of blocks from the beach is the best place in Santa Monica to get one. The burgers are old-school (patties griddled within an inch of their life, cheese, lettuce, onion jam, and ketchup) and small enough that you’ll have room for their excellent key lime pie after.
You’re not sure if you’re just having a mental breakdown or that’s real Christmas music playing over the loudspeaker in September, but either way, you need to get out of the Grove immediately and bury yourself in a sandwich. Luckily, Canter’s is right up the street. This Jewish deli is an LA classic with pastrami that’s almost as good as the people-watching.
You got lost for hours in the American Girl Place and suddenly it’s 7pm and you’re in need of dinner. Skip the options inside The Grove and take a walk (or a very LA Uber) down to Son of a Gun on West 3rd St. It’s a seafood spot from the guys behind Animal and Jon & Vinny’s that serves one of the best fried chicken sandwiches in town. It’s casual, loud, and a fun place to come with a crew. Mostly so you can try everything on the menu.
The crushing realization that Hollywood is a very different place than what it looks like on TV during The Oscars is setting in. You’re starving and the only thing you can see is a Popeye’s and a bacon-wrapped hot dog cart owned by the rip-off Dora The Explorer. But hidden from most tourists’ eyes is Crying Tiger, the takeout window a block off Hollywood Blvd. on Hudson that’s serving some of the best Thai food you can find in Hollywood. Warning: Spice levels can get intense here, so bring some water. Dora probably has some.
You didn’t see a single celebrity on your Star Homes tour, and you’re too upset to even go looking for Ryan Gosling’s name on the Walk of Fame. If you need to eat your feelings, go to Stout. This pub-style burger and beer spot just off Hollywood might look like every other middling joint in the neighborhood, but Stout is the real deal. The burgers are actually good, the beer list is extensive, and the space is usually full but never insanely crowded. Once you’ve downed an IPA and filled up on their burger and onion rings, you might even feel ready to get back out there and find a Kardashian.
Did you stand in line for 20 minutes at that place in the Hollywood & Highland mall until you were in the right spot to see the Hollywood sign? Did you look at it and think “that’s it?” We’re not sure why that’s supposed to be the best place to get a good view of LA’s landmark, but if you’re looking for something prettier, go to the rooftop at Mama Shelter and gaze upon the beautiful sprawl. The colorful bar/restaurant has foosball tables, good cocktails, and lots of plates to share.
If you’ve come to LA to boost your social following, then your next logical stop - after exhausting all your blogger poses against the Paul Smith wall on Melrose - is to go find some food to take photos of. Luckily, Croft Alley is a short walk away and while it will look very nice in a photo (a charming indoor courtyard, string lights, wood tables), this place also has excellent sandwiches and salads that taste good too. Get the turkey banh mi.
It took you half an hour to find parking up at the observatory, and then still managed to get a parking ticket. Take yourself to Mustard Seed in Los Feliz. This tiny sidewalk cafe on Hillhurst is calm and relaxing and the perfect place to decompress while watching everyone wait for a table at Alcove across the street. Their menu is large and filled with all the sandwiches and salads you need to get your weekend back on track.
Little Dom’s is an Eastside staple and the perfect spot to grab some food after taking 63 jumping photos in front of the Hollywood sign until you got the one you liked. This low-key neighborhood Italian spot has fantastic food across the board, but if you go during the day and don’t get the breakfast pizza, you’re living a lesser life. Also, if you’re at Griffith for the sunset, Little Dom’s makes a great date spot afterwards.
Three hours of unshaded hiking while the sun seared the back of your neck has rendered your body immobile. Sit yourself at The Trails, Griffith’s tiny order-at-the-window cafe right off Los Feliz Blvd. with simple, good food and excellent baked goods, plus a quiet patio perfect for icing knee-caps.
Your friends in town from Indiana have dragged you to the Venice sign, and after serving as their personal photographer for approximately forever, it’s time for them to buy you lunch. Or more specifically, breakfast for lunch at Great White. It’s almost directly opposite the sign and is home to a tasty tater tot-stuffed breakfast burrito and excellent coffee. Plus the interior is pretty enough that your friends will continue to be occupied.
You spent the afternoon watching people pretend they didn’t come all the way to Venice just to sign up at The Green Doctors, and now you need a palate cleanser. Abbot Kinney is a short walk and another world away - one filled with tourists from Stockholm and many good restaurants to choose from. So we’ll make it easy: you should just go to Felix. It’s home to some of the best pasta in Los Angeles and a focaccia bread that will make appearances in your dreams.
This old-school, order-at-the-counter seafood shack along PCH is hardly some diamond in the rough, but it’s one of the few places in Malibu that serves food worthy of its price. Especially because you’re eating it on a patio looking out over the ocean. Get the fish and chips and perhaps the best calamari in the world.
Malibu Farm is the place you bring people you’re trying to convince to move to LA. Yes, the beach really is only a 30 minute drive from the city, yes, there are many beautiful people here, and yes, that is a cute little Scandinavian-inspired cafe at the end of a pier. When they start asking if you think they could afford a house out here, just keep smiling and nodding. You can break the news later.
This Japanese restaurant sitting directly on the beach in Malibu could be considered a tourist trap in itself. It’s been on too many episodes of Keeping Up With The Real Housewives of Sur, and you’re almost guaranteed some kind of celebrity sighting. But the twist of Nobu is that even though Robert De Niro is a co-owner, the food here remains unbelievably good. And unbelievably expensive. Probably time to find a reality show to star in.
Rodeo Drive is full of characters, and if you want to continue people watching over food, you should head to Nate ’n Al. This is a classic LA diner so full of classic LA types you might think you’re on a film set. While you eat your pastrami sandwich, you can overhear conversation from 75-year-olds in matching pastel tracksuits, hungover people fresh out of college, and agents hashing out deals. The food is expensive but solid - you’ll probably be too distracted with the crowd to care either way.
Go from one LA landmark to another, slightly newer one. Sugarfish has become an institution in its own right, and with good reason: the sushi chain has really good fish at an extremely affordable price point. Get one of the Trust Me’s and you’ll understand why you just waited 45 minutes for a table.