Right behind everyone’s sudden embrace of tinned fish, the biggest comeback of the last decade has been Downtown LA’s dining scene. Since its boom in the 2010s, this central neighborhood has completely transformed into one of the most exciting neighborhoods in the city to grab a meal - a status they’ve managed to keep even after enduring a year of pandemic-related hardships. It’s a whirlwind mix of hard-to-get reservations, innovative newcomers, and a French dip sandwich lore that’s scandalous enough to fill an entire HBO miniseries. If you’re not eating Downtown, you’re missing out on some of the restaurants that truly make Los Angeles great.
It’s a competitive field when it comes to Downtown tacos (or tacos anywhere here, for that matter), but Sonoratown has managed to take a tiny space on Los Angeles St. and turn it into a full-out institution. The legendary house-made flour tortillas literally melt in your mouth, and their charred grilled steak is smokey, sweet, and the exact right level of salty. You can certainly go for their regular tacos, but our move is the caramelo, which is about double the size and comes topped with salsa roja, avocado, and cabbage. The pinto bean, guacamole, and Monterey Jack cheese-filled Burrito 2.0 is also a great thing to have back at your hotel room when the late-night munchies hit.
Azay is a half-French, half-Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo where you’ll find the only Japanese breakfast being served in LA proper. Their rendition on the Japanese breakfast is quite understated - nothing but a tray of broiled fish, tamago, tofu, miso soup, a side of rice, plus a few pickles. The broiled fish comes with a flaky top and charred bottom, but completely moist meat in the middle. Bright yellow eggs taste slightly sweet, and resemble the shape and size of an elementary school kid’s eraser. Plus, the portions are perfect - not too big, not too small, and you can walk away feeling full, without needing to undo a button on your pants.
We’re not going to mince words here: Holy Basil is making the most exciting Thai food in LA right now. Located in a Downtown food court, their menu is filled with pad thai, green curry, and tom yum soup. While they’re dishes you’ve likely eaten on countless occasions, at Holy Basil, it feels like you’re eating them all for the first time ever. Get the tom yum soup, which is a whirlwind of flavors and textures including oyster mushrooms, roasted chili jam, lemongrass, lime leaf, galangal, and cilantro. And make sure to come hungry and order as much as you possibly can - there’s not a single weak spot on the menu.
Brilliance comes in many forms. Mozart wrote his first symphony at age eight. Nicki Minaj rhymed “bestest” with “asbestos” in the seminal Young Money hit “BedRock.” And Johnny Lee of Pearl River Deli makes some of the best Cantonese food in the city. Like any true artist, Lee - who we affectionately dubbed “The Prince of Poultry” - rejects the mundanity of rote repetition, constantly tweaking his menu offerings and experimenting with new dishes. One week you might get siu mai the size of softballs, another, Hong Kong-style duck served over soup noodles. But if you’re lucky, or catch him at the right time, he’ll extend his benevolence and make his signature Hainan chicken special (which can get quite labor-intensive). A dish he honed at his other shop, Side Chick, it’s Pearl River Deli’s piece de resistance - a beautiful, fragrant meal made with jasmine rice, accoutrements like cucumbers and cilantro, and poached chicken so tender you might think it were a film directed by Barry Jenkins.
While we all wait for Yess Aquatic’s big brick-and-mortar debut, head to their truck in the Arts District for an ever-changing menu filled with some of the freshest fish in all of Southern California. Run by well-known London chef Junya Namasaki, the mantra here is essentially to serve whatever is fresh from the ocean that day. That includes an excellent ridgeback prawn bánh mì and a particularly meaty Nashville-style hot shark sandwich - all of which can be eaten on their makeshift al fresco dining room, a.k.a. a few cute little tables on the sidewalk, so you can avoid sitting down right on the asphalt. But if you want to appreciate the true technique and care that goes into everything served at Yess Aquatic, grab one of the plates that comes with a simply sauteed fish that’s served with a bouillabaisse-style curry.
Located on an expansive rooftop in the Arts District, this colorful Mexican restaurant somehow manages to hit that perfect Venn diagram of fun, casual, and downright gorgeous. In other words, this is where you come when you want LA to look like a million bucks - a.k.a. the city you thought you’d live in after watching La La Land or something - but without trying too hard in the process. It’s the kind of place where you can swing by with a few friends for some mezcal cocktails and tuna tostadas, hit a romantic date night out of the ballpark, or show off to someone who you’re trying to desperately convince to move to LA.
Kwang Uh and Mina Park (formerly of Baroo and Baroo Canteen) use this Grand Central Market space to both serve traditional Korean favorites, like galbi jjim and doenjang-marinated chicken, while also offering an array of unique banchan you won’t be able to find anywhere else in the city. Containers are filled to the brim with a spicy tuna dish that’s mixed with potatoes and carrots. The myulchi saewoo bokkeum is made crunchy with dried shrimp then balanced with the shishito peppers and walnuts’ sweetness. All of it is a perfect snack for a long car ride home, or staring at your phone for hours, deciding whether or not enough time has passed to text someone back.
Biriyani Kabob House - Downtown LA
One of our favorite Ktown restaurants, Biriyani Kabob House, now has a new Downtown location. Luckily, almost nothing has changed with their latest outpost, which means you’ll still find one of the most spectacular arrays of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian offerings around, served out of a no-frills spot on Spring St. There are a few tables out front to enjoy your curried lamb shank that falls off the bone, a chicken tikka masala with the ideal cream-to-spice ratio, and their namesake hyderbadi biriyani dish - a massive plate that arrives more aromatic than an Aesop showroom.
Although ordering from this Southeast Asian pop-up might take a bit of calendar management (pick-ups are only held on the second Tuesday of the month), when you live in a city with so few Burmese options, some maneuvering might just be worth it. The ohn no khao swe, made with coconut curry and supple buckwheat noodles, has become our go-to comfort dish. And the tea leaf salad, which comes with something like 45 different accouterments, is both a fun exercise in mise en place and one of the best salads we’ve eaten all year. DM their Instagram to pre-order.
Half-torta, half-something-completely-new, the sandwiches at Angry Egret are unique creations from Wes Avila, the former chef and brain behind Guerilla Tacos. They’re like traditional Mexican tortas, but with a twist. Everything is served on a white, fluffy bun, Baja shrimp po boys arrive with pico de gallo, cabbage, and salsa negra, with the option to add fatty duck egg or luxurious shaved black truffles. Pork shoulders are rolled in a deboned pig’s foot, then slathered with habañero mustard, making for a sandwich filled with salty and tender ground pork patty, hit with just a bit of gaminess.
Damian is a big, impressive Arts District restaurant where you go to prove to the person sitting across from you (and yourself) that you’ve got your sh*t together, and definitely didn’t spend all of 2020 becoming one with your bed. The upscale Mexican restaurant (run by the chef behind Cosme in NYC and Mexico City’s Pujol), serves dishes like smoked clams with cucumbers, fish tempura tacos, and an extra-smoky pescado a la brasa served with tortillas. The outdoor tented patio is a mix of concrete walls and jungle-like plant arrangements that’ll make you feel like you’re in a less stressful, non-dystopian version of Maze Runner. Which, compared to the mess in our apartments, actually sounds pretty nice right now.
LASA, the family-run Filipino spot in Chinatown, has pivoted to a new rotisserie and wine concept called Lasita. The streamlined menu focuses primarily on brined meat like pork belly lechon, but the star of the show is without question the inasal. Lasita’s version of this rotisserie chicken dish is stuffed with lemongrass and garlic, giving it sweet and citrusy notes, with a slight acidic bite at the end. We’d say you don’t even need the garlic vinegar and spicy birds eye salsita that comes on the side, but you actually do - they take the already tremendous flavors of the chicken and shoot steroids into them. All that said, do not under any circumstance leave Lasita’s pleasant patio without having consumed a turon cream pie. Filled with banana confit, jackfruit, and brown sugar whip, this is the type of dessert that makes you want to come back twice in the same week.
Bridgetown Roti is a pop-up run in the Arts District by chef Rashida Holmes, and specializes in Caribbean street food highlighting her Bajan heritage. The food of Barbados has many influences - including Indian, African, Creole, Irish, Portuguese, and British - and Bridgetown Roti’s menu shows off all of those cuisines and flavors. There’s the slightly spicy, turmeric-laced patty that comes stuffed with callaloo greens and crab meat, savory curry chicken roti wraps, or house dipping sauces that range from lime pepper tomatillo to Fresno mango masala. Bridgetown Roti is currently available for takeout and delivery only, head to their Instagram to palace a preorder.
They only opened at the end of 2020, but this Far East Plaza butcher shop has already made a name for itself as one of the heaviest-hitters in LA’s burger game. Founded by Filipino-American chef Alvin Cailan (who also created Eggslut, if you’re familiar), Amboy is slinging everything from near-perfect smashburgers to hard-to-find cuts of raw meat from a to-go counter in the Far East Plaza. Although, if you don’t leave without an order (or six) of the glorious, perfect fries - perhaps the best in Los Angeles - we’re going to need to have a very serious talk.
If you only have one night in LA and ask us where to eat, chances are we’re going to tell you Bestia. The Arts District pioneer may have been open since 2012 (practically a lifetime in this part of town), but it’s just as busy as it was on day one. Meals at this Italian restaurant aren’t an in-and-out affair - odds are you’ll be at your table for a couple of hours, losing your mind as each dish hits the table. The pastas and pizzas are as good as it gets in this town, and if we could subsist solely on the chicken liver pate toast, we would.
If you’re not jumping on a plane any time soon but could use a vacation, head to Dama. With its massive patio and open-air dining room, you’ll feel like you’re vacationing in the Caribbean (even though you’re in the middle of the Fashion District). There’s an excellent seafood tostada, a celery salad that’ll make you feel good while frolicking in the ocean later, and linguisa pinwheel topped with a bright green frisee salad. It’s the kind of food you snack on over the course of several hours with a date or while drinking mezcal with coworkers until you believe you actually are in the Cayman Islands.
Located on the basement floor of a Little Tokyo office building, this hidden sushi bar serves one of the most luxurious boxes of sushi in town. The nama chirashi is packed with hard-to-find cuts of sea trout, horsehair crab, blackthroat seaperch, and shiro ebi, or white baby shrimp. It’s a dazzling, extravagant box of fish that has more seafood than your half-filled museum aquarium in Animal Crossing. Each piece is prepared Edo-style, a painstaking technique that involves aging and curing the fish for days, in order to highlight it’s individual flavor. What results is not only the most beautiful chirashi we’ve ever seen - but a unique collector’s item that needs to be on every self-respecting chirashi fan’s shortlist. And preferably, near the top.
Of course Bavel is on this list. Almost no guide with the words “Greatest of Downtown LA” in the title is complete without this broadly Middle Eastern restaurant in the Arts District. Opened by the same team behind Bestia, between their idyllic outdoor patio shaded by a grove of trees, giant wooden tables full of duck ’nduja hummus and lamb neck shawarma, and that fact that you’ll likely see someone like Miguel here (like we did) - a meal at Bavel still feels like the well-oiled machine it did when it first opened. Which, of course, means it’s just as popular as ever, so plan a few weeks ahead, and make sure to book a reservation.
Rossoblu is what we consider a big-deal restaurant, and that’s apparent from the first second you walk in the door. The massive industrial dining room is decorated like a rich person’s Roman loft, and the Italian food is fantastic across the board. You will spend some money here, but Rossoblu definitely feels like an occasion, so you should reserve it for one. Get the charcuterie, the pappardelle, and the grigliata, which is essentially a giant plate of sausage and belly-on pork chop. And, honestly, whatever else on the menu looks good - there isn’t a weak spot on it.
Located on a quiet stretch of northern Chinatown, this modern Korean restaurant (from the people behind NYC’s Momofuku) is a flat-out blockbuster. For a new spot, the service is already a well-oiled machine, and the food is different than anything else you can get in LA. Reservations are extremely difficult to come by, but once you get your chance, we recommend bringing as many people as you can. The best things on the menu (like the spicy pork shoulder) are Majordomo’s large plates, which feed 4-6 people.
This wine bar/French restaurant from the people behind Bar Covell is where you should take your next early-in-the-game date. And even if you’re past that stage, you should still come here. The space is dimly-lit and kind of New York-y, and the liberal use of pink lighting will make you feel like you’re inside a VSCO filter. The French food here is stellar - particularly the “bread and things” and the bavette steak - and you’ll get to try interesting wines. This place is everything you need for a low-key, romantic night.
Grand Central Market is an essential LA food experience. There’s a mix of old-school tenants who’ve been there for years (China Cafe and their wonton soup, carnitas at Tacos Tumbras A Tomas), new spots (the best falafel in town at Madcapra, Filipino rice bowls at Sari Sari Store), and a whole lot of good stuff in between (Sticky Rice’s panang curry, everything at Wexler’s). Do not enter in any state other than ravenous. There are going to be a lot of tourists, but don’t let that stop you.
The fried chicken onslaught in this city has reached manic levels, so let’s just make things easy - go right to Howlin’ Ray’s in Chinatown because it’s the best in the city. Are the hours a little weird? Yes. Will there be a long line? Possibly 3+ hours long. But once you take your first bite of that Nashville hot (and we mean REALLY hot) chicken, it’ll all make sense.
In a part of town that loves eating pasta in converted factories, The Factory Kitchen is still one of our favorites. The place itself was among the first to open in the Arts District, and remains a slightly more casual option than some of the other bigger production operations in the neighborhood (read: Bestia). Come in for a quick drink with coworkers after a long day, or go for date night. Just make sure you get some prosciutto - it might be the best in LA.
Welcome to one of LA’s great sushi institutions. This Little Tokyo strip mall joint has lines down the block every day before it even opens, and everybody’s generally waiting for one thing - the sashimi platter. With soup, salad, and over nine massive cuts of premium fish, this $19 plate is one of the best deals in the city and so popular you have to sit in a specific area of the restaurant to get it.
Orsa & Winston is both serious and a little sexy, but the six-course tasting menu restaurant avoids the stuffiness that usually comes to mind when you think of set menu places. The dining room is pretty minimal, but somehow warm and inviting, making the whole experience feel like the best dinner party you’ve ever been to. They’ve also recently added a casual Japanese-ish lunch that’s worth a look for the chicken katsu sandwich alone.
Philippe’s is one of those rare tourist traps that’s actually worth every second. Known most famously as (maybe) the originator of the French dip sandwich, this 110-year-old Chinatown deli is a straight-up LA institution, and a must-stop for anybody making their way around downtown. The double-dip beef sandwich is the obvious move, but don’t forget to grab some macaroni salad either. Just go easy with the at-table mustard - its horseradish levels aren’t for the faint of heart.
71Above is a game changer, in that it’s a place you can go for a fancy work dinner that you’ll actually enjoy. It encompasses the entirety of the 71st floor of the US Bank building, giving those clients a view they’d only get while flying out of LAX. Dinner is a three-course prix-fixe situation that is just a tiny bit adventurous, for the group of accountants you’re schmoozing.
In DTLA years, Wood Spoon is ancient. This tiny Brazilian-inspired place opened in 2006, and more than a decade later, it’s still great. With a casual, romantic feel, sneaky good sangria, and an affordable menu, Wood Spoon is the under-the-radar date night spot of your dreams. Get the pot pie.