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 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.
photo credit: Jakob Layman
After one dinner at Camphor—a French and, on occasions, Southeast Asian restaurant in the Arts Districts—we texted a friend and described the restaurant as "shiny, expensive, and nice." Which about sums it up. You'll spend a lot of money, drink excellent cocktails, and dine on pungent cheeses and wonderful, creamy lamb and lentils. The Southeast Asian dishes, inspired by the two chefs' respective upbringings, are our favorites, think beef tartare and deep-fried tempura shiso leaves, or bright orange gunpowder shrimp, coated in dried chilis. The word "exquisite" might spill out of your mouth. If you want someone to know you're trying to impress them, this is the place to do it.
Where To Eat & Drink In The Arts District
Although Damian has a few famous siblings (the chef also runs Pujol, Cosme, and Atla), where this upscale Mexican restaurant shines isn’t in comparison to them—it’s a star in its own right. It’s located in a pristine half-jungle, half-futuristic concrete slab in the Arts District where you’ll be treated to uni tostadas, quesadillas filled with Swiss cheese, and the creamiest guacamole we’ve ever had. Damian is the perfect place to come with a couple of friends, sip cocktails infused with dill and absinthe, and celebrate over bowls of rockfish ceviche.
There’s a lot happening at this Korean deli in the Arts District, which is why we recommend grabbing a table and a round of drinks first to get your bearings, and then head back to the deli counter. This is where you’ll order everything (whether it be from the deli case or the kitchen) and trays get loaded up fast, but just know that there really isn’t a bad dish here. From spicy kimchi poloze and chilled acorn noodles in shirodashi vinaigrette, to warm, doughy potato bread, the food at Yangban is exceptional and unlike anything you can really find in LA right now. They also open at 11:30am, making it a great solo lunch option if you’re in the neighborhood.
Art galleries are intimidating. What is the appropriate amount of time to look at a painting? Are you supposed to listen to the guided tours or do they "distract from the experience?" And is it OK to admit modern art confuses you? At Manuela, those existential questions disappear. Although housed within the Hauser & Wirth gallery in the Arts District, this Southern restaurant is breezy and approachable—a cool place to sip negronis and chill, whether flooding your brain with culture is on the agenda or not. Stick with small plates, like smoked albacore dip, Kushi oysters shucked moments before, or fluffy cream biscuits. The latter's served with a small mountain of aged country ham that'll make you consider selling your car to open a farm.
Blame it on the pleasant weather, LA's lenient building permitting, or the fact that everyone—and we mean everyone—looks good outside during golden hour, but this city has a ton of rooftop bars. Wondering where to start? Cabra. Located above the Hoxton Hotel in Downtown LA, this sprawling space checks every box: skyline views, a pool that someone *will* fall into, and a semi-rowdy crowd wearing tube tops and questionable hat choices. But unlike other rooftop bars, Cabra's food is notably good. Created by the chef from nearby Girl & The Goat, the menu is filled with tangerine salads, salmon ceviches topped with pistachio, and tuna tiradito. They're light, shareable plates and great for big groups looking to pre-game.
The Best New Patios In LA
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–like the Baja shrimp po boys, which arrives with pico de gallo, cabbage, and salsa negra, with the option to add a fatty duck egg or luxurious shaved black truffles. Pork shoulder is rolled in a deboned pig’s foot, then slathered with habañero mustard, making for a sandwich filled with a salty and tender ground pork patty, hit with just a bit of gaminess.
Welcome to one of LA’s great sushi institutions. This Little Tokyo strip mall spot 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.
This Mexican spot was one of the first new restaurants we visited when places began reopening in 2021 and stepping onto the rooftop patio was like ascending into an ethereal garden of bliss. You’ll find lush alcoves filled with secret booths, a massive standalone bar decked out in shiny green marble, and unparalleled views of Downtown. That said, Cha Cha Cha is more than pretty aesthetics—the food and cocktails are great too. We love the earthy hongos tacos, and the steak pa’taquear is essentially a build-your-own taco station filled with NY strip steak, charred tomatoes and nopales, and blue jean-colored corn tortillas.
De La Nonna used to pop-up weekly at spots like Employees Only and Melody Wine Bar, serving excellent pies that walk the line between focaccia and pizza. But now, the team runs a massive restaurant in the Arts District. Their pie crust is still light, airy, and sprinkled with flaky sea salt, and while they don’t overload it with toppings, you still get plenty of flavor from them. We like their white pie, with roasted fennel, mozzarella, and dabs of pesto, and the Market pie, with a super-herbaceous cream sauce and crispy parmesan. But we also love to pair a couple of slices with a bottle of natural wine, a few cocktails, or raw bar options in the funky new space.
When Shiku, a Korean banchan stall run by the team behind now-closed Baroo, opened in the Grand Central Market at the end of 2020, we had a few questions. Namely, what the hell? But there’s power in embracing the masses. Take that photo of Bernie Sanders flying coach, for example, which was all over our Twitter feeds for like, a month. Similarly, by leaving its more experimental roots behind, Shiku represents a new chapter in the Baroo family tree–one that’s more accessible in every sense of the word, with favorites like galbi-jjim and marinated chicken on the same menu as hyper-specific regional banchan.
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 home or hotel room when the late-night munchies hit.
From big groups and party-goers to people leaving LA officially, (kids and burger enthusiasts, we’ve recommended Everson Royce Bar so many times, guides should come loaded with an automatic spot for them. Because guess what? It’s also one of the best restaurants in the Arts District. Lines are minimal, the backyard always feels like a party, and there are plenty of excellent cocktails, plus the burger that’s one of the best in the city. We’d live here if we could.
photo credit: Andrea D'Agosto
Chinese Friends Restaurant
Next to Mandarin Plaza is Chinese Friends, a wonderful mom-and-pop restaurant in Chinatown that’s been open since 1973. On any given night, you might wander in and catch one of the owners chatting with a regular. And if you place a pick-up order and arrive after the intended time, it’s likely they'll remake the food, no questions asked. The menu is packed (hello, mushu pork burrito), and we’ll make things easy: get the house special shrimp. This is non-negotiable. There are plenty of fantastic fried shrimp dishes in the neighborhood, but none compare this one. It’s made with teeny tiny pieces, like popcorn shrimp, and is served in a sticky, sweet and sour sauce. Pair this with their sizzling rice soup or any noodle dish.
At Jade Wok, a small, charming Chinatown restaurant, everyone orders the same thing: house special tofu. It's listed as "Homemade Bean Curd (The Best Tofu in Town)" on the menu, and to be honest, we have to agree. Two satin blocks are bathed in a luxurious, dark red gravy made from pork and mushrooms. Spicy, hot, and containing every texture known to man (and then some), you'll want this soup during cold months, sick days, and times when your stomach needs a hug or weighted blanket. Make sure to balance your meal with side dishes, like tea-smoked duck or spare ribs glazed in sweet and sour sauce.
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.
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. 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–which is run by the same team as Bestia–still feels like the well-oiled machine it did when it first opened.
Lasita doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t do formal table service. At this Filipino rotisserie/wine bar in Chinatown, there’s no pressure to make decisions, and you’re free to hang out as long as you want. Looking to drink biodynamic wine with a date and put some food in later if you feel like it? Go right ahead. Maybe you’re with four friends and haven’t eaten since breakfast. Head right to the host stand and order all the garlicky chicken, pork belly lechon, dips, and sauces your table has room for. At Lasita, the only rule is there are no rules, (though we do insist that you order the pancit).
Nick’s is one of those places you walk into and realize you don’t know LA at all. The decades-old Chinatown diner is a flat-out institution, and the kind of greasy spoon where you post up at a U-shaped counter, eat some ham and eggs, and listen to the two guys next to you talk about their issues with Nixon. You head to Nick’s completely for the experience but walk out thinking the food was pretty d*mn good too. No surprise: cash only.
Located on a quiet stretch of northern Chinatown, this expansive Korean restaurant (from the people behind NYC’s Momofuku) is a flat-out blockbuster. The whole experience feels like 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 four to six people.
Philippe The Original
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.
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.
SUGARFISH | Downtown LA
One of the most cutthroat Sugarfish locations in the city, the Downtown LA outpost is no joke. Lines start at 10:30am, approximately half an hour before they open, and stay long throughout the day. Parking is impossible, and people will try to cut in front of you. However, come at around 2-3pm on the weekdays, and it’ll feel like being in the eye of a hurricane—a moment of peace and quiet before the chaos of the dinner rush. That might sound obvious, but at this particular restaurant, timing means the difference between a two-hour wait and none at all.
We Ranked Every Sugarfish Location In LA For Some Reason
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 of the Japanese breakfast is quite understated—nothing but a tray of broiled fish, tamago, tofu, miso soup, and 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.
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 (remember Animal Crossing?). Each piece is prepared Edo-style, a painstaking technique that involves aging and curing the fish for days, in order to highlight its 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.
The Best Chirashi In LA
Tacos Quetzalcoatl wins the award for best vegetarian street tacos in the city. Although they also have excellent lamb barbacoa, you won’t find a better meatless taco than the Omega-2, a simple mix of bell peppers, sliced onions, squash, and sauteed mushrooms covered in a thick blanket of melted cheese. It’s a little sweet and extremely cheesy, kind of like a Hallmark movie.