Visiting LA for the first time? Obviously we have some opinions. Firstly, do not stay in Hollywood, even if your Aunt LeAnne says the motel she stayed at last year was “perfectly fine.” In no way could it ever be fine. Secondly, be prepared to be on very familiar terms with Lyft and Uber. Thirdly, maybe don’t do anything else but eat?
What you see before you isn’t meant to be a definitive list of this city’s best restaurants – it’s just what we’d do if we were in your shoes, with a weekend in front of us and a whole lot of options to sort through. Other than those two “meetings” you have on the calendar, we all know the main business at hand is to eat as much as possible in a 72-hour period.
Let this guide lead you.
The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In Los Angeles is presented by the American Express® Gold Card. Click here to learn more about the benefits and rewards you can get from paying with the Amex Gold Card while dining out.
People who have lived in LA for a while like to talk about how LA is a city of neighborhoods. There’s no neighborhood that provokes more of a reaction than crystal-and-startup-filled Venice, and if you want to understand why, go eat lunch at Gjusta. This deli a few blocks back from the beach is big, busy, and kind of a pain in the butt. You have to take a number, wait approximately an eternity, order your food, and then wait an eternity again, but by the time you’re eating house-made cured fish and a burrata and tomato sandwich, you’ll have forgotten all about that. And probably be completely sold on Venice.
If you’re visiting LA for the first time, chances are you’re staying west of the 405. The beach and Gjusta are nice and all, but at some point, be sure to venture east. When you do so, head straight to Mh Zh. This Mediterranean restaurant in Silver Lake is basically a glorified sidewalk cafe, with tiny wooden boxes to sit on and a menu written on the back of a brown paper bag. But the real selling point here is the food. Whether it’s hummus with pickles, grilled beets, or a perfectly-cooked ribeye, this is one of our favorite meals in the city and one that won’t break the bank, either. They don’t take reservations, but you can grab a drink at Cliff’s Edge next door while you wait.
You can find decent bowls of pho all over LA, but if you’re only here for four days, you’re not interested in decent - you want greatness. So go to Pho 79. Located in Westminster’s Little Saigon neighborhood, Pho 79 makes the only bowl of soup in the city you’ll wake up thinking about the next day. The broth is dark and cinnamon-y, and while you can add everything from beef to shrimp, the richness of the oxtail takes the whole dish to a different level. Prepare to wait in line no matter when you show up, and be sure to stop at the bank on the way over - it’s cash only.
We’ll keep this simple - Felix serves our favorite pasta in the city. Yes, this perpetually crowded Venice spot is an excellent all-around restaurant, but the reason people wait months for a reservation is because of the noodles, which are made in-house, in a temperature-controlled room that you can see right from your table. If you whiffed on getting a reservation in advance, don’t worry - just do what the locals do and eat at the bar. It’s walk-in only, and while you’ll probably have to play the hover game for a little bit, it beats waiting until your next trip to LA to eat here. The cacio e pepe and rigatoni is our usual order, but don’t leave without getting some focaccia, too.
There are a lot of reasons to be eating in Koreatown during your first trip to LA, but if we had to pick one, it would probably be the galbi jjim from Sun Nong Dan. This cauldron of spicy stewed short ribs, rice cakes, and vegetables - with shredded mozzarella cheese melted on top - is one of the most interesting and special things to eat in town. They’re also open 24 hours a day, which you’ll be very thankful for after stumbling out of your last stop on a Koreatown bar crawl at 2am.
Just east of Downtown sits the San Gabriel Valley, a sprawling collection of suburbs where you’ll find some of the best Asian food on the West Coast. There’s a ton of ground to cover here, but Elite should be your starting point. This dim sum spot in Monterey Park is a bonafide institution, and there are always lines out the door. The menu has more than 100 different things on it, so instead of fighting over what to order, just go for the golden cream bun, crispy shrimp rice noodle, steamed taro cake, pork shu mai, macau egg custard, and BBQ pork pastry.
LA is a lot bigger than the commercial throughline of Santa Monica to Downtown, and there are even some suburbs that resemble the white-picket-fence enclaves back east, like Pasadena. But despite its placid surroundings, Union is a restaurant that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in the suburbs - it serves truly exciting (and excellent) pastas that rival those found in any city, anywhere. We usually go for the torchetti with pork ragu and fried rosemary and the squid ink lumache, and as far as non-pasta things, do not skip the wild mushroom polenta. Also, be sure to ask if they have the porchetta - it’s one of the best we’ve ever had.
On a first trip to LA, it’s inevitable you’ll end up at the Venice Boardwalk, even if you’ll only last five minutes before needing a breather from the smoke-filled air and people who think they’re in Stomp. When you’re ready for that breather, head to Hinano. This dive bar on Washington is a much better representation of what Venice is (or at least what it used to be), with sawdust on the floor, regulars at the bar, and some people playing pool in the back. They also have an extremely good burger that comes with a bag of chips. Plus, Jim Morrison used to drink here.
You’re craving incredible Chinese food, but you don’t have the time to get to the San Gabriel Valley from your hotel in Santa Monica. We have good news - one of our favorite Chinese restaurants from the SGV, Sichuan Impression, opened a new location in West LA in 2018, and it’s just as good as the original. The sprawling second-story space is ideal for big groups, and with a menu featuring everything from mapo tofu to tea-smoked pork ribs to toothpick mutton, we guarantee you will not leave hungry.
If there was a Hollywood Walk Of Fame for tacos, it would be on the stretch of Olympic in Boyle Heights where Tacos Y Birria La Unica sets up shop six days a week. There are all kinds of excellent places to eat tacos in this part of town, but this one serves the best quesatacos - tacos with crispy meat and cheese that resemble tiny, perfect quesadillas. We always get them with birria de chivo, a deep red, heavily spiced stewed goat. Their selection of homemade salsas is also among the best in town, and if you ask, they’ll always give you a little cup of their excellent consomé on the side.
Navigating Quality Seafood will give you a taste of what it’s like driving in Los Angeles - it’s a chaotic free-for-all, and you only get anywhere if you don’t hesitate. This constantly packed market on the Redondo Beach Pier has fresh seafood brought in practically by the hour - a haul that usually includes everything from whole crabs to snapper, calamari, oysters, and local shrimp. Basically, if you can catch it in this part of the Pacific Ocean, then you can probably find it at Quality Seafood. Pick out what you want, and they’ll broil or fry it for you to eat in their multi-story dining room.
Koreatown is one of the largest neighborhoods in LA, and you could eat at a good restaurant here every week for an entire year and barely scratch the surface. But since you’re only here for a few days, you need to go to the best of the best - Parks. This Korean BBQ staple is a bit pricier than others in the area, but their high-quality meats and banchan are better than anywhere else. This is your ideal big group dinner spot.
Porto’s is a family-run Cuban bakery that’s been around since the 1970s. From guava pastries to potato balls to our favorite Cubano in the city, Porto’s food is fantastic across-the-board, and it’s an ideal lunch spot when you don’t want to have another fight with your family about what to eat. With locations in Burbank, Glendale, and Downey, you’re never too far from one of these LA institutions.
You already know LA sushi is a thing, but what about Thai? It’s very much a thing. And while pretty much any place you stumble into in Thai Town will be good, you should not pass up what’s happening at Night + Market. It’s a casual spot on the Sunset Strip (there are outposts in Silver Lake and Venice, as well) that’s one of the best party restaurants in LA. Order some papaya salad, some chicken wings, and a tower of Chang beer with friends - your Friday night is figured out.
Want a snapshot of the food scene in LA? Just take a lap around Grand Central Market and you’ll get the idea. The last several years have seen an influx of new vendors, but the Market has managed to keep much of its original charm. On your first visit, we definitely recommend going for the carnitas tacos at Tacos Tumbras A Tomas, but most everything is good here - we would drive across town for the falafel at Kismet, the pastrami at Wexler’s, and the panang curry at Sticky Rice. For the full breakdown, consult our Grand Central Market Guide while you’re waiting in line, and see how many places you can hit before you have to call a timeout.
Still worried about eating that pig ear salad and what it might do for you waistline? Good. Now, here’s some pizza and pasta to go with it. The folks over at Animal (which is also worth a visit, btw) opened up this modern Italian spot across the street, and it is glorious. Yes, the interior looks more like a thermal spa in Reykjavik than an Italian restaurant, but rest assured, you’re in very good hands here. Order the meatballs and the cavatelli and the LA Woman pizza.
Yes, we are telling you to go to an Italian deli in Santa Monica for a sandwich, knowing full well that you may be from New York, or half Italian, or both. But any self-respecting LA resident will tell you that eating a Godmother from Bay Cities is a rite of passage. And they’re telling the truth.
Disclaimer: If you are considering a visit to Sqirl on a weekend, don’t. Unless you get there at 8am, you’re going to be waiting all day for a piece of toast. If you are reading this on a Tuesday morning, proceed. Sqirl is best known for the things they do over a piece of bread or inside a rice bowl, but the small cafe has other excellent things to start your day with as well. And on a weekday, you might actually get to try a few of them.
Dan Tana’s makes this list because it’s a true Hollywood classic, where you go to eat a bunch of red-sauce pasta, watch celebrities get drunk, and realize there’s a lot more to this city than just probiotic salad bars and Moon Juice. You aren’t just gawking at those celebrities, either - Dan Tana’s is small and cramped, so chances are high you’ll be sitting right next to them, getting just as drunk as they are, and contemplating if you should order a chicken parm for the road or not.
So, you might’ve heard that LA has good tacos. We do. So many that you need an entire week (or three) to eat them all. But since you’re only here for a few days, make Tacos Leo a priority. This taco truck, located in the parking lot of a gas station at La Brea and Venice Blvd., has great tacos across the board, but everyone’s here for the al pastor. Cooked on a rotating spit outside the truck, people stand and stare at this thing like it’s the Mona Lisa of meat. And it basically is.
Langer’s might make the best pastrami in town (and probably the world), but Canter’s isn’t too far behind. Plus, it’s open 24/7, meaning you can eat it when you’re hammered on a Saturday night and their pastrami Reuben is your destiny. In a city that lacks quality late-night food, Canter’s more than pulls its weight. See you there.
Yea, you’ve heard of In-N-Out. Maybe you’ve even been to one, in Vegas or (God forbid) Arizona. But you haven’t really had an In-N-Out burger until you’ve had one in LA. Pick any location you can find, say “Double double, animal style” to anyone wearing a paper hat that will listen, and prepare for nirvana.
Let’s face it - LA is never going to be a pizza town. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely lacking great options, either. Pizzeria Mozza is an LA classic for the simple fact that it’s never tried to copy anyone else. This is razor-thin, LA-style (yep, we’re making that a thing) pizza with toppings that range from braised fennel and prosciutto to goat cheese and bacon. And everything else on the menu is just as delicious.
Salt & Straw may not be an LA original (thank you, Portland), but it’s still the best ice cream being served in the city. Just don’t expect to come here looking for your simple scoop of chocolate. Flavors at Salt & Straw range from exotic to straight-up unheard of - roasted strawberry coconut, avocado and Oaxacan fudge, and a black olive brittle and goat cheese that will change the way you think about ice cream. For real. And now with multiple locations citywide, you’re never far away from one.
No trip to LA is complete without a jaunt up PCH to Malibu. You’re here to catch a wave, track down Cher’s (completely incorrect) home address, and eat a lot of seafood. And while there are several great seafood shacks dotting the coast, your first move should always be Neptune’s Net. The Malibu landmark is a PCH road trip fixture and has the lines to prove it. But its good seafood, great ocean views, and ’50s Americana feel make it all worth it.
One of LA’s all-time greatest restaurants, and one that played a significant part in the rapid development of the still booming Downtown Arts District. Just know that a meal at Bestia is not a casual or quick occasion. Make a reservation way in advance, set aside two hours and a few hundred bucks, and do it correctly.
Obviously you want to soak up some rays while you’re in LA, but deep down the beach really grosses you out. You need a rooftop patio and you need it to be at Mama Shelter. The hotel rooftop in the heart of Hollywood is huge, with a lot of stuff to keep you entertained: A full restaurant, a separate bar area, foosball tables, movies at night, and an entire section of daybeds dedicated to napping. Weekends definitely require a reservation, but if you come on a weekday, you’ll walk right in.
Spago is one of those classic LA restaurants you’d assume couldn’t possibly still be good. But Wolfgang Puck’s flagship spot is still very much worth checking out. Yes, this Beverly Hills spot is a total scene, but that’s why you’re here. Watch Jane Fonda sip Dom Pérignon, scarf down some salmon pizza and spicy tuna tartare cones, and sit back with big sunglasses on, pretending you also just closed that Marvel movie deal.
Home of the original French Dip sandwich. Be prepared to fight anyone who tries to tell you that the title belongs to Philippe’s sort-of rival, Cole’s. This is where the real magic happens, a perfect roast beef sandwich on a perfect bun, sturdy enough to stand up to repeated dunks into beef juice. Don’t bother ordering anything else.
No trip to LA is complete without eating sushi, and Sugarfish is a perfect place to start. Started by the man who created the legendary Sushi Nozawa, Sugarfish now has locations across the city, each serving incredibly high-quality sushi that you’ll pay far below market for. As a matter of fact, at $33 for eight courses ($27 at lunch), this is the best deal in town, and one you should cross off your list.