The University of Southern California is a world-class institution with amazing academics, sports, alumni connections, parties, and more parties. One thing it doesn’t really have: an amazing selection of restaurants.
The good news is that it’s getting better. Way better. Over the past few years, there have been huge developments, both in the immediate USC vicinity and in a little thing called Downtown LA, which is now the cultural hub of the city.
So whether you’re a current student, an alum wanting to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, in town for homecoming, or simply a random person who likes to hang out around USC, here’s a guide to the best spots to eat nearby. Fight on.
If you spend a lot of time around USC, there’s about a 1% chance you’ve never heard of La Barca. So we’ll keep this short: All. Of. The. Margaritas. And melted cheese on top of everything. That’s really all we can remember about it anyway.
Bacari West Adams
An equally-popular haven for heavy drinking and eating, Bacaro is also “nice” enough that you could bring parents and they’d probably be into it. Considering how much of a sh*tshow this place can be, the food is pretty high-quality and all the more delicious when you’re an hour into your 1.5 hours of unlimited sangria. This place was also made for boozy brunches.
When you’re craving comfort food, resist the urge to order in Domino’s and go to Chichen Itza. Located just east of campus inside the multicultural marketplace that is Mercado La Paloma, it’s one of the only walkable off-campus dining options that’s actually great. The best thing here is the Cochinita Pibil – basically a heap of super-juicy pork shoulder served with rice and beans.
If you don’t feel like driving all the way to the Westside for a beach day, you can pretend that traffic noise is the sound of waves while eating fish tacos at Holbox. From the people behind Chichen Itza next door, Holbox is bringing great fresh Mexican seafood lunches to the USC area. Think ceviche tostadas, chile rellenos stuffed with yellowtail, raw oysters, and lobster tacos. One less reason to face the 10-West.
23rd Street Cafe
Mexican-Indian fusion might sound like an unlikely combination, but when you’re hungover and/or hangry and stuffing your face with a Tikka Masala Burrito it suddenly all makes sense. This simple little cafe is best appreciated on a sunny day (AKA every day) on the patio with a breakfast burrito. Or, you know, on the couch after you’ve ordered takeout. Be warned, it closes early (at 9pm).
Despite sounding like a trendy new Paleo restaurant, Caveman Kitchen is a casual Peruvian/American/whatever-it-wants-to-be spot that makes some excellent, huge plates of meat. The space is usually filled with students eating rotisserie chicken (which is always roasting in the back, so the place smells great), burgers, and lomo saltado. Come here once for a hungover breakfast or a quick dinner and you’ll probably become a regular.
An ideal little cafe/coffee shop/study spot with solid salads, sandwiches, and baked goods. Back in the day, all USC had was Seattle’s Best Coffee. Those were dark times.
Basically USC’s personal breakfast and brunch heaven. Try not to go in a hunger blackout, though, because the waits can get truly horrendous.
Despite its ridiculous name, Maccheroni Republic is a great neighborhood spot for pasta in DTLA. So if you feel like carbo-loading on a random Tuesday night, you won’t have a problem showing up in your workout clothes. The patio is a great spot for a casual date, especially with a bottle of wine in tow, thanks to the handy BYOB policy.
KazuNori Hand Roll Bar
Suddenly attacked by an all-consuming sushi craving that can no longer be satisfied by the questionable offerings at Seeds? Get yourself to KazuNori, the hand roll-only concept from Sugarfish. This place is all about efficiency – you’ll probably be in and out in under 30 minutes – so it’s a great spot to hit for a solo lunch, but probably not a Friday night hang. $17.50 for five amazing hand rolls? Don’t mind if we do.
photo credit: Holly Liss
For more of a full-on sushi experience, you can’t do much better than Sushi Gen. While it can get pricey for dinner, it’s worth the extra money for the incredibly fresh fish. You could also do it on a tight budget at lunch with the $17 sashimi plate. Just be prepared to wait – that deal is definitely not a secret.
Yes, there will be a crazy wait here if you choose to go anywhere near normal eating times. But it’s worth it for the best ramen within an easy drive from USC. Put your name down and head to Far Bar just a couple doors down while you wait.
Did you wake up today and say to yourself I WILL NOT EAT A CHAIN LUNCH TODAY? Head to Papa Cristo’s, a 10-minute drive away from campus on a stretch of West Pico you’ve probably never given a second thought to. It’s a mini Greek market/restaurant serving up some of the best gyros in Los Angeles. And they’re all under $9.
You know how this goes: You ask one friend if they want to grab dinner. Then they ask two people. Then those people invite more people. And suddenly you have a giant crew of people that are desperately hungry and asking you for a plan. Where to go with a pack? Your answer is probably Wurstküche. It’s a reasonably-priced, warehouse-sized place with tasty sausage and incredible fries, craft beer, a big eating hall and outdoor area, and a DJ.
It’s true – Bottega Louie has slipped from the DTLA dominance of its former years. But if you’re looking for a pretty space to impress out-of-towners (i.e. parents), this is still a good option. Especially if they’re from a place where burrata pizza and macarons seem like very foreign food. Welcome to LA.
Right around the corner from Baco Mercat is Bar Ama, where you can get the same kind of casual yet cool vibe, and also queso. And tacos. And taquitos. And migas. If you don’t know what that last one is, get yourself to brunch here ASAP.
Philippe The Original
There are so many reasons to go to Philippe’s: It’s 107 years old. It’s a cultural icon. It’s home to (supposedly) the original French Dip. But the real reason you go to Philippe’s? There are very few LA eats more comforting or satisfying than a Philippe’s french dip. This sandwich has the power to turn around even the worst days.
One of the best ways to spend an afternoon in LA is at Grand Central Market. Whether you pick a stall at random, go with a plan, or bring friends for a full-on crawl, it’s going to be a fun and tasty time no matter what. Where to start? Wexler’s Deli (for the reuben), Belcampo Meat Co. (for a burger), and Madcapra (for falafel) are all fantastic.