I recently spoke to the Culinary Historians of Southern California at the LAPL Central Library. My talk, titled “Decoding the L.A. Restaurant Scene: 20 Years Past and Future” assessed the past two decades and speculated what the next 20 years might look like. For anybody who wasn’t in the crowd at Mark Taper Auditorium, I’m happy to share my thoughts.
Why 20 years? That’s how long I’ve lived in L.A., and that’s enough time to see some pretty drastic shifts take hold in the way we eat. This talk really challenged me to think about the most important factors in our food revolution, and I’ve drilled it down to three factors: regionalization, specialization, and cross-pollination. Before we get into what those mean, I’m going to describe my food journey over the past 20 years.
If it were up to me, I would have been born in Los Angeles, my favorite city with the most exciting food scene in the U.S., but my parents had other ideas. Instead, I spent my first 18 years in the New Jersey suburbs, where I ate Americanized Italian and Chinese food on repeat, and of course deli sandwiches, with little variation. Stromboli was about as adventurous as my meals got.
I got a taste for what was possible beyond the suburbs on regular trips into New York City, and later in Nashville, where I majored in American Studies at Vanderbilt University and reviewed off-campus restaurants for the school paper. My culinary world expanded rapidly from there, and I’ve been stuck in overdrive ever since.
Each summer during college, I got a different internship in Los Angeles, renting rooms at dormant frat houses by UCLA and seeking foods that I couldn’t find back east. I drove cross-country seven times total, taking a different route each time and referring to Roadfood, Jane and Michael Stern’s road trip food bible, which opened my eyes to regional culinary differences. Texas BBQ in the Hill Country outside of Austin, New Mexican cuisine in Sante Fe, and Cajun food in the Louisiana Bayou were all completely new to me and sparked a compulsive desire to learn and eat more.
When I first moved to L.A. in 1999, I briefly worked as a page at Paramount Studios, leading tours of the backlot and sound stages, before catching on as a writers assistant. I did all of the research for the TV shows “JAG” and “NCIS,” wrote a story for “NCIS” and even co-wrote a big budget Bollywood action movie called “Blue.” No, I didn’t choreograph the dance numbers.
The whole time I worked in TV, I took every chance to explore and learn about different cuisines. Every late night, I’d sneak out to Thai Town or Pico-Union to grab dinner instead of settling for free CPK or Chin Chin. After all, every meal is an opportunity. I’ve had many interests over the years – tennis, mountain biking, movies – and food has been the one constant. After seven years in the entertainment industry, my obsession for food far outweighed my interest in TV, so I left to write about restaurants full-time.
I’ve written about restaurants professionally since 2005, for my own website, FoodGPS.com, and for dozens of publications like The New York Times, Forbes.com, and Eater LA. My drive to learn about different foods, and the people and cultures behind those foods, has never dipped.
I’m one of the most compulsive eaters in Los Angeles. I typically make at least 2 or 3 food and drink stops per day, and whenever possible, at places that I haven’t experienced. Yes, I keep a spreadsheet that documents every Southern California establishment I visit for the first time, including the date, geographic area, and whether I’d return. In some ways, I’m not a customer that a restaurant would want, since I’m rarely a regular.
Throughout my journey, which has involved thousands of restaurant experiences in Southern California alone, my views on the restaurant landscape have shifted many times. So much of this evolution has to do with an ever-expanding understanding. We don’t know what we don’t know, and despite daily efforts, I will never visit all of the restaurants I want to try just in L.A. County. My hit-list doesn’t even include places that could radically change my perception, either due to my ignorance, or because they close for business before I can visit. No, I don’t use the word “discover” to describe restaurants, because we all know some Yelper has already been there.
When I first moved to L.A. in 1999, I lived in Santa Monica, which already had an established farmers market culture, but very little diversity or innovation at that point. Chinois on Main was the height of cuisine in Santa Monica at that stage. Places like Michael’s and Border Grill were also going strong. Since I was a tour guide and writers assistant, not exactly Silicon Beach salaries, Cha Cha Chicken was the pinnacle of my regular rotation. I had to drive east for anything more exciting.
I briefly lived in Beverly Hills before moving to Los Feliz and Silver Lake for many years. Restaurants like El 7 Mares, Cafe Tropical, and Yuca’s Hut really impressed me. I was so inspired by these meals that I wrote about my upgraded eating in a story titled, “A Delicious Move.” Ruth Reichl, the famous Gourmet magazine editor, was promoting “Comfort Me With Apples” at the 2002 LA Times Festival of Books, and I handed her a printed version of my story as a submission to the magazine. I can only imagine what she thought of my “revelations,” which were actually just beloved neighborhood favorites instead of true destinations, but I eventually received a rejection email from her assistant, which is pretty telling.
After that, I scoured L.A. for more unique restaurants. At first, I relied on writers like Jonathan Gold and Barbara Hansen to guide me, and later realized that I would add more value to the conversation by writing about restaurants they hadn’t already covered. As you know, L.A. is a massive city with endless opportunities to learn, and countless stories to tell. I started to tell those stories through Food GPSto start 2005, and this continues to be my home base for restaurant recommendations and interviews with industry leaders.
When I first arrived in L.A., I knew a tiny fraction of what I now know about food. Mexican and Korean cuisines were only vague notions. I didn’t know that Persian and Lebanese foods were radically different, even though they’re both technically Middle Eastern. At that point, I hadn’t even eaten sushi, probably couldn’t name five Mexican dishes, and barely touched an avocado, which are all now part of my regular rotation.
Restaurants instrumental in my culinary understanding include La Casita Mexicana. Jalisco natives Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu have become leaders in Mexican food education at their first restaurant in Bell, and now at their second restaurant Mexicano in Baldwin Hills, and they taught me many lessons on ingredients and iconic dishes. A restaurant called Green Village in San Gabriel, which briefly upgraded to Green City before going out of business entirely, taught me about Shanghai-style specialties like rice cakes, braised chicken with chestnuts, and fried yellow croaker featuring seaweed in the batter. Chung King was integral to my understanding of Sichuan cuisine, long before the arrival of trendy places like Chengdu Taste. In Koreatown, I quickly learned that grilled kalbi and bulgogi are tiny parts of that country’s vast culinary repertoire, which I’m still learning.
I’ve also had the good fortune to travel extensively over the past 20 years, visiting almost every corner of the U.S., many countries in Asia, and taking frequent trips to Mexico. My wife and I also honeymooned in Spain. These trips have provided invaluable perspective and come to question and reinforce my understandings of L.A. food culture.
After 20 years of living and eating in L.A., I can now pinpoint three key factors that have driven the city’s culinary evolution:
In some cases, it’s no longer adequate to simply identify a restaurant as Mexican or Chinese. In the San Gabriel Valley, places like Chengdu Taste, Sichuan Impression, and Hip Hot have made Sichuan cuisine extremely popular. People are also now aware of foods from Chinese provinces like Hunan and Shanxi.
People previously tasted touches of Taiwanese cuisine with Din Tai Fung, but now go even deeper thanks to places like Jon Yao’s Kato in West LA, Vivian Ku’s sister restaurants Joy on York and Pine & Crane, and many San Gabriel Valley spots.
When it comes to Mexican food, Sonoratown has captivated people with their Sonora-style tacos and flour tortillas. Burritos La Palma is repping Zacatecas with their compact birria de res burritos. Coni’seafood primarily focuses on seafood preparations from coastal Nayarit, and also draws from neighboring Sinaloa.
It’s great that Angelenos now understand more nuances, and that massive countries like Mexico, China, or India, and not just the U.S., in fact have a range of cuisines, and not a single cuisine, which only makes sense.
L.A. has come to understand what Singaporean hawker stands or Mexico City street vendors have known for years. Focus can be a powerful force. Nobody needs a menu with 300 items and middling results when a chef can serve five things, or even one, that are really fantastic. Just look at places like Hummus Yummy in Valley Village or Hasiba in Beverlywood, which both specialize in sensational Israeli hummus preparations, with minimal variation.
Mariscos Jalisco has a very lean menu on their trucks in Boyle Heights and the Fashion District, but still draws crowds for their famous fried shrimp tacos and fiery ceviches. Recent examples of specialization include Woon Kitchen for homestyle Chinese food in Historic Filipinotown, Maury’s Bagels in Silver Lake, and The Chori-Man, where Humberto Raygoza is building on Zacatecan chorizo traditions in San Pedro.
Of course, let’s not forget Howlin’ Ray’s in Chinatown, which is derivative, but still an action packed destination for Nashville-style hot chicken with bold flavor and clear focus.
Of course, these restaurants didn’t invent specialization. Just look at classic spots like Bill’s Burgers in Van Nuys, where Bill Elwell has manned the same griddle since 1965. We can also see specialists in action at Han Bat Sul Lung Tang in Koreatown, Tito’s Tacos in Culver City or Randy’s Donuts by LAX.
Personalization was initially a luxury people couldn’t afford, since the first cooking was simply for survival. Thankfully, as peace of mind has increased over the centuries, cooking has become much more creative and unique.
Corporate chains have become ingrained in society and aren’t going away due to ubiquity, convenience, and lower costs associated with the economy of scale, but many people still crave food with a sense of place and more personal touches. Family-run places that taste like home, only better, are harder to keep in business, but can be far more special. L.A. has hundreds of these restaurants, and some that could only exist in L.A.
I’ll mention a few of L.A.’s most dynamic restaurants, some with unlikely flavor combinations, that really excite me.
Here’s Looking At You is a leading example of cutting-edge L.A. cuisine that isn’t beholden to tired European traditions like many New York restaurants. Jonathan Whitener has a mixed background: a German father who grew up in South Carolina, and a mother with roots in Guadalajara, Mexico. Whitener also grew up in Orange County’s Little Saigon, which has one of America’s highest concentrations of Vietnamese restaurants. He graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and worked locally at Craft in Century City, Marché Moderne in Orange County, and as Chef de Cuisine at Animal. That’s where he met business partner Lien Ta, who is Vietnamese-American. Dishes at Here’s Looking At You reflect their diversity, including frog’s legs with salsa negra and hamachi collar with hot curry and nuoc cham.
Cassia is another restaurant that capitalizes on Cross-Pollination, and a business that would have been unimaginable when I first moved to Santa Monica. Bryant Ng stresses his Hong Kong and Singaporean roots, and wife/partner Kim Luu-Ng provides Vietnamese influences. Pot au feu reverse engineers the French influences in a Vietnamese soup that includes short ribs and bone marrow. The modern Asian brasserie serves distinctly Asian charcuterie. The couple also incorporates dishes from other parts of Asia, including laksa, a coconut milk curry noodle soup that’s popular in Malaysia, and beef rendang from Indonesia. “Clay oven breads”, AKA naan, come with atypical toppings like chopped escargot in lemongrass butter. Their dishes taste totally original and delicious.
Guerrilla Tacos is just one great example. Chef Wes Avila is a Mexican-American chef who grew up in Pico Rivera and cooked in several top French kitchens. At his former food truck, and now at his Arts District restaurant, his proteins, salsas, and plating are unique mash-ups of his different influences. He lives in Glendale, surrounded by Middle Eastern food, so you might find the Armenian beef sausage sujuk on a taco. He also serves Chinese-style roast pork char siu, no doubt inspired by meals in L.A. He also borrows frequently from his travels to places like Hawaii. His poké is unlike any version you’ll find on the islands, but still feels familiar.
Baroo Canteen is located in an East Hollywood Swap Meet. Chefs Kwang Uh and Mina Park, a newly married couple, root their cooking in Korean techniques and fermentation, but are totally L.A. They make shrimp toast with kimchi and avocado-shiso-yuzu coulis, for example, along with a fantastic fried rice, which they’ve titled International Affairs di Pastrami. That dish includes house-made pastrami, a nod to Langer’s Deli and Night + Market’s spicy noodle dish. They’re also just as seasonal as a place like Rustic Canyon, and source from similar farms. Windrose greens, Koda Farms rice, and Flora Bella lettuces all factor into their dishes.
Just down 7th Street from Cassia, I’m looking forward to Onda, a restaurant that’s opening this summer at the new Proper Hotel. Jessica Koslow helped redefine California cuisine at SQIRL in Virgil Village and now partners with progressive Mexico City chef Gabriela Camara. The possibilities are very exciting.
Happily, L.A. has too many groundbreaking restaurants that defy categorization for me to mention in a single talk. Instead, let’s look to the future.
The Future of L.A. Dining
When it comes to the next 20 years of L.A. dining, any speculation I make about the restaurant scene will be an educated guess, but we should expect to see continued support for regionalization, specialization, and cross-pollination.
Three other factors will also continue to drive L.A.’s culinary transformation:
Depending on your perspective, plenty of other neighborhoods will either undergo development or gentrification. The downtown Arts District is well past critical mass, Silicon Beach now extends to Culver City and West LA, and stretches of historically working class Highland Park already resemble Venice’s trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard on weekends.
West Adams is on the way toward a similar result. Neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Leimert Park, and Lincoln Heights are next in line for similar transformations. In 20 years, as people find it harder to spot the last remaining affordable pockets, we might be talking about neighborhoods like El Sereno and Van Nuys as the next hot neighborhoods.
Even New York City publications now have no choice but to admit that L.A. is cool, and restaurateurs from cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco all want to be in business here. are now flooding our city with outposts, and in some cases, new concepts. Some of this expansion will help to drive the food scene forward, with novel concepts from truly visionary chefs who refuse to just rubber stamp existing restaurants in L.A. Tartine Bianco, Alameda Supper Club and M. Georgina come to mind, and that’s just at the ROW. We’ll also have more places like Roberta’s, which feels, and tastes, like an impersonator. It’s also inevitable that we’ll get opportunists like Salt Bae, an Instagram sensation who’s best known for how he salts his steak at Nusr-Et. That tells you all you’ll need to know about his upcoming satellite location in the Arts District.
We also have changing market forces. The economy is of course cyclical, and even though L.A. is thriving at the moment, with companies like Facebook, Google and Apple gobbling up real estate and vaulting salaries, home prices and property taxes into the stratosphere, we’ll inevitably see at least one major shakeout over the next 20 years. The restaurant scene has so much momentum that we should be able to avoid complete decimation, but it’s hard to say what our food community will look like after recession hits.
L.A. is also looking at rising minimum wage, the spiking costs associated with worker’s comp, insurance, and ingredients. More people may well think, “Why bother?” and just learn to code or become a plumber or auto mechanic, evergreen skills that command better pay.
Even if we buck economic trends and growth continues unabated, I can say with certainty that almost all of your favorite restaurants will be long gone in 20 years.
Some of these factors will mirror what we’ve seen before. Running restaurants is a grind, and that’s in the best of times, when places get steady business. Of course most restaurants that go down are because people are either delusional or better in the kitchen than they are at running or marketing a business. Best case: restaurateurs will run restaurants as long as they like and enjoy a graceful exit. Some restaurateurs simply don’t have children to pass on the businesses, or don’t have children who want to tackle that same Sisyphean task.
On a more positive flipside, I can also guarantee most of your favorite restaurants from 2039 don’t exist yet.