Whether you’ve decided to put real effort into your next date or your East Coast friends who are all pre-programmed to hate this city are in town, you’re ready to do something different than eating pretty vegetables on a pretty patio. As nice as those dinners are, at some point, they all start to blur together.
So here are some restaurants that are unlike any others. Some are hidden, one has a jungle cruise inside it, and another is a members-only club for the greatest magicians in the world. All of these places, however, are as much about the overall experience as they are about food. Go try one of these restaurants in LA you’ll actually remember.
From the second you round the corner and spot Anajak’s alleyway patio, you know you’ve found the coolest restaurant set up in the city. Rows of white-clothed tables reflect giant shadows through the alley, R&B blasts from a nearby speaker, and in the middle of it all is chef and second-generation owner, Justin Pichetrungsi, preparing his 14-course Thai omakase meal for the lucky people who snagged a reservation. There’s also a Thai Taco Tuesday night, a natural wine program, and a creamy curry custard that tastes like a spicy dessert. Anajak’s been open in Sherman Oaks for over 40 years and is a case study in reinvention – now’s the time to experience it.
Taco Maria (an experimental Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa) has recently dropped their prix-fixe menu, but eating there still feels like a two-hour vacation. Their new menu has a lot of great options, like marinated nopalitos in preserved lemon, fresh cranberry frijoles topped with a toasted avocado leaf, and our favorite, a red corn and burnt strawberry tamal, covered in a dollop of Tahitian vanilla ice cream that all but made sugarplum fairies one-two step in our heads.
The Old Place
Whenever we need a break from the chaos of Los Angeles, we drive up to Old Place. It’s in the Santa Monica Mountains, located on the grounds of a 19th-century general store-turned-saloon and steakhouse, complete with a Wild West aesthetic that reminds us of the movies our dad loves to watch. The menu is packed with American comfort foods like bone-in ribeyes, glorious apple pes, and something called a “noodle and cheese bake,” a mac-and-cheese type dish that’s made with thick egg noodles smothered in parmesan, goat cheese, and mozzarella.
A meal at this high-end sushi bar in the San Fernando Valley can only be described as a transcendental experience. The bar is packed with regulars, the walls are a strangely soothing bright-orange color, and fluorescent lighting flickers overhead. It seems like a casual experience, despite the $200 price tag, and everyone’s having fun. The chef behind the counter is as calm as a Headspace instructor, carefully constructing ahi tuna four ways or shrimp tempura with a hint of yuzu. The omakase is the way to go – instead of nigiri, you’ll get four different cuts of ahi prepared four different ways, blue crab hand rolls laced with truffle oil, and scallops topped with caviar.
Driving up to this Topanga Canyon spot, you’ll pass crystal shops, Shakespeare amphitheaters, and homemade art installations that will really make you question “Will I ever understand art?” That drive itself is worthy of being on our list, but it all culminates at lunch at Café 27. The almost entirely outdoor restaurant is built into the side of a hill, complete with a multi-level patio that feels like you’re eating in the real-life treehouse of your dreams. Soak in the view with a side of omelets, sandwiches, and a very good avocado toast – one that’s super creamy and topped with radishes and sesame seeds.
The Tam O’Shanter
The Tam O’Shanter is one of those extremely European places that Southern California seems to love so much (see also: literally all of Solvang). Wrought iron chandeliers swing from the ceiling, there’s about five miles of carpet on the floors, and you can find fireplaces in nearly every room. The menu’s stacked with foods that feel like they should be eaten in candlelight, like a funky Scotch rarebit or Toad In The Hole that’s essentially a filet mignon stew. This Scottish pub feels like its been frozen in time in the best way possible.
Between its hidden courtyard, mystical garden, and what appears to be a Property Brother seated just 100 feet away, a dinner at Phenakite is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The nine-course meal is run by Minh Phan, the chef and owner behind Porridge + Puffs in Historic Filipinotown. Here, she orchestrates a meal that’s half-theater, half-experimentation. Stars twinkle overhead as she and her team personally serve dishes like ice cream that comes in an edible bowl and swordfish that’s blowtorched on the spot.
Idle Hour Bar
This iconic bar housed in a larger-than-life wooden barrel is one of LA’s greatest examples of programmatic architecture. And for those who don’t regularly lurk architecture porn subreddits, it’s also a great thing to stare at whenever you’re tired of heading to your neighborhood restaurant for the 20th time this week. Their excellent back patio has lots of space, a bulldog building smoking a pipe, and dishes like pulled pork sliders and sloppy tots.
This weekend-only pop-up serves incredible breakfast sandwiches via a drop-down bucket from the fire escape of an East Hollywood apartment. It’s basically performance art – a bright-red bucket spiraling towards you, lowered by the chef herself. It’s simple, yet extremely entertaining, an experience that all sandwich artists at Subway probably aspire to. Plus, the egg and bacon-stuffed sandwich itself is thick, gooey, and essentially the best grilled cheese you could eat in the morning.
If there’s a type of restaurant especially unique to Los Angeles, it’s the celebrity hangout. Sitting in a restaurant with Clooney in a corner and paparazzi out front is the kind of thing you have to do at least once in this city. We’d argue there’s no better place to watch famous people pretend to not notice you watching them than at Giorgio Baldi. In a canyon near the beach, the surprising thing about this place is that the Italian food is very good. So while people are here to rub elbows with Dustin Hoffman and hope to see Rihanna do one of her signature exits with wine glass in hand, they’re just as likely to get distracted by the sweet corn and truffle agnolotti.
Zam Zam Market
Occasionally, the task of deciding what to order is enough to make you skip a meal or eat only crackers for lunch. When you’re having an existential crisis brought on by too many options, the solution is to get yourself to Hawthorne, walk into Zam Zam Market, and ask them what’s cooking today. Zam Zam is a Pakistani market that happens to have very good biryani, kebabs, and more – not that you’ll get to choose any of those. They’ll just bring you out a plate of the day’s specials, which is a much better option than crackers on your couch.
The Magic Castle
To call The Magic Castle a restaurant would be doing it an injustice. It’s a private club, home to the best magicians on the planet, with a restaurant that’s better than you’d expect. Getting into this massive Victorian mansion in Hollywood takes some effort (you need to secure an invite from an actual club member), but once you’re inside, you’ll embark on a night of up-close magic, strong Old Fashioneds, and mechanical owls that’ll talk back to you. The steak and potatoes-heavy menu isn’t going to melt your mind, but that’s what the magic is for.
Cicada Club is one of those places that reminds you Los Angeles is much cooler than it will ever get credit for. This Downtown supper club feels like you’re eating in the grand ballroom of the Titanic and there’s a live brass band that gets the dance floor heated up early. The dress code is suits and cocktail dresses, but if you show up in a flapper outfit, no one will blink an eye. If you’re looking for something different to do on your birthday this year, take the crew to Cicada Club.
In cities like New York, Chicago, or Dubai, restaurants on top of tall buildings are not special. But this is Los Angeles, the land of chronic “big one” anxieties, so when a restaurant is located on the 71st floor of one of our only legitimate skyscrapers, it’s special. 71Above is on the fancier side, but with 360-degree views of the city, fantastic cocktails, and a very good three-course prix-fixe menu, this is definitely the kind of place where getting dressed up feels worth it.
Dinner with your friends is great. Dinner with your friends and a drag queen that continually gives you sh*t for everything you do is even better. Hamburger Mary’s is a national chain these days, but the magic of its original West Hollywood location is still going strong. Come any Sunday or Wednesday night for their famous drag queen bingo, and you’ll find a packed house full of people eating solid bar food, getting rowdy on bright blue cocktails, and letting that drag queen at the front of the room tear them to shreds.
From the outside, El Cid appears to be just a random door frame along Sunset Blvd. But walk down the staircase, and you’ll find yourself in a hidden dinner theater featuring weekly live music and professional flamenco shows. The dinner-and-a-show setup runs every Saturday and Sunday night, with solid-enough Spanish food that will keep everybody in your group happy. Once the show is over, grab another cocktail from the bar, and take the party outside to one of our favorite patios in the city.