Los Angeles has never enjoyed a particularly great reputation as a foodie destination. In fact, it’s largely seen as lagging behind other major US cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco when it comes to fine restaurants and top chefs. But I’m here to tell you otherwise. Believe it or not, LA has an amazing food scene that can compete with any of these cities any day of the week.
When most people hear the words “restaurants” and “LA” in one sentence, images of people stuffing their faces at Taco Bell and McDonald’s drive-thrus spring to mind; or on the opposite extreme, health freaks ordering egg-white omelettes, and celebrities pushing salad leaves around their plates at glitzy places in Beverly Hills.
Indeed when Michelin announced it was axing its guide to LA in 2009 having failed to award three stars to anyone, few people were shocked by former director Jean-Luc Naret’s assertion that there was no appreciation for good food in the city. “The people in LA are not real foodies,” he spat. “They are not too interested in eating well but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they sit.”
After less than two months of living here, I’m still new to LA and there’s a lot I need to learn and understand about this city. But if there’s one thing that’s already become crystal clear it’s that LA’s reputation as culinary dead zone is unfair and Naret’s comments couldn’t be further removed from the truth.
Yes, LA is everything you think it is. I’ve had such gigantic portions of greasy junk slapped down in front of me that I felt physically violated. I’ve observed minor celebrities arriving at restaurants accompanied by fake tits that put Jordan to shame, doing a lap of honour to turn heads and then leave again without even picking up a menu. And if I hear one more person bang on about the benefits of hydrating with coconut water, I will scream. (It tastes like shampoo, people, what’s wrong with you?!?).
But guess what – there is a serious food scene here too, you’ve just got to look for it.
Thanks to its sunny climate, Southern California has some of the best fruit and vegetables in the world and there are plenty of local farmers markets where impassioned foodies gather each week. There is a growing sector of microbreweries producing some of the top craft ales in the US, and we all know that some of the best wines in the world come from California.
What’s more, LA has a thriving independent restaurant industry, too. The city is home to a vast number of serious restaurants that offer excellent cooking in a relaxed environment and at affordable prices. You can eat at some of LA’s most acclaimed restaurants – Alma, Bestia or Gjelina, to name just a few – below $50 a head. Now I’m no expert on the wider US dining market (yet) but the last time I was in New York and San Francisco, I spent a hell of a lot more than that at restaurants of a similar level.
Granted LA can’t compete with some of the other cities when it comes to fine dining. If you’re looking for a three-star experience with all the bells and whistles, you probably are better off at one of the famous restaurants in New York, Chicago or even Las Vegas. LA admittedly doesn’t have the same sophistication when it comes to both food and service at the very high-end. But, Monsieur Naret, that does not mean the people of LA aren’t real foodies.
There are chefs like Josef Centeno of Bäco Mercat or Miles Thompson of Allumette, who’ve done their time training with the big guns across the country and have come to LA to open small restaurants, where they show off their culinary skills by celebrating local produce without chasing Michelin stars.
Moreover, at the low-end LA offers an ethnic restaurant community that can compete with any other metropolis in the world. And I’m not just talking about taco trucks here. There are flourishing Thai, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Chinese communities as well as a large Hispanic population, whose restaurants serve delicious and authentic food you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
There are food festivals, events, underground supper clubs, pop-up restaurants, special guest-chef dinners and promotions happening in LA every week. These events are consistently busy, proving that the people of LA aren’t just real foodies, they also take an active interest in their city’s food community.
After seven weeks in this massive city, I’ve only scratched the surface of what is has to offer but I’m honestly excited to keep discovering LA’s foodie gems. Over the next little while, I’ll share my findings so far. Keep reading!