Guide

10 Innovative Restaurants Around LA

By Lesley Balla  |  January 6, 2014
Credit: Ryan Forbes for AVABLU

What makes a restaurant innovative is often in the eye of the beholder. It could be a chef creating avant-garde cuisine or making simple everyday food more perfect. Or maybe a restaurateur setting a new standard of dining etiquette, or instilling policies to help employees and, in the end, customers. It might be all of the above at any one time, at least here in LA, where innovators have helped make the dining scene one of the most dynamic today. Here are 10 that helped set a new tone.

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  • N/Naka

    Chef Niki Nakayama is one of the only female sushi chefs in Los Angeles, but her hidden Palms restaurant is so much more than sushi. Celebrating the formal, multicourse style of dining called kaiseki, N/Naka is one of the most unique experiences in town. Nakayama’s presentation of seafood, meats and seasonal ingredients, most plucked from her own organic garden, is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition with enough California flair (she’s a native Angeleno) that makes it truly special and innovative.

    Sip Tip: While the price tag for the 13-course dinner hovers around $165, it’s worth getting the extra wine pairings for $85 for a taste tour through sake and interesting European and Californian wine pairings.

  • Trois Mec

    A collaboration between Ludovic Lefebvre, whose Ludobites notoriously broke reservations systems, and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, whose Animal and Son of a Gun restaurants are always booked at primetime dining hours, meant getting a seat at their new restaurant would be close to impossible. So they came up with a plan: release seats every two weeks and make people pre-pay for the chance to eat at the prix-fixe-only Trois Mec. They’re rock stars, so dining at their restaurant would be like going to a rock show, so to speak.

    That’s the Ticket: Seats are released two weeks at a time, and there are only 24 seats in the house, so it’s tough to get a table (even tougher to get the much-coveted chef’s counter). But follow the restaurant on Facebook for updates: there are usually seats that turn up via cancelations or other inventory miracles.

  • Credit: Sugarfish

    Sugarfish

    Taking the sushi bar out of the “sushi experience” is just one way this blossoming local chain is redefining the way people eat sushi in LA. Owned and operated by chef Kazunori Nozawa, who became known as the “sushi nazi” at Sushi Nozawa for almost 30 years for serving the rice and fish his way and no other, his son Tom and wife Yumiko, the food and service at the nine locations is more efficient, with a lower price point but still maintaining high quality. Nozawa’s famous “trust-me” philosophy is still there, as he still selects the fish, serves housemade soy and ponzu, and warm sticky rice.

    Tip: The tip here is that you don’t have to leave one. It’s already included in the $20, $30 and $40 menus.

  • Republique

    Restaurateur Bill Chait and chefs Walter and Marge Manzke gave new life to the former Campanile space with this French bistro and bakery. The design, menus and food are making waves right now, but one thing few have paid attention to is the note at the bottom of each check: “A 3% charge will be added to each guest check, to ensure health & medical benefits for our entire staff. Please adjust your gratuity accordingly and thank you!" Happy employees mean good service, which means happy customers. How novel.

    Slow Roll: After opening for dinner only, the bakery is now serving pastries and coffee in the mornings. Lunch and brunch will be added within the next couple of months.

  • The Oinkster

    The idea of “slow fast food” is probably not new - surely there are small mom-and-pop shops around the country serving comfort-food classics with quality ingredients. But when Andre Guerrero opened this burger and pastrami stand in 2006, it was a departure for the chef, who had been cooking in top restaurants around LA for more than 20 years, and a boon for Eagle Rock. The pastrami, pulled pork, burgers and Belgian fries are made with painstaking care, which you taste. It paved the way for others, like Top Round, which makes fast food with ingredients you can pronounce.

    Burgerisms: Watch for the burger specials of the month, like January’s The Pig Skin, a pork patty topped with pork and chicharron chile verde, avocado, pinto beans, nopales and pickled jalapeños. And mark your calendar: Burger Week every June has become popular for burger fans who line up to taste each crazy new concoction every day.

  • The Bazaar

    Not only did LA get to call chef José Andrés one of our own when the SLS hotel restaurant opened in 2008, but it brought a wonderland of dining to the scene unlike any we’ve seen before. The sexy Philippe Starck decor, the different rooms that all flow together, each with its own menu, including the lounge and the Patisserie, a futuristic candyland with glass jars filled with saffron gelées and pop rocks and more. It brought Andrés’ molecular vision to the food scene, and other star chefs who, after working at The Bazaar, opened their own innovative restaurants, like Michael Voltaggio (Ink) and Waylynn Lucas (Fonuts).

    Even More Bazaar: For a different kind of dining experience, try Saam, a private back room that features 20-course tasting menus. Of course, that is, until it changes - it will become something more akin to Andres’ Washington, DC, restaurant, Minibar, sometime this year.

  • Chocovivo

    Patricia Tsai didn’t just open a chocolate shop. Her bean-to-bar philosophy starts with cocoa nibs sourced from a grower in Tabasco, Mexico, where they’re roasted and sent to her directly. In the shop, the staff grinds the nibs into a paste, similar to the way the Mayans and Aztecs did it more than 2,000 years ago. There are no fillers, additives or powders involved; no over-processing or tempering. She adds natural spices, nuts and dried fruits like blood orange and cherries, and there you have it: simple, delicious, pure dark chocolate in flavors like almond and sea salt, black sesame and goji berry, cherry and black peppercorn, coffee and vanilla bean, and blood orange and tonka bean, an ingredient so good it's illegal (but used by José Andrés and Grant Achatz).

    Chocoholics Unite: The chocolate-tasting bar at the Culver City shop and factory is unique in that you get a little sampler of the different chocolates, like you would wines. You can also go die-hard and try the 100% pure cacao with filtered water. Anyone who finishes it will be called a Mayan Warrior and probably feel like building a few pyramids.

  • Blaze Pizza

    The last year has seen an outpouring of fast-casual, customizable pizza shops around the greater Los Angeles area (800 Degrees, PizzaRev, Pizza Studio), but Blaze has one thing going for it that the others don’t: chef Brad Kent. He fiddled with the dough at his own pizzeria, Olio, for years before perfecting it, and took the same philosophy to create an easily replicable, foolproof fast-rising dough for the growing chain. What you get is a crust that is better than it should be, and holds as many toppings as you can pile on for around seven bucks.

    The Rise: If waiting a few minutes for your pizza to come out of the oven is still too long, you can now call in your order in advance and pick up. The way the lines are at some of the locations (cough, Pasadena, cough), this is a good thing.

  • Father’s Office

    When chef Sang Yoon took over an old Santa Monica bar and turned his experience from haute kitchens to burgers, a burger and beer craze was born in LA. Not only are some burgers direct rip-offs of Yoon’s Office Burger topped with blue cheese, arugula, caramelized onion and bacon, but his “no-modifications” rules and steadfast dedication to not even having ketchup in the kitchen have been adopted around town as well, for better or worse.

    On Tap: It’s not just about craft brews here anymore. Yoon was also one of the first to offer an array of wines on tap, some kegged specifically for the two FO locations.

  • Forage

    Farm-to-table is one overused phrase, and “foraged” is getting there too, but not many restaurants rely on local home, community and school gardens for produce. Forage isn’t just the name of the Silver Lake restaurant, it’s how you get food on your plate.

    What’s New: Pay attention to the restaurant blog for garden and menu updates, so you’ll know when citrus season hits (blood orange salad), how the chefs are using first-of-the-season tomatoes, and when the best pear cake you’ll ever taste is available.