16 Power Players of LA's Dining and Drinking Scene

By Lesley Balla  |  October 28, 2013

There are a lot of people making LA's culinary scene what it is today, with everything from growing empires of top chefs like Nancy Silverton and Roy Choi to mom-and-pop restaurants changing how and what we eat today. Here are 16 personalities we think are making a huge impact around LA right now, from beer experts to socially conscious bread bakers, pickle masters, restaurateurs and more. Some you may know and some you're yet to meet, but all are doing interesting things around town that elevate the way we eat, think, drink and cook. 

  • Bruce Kalman, Bruce’s Prime Pickle Co.

    Yes, he can pickle that. Having experimented “like a mad scientist” with making pickles at The Churchill, chef Bruce Kalman has made it his mission to pickle as much of the local, seasonal bounty as he can for Bruce’s Prime Pickle Co., which he launched after leaving the West Hollywood restaurant. Having seen a gap in the LA-based pickle market, he works closely with local farmers for produce, and uses Sparrow Lane vinegars from Modesto and Hepp’s pure ocean salt to make the delicious Garlic Dill Horsey Cukes, Cab Sweet Onions and a dynamite Chi-Town Giardinaire. “We keep it simple, yet inventive, and bring the flavor forward while keeping the veggies crisp,” he adds.

    Other restaurateurs have taken notice too: the 15 Umami Burger locations in Southern California and the three Dog Haus locations are just some of the restaurants and hotels using Prime Pickle products. You can also buy the products at Farmshop in Brentwood, The Oaks Gourmet in Hollywood and The Silver Lake Cheese Store among other retail spots around town. Some forthcoming additions to the line include sweet pickle relish and a line of pickled items and brines for the bar. Kalman’s hopes move beyond the LA border and into other markets across the country. “We plan to make people smile, one pickle at a time.”

  • Bricia Lopez, Guelaguetza

    Mole lovers in LA have undoubtedly seen Bricia Lopez at Guelaguetza, where she and her brother oversee operations for the restaurant their father opened in the 1990s, or possibly at the myriad food events where she hands out plates of mole negro tamales and a shot of mescal or two. In fact, mescal has become a passion for the Oaxacan-born Lopez, as the Koreatown restaurant now has one of the country's largest menus featuring the spirit. In addition to her love of all things Oaxacan - she and her brother are also working on a documentary about their city - she’s sort of a cultural ambassador for Mexican tastes, sights and sounds around LA.

    She’s putting that to good use: not only was Lopez tapped to preside over the annual Taste of Mexico event next year, she was recognized by City Council President Herb Wesson as an “unsung hero of the Latina community.” She also made her way to the White House earlier this year, when she was invited to discuss immigration and its impact on the economy with President Obama. Out of the eight people in the room, she was one of two women and the only person under 30. If you see a “Bricia” cocktail somewhere like La Descarga or Las Perlas, most likely made with mescal, this is who inspired it.

  • Credit: Paul Hibler

    Paul Hibler, Restaurateur

    While Hibler doesn’t call himself a chef, he has been involved with the restaurant industry for more than 25 years. The co-founder of Pitfire Artisan Pizza, one of the first artisanal pizza spots in LA that now has seven locations around Southern California and growing, Hibler recently launched the American Food Gonzo Corporation, a “restaurant incubator” that serves as an arena for chefs, designers and entrepreneurs to collaborate on developing new dining concepts and emerging brands. One of the more prominent is his partnership with chef Jason Neroni at Superba Snack Bar, the popular Venice bistro where the vibe, Neroni’s seasonal fare and his artisanal approach are perfect for the emerging Rose Avenue scene.

    Now Hibler’s next projects include a bakery offshoot of Superba, and East Borough, a Vietnamese-focused restaurant with Jonh Cao and chef Chloe Tran that will open in Culver City this fall. “Right now I feel like there’s a huge hole in the market due to the maturation and decline of a lot of the national concepts,” Hibler says. “So my goal is to invest in new restaurants and develop [artisanal] brands.” Look for another Pitfire to open in the former Sizzler on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena too.

  • Credit: Dana Patrick

    Chris and Mike Simms, Restaurateurs

    There was definitely an untapped market for gastropubs before these two brothers started opening and operating their beer-focused spots in the South Bay. Mike is the founder and primary owner of Simmzy’s in Long Beach and Manhattan Beach, and Tin Roof Bistro, where chef-partner Anne Conness’ fare and craft brews go hand in hand. With the Simms Restaurant Group, he’s also an investor in Manhattan Beach Post and Fishing With Dynamite, chef David LeFevre’s two hot spots. Chris is also partner or investor in all of those projects, but he founded Lazy Dog Cafe, a Southern California chain of family-friendly restaurants.

    The common thread through all of these spots is the conviviality, good food and, of course, beer. The brothers were both home-brewing before Simmzy’s or TRB opened, so their love of suds have helped make their spots some of the best for beerheads around LA. The two don’t plan on slowing down either. Plans for more Simmzy’s are in the works, and the first Northern California Lazy Dog Cafe opens this year.

  • Credit: Gary Leonard

    Bill Chait, Restaurateur

    We can’t have a Power Player list without mentioning Bill Chait. Having been involved with the restaurant industry for more than 25 years, from founding Louise’s Trattoria to launching Test Kitchen and partnering with some of LA’s top chefs to open some of the hottest restaurants all over town, he is a man with a magic touch. He's involved with Rivera with John Sedlar; Sotto with Steve Samson and Zach Pollack; Bestia with Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis; Short Order with Nancy Silverton; Petty Cash and Republique with Walter Manzke; and Picca with Ricardo Zarate. And he’s not stopping - there are several more projects in the works, including the forthcoming Redbird at the Vibiana with Neal Fraser.

    He has a knack for finding the right space, the right talent and knowing what will fly in the neighborhood, and every chef he works with agrees that Chait’s experience and knowledge is invaluable, from his hands-off approach that allows them to do what they want to do, to knowing the business side of things they're yet to learn.

  • Jo Stougaard, My Last Bite and LA Bites Hunger

    LA’s die-hard foodies are no strangers to My Last Bite. Stougaard's blog, Instagram and Twitter feeds are constantly filled with gorgeous food photos of extravagant dinners at the top restaurants in town, more than 300 dishes from Jitlada’s enormous Thai menu, healthful dinners cooked at home, and the occasional shot of some very cute pups. Stougaard, a constant diner and all-around food advocate who can never put down her cellphone at the table - and no one asks her to - isn't just an eater. She’s a doer.

    This summer, Stougaard (and full disclosure, this author) founded LA Bites Hunger, which organizes volunteer days at the LA Regional Food Bank for chefs, restaurateurs and the LA food community. “Our Los Angeles food community eats so well on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. L.A. Bites Hunger is about using social media to bring awareness to LA's hunger problem,” Stougaard says. The first event took place over the summer with Michael Cimarusti, Michael Voltaggio, Josiah Citrin, Akasha Richmond, CJ Jacobson and many other local hot shots sorting over 65,000 lbs. of produce for distribution to food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers and school programs. Plans for more volunteer days and other like-minded events are in the works.

  • Adam Fleischman, Umami Restaurant Group and AdVantage Partners

    Without Fleischman, there would be no Umami Burger. Opening the first location on La Brea in 2009, the brand known for its ‘fifth-taste’ take on the American classic has exploded across the country, with more than 20 locations in Southern California, Miami, New York and soon, Las Vegas. After burgers, Fleischman took on pizza, creating 800 Degrees with chef Anthony Carron; the haute Southeast Asian concept Red Medicine with Noah Ellis and chef Jordan Kahn; and ice cream with L.A. Creamery, known for boozy and porky frozen treats.

    Moving even further beyond burgers, Fleischman continues to expand his stake in the LA dining scene with Roadhouse L.A., the barbecue concept he’s opening with chef Robbie Richter (NYC’s Fatty ‘Cue and Hill Country) later this year, and with the newly created AdVantage Partners LLC, planning to open Smoke.Oil.Salt with Spanish-born chef Perfecto Rocher. "I've always had a lot of ideas but didn't always have the resources to develop them,” Fleishman says of his every expanding empire. “When I started Umami Burger, it was just a small investment on credit cards. I like collaborating with talented and creative people. AdVantage Partners is a way for me to help bring some of my own ideas to life and a way to help nurture ideas from other nascent talent."

  • Jessica Koslow, Sqirl

    Going from hipster jam-maker to four-star chef just sort of... happened... for Koslow. After working as a pastry chef at Atlanta’s award-winning Bacchanalia, the Long Beach-born Koslow returned to Los Angeles to figure out her next direction. Falling in love with the local produce each season, she started making jam - really, really good jam - that got the attention of chefs, retailers and magazine editors around the country. Her talents with citrus, berries, and savory and sweet preserves has been heralded in everything from Food & Wine to the New York Times, and now you can find Sqirl jams and preserves in high-end shops from coast to coast.

    But it’s when Koslow decided to turn her Sqirl kitchen into a sort of pop-up toast and coffee cafe that she really started to make waves. Since opening in 2012, she’s already expanded the space and gathered a team of excellent chefs from restaurants like Canele, Son of a Gun and Campanile, and serves more than toast - things like hand-rolled pastas with fresh Santa Barbara uni, sunchoke hash and carrot pancakes. And her friendship with wine expert and mentor Lou Amdur landed his new shop next door, plus a new bigger kitchen area where the plan is to do charcuterie and other handcrafted items. None of this was some grand plan drawn out on paper when she started making preserves, so when it comes to questions of the future, Koslow is pretty focused on the now: “My friend is a third-generation cranberry farmer in Carver, Masachussetts, and I have 150 lbs. of cranberries coming out of my eyeballs. It’s the only non-California jam I make. ‘Tis the season!”

  • Joseph Levy, Writer and Director, Spinning Plates

    You’d think that for someone who so gracefully captures the inner workings of the restaurant world, whether for the Food Network’s Into the Fire or Spinning Plates, Levy was a total insider. Not tueu. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker only stepped into his first professional kitchen a few years ago (Campanile for the Food Network), but he always had an affinity for good restaurants and good food. “I find it oddly funny that food and restaurants have become such a significant part of my career,” Levy says. “Funny because when I moved here as a music major at USC years ago, I would kill time during my desk job at the Cinema School by annotating the Zagat guide. I was so excited to be living in Los Angeles and have access to the wealth of restaurants here.  Every time my parents would come to visit, they'd be met with a list of top restaurants we were going to visit.”

    His new documentary Spinning Plates chronicles the struggles of three very different restaurants: Grant Achatz and Alinea, the 150-year-old Breitbach's in Iowa, and Tucson's La Cocina de Gabby. “I wanted an ethnic restaurant that featured owners who came here to this country in search of the American Dream and represented the very common but seldom-featured story of struggle in the restaurant industry.” It’s a view of the food world you rarely see, and we’re grateful to Levy for showing it to the masses.

  • Michele Grant, The Kosher Palate

    For all the specialized foods you can get in LA, especially at farmers' market stands and food trucks, rarely is it kosher. “After a friend’s Purim dinner, I started looking at what kind of food the Frum Jewish community had compared to the food trends that were happening in the secular world,” says Grant, the chef and founder of The Kosher Palate. “There was a huge gap in the variety of food available to the kosher foodie.” So she set out to change that with her catering company, farmers' market booth, food truck and (soon) a takeout market.

    On the truck, she's serving things like falafel and tater tots smothered in Tofutti tzatziki, pan-fried Yemenite bread topped with honey-pepper steak, and Portuguese kale stew, all prepared in partnership and under the strict supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California, and also made with fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients found at many of our local farmers' markets. At the markets, Kosher Palate is the first booth with on-site kosher supervision in LA, so weekly shoppers can nosh on dishes inspired by traditional Jewish cuisines from around the world while they look for produce for home. And in November, the first stationary location will open at Crafted in San Pedro, where prepared foods and other hard-to-find kosher specialty items will be available. “We just want to give LA’s kosher foodies a place to really satisfy their epicurean cravings, something that's been sorely missing from the kosher food scene.”

  • Alex Day and Dave Kaplan, Honeycut and Proprietors LLC

    We’re not saying you couldn’t get a drink on a dance floor around LA, but Honeycut might just be the first cocktail bar that happens to have a lit-up Saturday Night Fever dance floor where you can boogie down while sipping drinks made with artisanal spirits and housemade sodas or classic cocktails from the tap. Thank Alex Day and Dave Kaplan for the wildly inventive cocktails you’ll be drinking there, as well as some other menus they’ve consulted on with their Proprietors LLC group.

    For Honeycut, the two, both co-founders of NYC’s popular Death & Company cocktail bar, partnered with Cedd Moses and Eric Needleman from 213 Nightlife, well-known empire builders of the downtown resurgence, creating sort of a super nightlife group. With an eye for design, service and decor - plus a Downtown lab where they create and mix and test their drinks before they ever reach your lips - Kaplan and Day are upping the ante of what we’re drinking and where.

  • Gabe Gordon, Co-Founder, Beachwood BBQ & Brewery

    Gordon is the first to tell you that the success of Beachwood BBQ & Brewing is definitely a collaborative effort. Gordon, a chef; his wife, Lena Perelman; and brewmaster Julian Shrago opened the Long Beach brewpub in 2011 and have since won many accolades and awards for the food and beer. At this year’s Great American Brew Festival alone, they took home five awards, including two golds, and earned the title of Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year - and it was one of two breweries in all of LA County to come home with a medal.

    But we have Gordon on this list because he also created the Flux Capacitor, which monitors CO2 and allows for line adjustments for all of the beers served at the two pubs. That means the carbonation and temperature for each beer, from a light pilsner to the darkest stout, can each be controlled individually, allowing for maximum taste and enjoyment. This is the start of a revolution: both Beachwoods have the Flux Capacitor, and he built one for Tørst in New York City. We hope the rest of the country will be drinking draft craft brews exactly how they should be soon.

  • Rose and David Lawrence, Red Bread

    If you're one of those people who gets to the Santa Monica Farmers too late and misses Red Bread's organic bread and baked offerings for the day, you're in luck: the eGrocer and organic bakery opened its brick-and-mortar spot in Culver City, allowing the Lawrences to serve all the fresh-baked wild sourdough breads, cookies, galettes, housemade jams and more. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, they were able to open the bakery, cafe and marketplace, all while still selling breads at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays, and they deliver breads by bike on Sundays.

    Red Bread isn’t just good eating - it’s good social practices. All of the ingredients are sourced from organic farms; they strive for zero waste in the kitchen; all packaging is recyclable; the electric bikes allow for a low carbon footprint; and, the clincher, 5% of all sales are donated to the LA Food Bank. Just think if every company did even a crumb of any of that. “Having studied and worked in Human Rights and Capacity Building as a law student at UCLA, my husband and I started looking at how we could direct that and be an impact on our own community,” Rose says. “Los Angeles is full of food deserts, but even if you are fortunate enough to have local stores, more often than not you still must be on your guard for GMOs, additives in proper processing of ingredients. We founded Red Bread to get back to a time when food was processed slowly and properly.” The Lawrences also teach classes in the store on bread, cheese and jam-making, and sell artisanal goods to take home. They’re not sticking to the Westside either: they’re already on the lookout for spaces Downtown.