Splurge vs. Steal: The Ultimate LA Dining Guide

By Lesley Balla  |  February 18, 2014
Credit: Petrossian/Plan Check (Dylan + Jeni)

Not everyone can afford a night of sushi brilliance at Ursawa - one of the country's most expensive restaurants - or a $75 burger, for that matter. But there are far more wallet-friendly ways to digest sushi, burgers, fried chicken and all of your most frequent cravings. Here now, a list of our favorite places to splurge around town along with comparable smart alternatives for the food lover on a budget.

  • Credit: Saam/Allumette

    Tasting Menus

    High: SAAM
    More than 20 courses of inspired Jose Andres bites with Iberico ham, caviar, oysters and more served in a beautiful back room at The Bazaar. The only flash here is on the plate, where carrots aren’t really carrots and magic transforms black eggs, cod and cheesesteaks. It all comes at a pretty price: tasting menus start at $120 per person for 22 courses and ratchet up to $160 for 29 courses. Add in the wine pairing for $100 more, and you’re in for quite a night.

    Low: Allumette
    30 Under 30 winner, chef Miles Thompson is doing something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, in tune with his Echo Park locale. He recently moved his menu format to tastings only (except at the bar). Things like gnochetti with wood pigeon ragù, octopus confit or flat-iron steak with kiwi and pumpkin seed oil fill out the menu, which is priced at $45 per person for four courses and $60 for five. It’s a much more affordable option.

  • Credit: Urasawa/Q Sushi (Lesley Balla)


    High: Urasawa
    The amazing parade of small plates and sushi crafted by perfectionist chef Hiro Urasawa at his one-sushi barroom is the be-all and end-all dining experience in LA. Easily topping at least $500 per person (including wines), it’s not a meal everyone can experience, but to do it once is a lifetime goal for many food lovers.

    Low: Q Sushi
    This lavish omakase dinner isn’t exactly for penny-pinchers: it starts at $165 per person and can easily creep into $300-$500 range if you add on sake, wine and extra sushi. But with the new lunch hours, you can enjoy the restaurant's fantastic new sushi bar for $75 per person. The 10-course menu is an ideal gateway to chef Hiroyuki Naruke’s exquisite Japanese cuisine.

  • Credit: Cut


    High: Cut
    You know this is a different steak experience at first glimpse of the plate of linen-wrapped hunks of meat the servers walk around with to showcase the different beefs served here. This being Wolfgang Puck, expect nothing but perfection, from the ingredients (think USDA Prime corn-fed beef from Nebraska, 100% true Japanese Wagyu and the produce plucked from local farms) to the presentation, wine list and service. A New York sirloin tasting is $135 alone. Not cheap.

    Low: Taylor’s
    When all you’re after is a great steak, martini and an old-school steakhouse vibe, the Koreatown original still tops our list. It’s comforting and wallet-friendly at every turn. Steaks top out around $30, which leaves more room for shrimp cocktail appetizers and pie à la mode for dessert.

  • Credit: Little Dom's

    Celebrity Spotting

    High: Dan Tana’s
    A celeb magnet before the phrase ‘celeb magnet’ even existed, this old-school Italian spot still draws big names for plates of pasta, steaks and martinis. With $25 spaghetti and meatballs and $56 veal chops, you get the feeling it’s priced for the people they want to attract. Still, it’s a great place for a drink at the bar and dinner in tight quarters next to James Woods or Diane Lane.

    Low: Little Dom’s
    The Los Feliz restaurant has been used as a set for several TV shows and movies, so it makes sense that it’s also a hangout for celebrities from those shows and movies. It’s the kind of place where the young and famous blend with the crowd. The last time we were there chatting with the adorable young woman next to us at the bar, we eventually found out she’s an ingénue from one of those vampire shows (she told us). Breakfast, lunch or dinner (think: egg-topped pizza, lasagna, arancini and meatballs) is casual in price and vibe.

  • Credit: Pizzeria Mozza/800 Degrees


    High: Pizzeria Mozza
    Neither Neapolitan or New York-style, the wood-fired pies here are held as a standard in LA. The secret’s in the dough, but also the ingredients, including fantastic meats, great sauce, fresh vegetables, olive oil and even Ipswich clams. The individual pizzas pretty much serve one and are pricey for the size (average $15), which means you’ll have to add on antipasti like the caprese or meatballs, and don’t even think about leaving without a budino.

    Low: 800 Degrees
    The wood-fired pies at this Umami Burger-backed pizzeria are as close to Neapolitan as you’ll get for a chain in LA. Great crust, good toppings, including their own San Marzano tomatoes and chiles - these are very good (and popular) pies. Classics are under $8. Add-ons like shrimp, prosciutto di Parma and chicken are $1-$3. Specialty pies range from $8-$15, but they’re still big enough to share along with a salad.

  • Dim Sum

    High: Hakkasan
    The swank Beverly Hills Chinese restaurant is over the top for many reasons, and the large and varied menu has everything from duck salad to $288 Peking duck, which comes with caviar. The har gao, scallop shumai, and prawn and chive dumplings are delicious, gorgeous and priced to match the high-end, glossy decor: one order of two dumplings hovers around $8-$14.

    Low: Elite Restaurant
    You can take your pick of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley for amazingly delicious dim sum that won’t break the bank. But Elite is a list-topper for the quality, the efficient staff and the price. You can easily get out for around $15 per person for a feast. Waits are long on the weekends but worth it.

  • Credit: Connie & Ted's/Cousins (Lesley Balla)

    Lobster Roll

    High: Connie & Ted’s
    East Coast-style lobster rolls have inundated the LA food scene for the last few years, and one of the best in town is hands down at Michael Cimarusti’s West Hollywood seafood house. No shack by any means, the place - with its sweeping roof and oyster-label-papered walls - is a designer's dream. The seafood is of the highest quality, from the chilled seafood towers to the chowder and more. Whether you order it hot with drawn butter or cold with mayo, the lobster roll is a thing of beauty, served in a housemade bun with a generous portion of delicious fries. It tops out at $24.

    Low: Cousins Maine Lobster Truck
    It’s amazing the quality of lobster roll you can get from this roaming seafood shack. You get the same options - hot or cold - for $12.75. Both of them have more lobster meat than you think possible at that price. The only downside: tracking down the truck to get it.

  • Whiskey Bars

    High: £10
    The hidden bar in the Montage Beverly Hills is no toss-your-shot-back kind of place. Ten Pound touts the most comprehensive collection of Macallan single malts, plus rare and vintage selections of whiskey, some you won’t find anywhere else. The most expensive pour goes upwards of $60,000 for the oldest Macallan ever released.

    Low: Seven Grand
    For a more broad selection of whiskey - both in inventory and price - this Downtown bar is the place. Hundreds of whiskeys from around the globe are on offer neat, with the perfect ice cube or in cocktails. With pours of Elijah Craig for $9 to Macallan 55-year for $1200, there’s something for every budget. But there’s also a happy hour with $5 classic cocktails every day until 7 PM.

  • Credit: Bouchon/A-Frame

    Fried Chicken

    High: Bouchon
    Thomas Keller’s famous Ad Hoc fried chicken turns up at the Beverly Hills bistro on the first and third Monday of every month. For $38 per person, you get about three to four pieces of chicken per person plus seasonal side dishes. It certainly won’t break the bank, especially for the Beverly Hills bistro, but compared to the low-end option below, it’s higher-end.

    Low: A-Frame
    How does Roy Choi do fried chicken? All you can eat, that’s how. Every Saturday and Sunday from noon-3 PM and Mondays from 5-11 PM, you get fried chicken till your heart’s content for $14. Throw in an extra $10 and you can add all-you-can-drink Hite beer. No side dishes are included, but who needs coleslaw when you can have more drumsticks?

  • Credit: Petrossian/Plan Check


    High: Petrossian
    As expected, even burgers get the royal treatment at the West Hollywood caviar house. Chef Giselle Wellman created an off-menu burger for a true high-low treat. The beef patty is topped with a caviar “sheet” made of pressed eggs and a fried egg, plus it’s served with crisp, golden fries and a tin of caviar aïoli served in a 30-gram caviar tin. Priced at $75, it’s only available by request.

    Low: Plan Check
    Chef Ernesto Uchimura is also a fan of “sheets” for his burgers, only these are made of sriracha and ketchup. For the Plan Check burger at the Sawtelle and Fairfax gastropubs, he adds American-style cheese with dashi, schmaltz onions, mixed pickles and his famous ketchup leather as toppings. The flavor bomb is $12.