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13 Restaurants That Changed L.A. Dining Forever

Posted: 09/21/2012 5:14 pm

The evolution of dining in Los Angeles has gone through extremes since its earliest days, and it's still constantly in flux. Many trends, some that hold true today, started here -- sometimes it's a technique, a style of cuisine or a different way of doing business. Our restaurants have made an impact both here and across the country, and it goes beyond celebrity magnets like the Brown Derby or The Ivy. They've created some of America's favorite dishes, like French dips and tuna tartare. These are the game-changers that really made a culinary mark and forever changed where and how we dine out. Some of the restaurants are long gone, others have so much longevity, they are constant barometers of hospitality. Here's a look at 13 spots we think made a huge impact.

[Also see: 10 Great Homegrown Diners Around LA]

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  • Kawafuku Restaurant

    Imagine life in LA without a sushi bar in every neighborhood. This Little Tokyo restaurant, which was located where the Kyoto Grand Hotel is today, is believed to be the first to serve nigiri sushi in the U.S. Kawafuku opened sometime in the 1920s and served mostly sukiyaki, tempura and other cooked Japanese specialties. But around the 1960s, owner Tokijiro Nakajima decided to add a sushi bar to the second floor of the restaurant. Japanese businessmen would bring their American clients, and the raw fish menu caught on. At some point the restaurant moved to Gardena and closed soon after. Sushi bars started to proliferate both in and outside of Little Tokyo ever since. <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">Cheap Eats LA: 12 Off-the-Radar Deals</a>]</strong>

  • Michael's

    Stew on this a bit: If it wasn't for Michael's, there would be no Spice Table. How? Because if it weren't for Michael McCarty's Santa Monica restaurant, which was farm-to-table before the term even germinated in anyone's mind, there would be no Campanile (Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel both worked there), which means no Mozza, which is where The Spice Table's Bryant Ng worked. McCarty helped build the foundation for the Los Angeles dining scene.Michael's was one of the most progressive restaurants of its time, housing chefs like Peel, Silverton, Jonathan Waxman and Ken Frank. Before he became known for a burger, Sang Yoon helmed the stoves here.  When it opened in 1979, the rule of thumb in LA was classic French cuisine, no regional themes, no seasonality. McCarty wanted to change all of that, and worked closely with farmers to get the kind of produce he wanted. Along with Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower in Northern California, Michael's was instrumental in what the world came to know as California cuisine. Today, the words "farm-to-table," "seasonal" and "local" are as common as fast food chains. <em>1147 3rd St.; 310-451-0843</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">Be Sure to Enter Our Dream Meal Contest!</a>]</strong>

  • Patina

    By the time Joachim Splichal opened the first Patina in 1989, California cuisine was firmly planted in the mindset and palates of America. Stuffy French restaurants were on their way out, and people wanted to have more fun in the kitchen and dining room. He saw this as a time for more innovation. He created tasting menus using seasonal and local ingredients, blending Mediterranean flavors and French technique, creating a fine dining aesthetic he hoped would get better with age. This was another kitchen that cultivated young talent, from San Francisco's star Traci des Jardin to locals Joe Miller (Joe's), Eric Greenspan (The Foundry) and Walter Manzke. The Patina Group now operates more than 60 restaurants and food service spots across the country, including the elegant flagship at the Disney Concert Hall, and a huge catering division. <em>141 S. Grand Ave.; 213-972-3331</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">Restaurant Deal Breakers: 10 Things That Will Make You Never Come Back</a>]</strong>

  • Spago

    It's really Ma Maison that started it all for Wolfgang Puck in LA. He moved here to take over the storied French restaurant in 1975, but was most pivotal in shaping his version of California cuisine when he opened the original Spago on the Sunset Strip in 1982, and the Beverly Hills flagship 12 years later.  His name became synonymous with artisanal pizzas topped with things like smoked salmon and caviar, and lamb with braised greens and rosemary -- and he also made schnitzel cool. Not only did the Hollywood elite make take to the tables, but the restaurants were the early stomping grounds for young chefs like Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel, Suzanne Goin and David Lentz, Govind Armstrong, Ben Ford, Neal Fraser and Quinn Hatfield, not to mention pastry queen Sherry Yard and executive chef Lee Hefter, both of whom still work for Puck's ever-growing machine. Just think what LA would be like without all of the chefs and their future restaurants. The restaurant closed this summer  for a full renovation both aesthetically and culinarily. It reopens with a new look and menu in fall 2012. <em>176 N. Canon Dr.; 310-385-0880</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">8 Wacky Food Gadgets: Love 'Em or Hate 'Em?</a>]</strong>

  • Campanile

    Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton opened their La Brea restaurant, as well as the adjacent La Brea Bakery, in 1989, a time when California cuisine was spreading like wildfire across the U.S. This was one of the first in LA to infuse rustic Mediterranean flavors, something we can't escape if we wanted to today. Silverton's rustic breads became the stuff of legend. Both came from Michael's and worked at Woflgang Puck's then new Spago restaurant; Peel had spent time at Ma Maison and Chez Panisse before that. All of that experience culminated in a hot bed of seasonal ingredients, comforting yet refined Italian-inspired dishes, and grilled cheese nights in a building Charlie Chaplin owned in the 20s. Many chefs sharpened their knives there, including Suzanne Tracht (Jar), Suzanne Goin (AOC, Lucques, Tavern), Govind Armstrong (Post & Beam) and Ben Ford (Ford's Filling Station). Silverton parted ways with Peel and the restaurant and opened Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, both restaurant making their own significant impacts on the LA dining scene. <em>624 S. La Brea Ave.; 323-938-1447</em> <em>Editor's note: Campanile will close in the next few months, but a final date has not been announced as of this publish time.</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">Fall Cookbook Guide: 10 of the Season's Hottest New Titles</a>]</strong>

  • Saint Estephe

    Hard to imagine that Manhattan Beach was a ground-zero for the birth of modern Southwest cuisine in the 1980s. But that's when chef John Sedlar and sommelier Steve Garcia debuted their restaurant that served as a pivotal moment for dining in LA, one that  garnered national and international acclaim. Having grown up in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and trained in haute kitchens like LA's storied L'Ermitage, Sedlar fused Southwest ingredients and spices with French technique. Without him and a few of his peers at the time, you might not know a blue corn tortilla chips or chipotle peppers. His creativity on the plate continues today at his current restaurants <a href="">Rivera</a> and <a href="">Playa.</a> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">This Week's Top Restaurant and Food News</a>]</strong>

  • City Cafe & Restaurant

    After working together in fancy French establishments in Chicago and Paris, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger landed in LA to open a tiny spot called City Cafe on Melrose Avenue in 1981. The restaurant was nothing like anything the city had seen yet, one that felt personal and intimate (the kitchen was barely a kitchen, with hibachi grills in the parking lot out back), where they fused global flavors from India, Thailand, South and Central America and Europe in their dishes. It was chaotic, fresh and new, and customers ate it up -- many still claim the City cookbook as a standard in their own kitchens. The two eventually moved the operation to a larger space on La Brea, and then opened the <a href=" Angeles%2C CA/s/border grill">Border Grills</a>, and Ciudad (now closed), which explored pan-Latin flavors even more. Their vision became a staple of Los Angeles cuisine, one that we still see today. Feniger continues to cross borders with her <a href="">STREET</a> restaurant. <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">Vote In Our First-Ever Mixology Survey!</a>]</strong>

  • Valentino

    The Valentino restaurant that opened in 1972 is nothing like the Valentino that stands today. Piero Selvaggio and then partner Gianni Paoletti opened a tiny little spot next to a gas station on Pico Boulevard, cooking the kind of Italian food they knew at the time: Selvaggio's mother's simple, traditional Italian cooking of his youth and the American interpretation of Italian food he had experienced after moving to the States. They almost closed after the first six months; that is, until the first review came out. Shortly after, Selvaggio, who bought out Paoletti in 1975, went to Italy to learn about authentic cuisine. There he discovered things like buffalo mozzarella, radicchio and beautiful white truffles, which never really hit Los Angeles plates until then. The wine list was one of the most comprehensive in the country. Now 40 years later, as the restaurant industry and LA dining scene has evolved, so has Valentino. But it's still known as a bastion of fine dining and hospitality, most notably due to Selvaggio's passion and permanent role in the day-to-day operations. <em>3115 Pico Blvd.; 310-829-4313</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">White House Chef Sam Kass on Cooking for the Obamas and More</a>]</strong>

  • Matsuhisa

    Three LA restaurants were influential in fusing Asian flavors into the dining scene: <a href="">Chinois</a>, which Wolfgang Puck opened in 1983; <a href="">Chaya</a>, which debuted in 1984; and Matsuhisa. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa came to LA via Peru and Japan, and opened his Beverly Hills restaurant in 1987. He was more than a sushi chef, but one of the first to introduce South American flavors to Japanese cuisine, creating dishes like monkfish liver topped with caviar, miso-flavored black cod and beautiful yellowtail with thin slices of jalapeno pepper. He was instrumental in spreading these dishes across the country, having opened the first Nobu in New York in 1993, which is still held as one of the top restaurants in the city.The original restaurant is tiny and crowded, and often filled with the rich and famous. Twenty-five years and almost 20 restaurants later, Matsuhisa's style is widely copied, but none can come close to the master. <em>129 N. La Cienega Blvd.; 310-659-9639</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">Wurst, Pretzels and Beer: 5 Ways to Celebrate Oktoberfest Around LA</a>]</strong>

  • Father's Office

    Sang Yoon is more than just a guy who created one of the most lauded (and sometimes shunned) burgers in LA. The chef spent his teenage years cooking with Jeremiah Tower and Julian Serrano in San Francisco before attending the CIA in New York. He traveled Europe and spent time in Michelin-starred restaurants, and landed his first executive chef position at Michael's in Santa Monica when he returned. It was here that he expounded on his passion for fresh ingredients, bold flavors and creative culinary techniques. His entire career was that of haute cuisine, so it was a surprise when he took over a small Santa Monica dive bar in 2000 and started serving simple yet inspired seasonal inspired fare, like that dry-aged beef burger topped with caramelized onions, Gruyère and Maytag cheeses, applewood-smoked bacon compote and arugula served on a soft roll. He was the first to say 'no substitutions', and still doesn't have ketchup in either location (a second opened in Culver City in 2008). Father's Office is considered the first gastropub in LA, a place where you could get great food at reasonable prices and a good craft brew, where there is no table service, and where snagging a table is an art form. Now you can't throw a pint glass without hitting a similar burger-and-beer joint in LA. <em>1018 Montana Ave.; 310-736-2224</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">McRib's Inevitable Return Delayed Until December</a>]</strong>

  • Animal

    When Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened their unassuming Fairfax restaurant, no one really knew who they were.  They met as culinary students in Florida, cooked with chef Michelle Bernstein, and in LA, with Govind Armstrong and Ben Ford at Chadwick. They had a successful catering business here before filming a Food Network show that few people saw. The 'two dudes', as they quickly became known, were young and tattooed, and ready to take the LA dining scene by storm. They weren't the first to serve offal in town, but they pushed the envelope on big, bold, meaty flavors, serving lamb neck and pork belly, foie gras as Hawaiian-inspired loco moco or with a buttermilk biscuit and sausage gravy, and putting bacon in a chocolate bar for dessert.  But they also adhere to the seasons, having close relationships with many farmers, and showcase the best of our local seasonal bounty. The place has little to no design, a straight-forward room with a rustic yet urban edge, and is as loud and bustling today as it was when it opened in 2008. From the way the menu is written to the meaty dishes served, many have been inspired by this no-holds-barred take on dining and opened similar spots across LA, and the two have been lauded as powerhouses across the globe. <em>435 N. Fairfax Ave; 323-782-9225</em> <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">8 Deliciously Unique Tacos in LA</a>]</strong>

  • Kogi BBQ

    The truck that started as street food revolution. Food trucks were not unknown in Los Angeles, but it wasn't until this Korean-taco fusion flavor bomb started rolling that the idea really sparked in the minds of chefs and food entrepreneurs across the country. First launched in 2008 by a few friends and family, and one Korean-American, classically trained chef who did time at the Beverly Hills Hilton among other places, Kogi quickly became a dining institution in LA -- even if it was on four wheels. Like many LA chefs before him, Roy Choi fused the flavors of the city he knew and loved - Korean, Mexican, Californian and more - and served tacos, quesadillas and burritos from a truck.The city hadn't seen the likes of it before, not just the bold deliciousness, but the bold attitude and audacity it took to make it one of the most beloved trucks in town. It sparked a dining revolution, and allowed Choi to partner on other brick-and-mortar projects like <a href="">A-Frame</a>, <a href="">Chego</a> and <a href="">Sunny Spot</a>. But that truck is still the core of his creativity and cooking philosophy, and one that inspired chefs everywhere to take the streets in droves. <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">8 Hottest New Bars in LA</a>]</strong>

  • LudoBites

    When a renegade young French-born chef couldn't find the right location and funding to open his own restaurant, he decided to open a temporary restaurant within a restaurant, igniting the pop-up craze. French-born chef Ludovic Lefebvre was heralded as one of the city's rising-star chefs when he was behind the stoves at L'Orangerie, the then bastion of haute French cuisine. He went on to Bastide, where he made waves with his combination of culinary innovation and Old World cuisine. With LudoBites, his roving restaurant concept, Lefebvre served things like foie gras miso soup, liquefied chorizo soup, and cheddar cupcakes topped with chicken liver mousse. Maybe it was the impermanence, the idea that you had only a limited time to taste this menu, but the love for LudoBites spread like wildfire. It quickly became the most popular non-restaurant in town. Having launched 10 successful LudoBites, selling out within minutes every time a new one is announced, Lefebvre and wife Kristine are now a tour de force in redefining the way we look at what a 'restaurant' can be. <strong>[Also see: <a href="" target="_blank">LA's Hottest New Burgers</a>]</strong>