I'm a little worried that writing this while living in Brooklyn will jeopardize my physical safety. But all this talk of whistleblowing has inspired me to finally speak out. The world needs to know the truth: Los Angeles restaurants excite me more than those in New York -- or any other city in this country, for that matter.
Not its high-end restaurants. If you're looking for a ritzy, three-Michelin-starred destination for your 25th anniversary, you're better off eating in New York, San Francisco, Chicago or maybe even Las Vegas. Few of LA's top-tier restaurants, if any, offer the culinary daring, sophistication or impeccable service you could expect at Le Bernardin or Saison.
I love nothing more than a great meal -- that's why I became a food writer. But I can't afford to spend $350 on a meal almost ever. So proximity to glittering palaces of haute gastronomy improves my life very little. The vast majority of my restaurant meals are basically cheap -- under $20 for dinner, under $10 for lunch. For special occasions, I'll splurge on a $50 dinner or a $30 lunch. And with these constraints, LA is simply the best restaurant city in America right now.
I admit that's a controversial statement. Most foodies would rank LA's restaurants below those in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans. Many dismiss them as a hodgepodge of Hollywood watering holes and drive-thru Chick-fil-A's. But I think they're missing out. I'll grant that Chicago's deep-dish pizza and hot dogs rank among the world's best junk foods, that few cities have produce like San Francisco's and that New Orleans has an authentic indigenous restaurant culture unlike any other in the world. But I've lived in New York for most of my life, and know its restaurants best, so I'll compare its restaurants with LA's for the sake of argument.
On the low end, LA offers Chinese and Japanese food as good as New York's, and Thai and Mexican food that put New York's to shame. The tacos I ate at Guisados in Boyle Heights and the curries I've eaten at Jitlada in Thaitown were, bite for bite, better than any "ethnic" food I've had in New York.
LA is also home to far more serious restaurants that serve excellent meals in the crucial $30-to-$50 range. In New York, it's appallingly easy to go to an utterly mediocre restaurant and spend $50 or $60, once tax, tip and two drinks are included. I've done it dozens of times. In LA, with that same budget, you can eat full meals, with drinks, at some of the best restaurants in the city: Animal, Baco Mercat and Salt's Cure, to name three among many.
There are plenty of restaurants in New York that are just as good as those three, but many of them charge far more than $50 for a full meal. I love Il Buco Alimentari and The NoMad, but it's hard to get out of either paying less than $85 a person. And the few New York restaurants in that same category that might charge less are often impossible to get into. I recently ate dinner at Brooklyn hotspot Pok Pok NY. The food was very good, but the portions were fairly small, the price pretty high and we had to wait two-and-a-half hours for a table for two -- on a Sunday. Back in LA, Animal and Baco Mercat can be tough reservations, but you can walk into most other great, moderately priced restaurants any night of the week and get a table right away.
LA's advantage in cheap ethnic restaurants is largely thanks to demographics. LA has five times as many Thai residents, and four times as many Mexican residents, as New York City. Both cities have thriving Chinese communities far from their downtowns -- LA's in the San Gabriel Valley and New York's in Flushing, Queens. But I'd argue that LA's driving culture encourages travel to far-flung destinations more than New York's subway system. You can always take a detour when you're in a car, but there's a good chance your MTA routine never takes you near the 7 train to Flushing. For that reason, LA's geography is more democratic than New York's; good restaurants can thrive and attract notice in many parts of the city, rather than just the neighborhoods close to busy subway stops in Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn.
That points to the LA restaurant scene's main advantage over New York's: sprawl. There's a lot more room for big restaurants in LA than in New York. As a result, rent for retail space is much lower. Information on retail rent is notoriously unreliable, making it difficult to say precisely how much cheaper LA is. But Robert McGrath at leading commercial real estate agency CBRE said that the most useful yardstick is the rent for prime retail spaces on the ritziest streets in each city. A square foot of space on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan rents for $2970 a year -- five times the $580 that gets you the same amount of space on Rodeo Drive.
Because restaurateurs often pass along their operating costs, like rent, to consumers, higher rents can translate into higher menu prices. That spells bad news for New York's diners in more ways than one. Lower rents allow LA chefs to take more risks than their counterparts in New York. A New York restaurateur, paying $15,000 a month in rent for a prime location, must be sure to stock her menus with safe dishes that she knows will sell: roast chicken, hamburgers, seared scallops. LA restaurateurs, with a much lower hurdle, can afford to put pig's tails and amaranth salad on their menus, even if they only sell a few of these dishes a night.
Chef Josef Centeno of Baco Mercat said that he thinks that New York is still the place to go for immaculate execution, but low rents make it far easier for young chefs to open restaurants in LA.
"That's why so many chefs are coming out to LA," he said. "You at least have a chance of being able to open up a restaurant and being able to stay open. That's not true in New York unless you have a ton of backing and great reviews."
He added that LA's restaurant-goers are more open to new models of dining than New York's.
"There's definitely more experimentation, because there isn't a set model for what fine dining is in LA. It's an open canvas," he said. "New York likes what it likes, and it's less willing to get outside the box."
The other side of the revenue coin, of course, is volume. And part of what separates LA from other sprawling cities -- say, Houston, or Atlanta -- is that a lot more people live there. Over 18 million people call the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area home, not that many fewer than the 22 million who live in New York's metropolis. That allows the city to support a lot more restaurants than smaller cities like Philadelphia or Portland.
LA's food scene, of course, isn't perfect. For my taste, the city's residents are too calorie-conscious; I was appalled to learn that a hot new barbecue restaurant had to stop giving its patrons a choice between "fatty" and "lean" versions of its excellent brisket because almost no one ordered the fatty. There still aren't nearly as many good Italian restaurants in LA as there are in New York. And a disproportionate share of the city's dining dollars go to fancy, bland Westside canteens that supply Hollywood agents and B-list movie stars with their weekly mound of tuna tartare.
Now, you can take all this with a giant grain of Maldon sea salt. It's just one food lover's humble opinion. But for the type of food I like -- big-flavored, spicy, moderately priced, unpretentious -- I'd give LA the edge over my hometown. I would gladly trade away the spaghetti cacio e pepe at Lupa, the pastrami sandwich at Katz's and the lobster roll at Luke's in favor of the spaghetti and clams at Son of a Gun, the lamb tongue sandwich at Attari and the kimchi quesadilla at Kogi for the rest of my days. Especially if I could fly east a couple times a year for fried chicken and shochu slushies at Momofuku Noodle Bar.