1. Alma – Ari Taymor (Los Angeles)
Alma used to be a pop-up working out of an abandoned building. Most people drive right by it. But enough people stopped in and realized how incredible and daring Chef Taymor can be to make it permanent. And while it’s still on the upswing — it doesn’t have a sign outside, and the staff locker room happens to be the customer toilet — that hardscrabble chic lends itself well to the hipness of the place.
Zoolander was a prophecy. It helps that the food is so good — a tasting menu of salads, fish, and meat.
2. Night + Market – Kris Yenbamroong (West Hollywood)
Along with Ludo Lefebvre (see #7 below), Kris Yenbamroong is one of the most name-dropped new chefs in Los Angeles. It helps that he’s expanding — Night + Market Song just opened in Silverlake. But he made his name in this original location, whipping up awesome Thai food for the WeHo crowd.
In a town that prides itself on its international cuisines, Night + Market came up fast. There’s some debate over whether the portion sizes he serves are enough, but that just means he leaves people wanting more.
3. Saison – Joshua Skenes (San Francisco)
When it comes to restaurants, clothes don’t make the man, but they certainly don’t hurt. And Saison knows this, because in this case, it gives the customer a clean view straight at what they’re eating.
The kitchen is open, with an old-timey look of copper pots and a custom wood-burning oven. Giant tanks in the dining room hold the live seafood to be eaten. It’s really just smart business — when the 18-course tasting menu costs $250 per person, people want to know what they’re getting into.
4. Sea & Smoke – Matt Gordon (Del Mar)
Matt Gordon is a well-established San Diegan chef, but he’s capricious. And that’s a good thing. He opens new restaurants at the drop of a hat, never satisfied to be confined to one kitchen’s expectations.
Sea & Smoke is his third restaurant, using a wood-fired oven and serving exactly what the name would imply — seafood and meat. With a three-hour happy hour and a giant list of drinks (San Diego is a beer town — more on that below), it toes the line between fine dining and relaxed scarfing.
5. Chi Spacca – Chad Colby (Los Angeles)
Chi Spacca, and its chef Chad Colby, want to see people eat so much food that they knock Los Angeles way off of any “skinniest cities in America” lists.
Every meal is a heaping plate of flesh, like the Tomahawk: a 42-ounce pork chop that could feed a table. Order with caution, but eat with gusto.
6. Rich Table – Evan and Sarah Rich (San Francisco)
It’s one of those cute love stories, a husband-and-wife team opening a family-style restaurant. They even serve the food farm-to-table like some small town where everybody knows everybody. Except Rich Table twists it whenever they can in a way only San Francisco could offer, like chicken skin on brandade and sardine potato chips with horseradish crème fraîche.
And that awesome bread they have? You can order a loaf to take home.
7. Trois Mec – Ludo Lefebvre (Hollywood)
There’s a reputation many people ascribe to the foodie scene in Los Angeles where a hot new restaurant pops open and becomes instantly impossible to book. And Ludo Lefebvre’s new project is exactly that. Of course, reputations exist for a reason, and the tattooed French chef does wonders with his native cuisine.
That initial success sometimes ends with the restaurant being quickly replaced — schadenfreude for those who saw through the hype — but Trois Mec isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it recently opened a new wine bar just next door (Petit Trois).
8. Allumette – Miles Thompson (Los Angeles)
An inclusion on a list on the internet can be a nice honor for an up-and-coming chef. But the restaurant that would become Allumette loved chef Miles Thompson’s food so much they shut down just to reinvent themselves according to his vision, putting him in charge of the kitchen with his Asian-influenced cuisine.
Even for somebody who’s worked in great restaurants before, like Thompson, that’s a hell of an endorsement.
9. Chez Panisse – Alice Waters (Berkeley)
Chez Panisse isn’t new. And Alice Waters is far more established than the buzzy, up-and-coming chefs that make up the majority of this article. However, it would be a gastronomic crime to exclude Chez Panisse from any list of important Californian restaurants.
Waters nearly single-handedly created the tradition of Californian cuisine, marked by an influence of different styles and a reliance on locally sourced ingredients. Chez Panisse continues to pride itself on its relationship with local growers, because for all intents and purposes, it is Californian cuisine.
10. Sir and Star – Daniel DeLong (Olema)
The problem with most hotshot chefs is their egos. Their restaurants make a few lists, become attractions, and get run into the ground. But Daniel DeLong never got to that point. His last restaurant burned down. Sir and Star is almost like a reserved next attempt for him, held out of a room in a previously closed inn with modest prices on locally sourced seafood and wine.
It’s like he doesn’t realize how great his food is, and the manager gives bags of caramel corn after a meal as an invitation to come back again, like people need convincing.
11. Stone Tap Room – Mitch Steele (San Diego)
As mentioned above, San Diego is a beer town. The craft beers that come out of the city are consistently ranked as some of the best in the country. Of those breweries, Stone is at the top. And they know it — hell, one of their most popular beers is called Arrogant Bastard. Brewmaster Mitch Steele makes beers that are stronger and harder to handle than many others, but hey, boldness wins awards.
The brewery just opened the Tap Room in downtown San Diego, less as a bar and more as a beer hall, serving non-traditional bar food like Thai curry flatbread to people heading to the baseball park next door. But the beer still comes first, and when you can order something like chipotle-smoked porter, that’s the way it should be.
12. Ichi Sushi + Ni Bar – Tim and Erin Archuleta (San Francisco)
The Archuletas have been running Ichi Sushi in San Francisco for a while now, and the restaurant is ranked as some of the best sushi in the entire city. And in a seafood town like those on the bay, that’s huge.
While that’s deserving of a place on this list on its own, Ichi Sushi recently moved into another, much larger location that opens up a lot of possibilities for the restaurant. One of those possibilities is an izakaya (a Japanese bar, basically) — Ni Bar just opened in the back. Sake bombs for all.
13. The French Laundry – Thomas Keller (Yountville)
Like Chez Panisse, The French Laundry is a California staple. A world staple even, given that it’s regularly cited as the single best restaurant on the entire planet by multiple reputable sources.
Thomas Keller’s Yountville restaurant serves two different nine-course meals a day and doesn’t repeat a single ingredient in any of them. And while including it may seem obvious, Thomas Keller announced in 2012 that he was stepping out of the kitchen, moving into a mentoring role. So while the restaurant maintains the same quality that earned it three Michelin stars, the new kitchen may see some changes in personal flair that are worth checking out.
14. Tiger! Tiger! – Lee Chase (San Diego)
If Stone is great because of its outlandish bravado, then Tiger!Tiger! is its modest but talented younger brother. Lee Chase’s brewpub is set farther out of the city, but given that it’s an actual establishment and not an outlet for a much larger offsite brewery, it can focus a little more on the balance of food and beer. It shines on its own merits.
That’s not to say they don’t serve great beer — in fact, they tap a great variety, including Russian River’s Pliny beers (rated among the best in the world). But the food takes a bigger chunk of the menu than it does at Stone, serving restaurant fare to absorb the alcohol and make sure you get home safe.
15. Orsa & Winston – Josef Centeno (Los Angeles)
Los Angeles has always been the melting pot of melting pots. And with downtown LA located squarely in the center of that pot, it makes sense that a restaurant there embraces the free-for-all of diversity that makes the city great.
Chef Josef Centeno is a renaissance man, and his restaurant Orsa & Winston (named after his dogs) features food of all kinds: five-course tasting menus, nine-course menus, omakase menus, breakfast, pastries (there’s an in-kitchen pastry chef), seafood. He sources his rice from Uruguay, because there’s no food you can’t find in Los Angeles, nor in his kitchen.
16. Dirty Habit – David Bazirgan (San Francisco)
San Francisco has always had an aura of sensuality about it. Summer of Love and all that. Dirty Habit plays as both a celebration of that tradition, and the seedy underbelly of the same.
The dining room is a dim, purple affair, and the cocktails hold as large a role in the dinner as the food. Brian Means, the bar manager, gets equal billing with chef David Bazirgan in promotional material, making the place the perfect combination of food and alcohol. That’s probably the eponymous dirty habit.
17. Sushi Ota – Yukito Ota (San Diego)
Yukito Ota is an actual sushi master. And anybody who’s tried sushi (or anybody who’s licked their lips after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix at 3am, at least) knows just how much care and precision goes into such simple ingredients when prepared by someone who knows what they’re doing.
San Diego is one of three main ports on America’s West Coast, so calling Sushi Ota the best place to get sushi in the city really means it’s one of the best places to get sushi in America.
18. Spago – Wolfgang Puck (Beverly Hills)
No list of Californian restaurants would be complete without Wolfgang Puck. The guy defined Californian cuisine back in the ‘80s with his flagship restaurant, Spago.
And while he’s a bit of an old horse in this field of up-and-comers, Spago has recently gone through a full renovation and revamp. Its new look is bright and beautiful, with a fresh “taste of California” tasting menu that highlights farms and vendors from all over the state, making it the ultimate Golden State dining experience, especially for those who think they’ve been there, done that.