The 10 LA Restaurants We Loved Most in 2021
They’re not necessarily the newest — they’re the ones that survived
“My least favorite word in the English language is pivot,” said Caroline Styne, AOC restaurateur and master sommelier. “But if the last 18 months reinforced anything in my mind, it’s that in order to survive, you have to be flexible and willing to adopt change quickly.”
Styne would know: In 2020 her restaurant group closed both The Larder and Tavern, before opening another AOC location in the old Tavern space this spring, and launching two new concepts, Caldo Verde and Cara Cara, in the Proper Hotel that just opened downtown.
It’s a ton of hustle to stay afloat. Though we’ve lost countless bars and restaurants due to financial and health-related concerns, there are plenty of stories about resilience to be told, too. Usually we use this space — our next-to-last story for the end of the year — to highlight our favorite new restaurants. This year, we wanted to salute those we love most and thank them for everything they’ve done to feed us (and delight us).
In the spirit of celebration, here are 10 Angeleno restaurants that we are absolutely thrilled made it through the pandemic.
The premise: Easily the best restaurant in Los Feliz, All Time’s insistence on protecting their staff in the face of a deadly pandemic spurred them to maintain a to-go only format long after other spots resumed outdoor dining. “Being ‘allowed’ to reopen does not address the gaping divide between the stunted service we could offer and the nurturing service that defines us,” co-owner Ashley Wells wrote in an op-ed for GrubStreet earlier this spring. Ashley and husband Tyler kept busy during the first dark year of the pandemic with dry goods and prepared foods to finish at home. Year two meant more to-go — and more patience — until much later in 2021, when the restaurant finally welcomed back diners on their deeply missed patio.
What you’re eating: The effortlessly casual fare at All Time suits its patrons perfectly. Between the Good Ass Salad, with rotating herbs and lettuces dictated by seasonality, and the AT burger with crispy potatoes, your healthy/decadent lunch options are sorted. Evenings at All Time are even better, with large-format plates like steak, lamb ragu, whole fish or half chicken available with à la carte sides like bacon-laden Brussels and farm-fresh sweet potatoes. For dessert? Berry cobbler or a whole wheel of Jasper Hill cheese with honey, pear and crusty bread. This is the kind of food you want to eat … all the time.
The premise: For almost 20 years, AOC has been synonymous with excellence. It provided the template — seasonal small plates and a superb wine list — for a long list of LA restaurants, and it boasts one of the most beautiful patios in West Hollywood (with an additional location in Brentwood). Even amid pandemic chaos, AOC remains the ideal spot for special occasions or just a really great night out.
What you’re eating: There’s always a host of seasonal vegetables folded into the savory dishes at AOC, like their Farmer’s Plate with chickpea puree, burrata and grilled veggies for dipping and stacking. Don’t miss focaccia with grilled trumpet mushrooms, or an apple and pear salad laced with pistachio and mint. Grilled quail, hanger steak or short ribs round things out for the meat lovers, with plenty of fingerling potatoes, roast squash or young broccoli on the side. Though their cocktails are divine, treat yourself to a bottle off Styne’s meticulously sourced wine list — nothing on offer will disappoint when this veteran somm is at the helm.
L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele
The premise: The very first L’antica Pizzeria da Michele was founded in Naples in 1870, and since then, owner Francesco Zimone has tasked himself with both preserving and expanding the legacy of one of the oldest pizzerias in the world. Along with traditional Naples pizza, made in a glass-fronted open kitchen in the center of the restaurant’s garden, the menu includes classic Italian appetizers, roast vegetables, and plenty of decadent pastas. “Restaurants, after first responders, represented the light of hope in the community because we don’t just serve food, we serve memories and places to revel in the splendors of life,” Zimone said.
What you’re eating: Please begin with the Gnocco Fritto, fried pizza dough stuffed with burrata prosciutto, and arugula — it’s almost more satisfying than a pizza itself. Pair these with vegetables! That is, ricotta-filled zucchini flowers and a beet salad. Next up, the pizza is obviously a must-have (go for one of the classics, like the Margherita or Bianca). Don’t neglect the pastas; indulge in a Spaghetti Nerano with zucchini and basil, or the melt-in-your-mouth cavatelli burrata. Pair it all with selections from the Italian wine menu for surprising imports that bring out the food’s rich flavors.
The premise: Nestled in the heart of Silverlake near the reservoir, Botanica has been a haven for feminine energy and beautiful food since its debut in 2017. Founded by two former food writers, Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer, the space was open for take-out only until this spring. The restaurant had always doubled as a dry market goods shop, which meant it was able to keep afloat with to-go and market sales — including specialty items like limited-edition tea towels — until plates on tables and diners in seats returned to semi-stable levels once more.
What you’re eating: Pop by in the morning for coffee and delicious pastries, like their inimitable “cake for breakfast,” or go savory with Turkish eggs that come alongside labne slathered on Friends & Family sourdough. There’s more labne on offer at dinner, or grab some heirloom bean hummus and a Little Gems salad. For heartier portions, dive into brined chicken thighs or continue in the Mediterranean groove with lamb kefta and cucumber yogurt.
The premise: A longtime staple of Downtown LA, this beloved Indian restaurant run by a father and his two sons recently expanded into a second location in the trendy Fairfax district. Pawan Mahendro raised sons Nakul and Arjun in Toronto, which explains some of the Canadian influence, like their fusion poutine dishes, lamb burger, and hip-hop packed playlists. Tasked with running takeout at two spots during the early days of COVID-19, the brothers used their robust Instagram following to keep fans up to date on their pivots. Badmaash — which translates into “bad ass,” by the way — immediately got their to-go options at both locations up to speed, and later opened patio seating at their Fairfax location.
What you’re eating: The Butter Chicken, Coconut Curry Mussels and Ghost Chili Lamb Vindaloo are menu standouts. Get those three to share, with plenty of basmati rice to mix in. Other heavy hitters are the Indian pickles, which go with everything, and the fried chicken, hit with paprika masala, or the short ribs, seasoned with turmeric and cumin, and slow-cooked in a curry of caramelized onion and red wine. If you do pick up some takeout from Badmaash in Fairfax, keep in mind Helen’s Wine is just next door for funky natural wine pairings.
Tamales Elena y Antojitos
The premise: Turning her long-established food truck into a critically acclaimed brick-and-mortar was probably not exactly what Maria Elena Lorenzo had on her 2020 bingo card, but that’s what happened. As one of the only Afro-Mexican restaurants in the whole city — Lorenzo’s cuisine hearkens from Costa Chica in Guerrero — the family has been selling tamales around Watts since 2007. But Elena y Antojitos is so much more than tamales, its menu is stuffed with plenty of antojitos, loosely translated as “snacks” with pescadillas, or hard shell fish tacos at $2 a pop, tiny street tacos for $1.75, and the more hefty pozole, which Los Angeles Times critic Bill Addison has called “stirring.”
What you’re eating: The pozole, a hominy-spiked stew with chicken (or pork) broth, chilis and other herbs, comes in three flavors: red, green or white. From there, diners can select chicken or pork (or a very rare vegetable-only vegan option) and sizing (go big or go home). The true magic of the pozole is the toppings, from crispy tortillas and chicharones to crumbly queso blanco, sliced radish or avocado. The stew is easily customizable and such a comforting meal that you’ll be repeatedly craving it.
U Street Pizza
The premise: Pasadena’s beloved Union opened in Old Town several years ago, and in early 2021 the team expanded next door into a more casual sister spot, U Street Pizza. “Restaurants like ours that generated 98% of their revenue from dine-in have quickly transitioned into take-out platforms, and now, our business model has forever created another revenue stream,” said Marie Petulla, the owner of both restaurants. Initially opened only for counter service and takeaway, U Street’s bar program is now up and running, and they’re going strong as a sit-down restaurant too.
What you’re eating: Fried cauliflower and Italian street corn round out the vegetarian-friendly mains, but for their New York-style/California-influenced pies, my money is on the meatier offerings.. Pair any of the above with the Cucumber Future, featuring gin, chartreuse and basil, or a Pizzalada, a clever Michelada take that includes pizza sauce, along with the zing of hot sauce.
Musso & Frank
The premise: As one of the most iconic destinations in Hollywood, plenty of Angelenos fretted over whether or not Musso & Frank would make it through the wilderness. We should’ve known better than to doubt this old-world fixture, which reopened on Mother’s Day of 2021 with an even stronger mandate to preserve tradition. “We’re being very careful to ensure that our 100-plus years of tradition won’t change at all,” a fourth-generation member of the family of owners, COO Mark Echeverria, told Spectrum News. The spot is so beloved that patrons donated over $100,000 to help furloughed employees during the restaurant’s closure — proof that even Hollywood can be benevolent when all-important steaks and martinis are on the line.
What you’re eating: Obviously, you’re eating steak. Whether it’s ribeye, filet mignon, or New York — that’s up to you. But coming to Musso & Frank for something else is close to sacrilege, though they’ve got plenty more options: lobster, salmon or swordfish, fried shrimp, and even fried oysters. Musso’s preserves an old-fashioned way of eating, meaning baked potatoes, creamed spinach, and mac and cheese are all available as sides. Look, you could get a pasta dish, or even a sandwich at Musso’s, but you’d simply be doing it wrong. Stick to steak, and pair it with a fresh martini — stirred here, not shaken (!) — one of the only places that will openly tell you Bond got it wrong.
The premise: Situated in the former rectory building of Vibiana, Redbird has always been a winner with architecture lovers, and the open air dining room was a boon during the pandemic. Redbird is the passion project of chef Neal Fraser and Amy Knoll Fraser, and offers one of Downtown’s most prestigious, historical and expansive menus. The bar program also notably extended their cocktail offerings from Tobin Shea into classes, bottled cocktails and collaborations during the pandemic. Opening up their garden, formerly for private events, as another outdoor dining room, this spot is now booked just as frequently as their gorgeous indoors. So even if you’ve been to Redbird in the past, it might be time to try out this whole new setting.
What you’re eating: Since the barbecued smoked tofu was one of Jonathan Gold’s favorites, that dish stays on the menu and gets ordered quite frequently, even by meat lovers. Many dishes here work best shared, like the ribeye for two or whole grilled turbot. Each showcases Fraser at the top of his game, with charcoal grill and smoke influences, as does the Chawanmushi: creamy egg custard with lobster, mushroom and charred scallion. Even if you’re going with red meat, remember that Shea’s cocktails are so good people bought them in droves when they were bottled, so go for those over the wine.
Superba Food + Bread
The premise: Like plenty of restaurants on the west side, Superba was lucky enough to already be outfitted for outdoor diners. When the pandemic hit, staff quickly dedicated a large portion of the patio and sidewalk in front of the restaurant to an extended dining room that helped Venice denizens get their fresh bread and pastries, green juices and kale salads on the regular. A robust online ordering system and direct orders for to-go and bakery pre-order certainly helped them navigate the chaos, and since dining re-opened in late 2021, they’ve also set their sights on a new location in Hollywood, kicking off all-day service there in late October.
What you’re eating: It’s called Superba Food and Bread for a reason — this bread is killer. And with an all-day menu that crisscrosses between meals, there’s something for everyone. Literally. While you’re in house, grab one of the many toasts as a precursor to any meal, topped with jam, heirloom tomatoes, avocado or even prosciutto. Move into the salad section with the aforementioned black kale, punctuated with pickled raisins, soft pine nuts and more Levain bread, in the form of croutons this time. The eggs and sandwiches sections offer good options, but my money’s on the grain bowl with sprouted brown rice and an eight-minute egg for the best of both breakfast and lunch.
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