The Dozen Strangest Restaurant Locations In LA
~ By RICHARD FOSS ~
I tend to be very wary of oceanfront seafood restaurants, fine dining venues in towers, rotating or otherwise, and eateries of all kinds located in amusement parks. Such places have a guaranteed clientele of tourists, and as such tend to become complacent about food quality. It doesn’t always work out that way – the restaurant two-thirds of the way up the Eiffel Tower serves a splendid lunch – but that’s the way to bet.
I have also found the opposite to be true – when you see a restaurant in a really unlikely or difficult-to-find location, there’s a better than average chance that they’re sustained by a demanding local crowd. Years of wandering around Los Angeles investigating such spots has yielded many more gems than duds, and a few of the best meals I’ve ever had. In the interest of preserving and encouraging some of the places that have resisted the mini-malling of California, I present this list of a dozen oddly located restaurants around LA where you can get a genuinely good meal. Unlike some places around town that are private clubs, or so exclusive about taking reservations that they might as well be, all are open to anyone with an interest in having a great meal.
It’s safe to say that few people have ever said, “I feel like a good Italian meal. Let’s go to a car wash.” Thanks to La Bella Cucina on Olympic a Figueroa, this otherwise idiotic-sounding sentence actually makes sense. It makes business sense because there are several office buildings nearby and the convention center is only two blocks away. Prospective diners are shocked to see white linen and a list of fresh seafood when they expect a snack bar, and they tell their friends, giving the place free advertising on the process. I have taken friends to La Bella Cucina without telling them what they were in for, and they were quite skeptical until they tasted the food. So was I. When I first visited, I thought that it couldn’t possibly survive – but that was over ten years ago, and it is not only still there but still good.
It is rather less surprising to go to Chinatown for dinner, unless you’re going for Texas-style barbecue. Oddly enough, it is available there. There’s a strange story behind the Spring Street Smokehouse, which you can read in the full review elsewhere in this issue. Suffice it to say that this is real Texas barbecue in one of the less fashionable areas of Chinatown, and it’s difficult to imagine what could be less in character for the neighborhood.
Unless, of course, it’s an old-fashioned Italian restaurant hidden in a local market on a side street in Chinatown. There’s no external sign that the Eastside Market’s small restaurant even exists, much less that it’s a place of pilgrimage for those who appreciate classic Sicilian cooking. At lunchtime the small, dark room is packed with cops, construction workers, and cognoscenti, with a sprinkling of elderly locals who remember when Chinatown was Little Italy. Don’t come here for anything with squid ink or fig and onion compote as prime ingredients, but if you want farfalle al pesto along with cheap but decent white wine in a bottle shaped like a fish, this is the place.
If you’re looking for Italian food and a wide choice of wines in a bit more upscale surroundings, you have to go to a more downscale neighborhood – the industrial area east of Chinatown, to be exact. There, in the midst of warehouses and truck terminals, is a relic of the days when orchards and vineyards dotted the landscape. The San Antonio Winery was founded in 1917 and is still a working winery, though the grapes now come from the central coast region. (A good thing, too, since even though the area was once the state’s major grape producer, the water quality in the Los Angeles River has dropped in the last hundred years.) The Riboli family, which has operated the winery since 1938, opened a section of the barrelhouse as the Maddalena Restaurant, creating an outpost of Napa valley ambiance in an otherwise unromantic area. The restaurant is only open for lunch, though occasional wine dinners and special events are held there. For a leisurely lunch with a glass or two of wine, followed by a tour of the oak barrels and steel tanks that produced what you just drank, there’s nothing else like it.
There is another elegant restaurant in a historic building nearby, though not a structure you’d probably associate with food. Traxx is located in Union Station, and you can watch commuters and tourists dashing for trains while you sit in a sidewalk cafe and nibble crabcakes, stuffed smoked pork chops, or other modern American delights in a historic American setting. The service and food are both excellent, and the calls for train departures and the ambiance of the building itself create an almost cinematic mystique.
The Santa Monica Airport doesn’t have quite the same historic atmosphere, but it makes up for it with a restaurant that is one of the weirdest Los Angeles has to offer. Typhoon is located on the second floor of the terminal, and diners have a diverting view of small aircraft taking off and landing. They are unlikely to be distracted once their plates arrive, since the pan-Asian delicacies served there are beautifully presented and quite tasty. Typhoon is one of the few restaurants in town to serve insects, and adventurous diners can enjoy Thai-style crickets that are slightly reminiscent of spicy popcorn, but with antennae. Try it with the house drink, alcohol marinated in black mushrooms, ginseng, and fuzzy black caterpillars – all, I might note, rumored to be aphrodisiacs by Chinese herbalists. The bartenders refuse to confirm or deny such effects, and neither will I. Those who prefer slightly more traditional sushi to the menu at Typhoon can visit the upstairs restaurant known as The Hump, for very good seafood with an unrivalled view.
Unless, of course, it’s the view of Los Angeles from the Getty Museum, which has a better than average cafeteria and a formal restaurant that is nothing short of spectacular. The Getty Museum Restaurant has a panoramic view of the mountains, sea, and cityscape, and could probably get away with serving average food and trading on their view and proximity to the splendid collection. Happily, they do no such thing. Chef Terri Buzzard uses exceptional quality produce and exotic ingredients to create tasting menus, and her food would draw a crowd no matter where it was served. The combination of food and view are the reason that lunch at the Getty is such a hot ticket. The restaurant is open for dinner only on Thursday and Friday, and it’s worth tweaking your schedule to take in a sunset as you dine.
The view from Four Oaks isn’t quite as spectacular, though it has a certain majestic tranquility. The restaurant near the top of Beverly Glen was once a stagecoach stop and bordello, back when the road was one of the major arteries between LA and the Valley. The neighborhood has changed since then, and multi-million dollar homes surround the very stylish French restaurant whose rooms once welcomed muleskinners into the arms of professional ladies. The drive up the winding canyon is part of the enjoyment, giving you a real sense of leaving the metropolis for a sophisticated European country inn.
There isn’t quite the same sense of space a La Cachette, another fine French restaurant surrounded by stylish homes. The address on Santa Monica Boulevard would seem to imply high visibility, but the reality is quite different. It is on little Santa Monica in an area separated by the main boulevard by a hill, and there are no signs to help you find it. The only entry is from an alley off a side street, and anyone making a dinner date with someone who hasn’t been there before has to allow extra time for them to get lost. The payoff is excellent California French cooking in a peaceful atmosphere, and it’s worth gong around the block a few times to enjoy the experience.
The homes around Caffé Pinguini aren’t nearly as luxurious as the ones around La Cachette , and but the location offers a different sort of seclusion. This penguin-themed Italian restaurant is located on a residential street in Playa Del Rey that gets almost no traffic, despite the fact that it’s only two blocks from busy Vista Del Mar. Given penguin’s natural diet, it’s not surprising that seafood is a specialty, though prepared with more subtle spices than are generally available in either the Antarctic or Galapagos. The cozy dining room and lush patio remind diners much more of Italy than the antipodes, despite the tuxedoed birds that stare quizzically from the menu.
Hallenbeck’s General Store also transports visitors to another time and place, though the Midwest in the late 19th century doesn’t have quite the exotic appeal as penguin country. Inside and out, it looks like a general store in Nebraska that was parachuted to a dull strip of Cahuenga in North Hollywood. The owner of Hallenbeck’s also runs a prop rental house, and the place is cluttered with Americana that sets scenes for Hollywood. The menu is simple – sandwiches, salads, and soups – but that fits the ambiance nicely. In the evening the place hosts improbably good local bands on a tiny stage, making the experience even more surreal.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that things can be hidden in plain sight. Chichen Itza looks like just another food stall in the bustling El Mercado development just east of the 110 Freeway, rather than a place that has been voted one of the best restaurants in California. Yucutan-style food is a delight that few Angelenos have experienced, and they might expect to go to a fine restaurant to find the best. In fact they soon will be able to do so – the owners of Chichen Itza have done so well at their little mall stall that they’re opening a full-service place soon. A restaurant consultant would probably tell them that they have to carefully consider the location, but they may know something he doesn’t; people in Los Angeles are obviously willing to support excellence even when it is well-hidden.
*La Bella Cucina, 949 N. Figueroa, LA Ph. 213-623-0014
*Spring Street Smokehouse, 640 N. Spring St, LA Ph. 213-626-0535
*Eastside Market, 1013 Alpine Street, Chinatown Ph. 213-250-2464
*San Antonio Winery, 737 Lamar St, LA . Ph. 323-223-1401
*Traxx, 800 N Alameda St, Los Angeles, – (213) 625-1999
*Typhoon, 3221 Donald Douglas Loop S, Santa Monica, – Ph. (310) 390-6565
*Getty Museum Restaurant, 1200 Getty center Drive, LA Ph. 310-440-6810
*Four Oaks (Closed)
*La Cachette – 10506 Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90025 Ph. 310-470-4992
*Café Pinguini, 6935 Pacific Ave, Playa del Rey Ph (310) 306-0117
*Hallenbeck’s General Store, 5510 Cahuenga, North Hollywood,
*Chichen Itza, 3655 S. Grand Ave, LA Ph. 213-741-1075