The Best Food and Drink in California for 2019
December 20, 2018
The Golden State has a massive variety of amazing things to eat and drink
The Best Food and Drink in California
From Southern California to the North Coast, California is a state full of breathtaking vistas and unique attractions that millions of tourists flock to each year. And to celebrate all the great food and drink that the country’s most populous state has to offer, we’ve rounded up 44 of the Golden State’s claims to culinary fame as part of our second-annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
California is the nation’s breadbasket, and it’s also home to some amazing and legendary restaurants. It’s the home of the French Dip (invented at LA’s Philippe’s); it’s the home of the Mission Burrito (the best version of which can arguably be found at San Francisco’s La Taqueria); it’s the home of Napa Valley and its famed vineyards; it’s the home of trailblazing restaurants like Vespertine and Trois Mec and untouchable institutions like The French Laundry and Chez Panisse. We also can’t forget to mention the magical restaurants at Disneyland. And if there’s a new trend in health food (or beer!), it also most likely started in California.
It can be argued that no state is more influential to the American culinary landscape than California, and over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We’ve compiled these into individual galleries celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our California gallery ahead.
Best 24-Hour Diner: The Original Pantry Café (Los Angeles)
There’s no lock on the door at this 94 year-old Downtown LA institution, which hasn’t closed since 1924. Cash-only and with no shortage of long lines, the restaurant is renowned for its ample portions, perfect pancakes and sourdough French toast, apple pie, and French dip sandwich, as well as its steaks.
Best Airport Restaurant: Ink.Sack (Los Angeles International Airport)
Open from 7 a.m. until as late as 1:30 a.m. (or after the last flight in the terminal boards), Ink.Sack offers custom sandwiches that reflect the many different cuisines Los Angeles is famous for. Sandwiches include cold fried chicken, spicy tuna, bánh mì, Cuban, and chorizo egg and cheese; and house-made Maryland crab chips, pineapple with chile y limó, watermelon with sriracha, and Mexican chocolate chip cookies are also available.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Hae Jang Chon (Los Angeles)
California is a big state with no shortage of all-you-can-eat deals, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than what’s offered at Hae Jang Chon, located in LA’s Koreatown. At this super-popular Korean barbecue spot, you can choose from a mind-boggling assortment of 27 menu options including meats both marinated and unmarinated (brisket, short rib, bulgogi, and pork belly are especially popular), seafood, vegetables, and even beef tripe, which you can cook yourself on tabletop Korean stone grills. The feast costs $23.99 for lunch and $25.99 for dinner, and it’s open daily until 2 a.m.
Best Apple Pie: Julian Pie Company (Julian)
Julian, a town in the mountains northeast of San Diego, is famous for apple pie. Julian Pie Company is a family-run business, founded in 1986 by Liz Smothers, that specializes in apple pies (though other kinds are available). Their pies have become so popular that they are now delivered to San Diego and Riverside counties, as well as shipped throughout the United States. Their Facebook page is filled with five-star reviews and comments: “T’was the best apple pie I’ve had”; “The Dutch Apple Pie topped with the cinnamon ice cream is simply amazing”; “Best pie in the world”; and “super fabulous.”
Best Bar: Tommy's (San Diego)
Tommy’s was named one of the world's 50 best bars thanks to an extensive selection of more than 400 high-quality tequilas and a level of hospitality “where a customer arrives and leaves as a friend.” This place is reportedly the origin of the Tommy’s Margarita, which uses agave nectar instead of orange liqueur. It’s become so coveted that you can now order it nearly anywhere around the globe. Apart from the highly regarded margaritas, people are taken by the warm, homey environment and authentic Mexican cuisine that some have compared to their grandmothers’ cooking.
Best Beach Bar: The Blue Lounge at Moonshadows (Malibu)
Soak up the rays and the languid vibe at the Blue Lounge bar on the patio of the famed Moonshadows restaurant. Built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it’s rated one of Thrillist’s 21 Best Beach Bars in America. Relax in cabanas during the day and chill to DJs and blue mood lighting at night. It’s hard to imagine it gets any better than taking in the stunning California coastline with a cool glass of rosé in your hand.
Best Beach Restaurant: The Marine Room (La Jolla)
The Marine Room/Yelp
A beautiful and chic restaurant, the Marine Room can become quite the dramatic setting at high tide when the waves come crashing against the windows as you enjoy your meal. Specializing in fine dining that stars fresh seafood and globally-inspired flavors, you’ll find dishes on the menu such as rooibos tea-spiced wild baja prawns, macadamia-coated Faroe Island salmon, five-spice kurobuta pork cheeks, and pomelo ginger-lacquered organic tofu.
Best Beer: Pliny the Younger, Russian River Brewing Company
This true triple IPA is extremely difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to make. Thus, it’s only available on draft at Russian River Brewing Company on the first Friday in February and two weeks after that. It has a lot of hype, but it’s well deserved. There have been many imitators since Pliny the Younger first debuted in 2005, but no other triple IPA has bested the balanced, medium bitterness and beautiful copper color of this brew. And trust us: They have tried.
Best Brazilian Steakhouse: M Grill (Los Angeles)
An open charcoal grill sends aromas wafting through this dimly lit, elegantly modern churrascaria, inviting in hungry diners. The picanha here lives up to the aroma, and meat-eaters won’t be disappointed with the other offerings like marinated spareribs. The hot buffet has tasty creamed corn, beef stroganoff, and stuffed peppers. A cold soda, Guarana Antarctica, is just the thing for those not drinking wine or cocktails, and everyone raves about M Grill’s pineapple, grilled with cinnamon and sugar. Exemplary service throughout the meal makes this an even better experience.
Best Brunch: Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford)
Arguably the most renowned resort in the Napa Valley, Auberge du Soleil offers no shortage of spectacular dining. In fact, the resort got its start as Napa’s first fine dining restaurant back in 1981, when restaurateur Claude Rouas set out to open a restaurant that resembled the sun-drenched eateries of his native Provence; the inn and spa came later. Visit the restaurant today for its $75 three-course brunch and you’ll see what all the hoopla has been about; it’s spectacular, and a perfect showcase for seasonal ingredients. Appetizers include sunchoke soup with almonds, curry, and a crispy oyster; poached wild shrimp with butter lettuce, avocado, and orange; onion tartlette with smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and watercress; and sautéed foie gras with pineapple pain perdu, cashews, and ginger ($15 supplement). For your entrée, choose between items like blueberry buttermilk pancakes; Maine lobster omelette with tarragon, leek, and ricotta; duck confit hash with slow-cooked farm eggs; Sonoma chicken with hand-foraged wild rice; or mint and lemon risotto with wild shrimp and bacon. The bad news is that it’ll be nearly impossible to decide what to order. The good news is that no matter what you decide on, it’ll be delicious.
Best Burger: Father’s Office (Los Angeles)
What do you get when you go to Father’s Office, chef Sang Yoon’s gastropub in Los Angeles (now in both Santa Monica and Culver City)? No table service. And no pretension. It has the wood-paneled, comfortable vibe of a great local lived-in spot, but it’s clean, to the point, and one of The Daily Meal’s 101 Best Casual Restaurants. You’ll find great craft beers and small bites (think smoked eel with fennel and onions). You can also “Eat Big” and opt for the spicy oatmeal stout ribs or the bistro steak. But let’s face it: you’re there for the Office Burger, which many people in LA refer to as the city’s best burger. There’s nothing frou-frou about it, just arugula, bacon, caramelized onion, Gruyère, and Maytag Blue on a loaf that’s more similar to a baguette than a bun. It’s a very, very juicy burger with funk, freshness, and great flavor. The fries are also among America’s best, but don’t forget that there’s no ketchup on the premises.
Best Burrito: Chile Relleno Burrito, La Azteca Tortillería (Los Angeles)
Raved about by famished travelers and locals alike, the chile relleno burrito at the nearly 70-year-old La Azteca Tortilleria is a thing of beauty and a destination unto itself. The place offers other options like carnitas and carne asada, but the cheese-stuffed, perfectly fried chile relleno that makes up the bulk of this burrito is what sets it apart, elevating the humble poblano chile to heights of Tex-Mex greatness (while you’re at it, you might as well have them add some carne asada to it as well). It’s everything you look for in Tex-Mex cuisine, all in one perfect bite.
Best Cheesesteak: Boo’s Philly Cheesesteaks (Los Angeles)
Boos Philly Cheesesteaks and Hoagies/Yelp
This family-run shop is serving the best cheesesteaks in Los Angeles, starting with rolls shipped in from Philadelphia’s Amoroso’s. The formula here is simple — griddled thin-sliced rib-eye, grilled onions, and your choice of American, Cheese Whiz, or provolone — but the ratio is a lot harder to perfect than you might think. These guys hit the nail on the head.
Best Chili: Jimtown Store (Healdsburg)
At this quaint and unassuming country store in Northern California, biscuit sandwiches and slow-cooked brisket are among the top sellers, but those in the know go for their Chain Gang Chili. To make the chili, pork shoulder is rubbed with nearly a dozen spices, including chili powder, ground bay leaf, cumin, thyme, cinnamon, and clove and slow-smoked for five hours. It’s then braised in a rich stock for three hours before being shredded and mixed with a ground beef chili made with nearly a dozen more spices, fresh pasilla chiles, and kidney beans. It’s then cooked down for an hour and tightened up with cornmeal slurry, and the end result is rich, layered, and so thick you can stand a spoon in it.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Koi Palace (Daly City)
The secret to this perpetually crowded Hong Kong-style restaurant’s success? It sends its staff to Asia on occasion to learn about the newest dining trends and then incorporates them into the menu back home. This sprawling Daly City, California, restaurant and event space opened in 1996 and has been one of the Bay Area’s top Chinese spots since day one.
World-class dim sum is the name of the game during lunchtime, but once dinnertime rolls around, Koi Palace becomes a seafood destination with entire menu sections dedicated to abalone, crab, shrimp, and lobster. Though these preparations are spot-on authentic, there’s plenty of room to be daring: Goose intestine chow fun, anyone? We’ll stick with the whole suckling pig, selling for $190, or its legendary Shanghai crab dumplings.
Best Chocolate Shop: Donnelly Fine Chocolates (Santa Cruz)
California has no shortage of fine chocolatiers, but Donnelly Fine Chocolates in Santa Cruz is our pick. Since 1988, Richard Donnelly has been making his artisanal chocolates by hand. Whether you’re looking for dark chocolates, milk chocolates, or something with a little bit of spice (think: cardamom, ginger, and chai), Donnelly does it best.
Best Coffee Shop: Go Get Em Tiger (Los Angeles)
Go Get Em Tiger has three locations, each with a friendly and casual atmosphere that's more than welcoming. Have some delicious avocado toast or soft scrambled eggs on a biscuit along with lattes and cappuccinos with almond milk or turmeric — the options are plenty.
Best Craft Brewery: Lagunitas Brewing Company (Petaluma)
Known for their irreverent labels, Lagunitas has been one of America’s fastest-growing craft breweries, opening a Chicago outpost in 2014 and a third operation that’s just recently been built in Azusa, California. Long known for their association with marijuana, they even named a beer “Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale” in reference to the brewery’s 20-day suspension of operations as the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control investigated alleged cannabis dealing amongst the brewery’s staff. No charges were filed, but another great beer was born.
Best Cupcakes: Tiffany’s Sweet Spot (La Quinta)
This small, family-run bakery began as a passion for cookies, but quickly grew into a gourmet cookie and cupcake destination. The delectable cupcake creations come in a variety of flavors like Boston cream pie, PB&J, red velvet and tres leches, to name a few. They also offer French macarons and “sumptuous cinnamon rolls,” along with their growing list of cupcakes and custom cookies.
Best Deep Dish Pizza: Capo’s (San Francisco)
Tony Gemignani is a master pizza chameleon, an expert at more pizza styles than you’ve ever tasted. No surprise then that his red-boothed, brick-walled homage to Chicago-style pizza in San Francisco’s North Beach landed on our list of the 101 best pizzas in America. And by Chicago-style, we mean a choice between deep dish, cast iron pan, stuffed, and cracker- thin pizzas (there’s more to Chicago than casseroles, after all). One of the most-discussed orders at Capo’s is the Quattro Forni, a square loaf smothered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and herbs and your choice of prosciutto, sopressata, or wild mushrooms, that’s baked in four different ovens to achieve a crispy, chewy, black-edged crust. But the Dillinger is the pie that Capo’s singled out as the signature order. A trio of Cheddar, mozzarella, and provolone is topped with vodka sauce, chicken, bacon, broccolini, artichoke hearts, red peppers, garlic, and lemon and spiced with crushed red pepper.
Best Dive Bar: Zeitgeist (San Francisco)
For 30 years, bikers, punkers, and indie rockers alike have been congregating at Zeitgeist in San Francisco. Though the clientele has classed up a bit over the years, the bartenders are still crusty and the barbecue is still greasy. Don’t leave without trying one of their legendary Bloody Marys and drinking it out on the sprawling patio.
Best Donut Shop: Colonial Donuts (Oakland)
Few things remain of old-school Oakland, but Colonial Donuts is one of them. For 28 years, this 24/7 joint has been serving piping hot, heavenly doughnuts. Though one of this restaurant’s locations was closed due to gentrification, another still exists. So run — don’t walk — to grab an old-fashioned maple doughnut, a blueberry cake doughnut with a delightful pink center, or a colorful sprinkled doughnut.
Best Farmers Market: Santa Monica Wednesday Market (Santa Monica)
The Santa Monica Wednesday Market is the largest grower-only certified market in Southern California and is a favorite of top Los Angeles chefs and locals alike. They also offer a number of healthy-eating education outreach programs for both children and adults. The quantity and quality of the produce, along with a host of other reasons, make our No. 1 pick for Best Farmers Market in America!
Best Food Truck: Food Fix Original Food Creations (Modesto)
Food Fix is the best food truck in California. The Modesto-based truck offers some fantastic food creations unlike anything you’ve ever seen on wheels (or at all, in most cases). Think sandwiches like the “Porkstrami and Preztzel,” “Root Beer Pulled Pork,” and “Angry Bleubird” with mesquite grilled chicken, pepper jack cheese, and homemade blue cheese dressing. Food Fix also offers some salads, but that would mean missing out on the sandwiches!
Best French Fries: Petit Trois (Los Angeles)
Yelp/ Tamar A.
The French fries at rock star chef Ludo Lefebvre’s casual Petit Trois take three days to prepare, and are the result of a fair amount of trial and error. Skin-on Kennebec potatoes are cut and soaked in cold water overnight, blanched the following day, and fried again to order. Though Petit Trois prepared fries in beef tallow upon the restaurant’s opening, Lefebvre is currently frying them in clarified butter, making it one of the only restaurants in the country to do so. The results, if it’s not already obvious, are spectacular. Eschew the ketchup and aïoli and instead dunk them is cheesy house-made Mornay sauce.
Best Fish and Chips: Barbara’s Fishtrap (Half Moon Bay)
Yelp/ Randy F.
Since 1971, this cash-only restaurant has been serving some of the country’s finest seafood out of a nearly 100-year-old building located right on the water. Along with clam chowder and fried calamari, the fish and chips are the most popular option on the menu, and they don’t disappoint. Thick-sliced rock cod gets a light tempura-style coating and comes out golden brown and delicious, served alongside thick-cut steak fries that need nothing more than a sprinkling of salt.
Best Fried Chicken: Howlin' Ray's (Los Angeles)
Howlin’ Ray’s owner Johnny Ray Zone has spent time working for some of the world’s most renowned chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon, and Nobu Matsuhisa, but he found his true calling on a trip to Nashville. What started as a food truck is now a tiny Chinatown storefront that’s packed from open to close, serving fresh-from-the-fryer hot chicken made screamingly hot with help from cayenne and extracts of habanero, ghost pepper, and red savina. But before the heat kicks in, you’ll have a few seconds to recognize that this also happens to be great fried chicken.
Best Fudge Shop: Z. Cioccolato (San Francisco)
This family-owned San Francisco sweet shop makes fresh fudge, taffy, and truffles. Its fudge comes in some varieties you won’t find anywhere else in America. California Earthquake (milk chocolate, coconut, and walnuts), chocolate caramel brownie, chocolate orange swirl, cookies and cream, creamsicle, and Cougar Butter (milk chocolate, caramel cream, coffee, caramel, and peanut butter) are just a few of its unique selections.
Best Grocery Store: Berkeley Bowl Marketplace (Berkeley)
Dave L. via Yelp
Berkeley Bowl Marketplace is quite a remarkable grocery store. It carries a vast range of products and foods, and also offers a large organic produce section with reasonable prices. A Google reviewer said it best: “This is probably the best grocery store I have ever been to. The fruit section has a huge section of every kind of fruit you can think of... good prices as well.”
Best Hot Dog: Pink’s (Los Angeles)
Dave L. via Yelp
Is there anything to say about Pink’s that hasn’t been said? Hard to imagine. Even detractors define themselves by it. But you won’t find many of those — just check out the line at this family-owned hot dog stand that has been around since 1939. At our last count, owner Richard Pink said he offers 35 varieties of hot dogs and toppings and sells on average about 2,000 hot dogs a day. Credit much of Pink’s success to its chili — it once led then New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl to gdumpster-diving to figure out the recipe (true story). And while he wouldn’t divulge its ingredients, in an interview with The Daily Meal, Pink did note “that it needs to be relatively smooth, but still have enough texture to make it stand up to hot dogs and hamburgers.” For all the bacon-, sour cream-, guacamole-, pastrami-, and nacho cheese-topped hot dogs, the Three Dog Night is the right move. This “dog” (shouldn’t it really be called a meal?) features three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese, three slices of bacon, chili, and onions. It’s a best-seller that was born the Laker Three-Peat Dog, was then renamed after Matrix Reloaded, and after the movie had its run, finally settled into a permanent homage to the ‘70s rock band.
Best Homemade Ravioli: Osteria Mozza (Los Angeles)
Yelp/ Cesar R.
La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton runs this stunner of an Italian restaurant, which specializes in fresh handmade pastas. Their ricotta and egg raviolo is a master class in making this difficult-to-execute dish, but the real star is the simple and perfect goat cheese ravioli with Coach Farm goat cheese and “five lilies,” meaning five members of the allium, or onion, family.
Best Hotel Restaurant: The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena)
You have to marvel at Meadowood in Napa Valley, and at its chef, Chris Kostow. It was already a three-Michelin-starred restaurant when Kostow closed the place so that it could undergo a renovation under the direction of architect Howard Backen and designer George Federighi, one that stretched from the dining room to the kitchen. Kostow, one the country’s least hyped yet most amazing chefs, also reexamined his menus and reinvented the way he served his customers, coming up with a more curated experience for them, which the restaurant describes as "creating bespoke menus." Kostow says he sits down the night before guests visit to write out individual menus for the next day’s 70 customers. If you want to truly enjoy the experience, you should really stay at the adjacent luxury hotel, which will make the visit considerably more expensive but commensurately more wonderful. How's the food, you ask? Expect modern American cuisine featuring masterful technique and deft mixes of texture and flavor; alternately playful, straightforward, and serious. Meadowood is good. Really, really good.
Best Ice Cream Stand: McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams (Santa Barbara)
Originally founded by a husband and wife in 1950, this California staple is now sold in grocery stores nationwide. Its flagship store still stands on State Street in Santa Barbara’s downtown, but many new McConnell’s shops have popped up all over the country serving their decadent and fresh flavors.
Best Indian Restaurant: August 1 Five (San Francisco)
August 1 Five/Yelp
So named to commemorate the date of India’s independence from the British, August 1 Five provides a fine dining experience that combines traditional Indian cuisine with modern innovations in a beautifully furnished dining room. Executive chef Manish Tyagi, born and raised in India, uses his experience of living and traveling throughout his home country to combine traditional dishes with produce and a bit of style from Northern California. The result is not just traditional Indian foods with a kick, but also innovative dishes such as their bison keema (minced meat) made with bacon and quail egg or August 1 Five’s take on chicken and waffles: a waffle made out of dosa (a very thin South Indian pancake made from fermented batter) and served with spiced fried chicken and chili jaggery butter. You’ll even find Indian spices and herbs being used on their cocktail menu, as well as a global wine list suitable for the variety of flavors on your plate.
Best Inexpensive Steakhouse: Gaslamp Strip Club (San Diego)
Yelp/ Christina A.
Guests are invited to grill their own steak at this unique restaurant (not an actual strip club!), and the savings are passed down to the customer. Choice Angus beef is dry aged for 21 days and marinated in olive oil and garlic, and all entrées are served with salad and garlic bread. A 10-ounce skirt steak costs $16.95, a 10-ounce steak marinated in Guinness and garlic costs $18.95, and a 14-ounce bone-in rib-eye costs just $21.95.
Best Irish Pub: Tom Bergin’s Tavern (Los Angeles)
Yelp / Steve R
Founded in 1936, and thus one of the oldest (almost) continuously operated bars in LA (it closed briefly in 2013, but was reopened by a regular patron who took it over), Tom Bergin’s was said to have been one of the inspirations for the ‘80s sitcom Cheers, and also has long disputed with San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café over which one of them introduced Irish coffee to America.
Best Italian Restaurant: Quince (San Francisco)
Located in a historic brick and timber building dating back to 1907 in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood, Quince is both charming and elegant. Chef and owner Michael Tusk, who won the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific, creates an Italian dining experience rooted in his relationships with a tightly knit network of only the best Northern California food purveyors. Every night, the 12-course tasting menu ($250) features vegetable-driven dishes highlighting the season’s produce, including some things grown on the restaurant’s rooftop garden. Those hoping to sample the food (and a wide variety of caviar) without splashing out on a tasting menu should visit the salon, where they can order à la carte. Now’s as good a time to visit as any – Quince has been bumped from two Michelin stars to three.
Best Jewish Deli: Canter’s (Los Angeles)
After its humble beginnings on the East Coast in Jersey City, this 24-hour Jewish deli has been a Los Angeles staple since 1931. Its bakery is the heart and soul of the operation, where it pumps out items like bagels, rye bread, pumpernickel, and challah several times daily. All of its signature sandwiches like pastrami, corned beef, chopped liver, or oven-roasted turkey are served on rye, unless the customer requests otherwise. Today, it also caters to the vegetarian and gluten-free communities by offering gluten-free buns, bagels, and matzoh.
Best Lasagna: Beretta (San Francisco)
Located in the hip Mission District neighborhood in San Francisco, Beretta opened its doors in 2008 and has been an industry favorite ever since. The restaurant focuses on contemporary Italian comfort food that is always fresh, seasonal, and sourced from local farmers. Although many go for the thin-crust pizzas and inventive cocktails, the true attraction of this spot is the Friday night special, Lasagne alla Bolognes, which holds an excellent balance of both flavor and texture.
Best Lobster Roll: Sam’s Chowder House (Half Moon Bay)
Sam’s Chowder House/Yelp
The lobster rolls served at Sam’s hit all the right notes: First, they’re gorgeous to look at, with massive chunks of super-fresh lobster dressed with just a little bit of drawn butter, fresh herbs, and celery, and tucked into a custom-baked bun. Second, the view from the deck out across the Pacific is second to none. Third, it’s about as New England an experience as you can get, but 3,000 miles away. With a menu that’s brimming with local seafood, as well as specialties like cioppino, bacon-wrapped crabmeat-stuffed prawns, and a grilled rib-eye, it’s not just one of the best lobster rolls in the Bay Area, it’s one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area.
Best Macaroni and Cheese: Blue Plate (San Francisco)
The macaroni and cheese at chef Cory Obenour’s Blue Plate was created more than 10 years ago and is still one of the most popular menu items. The secret ingredient? Semi-firm drunken goat cheese, from Murcia, Spain, which is cured in red wine. When combined with elbow macaroni, white Cheddar, Tabasco, nutmeg, Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard, the finished product is creamy, tangy, a little spicy, and worthy of cultish devotion.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Guelaguetza (Los Angeles)
With the 1994 opening of Guelaguetza, the Lopez family introduced Los Angeles to authentic Oaxacan cuisine. Now the number of local Oaxacan restaurants trails only those of Mexico City and Oaxaca itself, at least according to the late critic Jonathan Gold — and much of that can be attributed to the success of this Koreatown spot. Named for Oaxaca’s famous traditional summertime festival, Guelaguetza is a year-round destination for its tamales, memelas (chubby cornmeal cakes similar to sopes), unstuffed enchiladas, and of course, exquisite moles.
Most Expensive Restaurant: Urasawa (Los Angeles)
The legendary Urasawa is one of America’s finest Japanese restaurants, with two Michelin stars to its name, and it’s also not just the most expensive restaurant in California, but in the whole country. It boasts a daily-changing omakase menu of 25 or more courses, which will set you back $400 before tax, tip, and beverages. The average check costs more than $1,000 per person.
Most Iconic Dish: Pizza With House Cured Smoked Salmon, Spago (Beverly Hills)
Yes, Spago is full of glamour and glitz — now on display in a sleek, semi-minimalist dining room, renovated in 2012 — but it nevertheless remains a place where food is taken very seriously. As always, the cuisine here is first-rate modern Californian–international, and the menu has changed regularly since Wolfgang Puck first opened it in 1982, but the restaurant’s most famous and influential dish, a pizza topped with house-smoked salmon, chives, and dill crème fraîche, is still available, albeit only at lunch or at the bar. It was revolutionary at a time when pizza meant pepperoni and mozzarella, and the pizza world has never been the same.
Most Over the Top Dish: Pork Belly Squid Ink Bao, Sakana Sushi Lounge (Los Angeles)
Sakana Sushi Lounge takes the squid ink food trend to the next level with these baos. Stuffed with pork belly that's been oven-braised for an hour and a half, the buns are naturally colored with squid ink and have a delicious, nutty taste. The sandwich is topped with black garlic and black sesame aioli, as well as homemade pickles and microgreens, adding a pop of color to the otherwise goth-looking burger.
Most Romantic Restaurant: The Little Door (Los Angeles)
"Charming" is a word often used to describe this super-romantic spot. Entering the little door to the storybook garden makes diners feel as if they've discovered their own special spot; indoors, eating by the fireplace is an inviting option. Start your meal with seared foie gras and a fried duck egg on baguette French toast, follow up with grilled filet mignon with green peppercorn and tarragon gastrique demi-glace, and wash it all down with a nice bottle of wine. Sure, this place does bill itself “the most romantic restaurant in Los Angeles,” but it’s not a gimmick: This place really is that romantic.
Best Old School Candy Shop: Retro Sweets (Burlingame)
You’ll get a blast from the past when you step foot into Retro Sweets, which is often referred to as “the Disneyland of candy stores.” Here, you’ll find a rainbow of M&M’s, tubs of cotton candy, Wax Fangs, and Rocky Road. There’s also a throwback toy section laden with hula hoops, Rubik’s cubes, jump ropes, Silly Putty, metal yo-yos, slinkies, and more.
Best Over-the-Top Grilled Cheese: The Grilled Cheese Truck (Los Angeles)
Yelp/ Howie C.
At this popular truck, you’ll find a wide variety of creative grilled cheeses, including the Pepperbelly Melt (chili, habanero Jack cheese, cilantro-lime sour cream, tomato salsa, and Fritos); Cheesy Mac ‘n’ Rib (mac and cheese, smoked barbecue pork, barbecue sauce, caramelized onions, and sharp Cheddar); and Brie Melt (brie, sliced pears, fresh thyme, toasted almonds, and honey). There are also a ton of add-ons available, including chili, Fritos, caramelized onions, brown butter apples, and peanut butter.
Best Pancakes: The Griddle Cafe (Los Angeles)
Hip and constantly bustling, The Griddle Cafe is renowned for being one of the best breakfast spots in Los Angeles, and is also a top spot for celebrity sightings, if that’s your thing. But even if Jennifer Aniston is sitting right next to you, you probably won’t notice once your gigantic pancakes arrive. Their original buttermilk pancakes and red velvet pancakes are the stuff of legend, and in fact they’re so popular that the restaurant has started selling their proprietary mix online. But if you’re looking to go outside the box, try one of their nearly 20 creative variations, like Scotch on the Rocks (coconut, pecan, oat, and butterscotch chips), Black Magic (filled and topped with crushed Oreos) or Saturday Morning Fever (with Bailey’s and Kahlua in the batter).
Best Pasta Dish: Agnolotti Del Plin, Cotogna (San Francisco)
Chef Michael Tusk’s Cotogna, along with its next-door predecessor Quince, are constantly raising the bar for what can be done with simple, seasonal California ingredients. Cotogna celebrates rustic Italian cuisine with a daily-changing selection of grilled meats and fish, wood oven pizzas, and house- made pastas. A couple menu items never change, though, including the must-order agnolotti del plin. Tusk fills his tiny handmade pasta packets with slow-roasted veal and rabbit, vegetables, and Grana Padano cheese; its slicked with a sugo made from roasted veal and rabbit bones and topped with some extra Grana. It’s pasta perfection.
Best Pizza: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (San Francisco)
It’s something to be considered a Neapolitan pizza expert — and with too many awards to count (eight-time world champion pizza acrobat, first-place world champion pizza maker, first-place Roman pizza world championships of pizza makers), Tony Gemignani is that. It’s another to also proudly offer, and be commended for being a master of, all pizza styles. But that’s the story at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Yes, the signature pie is Tony’s award-winning Neapolitan: hand-mixed dough made with San Felice flour and proofed in Napoletana wood boxes, then topped with San Marzano tomatoes, sea salt, mozzarella fior di latte, fresh basil, and extra-virgin olive oil. Just keep in mind that only 73 of these champion pizzas are made each day, so get there early. But the menu also offers critically acclaimed versions of pizza in the styles of California, St. Louis (yes!), Italy, Sicily (awesome!), New York, Rome, classic American, and even Detroit (sweet!). You could accuse Gemignani of showing off. Then again, there’s truth in the expression: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”
Best Ramen Shop: Daikokuya (Los Angeles)
This Little Tokyo landmark introduced many Angelinos to the glories of ramen, and even though there are a few additional locations, the original Little Tokyo location is a master class in ramen perfection, the best place in the country for a big bowl of porky goodness. Appealingly grungy and with lines as long as ever, when you find yourself finally perched on a stool or nestled into a booth you’ll never want to leave. Their daikoku ramen, creamy, infused with soy sauce, and topped with kurobuta pork belly chashu, marinated egg, bamboo, bean sprouts, green onions, and sesame seeds, is essentially flawless. Want it to be richer? Ask for kotteri, which has some soup extracted from pure back fat added.
Best Restaurant: Providence (Los Angeles)
Cue Crystal N./Yelp
Los Angeles is a city that thrives on food trucks and pop-ups, but sometimes a no-holds-barred fine- dining experience is called for. Chef Michael Cimarusti, who opened this upscale eatery with co-owner Donato Poto in 2005 on the southern edge of Hollywood, serves market tasting menus as well as an à la carte listing of carefully selected seafood from both coasts and beyond, prepared with great originality. Wild Japanese tai sashimi with cherry leaves and blossoms and geoduck; “dock to dish” local halibut with smoked potato, stinging nettle, and watercress; spiny lobster with macadamis nut and black truffle; and A5 wagyu with Tahitian squash terrine, pickled shiitake, and miso are just a few example of Cimarusti’s brilliance. With four tasting menus ranging from four courses to 12, Providence isn’t for diners on a budget. But the impeccable service combined with the quality of the seafood and the lapidary perfection of the plates Cimarusti sends out makes it clear that this restaurant has few equals.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Just For You Café (San Francisco)
Yes, this charming and unpretentious little café in the San Francisco neighborhood of Dogpatch is the best place for breakfast in the entire state. In business since 1990 and in its current location since 2002, Just For You bakes most of its own breads in-house, sources its charcuterie from local Zoe’s Meats, sources eggs from Petaluma Farms, sources its seafood locally, and only uses fresh (usually organic) produce. The breakfast menu (served from 7:30 weekdays) is absolutely massive; along with eggs, breakfast burritos, pancakes, brioche French toast, biscuits and gravy, and more lunchy stuff like salads and burgers you’ll find a surprisingly wide assortment of New Orleans-inspired offerings (Creole crab cakes, hot beignets, fried oyster po’ boys) Mexican and Tex-Mex specialties (chorizo con huevos, carnitas tacos, hatch green chile sauce); Southern staples (fried chicken, shrimp and grits), and a variety of vegetarian and vegan offerings. Wash it all down with some fresh-squeezed juice, and take a pan of homemade cornbread with you.
Best Sandwich: French Dip, Philippe the Original (Los Angeles)
Countless restaurants serve French dip sandwiches, but the definitive version can still be found at the restaurant where it was invented: Los Angeles’ Philippe the Original. Because it’s been around for 105 years, the exact origins of the sandwich are disputed. (The most commonly held belief is that it was created as a way to soften up day-old bread, but nobody knows where the “French” part came from.) However, the process behind this masterpiece is no mystery: Bottom round is seasoned with salt, pepper, and mashed garlic, slow-roasted with a mirepoix until medium-rare, and sliced and placed onto a fresh French roll from a local bakery that’s been dunked into jus made with homemade stock and the intensely flavored pan drippings. (The “single dip” means that just the top half is dunked, but the more popular “double dip” includes both halves.)
Best Seafood Shack: Splash Café (Pismo Beach)
This colorfully cool Pismo Beach cafe is making waves in the world of West Coast seafood with its award-winning clam chowder. The chowder is made from scratch every day, and Splash says it serves more than 20,000 gallons per year. Other much-loved menu items include fresh salmon, ahi tuna tacos, crispy hot fish and chips, and fresh calamari. Order some chowder, pull up a picnic table, and soak in its beachfront views.
Best Soup: Clam Chowder, Hog Island Oyster Bar (San Francisco and Napa)
Yelp/ Adam S.
Hog Island is one of the most famous restaurants in San Francisco, with a second location in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, and their oysters, from Tomales Bay, really are something special. For those in the know, their chowder is also a must-order. The bowl is loaded with bacon, potatoes, and cream, it’s also overflowing with fresh manila clams still in their shell.
Best Spaghetti and Meatballs: Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack (San Francisco)
This funky Mission District standout does its spaghetti right, as the name might imply. And the best way to sample them? Tossed with house-made chunky marinara sauce and served with three 100-percent beef meatballs. Take a look around and you’ll notice that everyone else is eating them, because they’re just that good.
Best Sports Bar: 33 Taps (Los Angeles)
33 Taps Hollywood/Yelp
You guessed it: There are 33 rotating draft beers on tap at this LA sports bar, where fun food like breakfast burgers and bacon mac and cheese make chowing down while watching the game extra enjoyable. Stop by for Dodgers game day specials, which start with the first pitch.
Best Restaurant Steak for $20 or Less: Geneva Steak House (San Francisco)
If this low-slung steakhouse looks like a portal to another time, that’s because it pretty much is: San Francisco’s Geneva Steak House opened in 1942 and hasn’t changed much since then. It’s a quiet restaurant with a long counter and red leather booths, and it’s insanely inexpensive: a New York steak costs $13.99, a rib eye club steak costs $14.99, and a T-bone clocks in at just $16.99, and all steaks are grilled to order and come with a green salad, baked potato, and garlic bread.
Best Steakhouse: CUT (Beverly Hills)
Wolfgang Puck helped invent California cuisine (and gave us California-style pizza) at Spago, pioneered Asian fusion food at Chinois on Main, and even figured out a way to produce decent airport food at his many Wolfgang Puck Express outlets, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he has also reinvented the steakhouse with CUT in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (there are now seven additional locations around the world). The traditional red leather booths and bucolic paintings have given way to a cool white interior by rationalist architect Richard Meier and a series of pieces by conceptual artist John Baldessari. In place of iceberg wedges and grilled swordfish, look for warm veal tongue with baby artichokes and roast Maine lobster with black truffle sabayon. Oh, and the steaks? Not the usual four or five choices, but a total of 17 cuts and places of origin, from Australian filet mignon to Illinois bone-in New York sirloin to genuine Japanese Wagyu ribeye from Miyazaki Prefecture. Puck has reinvented the steakhouse experience at CUT, and what he’s done is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Best Sushi Bar: Urasawa (Los Angeles)
Xing M. / Yelp
This two-Michelin-star Japanese culinary shrine, with a sushi bar and just enough room for 10 diners nightly, located in a shopping center off of Rodeo Drive, might be called the West Coast version of New York City’s Masa. That’s not surprising: Not only did Urasawa chef-owner Hiroyuki Urasawa train under Masa Takayama before opening his eponymous restaurant here, but the spot previously housed Takayama’s Ginza Sushi-ko, where Masa made his reputation. Urasawa has a nearly 30-course omakase menu that changes daily, not to be missed if you can afford to pay $400 or more for the privilege.
Best Soft Pretzel: Esther’s German Bakery (Los Altos)
Esther’s provides pretzels to many of San Francisco’s leading German spots like Schmidt’s and gastropubs like Monk’s Kettle, so you know that these pretzels are great. Opened by a husband-and-wife duo who emigrated from Germany in 1997, they use an old family recipe to craft their pretzels. The pretzels can be purchased at their Los Altos café, as well as at more than 20 farmers markets and specialty shops throughout the Bay Area.
Taco: Carnitas, La Taqueria (San Francisco)
Photo by Winnie L. via Yelp
When it comes to leaders of a culinary genre, there are few restaurants in America with greater gravitas for their respective focus than San Francisco‘s La Taqueria has for tacos. That gives it, and its tacos (carnitas among them, quite arguably the best), quite a heavy reputation to live up to. La Taqueria, just one of the Mission’s many casual Mexican joints, does Mexican the way it should be done: fresh. As if the amazing rice-free burritos weren’t enough (you’d never notice its absence), there are the tacos. To prepare the carnitas, chef/owner Miguel Jara slow-cooks chunks of pork shoulder in cauldrons of bubbling lard until tender, then roasts it until it’s crispy. When it’s tucked into a double layer of corn tortillas and topped with your choice of pinto beans, onions, pico de gallo, cheese, crema, or guacamole (or none of the above), there just might be no better taco in America. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.