Best Restaurants in California

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The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.

How did a chef whose innovative restaurant in Manhattan failed and who headed west to cook in a downtown L.A. hotel suddenly emerge in the Napa Valley to create a restaurant to rival the great three-star establishments of rural France? Hard work and outsize talent, most probably. Taking over what had been a good but far simpler restaurant, Chef Thomas Keller approached contemporary American food with French technique and his French Laundry established new standards for fine dining in this country.

Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.

Chez Panisse is, of course, where it all started, four decades ago this year. Before Chez Panisse, practically nobody in America served only fresh local foods and wrote menus according to the season, if not the day. Practically nobody cared like Alice Waters and her associates did. It has become fashionable to criticize this culinary icon as (take your pick) tired, irrelevant, pretentious — but the truth is that the food is still superb, both in the one-menu-a-night downstairs restaurant and the lively, diversified upstairs café. A must.

Bazaar, Los Angeles

Spanish food, whether traditional or avant-garde, has no more fervent and eloquent champion in America than José Andrès, proprietor of this multi-part restaurant and culinary theme park. Whether you choose to sample hot and cold foie soup with corn at Saam, Ottoman carrot fritters with apricot and pistachio sauce at Bar Centro, or the best jamón ibérico in America at Rojo y Blanco — or, best of all, a combination of the trad and the completely mad, easily achieved here — you’ll have a memorable, one-of-a-kind experience here.

Zuni Café, San Francisco

San Francisco Mediterranean cooking at its best from chef Judy Rodgers, with Chez Panisse alumnus Gilbert Pilgram now in charge of the dining room. The house-cured anchovies with celery, Parmigiano, and Niçoise olives, the Petrale sole, and the whole roasted chicken with bread salad for two are among the emblematic dishes in this food-mad town.

Coi, San Francisco

Using carefully sourced ingredients, Coi Chef Daniel Patterson serves thoughtful Northern California cuisine, balancing classical methods with modern techniques to create unusual and evocative experiences for diners. 

Spago, Los Angeles

This more elaborate but immediate descendent of the original groundbreaking Spago remains the flagship of the ever-growing Wolfgang Puck empire. Full of glamour and glitz, it nevertheless remains a place where food is taken very seriously. The famous Spago pizzas are available only for lunch, but it’s almost a shame to waste your appetite on them anyway (almost), given all the first-rate modern Californian fare cooked here under the direction of Executive Chef Lee Hefter, one of the most underrated chefs in America.

The Hitching Post II, Buelton, Calif.

The “barbecue” tradition of Santa Maria, north of Santa Barbara, based not on long-smoked pork but on tri-tip steak, grilled on live oak, helps define the cooking of California’s Central Coast. This homey, always bustling place extends and improves the basic idiom, and adds a knockout wine list, full of vintages made by the proprietor and his neighbors.

Cut, Los Angeles

Having helped invent California cuisine and given the world a whole new genre of Asian fusion cooking, Wolfgang Puck went on to redefine the great American steakhouse with Cut. The interior is hard-edged and edgy, and the menu leaves iceberg wedges and surf’n’turf far behind with Kobe steak sashimi, bone marrow flan, pan-roasted lobster with black truffle sabayon, and perfectly cooked steaks from Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Washington, Idaho, Australia, and New Zealand.

Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles

Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery changed the game for artisanal bread in America, teams up here with New York-based Italian-food moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich is this lively urban inn, complete with mozzarella bar, unusual pasta (calf’s brain ravioli, spaghetti with marinated white anchovies), and main dishes ranging from sea trout with lentils to grilled pancetta-wrapped quail.

Slanted Door, San Francisco

Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door serves a modern interpretation of classic Vietnamese street food, with a focus on locally-sourced, fresh ingredients. Located in an airy and relaxed new space in the Ferry Building, it has become a must for food-loving visitors; a meal here, overlooking San Francisco Bay, is not to be missed.

Bouchon Bistro, Yountville, Calif.

Shellfish platters, foie gras terrine, salt cod beignets, steak frites, steamed mussels, profiteroles, and other bistro basics are on the menu at this authentic-looking French bistro reimagined in the Napa Valley — and the fact that the man behind the place is Thomas Keller means that it’s all very, very good.

Jitlada, Los Angeles

Daniel L./dinewithdaniel.yelp.com

All the standard Thai dishes are done very well at this well-known storefront restaurant in Thai Town, but the southern Thai specialties, many of which are found nowhere else in America, are the real draw. Try the oxtail soup, crisp catfish salad, softshell crabs with yellow curry, sea bass with caramelized garlic, and whatever else proprietor Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong recommends — even the beef curry called khua kling Phat Lung, quite possibly the spiciest dish in L.A.

Incanto, San Francisco

At the forefront of the nose-to-tail trend, Incanto’s chef Chris Cosentino and owner Mark Pastore also carry the torch for sustainable dining and restaurant practices, like not serving bottled water and sourcing local and organic food for the daily changing Italian menu.

Mustards Grill, Yountville, Calif.

Napa Valley winemakers crowd into the unpretentious Mustards Grill to sample Cindy Pawlcyn’s American-international cooking, encompassing everything from wild mushroom tamales to grilled Laotian-style quail to seafood tostadas to one of California’s best burgers.

Redd, Yountville, Calif.

Redd is known for both chef Richard Reddington’s unique global/American cuisine and pastry chef Nicole Plue’s award-winning desserts. Its pristine, modern dining room puts the focus on the food and sets the tone for Reddington’s thoughtful take on Napa dining.

Boulevard, San Francisco

Boulevard is the perfect neighborhood eatery. It exudes the warm, relaxed San Franciscan ambience that marks many of the city’s best restaurants, but chef and owner Nancy Oakes aims high with her hearty but modern, sophisticated American cuisine.

Valentino, Los Angeles

Piero Selvaggio opened Valentino almost 40 years ago, when L.A. Italian dining meant spaghetti with red sauce and veal parmigiana, and he was in no small part responsible for changing how not just Calfornia but all of America looked at (and ate) the cooking of his native land. Sourcing the best products from both California and Italy, building a wine list (Italian and otherwise) that is one of the most comprehensive in the country, and serving both classic and imaginative Italian food with consummate skill, Selvaggio created an enduring gastronomic landmark.

Michael Mina, San Francisco

As the owner of 18 restaurants, Mina is one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in the country, but he's not at TV food star (yet) and he remains somewhat under the radar. He has become an important figure in the Las Vegas restaurant scene, but it’s his flagship restaurant in San Francisco, Michael Mina, that gets the most praise, for his Japanese- and French-inflected take on preparing the best American ingredients.

Animal, Los Angeles

At this ultimate haven for adventurous carnivores, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have won a host of awards, among other things being included among Food & Wine's roster of Best New Chefs of 2009. Their cooking at Animal is hearty, straightforward, and innovative, and dishes like their foie-gras-spiked loco moco, oxtail poutine, and "Buffalo style" crispy pig's tail keep chefs and civilians alike coming back for more.

Lucques, Los Angeles

Chef Suzanne Goin’s first restaurant remains as good as ever, with a warm dining room, an enchanting patio, and a menu of bright, full-flavored food (fried squid salad with red curry vinaigrette, slow-roasted lamb sirloin with parsnip purée), based on raw materials from sources “guided by principles of sustainability.”

Urasawa, Los Angeles

This Japanese culinary shrine, with a sushi bar and just enough room for ten diners nightly, located in a shopping center off of Rodeo Drive, might be called the West Coast version of New York City's Masa (see #11 on our list). 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.

Ad Hoc, Napa Valley

Thomas Keller’s fourth showing on this list, Ad Hoc began as his opportunity to showcase the dishes that he grew up eating, presented in a warmer and more casual setting than fancy places like Per Se or The French Laundry provide. Ad Hoc started as a simple, temporary concept – an almost-pop-up with a single constantly changing four-course, family-style meal nightly, designed as a space-holder while Keller developed another restaurant here. Response was so positive, though, that Keller and his staff decided to make this one permanent. While the home-style menu is always sure to satisfy, the legendary buttermilk fried chicken served every Monday is the coveted specialty here.