The Daily Meal's Top 19 Restaurants in California Slideshow
February 26, 2013
19) Providence, Los Angeles
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 in 2005 and now holds two Michelin stars for his efforts, serves market tasting menus as well as an à la carte menu of carefully selected seafood from both coasts and beyond, prepared with great originality (who else offers wild Japanese sardines with smoked tomatoes and piquillo peppers, Santa Barbara sea urchin with soft scrambled eggs and champagne beurre blanc, or wild Washington king salmon with red cabbage and Tahitian squash?). Providence isn't for diners on a budget, but it’s definitely a great place for those looking to celebrate.
18) Benu, San Francisco
Since chef Corey Lee opened Benu after four years at The French Laundry, it has consistently been ranked one of the finest restaurants in the country, warranting two Michelin stars and a AAA Five Diamond Award this year. Lee’s menus incorporate the best of Asian and American cuisine, and combine the two styles in some truly brilliant, upscale ways. When whole steamed bass with crispy skin, shiitake mushrooms, broccolini, turnips, and mustard shares a menu with sea urchin tarte flambée and pork rib-eye in the style of baked ham, you know you’ve come to the right place.
17) The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena
You have to marvel at Meadowood in Napa Valley, Calif. And its chef Chris Kostow. It wasn’t good enough to helm a three-Michelin-starred restaurant — the whole thing had to undergo a renovation under the direction of architect Howard Backen and designer George Federighi, one that stretched from the dining room to the kitchen. New, superior equipment was installed along with an intimate chef’s counter, and then chef Kostow also re-examined 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 menus for the next day’s 70 customers. You will have to lay out some coin for the experience — the nine- to 10-course tasting menu costs $225 (plus an additional $225 for wine pairings), but it’s well worth entrusting it and yourself to what has to be one the country’s least-hyped amazing chefs. The food? Modern American cuisine featuring masterful technique, and deft mixes of texture and flavor, alternately playful, straightforward, and serious.
16) Lucques, Los Angeles
Chef Suzanne Goin was nominated for the Outstanding Chef of the Year James Beard Award every year from 2008 to 2011 for her first endeavor, which opened in 1998 and remains as good as ever. The restaurant shines with a warm dining room, an enchanting patio, and a menu of bright, full-flavored food (chickpea soup with ditalini pasta, bloomsdale spinach, and ricotta salata; Cape Cod clams with pancetta, turnip greens, vermouth, white beans, and aioli toast), based on raw materials from sources "guided by principles of sustainability."
15) State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
What started off as a place to serve fried quail (California’s state bird) to the masses has ended up as one of the hottest restaurants of 2012, as the husband-and-wife team behind Provisions, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, serve more than 30 clever small plates via dim-sum style rolling carts. The fried quail, buttermilk-marinated and encrusted with bread and pepita crumbs, might be a signature here, but don’t overlook the section devoted entirely to pancakes, or the elegant, Asian-influenced desserts.
14) Michael Mina, San Francisco
As the owner of 17 restaurants, Mina is one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in the country, but he's not a 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's Financial District, Michael Mina, which was named as Esquire’s Best Restaurant of 2011, that gets the most praise for its Japanese- and French-inspired take on the best American ingredients — for instance, Monterey Bay abalone with Tokyo turnip, shiitakes, and miso broth or duck breast with huckleberries, Asian pear, and matsutake mushrooms.
Click here to watch The Daily Meal’s Cook Taste Eat with chef Michael Mina.
13) Quince, San Francisco
Quince offers a refined and modern Italian- and French-inspired menu. Located in a historic building in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood, the Michelin-starred restaurant is both charming and elegant. Chef and owner Michael Tusk, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific in 2011, creates a dining experience rooted in his relationships with a tightly knit network of only the best Northern Californian food purveyors. Typical dishes include risotto with Dungeness crab, Brussels sprouts, and Kaffir lime, and duck for two with turnip, bergamot, and wildflower honey. The restaurant’s stylish and intimate setting provides the backdrop for either a prix fixe four-course dinner or a seasonally inspired tasting menu.
12) 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. Recent menus have included such creations as inverted fromage blanc tart with fennel and wheatgrass; grass-fed veal with chicories, caper berries, and Seville orange; and buttermilk-ginger sorbet with epazote. Some of Coi’s many accolades include a two-star Michelin rating and the title of 58th best restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino.
11) CUT, Los Angeles
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 spin-offs in Las Vegas, London, and Singapore). 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 rib-eye from Shiga Prefecture.
10) Spago, Los Angeles
This more elaborate but immediate descendent of the original groundbreaking Spago remains the flagship of the ever-growing Wolfgang Puck empire. Yes, it’s full of glamour and glitz, but 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–international fare cooked here under the direction of executive chef Lee Hefter, one of the most underrated chefs in America. Veal filet mignon tartare with smoked mascarpone, veal cheek risotto with spring garlic and garlic chives, whole roasted maitake mushrooms with melted leeks, Jidori chicken breast with chicken-leg "pastrami" and celery–mustard purée… these are examples of Hefter's fare.
9) The Bazaar, Los Angeles
Spanish food, whether traditional or avant-garde, has no more fervent and eloquent champion in America than José Andrés, proprietor of this multi-part restaurant and culinary theme park. Whether you choose the multi-course tasting menu at the semi-hidden SAAM, Ottoman carrot fritters or sea urchin and avocado steamed buns at Bar Centro, or the best jamón Ibérico in America at Rojo y Blanca — or, best of all, a combination of the traditional and the completely mad, easily achieved here — you’ll have a memorable, one-of-a-kind experience (that is unless you also visit the South Beach location in Miami, which opened last summer).
Click here to watch The Daily Meal’s At the Chef's Table with chef José Andrés.
8) La Taqueria, San Francisco
Naming San Francisco's "best tacos" is such a personal thing, it’s likely to start arguments, but La Taqueria seems to be one place that a large majority of the city and the rest of the nation can agree on. It's one of the Mission’s many casual Mexican joints, but at around $3.50 a taco, it's one of the more expensive ones. Still, the hugely popular tacos (carnitas, chorizo, lengua, etc.,) and rice-free burritos, especially the melt-in-your-mouth grilled carne asada version, keep the seat-yourself tables packed with an eclectic mix of diners, who come in droves before heading to the bars on weekend nights.
7) Bar Tartine, San Francisco
You’ll find a homey setting offering approachable yet modern fare at this San Francisco eatery. Run by James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Elizabeth Prueitt and baker Chad Robertson since 2005, Bar Tartine is sophisticated but unpretentious. Chef Nicolaus Balla pickles, smokes, and bakes seasonal ingredients for his monthly menus and offers dishes like beet and avocado salad alongside blood sausage with mushrooms. The cozy setting, right off a bustling street in the Mission District, evokes the comfort of your own home, but the menu tells you you’re in for a fine dining experience. Tartine Bakery is the restaurant's sister establishment, so the bread basket is a must.
6) Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
Is Mission Chinese Food one of the most overhyped restaurants in America? If you want the opinion of the restaurant’s own Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised chef Danny Bowien, the answer is yes. But most fans of the San Francisco original and the tiny, perpetually packed second location in New York City’s Lower East Side would vehemently argue that the attention and praise are well-deserved. Some might even argue that Bowien (who has been praised for doing to Chinese food "what Led Zeppelin did to the blues," and is known to have flown his entire San Francisco kitchen staff to China to try the real thing) is just being humble and has picked up the mantle of New York’s other Korean-American sensation, David Chang. His kung pao pastrami, cumin lamb breast, and riff on ma po tofu are just some of the signature dishes on a menu of what Bowien himself calls "Americanized Oriental food."
5) Bouchon Bistro, Yountville
Shellfish platters, pâté, 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. The watchword here isn't "innovation;" Bouchon is about traditional fare done right.
4) 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 in this lively urban restaurant, complete with a mozzarella bar, unusual pasta (calf’s brain ravioli, spaghetti with marinated white anchovies), and main dishes ranging from sea trout with lentils to sweetbreads piccata. In 2012, executive chef Matt Molina won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific.
3) Animal, Los Angeles
At this ultimate haven for adventurous carnivores, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have won a host of awards for their hearty, straightforward, and innovative cooking. Dishes like crispy pig head with salsa macho, crema, and avocado; oxtail poutine; and kung pao sweetbreads keep chefs and civilians alike coming back for more. With their second restaurant, Son of a Gun, which opened in 2011, and a new partnership with chef Ludo Lefebvre in the works, these two former outsiders have been fully accepted into the rotation of full-fledged culinary trendsetters.
2) Chez Panisse, Berkeley
Celebrating more than 40 years in business and still going strong, Chez Panisse was instrumental in changing the American food scene; before this restaurant, practically nobody in America served only fresh, local foods and wrote menus daily, according to the season. Alice Waters, an organic-living pioneer, is also the founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, a foundation that is bringing healthy breakfasts and lunches to schools across the nation. It has become fashionable to criticize this culinary icon as irrelevant or pretentious, but the truth is that her restaurant's food is still superb, both in the one-menu-a-night downstairs restaurant (dishes tilt toward Italy and Provence) and the lively, diversified upstairs Café.
1) The French Laundry, Yountville
How did a chef whose innovative restaurant in Manhattan failed and who headed west to cook in a downtown LA 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 located in a turn-of-the-century stone building surrounded by gardens, chef Thomas Keller approached contemporary American food with classical technique. His French Laundry,with its now-famous blue door, has established new standards for fine dining in this country. Two $270 nine-course tasting menus are devised each day (one traditional and one vegetarian), and no single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the meal. The classic "Oysters and Pearls," pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar, is a perennial favorite, though, and while items like sautéed cod with tamarind-glazed eggplant and tomato chutney might sound simple, the techniques used are anything but. In 2012, Keller and The French Laundry received a coveted AAA Five Diamond Award, just another honor to add to the pile.
Click here to watch The Daily Meals At the Chefs Table interview with Chef Thomas Keller.