LA dining classics impress visitors

In the cozy microcosm of Los Angeles that is USC, one can easily forget how big this city is.

Sometimes, it takes the arrival of friends and family to drag you out of this patch of the Figueroa Corridor.

With no designated Trojan Family Weekend in the spring semester, your family might decide to visit anytime. Friends also visit often this time of year, whether it’s because of spring break or just for a casual drop-in.

The opportunity to leave the campus area is always enlightening. And as a diner, plans to explore Los Angeles beyond the USC bubble provide a glimpse into the city’s seemingly endless sprawl of restaurants.

Los Angeles is nearly unrivaled as a city in its variety of culturally diverse dining options. This is exemplified in meals from the outstanding pho from Pho87 on the outskirts of Chinatown to the vibrant Peruvian small plates at West Los Angeles’ Picca.

You’ll be doing lots of driving, but lots of learning, too — about the different groups of people that have flocked to Los Angeles, and the recipes that they brought with them.

When parents are in town, take advantage of the city’s upscale dining options. Sometimes beef fajitas and Diablo shots at La Barca just won’t do.

But deciding where to indulge in a pricier meal doesn’t come without caveat.

The year-old, increasingly hot restaurant Red Medicine turns out vaguely Vietnamese takes on root vegetables and pork. Their Brussels sprouts with Vietnamese fish sauce was blow-your-mind delicious, but a follow-up plate of chicken dumplings was mysteriously salty. A carefully plated order of winter peas with trout roe showed off creative textures, but the flavors from an accompaniment of soymilk-yogurt made the dish far too sweet. Basically, there was a miss for every hit.

Lesson learned: When visitors only get to enjoy one or two dinners a year in Los Angeles, you want a fine dining establishment that’s, well, established.

Bouchon in Beverly Hills is hard to beat, expensive but with more ambiance than many other options in the city, and a restaurant from one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, Thomas Keller. The red velvet banquettes and gleaming brass fixtures say Parisian bistro, but the lounge area and mile-high windows looking down onto a garden are distinctly Los Angeles.

Oh, and the food’s fantastic too. Roast chicken with hints of cranberry and orange, a selection of shellfish and a roasted leg of lamb all impress. When people describe a dining experience, this is what they mean.

There are no tricks here — no foams or flames, just classic and consistent dishes.

For visiting friends, totally different rules apply. You want these guests to see two scenes — one USC, one Los Angeles.

You should take these friends to La Barca. And take them to Cole’s Downtown and enjoy their self-proclaimed original French-dip sandwich; then enter their back-of-house speakeasy where bartenders can customize any drink to your preference.

Or take your friends to The Standard: Chances are they rarely get to follow up a midnight meal by lounging on rooftop poolside waterbeds.

No matter with friends or family, dining for fun is a joyous way to see the city — a celebration of taste and Los Angeles’ bounty of eateries.

Say your father is visiting and he loves doughnuts. You can start at a staple like Winchell’s, then get touristy with the famous doughnut-topped Randy’s in Inglewood. Finish at one of the new “healthier” purveyors of dad’s favorite pastry, such as West Hollywood’s baked-doughnut haven Fonuts or Downtown’s gluten-free temple Babycakes.

If a deli-fiend buddy flies in from New York, let him compare his hometown pastrami to the slices at Langer’s or Canter’s, a benefit of the latter being its 24-hour service. A Southern visitor might appreciate the deconstructed take on key lime pie at Son of A Gun, where toasted meringue rims the serving bowl.

In a food scene seemingly devoted to updating the classics, it’s fun for visitors to experience the new possibilities in lifelong favorites.

Or forget everything you’ve just read. When hungry, take your visitors to the most convenient hole-in-the-wall and hope for the best. Given the quality of food served in this city, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised.

But no matter the means, you must experience the food and the city. To entirely debase the words of Ernest Hemingway: Los Angeles, too, can be a moveable feast.


Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” runs Wednesdays.