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Fine Dining Is Flourishing Among LA’s Traditional Fast Casual Scene
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Fine Dining Is Flourishing Among LA’s Traditional Fast Casual Scene

Kat Odell
over 3 years ago

Perhaps it’s the miles of sparkling blue ocean, or the undisturbed sunshine that grants the City of Angels a uniquely casual, unbuttoned feel. And when it comes to dining, Los Angeles’ laid-back nature certainly translates to food. For the longest time, local chefs have earned praise not necessarily for attempts at complicated cookery, but rather for rustic preparations of peak produce, highlighting the best of what’s in season on any given day. But in the last decade, and really in the last five years, palates are changing.

“I think Angelenos have become more and more discerning” states Kato chef Jon Yao of Los Angeles’ rise in tasting menu dining experiences. Two years ago, Yao opened a minimalist, Asian-flavored set-menu eatery that’s slowly grown into one of the city’s best kept secrets. And chef Niki Nakayama of kaiseki-influenced seven-year-old n/naka agrees. Los Angeles’ rise in fine dining is “a reflection of the culinary destination L.A. has become,” says the chef, that’s thanks to early efforts from longtime L.A. vet Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec and Aussie import Curtis Stone at Maude.

But in the last year alone, the city has welcomed two of its most ambitious efforts, Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine, and shortly thereafter Former Next Chicago chef Dave Beran’s Dialogue, two restaurants serving close to 20 courses, asking $200 or more in return.

Right now, fine dining shines in L.A. And here’s where to get it.


Since its inception last July, chef Jordan Kahn’s enigmatic Vespertine––which claims a stunning four-floor building designed by renowned Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss––has made waves in the fine dining world not just in Los Angeles, but around the world. Melding global flavors with locally foraged ingredients, Kahn builds edible works of art for a dining room of just 22. Guests travel through a parade of 18-plus plates, priced at $250, beginning on Vespertine’s roof and ending in the ground-floor garden.


Within an entirely unassuming strip mall plot in West LA, chef and owner Jon Yao has been crafting inspired five-course, $85 tasting menus drawing on the flavors of Taiwan, China, and Japan since 2016. Seemingly simple-sounding, yet deceptively complex dishes of albacore with Meyer lemon and chili; and kohlrabi, pickled peppers, and chicken fat weave seasonal produce into frequently-changing small plates that fluctuate every few weeks. “We draw a lot of inspiration from our Asian American experiences growing up here in greater Los Angeles,” explains Yao,” adding, “We pride ourselves in conveying what that is through food.”


Australian celebrity chef Curtis Stone was one of Los Angeles’ pioneers in the city’s contemporary tasting menu movement. And when he opened Maude in early 2014, the 25-seat, approximately nine-course engagement celebrated monthly-changing menus built around a single seasonal ingredient, like cherries or truffles. This past January, Stone switched up Maude’s tasting menu focus to center on wine regions around the world. Menus flip four times per year, embracing plates from Burgundy and beyond.


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A follow-up to Maude, at Gwen, Chef Curtis Stone honors beef, selling dry-aged cuts of the animal, along with additional proteins and charcuterie, at his elegant Hollywood restaurant slash butcher shop. While upon inception in 2016 guests committed to a family-style tasting menu centered around a hearty cut of lamb or beef, the chef has since modified the eatery’s tune to offer a 10-course, $185 tasting built of seasonal produce with a heavy show of meat. And now guests can choose from an a la carte menu, too.

Trois Mec

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When Los Angeles hit-makers Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo overtook an old pizza shop in a Hollywood strip mall in 2013––morphing the cramped space into a cozy five-course, $110 tasting menu haunt without its own sign––they became one of Los Angeles’ very first to introduce pre-paid, ticketed dinners. Since then, Trois Mec has earned countless accolades for the chefs’ simple, seasonal, yet refined ingredient-driven cookery. And it’s thanks to Trois Mec’s early success that the trio now count a string of Trois eateries––adding in Trois Familia and Petiti Trois.


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Former Next Chicago chef Dave Beran decamped to Los Angeles and last year spawned Dialogue, an 18-seat fine dining experience wed to local ingredients, bent with progressive technique. Menus span around 21 courses and run $200, relying heavily on seasonality and manicured presentation.


This sustainable fish-focused stalwart helmed by chef Michael Cimarusti has served as one of Los Angeles’ fine dining pillars for over a decade, plating a meticulously-crafted New American tasting menu before the current influx high-end meals. While guests can order a la carte, many opt for one of the restaurant’s three tasting menus––priced between $120 to $240 for between five and 11 courses––hinged on consciously-sourced seafood.


Chef Niki Nakayama quietly opened her cozy, 26-seat kaiseki-inspired eatery back in 2011, paying tribute to Japan’s highest form of culinary art. Taking a more modern approach to the ancient style of dining, her two 13-course menus––priced $225 and $200 for a vegetarian version––embrace kaiseki’s principals of hyper-seasonal, balanced dishes, incorporating what’s best in Los Angeles produce on any given day. Over the years, thanks to its tiny dining room and “Chef’s Table” appearance, n/naka has become one of Los Angeles’ toughest tables to book.

The Rogue Experience

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While hometown hero Wolfgang Puck is planning to rejigger The Rogue Experience––the experimental $175 tasting menu engagement he introduced last year within his test kitchen on the third floor of the Pacific Design Center––for the next few weeks it’s still business as usual. Here, a rotating roster of chefs, many from within the Puck empire, craft an evolving, seasonal menu of globally-inspired plates for one counter-style seating of eight guests per eve.


A project by Spanish chef José Andrés and the creative director of his ThinkFoodGroup hospitality outfit Aitor Zabala, Somni is the white hot new kid on the tasting menu block. Claiming the former Saam room within Andres’ The Bazaar in the SLS hotel, management has overhauled the space with a white-washed modern laboratory feel, and installed a U-shaped counter with room for 10 diners. In front, chefs prep a hyper-modern 25-course, $235 tasting menu designed via forward-thinking technique.

Wolfgang Puck Express
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