Beneath the seemingly impenetrable glitz and glamour of Los Angeles are some genuinely cool neighbourhoods with a diverse (and delicious) dining scene. Naomi Chrisoulakis shares her insider secrets on where to go.
Arrive in New York and its appeal is immediately evident – you don’t have to look hard for a pretty streetscape or a clutch of celebrated restaurants and bars. In Los Angeles, though, gratification is rarely instant. The city keeps its charms close to its heart, revealing them only with a bit of digging, a lot of local knowledge and an Uber account.
Having gained some insight over four years of living in the city, I’ve decided LA is a wonderful place to live but a tricky one to visit. It’s not an easy town to get to know, thanks to its vast, sprawling topography and limited public transport network (see: Uber). But step off the grim boulevards, wind around its hidden suburbs – often just off those huge freeways – and you’ll discover a multifaceted metropolis full of rich ethnic enclaves, eclectic architecture, incredible food and fun dive bars.
So consider this a public-service announcement: visit these under-the-radar ’hoods and discover the city in a way most tourists never will.
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Low key and a little bohemian, laid-back Eagle Rock has retained its cool countercultural vibe, thanks to cheap rents and the presence of Occidental “Oxy” College (where Barack Obama studied for two years). But it’s also become known as the place where hipsters go to grow up.
The family feel is evident along the north-east neighbourhood’s Colorado Boulevard, with its old-school diners and ’50s-era pizza-pie joints. Casa Bianca is a notable mention. Original neon sign? Check. Vinyl booths? Yes. Great pizza? Absolutely. Or maybe you’d prefer another American staple: a burger. The Oinkster flips the city’s best from an old A-frame restaurant that’s equally famous for its pastrami.
For something a little less student and a bit more date night, the contemporary American fare at Little Beast can’t be beaten. And its fairy-lit patio is all kinds of charming.
The heart of LA’s Hispanic community, Boyle Heights is no Beverly Hills, which is exactly why it’s worth a visit. Colourful, bustling and culturally rich, its busy thoroughfare, Cesar Chavez Avenue, is a pleasant assault on the senses: banda music blares from passing cars; men in cowboy hats stop for mango peppered with chilli, sold by street vendors under brilliant murals; and shopfronts advertise everything from eyebrow threading to evangelical church services.
One of LA’s oldest neighbourhoods, it was predominantly a Jewish and Japanese quarter until the 1940s (the famous Canter’s Deli, in the Fairfax District, was originally located in Boyle Heights), before giving way to a new wave of Latino immigration and becoming one of modern LA’s most beloved ethnic enclaves. For how long, who knows? The area, next to trendy Downtown, is also being eyed for gentrification. But for now it’s deliciously authentic, packed with panaderías, Mexican “mom and pop” stores and lunchtime favourites.
Guisados is here, too; the local institution has become a byword for the best tacos in LA. Handmade tortillas, slow-braised meat and serious heat make this Boyle Heights original – and the three other locations it has spawned – a popular no-frills lunch spot. If you find the choices overwhelming, try the mini-taco sampler.
Want more options? El Mercado de Los Angeles, a busy old marketplace that’s been around since the late 1960s, has everything you could ever want – including a shrine to La Virgen de Guadalupe in the car park. Tortilla presses, black Jesus statuettes, leather huarache shoes, cowboy hats and traditional Mexican dresses crowd the first floor. The second overflows with food: mole sold by the pound, esquites, churros, aguas frescas and gorditas galore (it helps if you speak a little Spanish and carry cash). The third floor, meanwhile, hosts a chaotic restaurant with a live mariachi band.
Boyle Heights isn’t entirely a Little Mexico, though. Fifties-era Otomisan (2506 1/2 E1st Street) is the only remaining Japanese restaurant in the area; the tiny hole-in-the-wall with comfort food and diner-style booths has stood the test of time.
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Broad Glendale Boulevard bisects this homey, residents-only neighbourhood – adjacent to ultra-hip Silver Lake – where kids ride their scooters on pavements, creative types sip cold-brew coffee at outdoor tables and everyone hits the farmers’ market on Sundays. Working class and urbane at the same time, it’s where you can find a $2 taco alongside a $10 cold-pressed juice. The place is at its best in the mornings, when cafés spill out onto the streets and locals mingle in that hazy LA light.
Proof Bakery has become a European-flavoured linchpin of the community, both by feeding patrons Valrhona chocolate croissants and providing them with a chic meeting hub where they can catch up over locally roasted coffee.
Image: Proof Bakery
New kid on the block Dune is shaping up to become just as cherished. The small shop offers the best falafel in town, with house-made pita and craft pickles. (Also on the menu: tender pasture-raised lamb.)
The neighbourhood isn’t all about daytime fare, though. Bigfoot Lodge – a log-cabin-cum-dive-bar – is made for casual nights, with karaoke and strong, cheap drinks, while celebrated All’Acqua is an of-the-moment Italian hotspot with pizza ovens, a chef’s counter and enough pasta to overdose a carb-loading fun-runner.
Nestled at the eastern base of sprawling Griffith Park (LA’s lungs, outdoor gym and wildlife haven), Los Feliz puts prettiness on the map, thanks to its village feel and quietly glamorous old Hollywood architecture.
Leafy and wealthy north of Los Feliz Boulevard and quirky and stylish to the south, it’s one of the only truly walkable LA neighbourhoods – and one where you can easily spend a balmy evening entirely on foot. Wander the bookstores, restaurants, cafés, boutiques and bars that line the main, parallel drags of Vermont and Hillhurst avenues and soak up the small-town vibe that has made the suburb a favourite of indie celebs, creatives and young families.
Little Dom’s is an unpretentious ’40s-styled Italian restaurant where you can’t walk to the loo – sorry, rest room – without bumping into a celeb (they love a bargain as much as anyone else). It’s the place to be on Monday nights, when Little Dom’s puts on its $18 three-course special (plus $18 bottles of house wine). Pull up a stool at the moodily lit bar, order a Sanguinello Swizzle and keep your fingers crossed you score one of the sexy semicircular booths for an evening filled with spaghetti and meatballs.
Skip dessert and stroll down a couple of blocks to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, the finest example of LA’s current obsession with artisan iced treats. While you’re waiting in the inevitable line, trying to decide between Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso, Brambleberry Crisp and Bourbon Salted Pecan, enjoy some good old-fashioned people-watching (or a surprisingly difficult game of Spot the Unbearded Man).
Now to the American dive bar of your dreams: Ye Rustic Inn (+1 323 662 5757). Perched on the end of a shabby strip mall, its tacky faux-Tudor exterior hides a fun, kitschy drinking hole packed with friendly locals, a killer jukebox, cheap liquor and surprisingly good food (don’t leave without trying the mozzarella sticks or chilli cheese fries, or both).
For a little light entertainment to round off the evening, head over to Vermont Avenue, where you’ll find two slightly surreal options. You’ll need tickets to catch Jeff Goldblum playing with his jazz band at Rockwell Table & Stage, a slick supper club that regularly hosts the star. You won’t need anything but your sense of humour at The Dresden, a mint-condition mid-century restaurant and lounge where living legends Marty and Elayne Roberts have been playing old standards – and taking requests – six nights a week for 35 years.
When its neon-lit streets weren’t hosting LA’s 1992 riots, Koreatown was known as gang territory. But these days, the district is the comeback king of the city and is undoubtedly at its best late at night.
A new subway line and an influx of boutique hotels and sophisticated bars – combined with a rediscovery of its Art Deco architecture, ethnic food, karaoke and spas – have helped Koreatown get back to its roots. (It was once the fashionable heart of Hollywood’s golden age – the famous Ambassador Hotel, Cocoanut Grove club and The Brown Derby restaurant all called it home in the first half of the 20th century.)
First, fuel up: you can’t do K-town without doing Korean barbecue. Parks BBQ has the art of grilling succulent slabs of meat and pairing them with tiny bowls of banchan down pat.
Image: Parks BBQ
If Korean isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Guelaguetza is a celebration of Oaxacan cuisine and a reflection of K-town’s majority Latino population. It’s also one of the best Mexican restaurants in the country. Particularly good? The tlayudas, a pizza-esque disc of tortilla topped with their famous mole, queso fresco and three different types of meat.
Then the bars: there’s one on every corner and a favourite is retro-tastic The Prince, which you might recognise from TV’s Mad Men and New Girl and the film Chinatown. Slip into a red-vinyl booth, ring for the waiter using the doorbell at your table and order Korean-style fried chicken and a Hite beer.
And finally, what every food lover needs: a little respite. Find some in K-town’s plethora of Korean bathhouses, where nudity is mandatory. The biggest, Wi Spa, is a 24-hour multistorey temple of relaxation packed with hot tubs; jade, ice and clay saunas; and even a restaurant. Don’t miss out on being exfoliated by middle-aged Koreans in their underwear. And prepare to be shown the dead skin they’ve sloughed off as evidence of their hard work. ￼
Top image: The Oinkster's pulled-pork sandwiches and chilli fries.
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