I recently heard someone at a party musing about why so many high-end chefs were moving to the South Bay to try their luck. I didn’t reply with the obvious answer, which was to quote famous criminal Willie Sutton, who was asked why he robbed banks. “That’s where the money is,” he responded.
The South Bay is where the money is — property values and spending have both been buoyant here, and talent flocks to money and vice versa. It makes it hard to compile a list of the best places, because there are so many superb candidates. It is no exaggeration to say that 2013 was the best year ever when it comes to both culinary innovation and execution. As I look over my list of the restaurants that opened this year, I find myself asking hard questions – which ones add something to the South Bay that is fresh and interesting? Are the flaws in service at a particular place so serious as to disqualify an establishment that would otherwise make it? Culinary talent is widespread, but there is evidently a shortage of experienced and caring servers even at the top end. Things are getting better, and some of the restaurants that made my list this year have staff as knowledgeable and attentive as any in Los Angeles.
Every year I watch for new openings and revisit places to see how they have matured – sometimes a business takes a while to figure out what they do best and what their customers want. Others are hotspots on the day they open but suffer a loss of energy, while a few, the gems of planning and execution, are confident and assured from the first appetizer to leave the kitchen to the last New Year’s Eve dessert.
I dithered over this list until the last moment, because so many places opened serving such a diverse variety of food at different price levels that the decision was very difficult. This year’s crop included some wonderful and unlikely eateries to fit any budget. As always there were judgment calls, and in the case of a few restaurants that opened in late December that were obviously still works in progress, I decided they would be eligible for next year’s list. Cork’er, the Irish café inside Mysterious Galaxy, and the R10 Social House have opened strong, but so recently that they will be best evaluated once they have been open a while.
So without further ado, here’s my alphabetically ordered list of the best restaurants in one of the best years for debuts that the South Bay has ever had.
Alfredo Garcia’s opened in the last week in December of 2012, too late to be evaluated for that year’s list, but from the first days it was obvious that there was some ambition here. Chef Rafael Solorzano makes Mexican cuisine in a way that emphasizes the light, fresh flavors – seafood is a specialty, and the shrimp salads, ceviches, and seabass Veracruz are excellent. This doesn’t mean that dishes that are supposed to have body and depth are lacking, since his chicken mole and pork cochinita pibil are as robust as could be desired. The location in the back of the Lunada Bay Plaza doesn’t give them much curb appeal – you’re almost guaranteed to drive by this place the first time you look for it – but those who persevere and seek out this gem will be rewarded with a bonus of sunset views over the ocean.
(2325 Palos Verdes Drive West, Palos Verdes Estates – 310-544-1400)
The airy restaurant with two outdoor patios is so pretty and architecturally interesting that I found myself wondering what high-end restaurant had been here before. There wasn’t one – a former dental office has been brilliantly remodeled into a lovely space. That wouldn’t matter if the food wasn’t up to the standard of the décor, but the classic Italian fare served here matches the interior: classic and served with flair. Most dishes are simple goodness in fine dress – we had a perfect shrimp risotto enlivened with a dash of green herbs and a few pink peppercorns, a triumph of subtlety and technique. This is not the place for obscure and exotic regional food, but if your tastes run to traditional cuisine artfully executed, you should give Avenue Italy a visit.
(31243 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes – 310-377-3940)
The location in the back of a shopping center gives this little Japanese ramen house zero visibility from the street, but people have been finding it anyway. They’re drawn by simple Japanese dishes – ramen and gyozas – that have entered the American mainstream in the last decade, usually in frozen or pre-packaged form. If you have tried the commercial variety and don’t understand what the fuss is about, this is the place to experience homemade versions that have much more flavor and subtlety. It will take a few minutes because everything is made to order, but the springy noodles, delicate crepe-like gyozas and flavorful broths are worth the wait.
(1550 S. PCH, Redondo Beach – 310-540-5288)
This restaurant was the only major opening last year where the cuisine had no strong link to any one culture – though Chinese and Mediterranean ideas are a continuing theme, there are unique fusions here. Circa had initial problems with consistency that often bedevil ambitious projects, but after two executive chef changes the kitchen has settled into a reliable groove. There are seasonal changes, but some standards, splendid grilled octopus, crisp Brussels sprouts with bacon and rosemary, and Korean-style short ribs with celery root puree among them. Mention must be made of the bar, run by a crack team who know obscure and historic drinks and have the materials to concoct them – those who drink as adventurously as they eat will settle right in.
(903 Manhattan Avenue, MB – 310-374-4422)
The “opening soon” sign was up for ages at this tiny cottage on PCH, but Doma Kitchen was worth the wait. Their menu of Central Asian specialties along with sandwiches and crepes has been an unlikely hit, and customers enjoy dining on house-made pastries, sandwiches, salads, and hearty noodle soups on an artistically decorated outdoor patio. Vegetarians have been delighted with the flavorful choices that are available, and carnivores make a beeline for the delicious cumin rotisserie lamb. Despite limited onsite parking and no indoors seating, the place has caught on, and Uzbekh and Russian cuisine seems firmly established in sunny Redondo.
(420 N.PH, Redondo – 310-372-7298)
The layout and decor at this tiny restaurant slightly resembles the seafood shacks that dot New England townships, complete with the raw bar in the middle of the room where experts shuck oysters, shell shrimp, and otherwise prepare fresh seafood. You don’t forget you are in Manhattan Beach, though, because alongside the clam chowder and crabcakes are Peruvian scallops and Thai shellfish and coconut soup. Chef David Le Fevre of MB Post has created a clubby, intimate place where old school and new school ideas about seafood coexist, and the concept has been wildly popular. You may have to try a few times to get a reservation, or to wait a few minutes if you’re a walk-in, but the experience will be worth it.
(1148 Manhattan Avenue, MB – 310-893-6299)
We’ve covered Chef Tin Vuong and Little Sister several times, and it probably won’t surprise anyone that they’re on my list of the best openings of the year. The eclectic selection includes some traditional Asian dishes faithfully executed and other fusions of Asian ideas with each other, all done with contemporary flair. Some of the boldest flavors in the South Bay are right here – scorchingly hot ma la pickles, bold gingery sauces, and pepper and lemongrass infused beef. The rich traditions of Vietnam, Burma, China, and other Asian cultures are presented without compromise, and they’re served by a staff that knows how to pair this food with appropriate beverages. No other chef in the area could have opened this restaurant, because the ideas come from Chef Tin’s own family recipes, and the fact that our area is sophisticated enough to support this restaurant is a good sign.
(1131 Manhattan Avenue MB – 310-545-2096)
This is the ultimate odd restaurant location, a triangular corner of a grocery store in the middle of a residential area, but Brazilians who long for a taste of home have found it. The two ladies who run this little café are sometimes slightly short on English but are long on cooking talent. Their little kitchen turns out an endless stream of stuffed pastries, meat pies, sandwiches, and plates loaded with rice, beans, salad, and the grilled protein of your choice. There are only three indoor tables and a few outdoors, so many people get theirs to go and dine in the adjacent park. The interior may be short on charm but the people aren’t and the food is both excellent and cheap – this is one of the great budget dining experiences in the history of the South Bay.
(2808 Phelan Lane, RB – 310-2144-4148)
I hesitated to put the new Ragin Cajun’s location inside Suzy’s Bar & Grill on this list because there are still some issues that need to be worked out there. The place is schizophrenic – by day a pleasant family restaurant where Louisiana music plays in the background, and by night a bar with food where conversation indoors is often impossible due to over-amped bands of highly variable quality. (Luckily they have a small patio that is quieter.) Service started out bad but has improved, and is still better by day than by night – this needs to be resolved. The Ragin Cajun made this list because the food has been consistently good and there seems to be movement in the right direction. The return of real Cajun food to the South Bay is worth celebrating, and if they can create a reliably pleasant environment in which to enjoy it this place will be an enduring landmark.
(1141 Aviation Boulevard, Hermosa – 310-376-7878)
This small restaurant on a side street takes an approach to that is unique in the Beach Cities – a very traditional yet also very health-conscious version of sushi and Japanese food. Much of the menu is vegan and there are many gluten-free offerings, but those who have no dietary restrictions will still be delighted by the flavors here. The chef is deft at enhancing natural flavors of vegetables and seafood – intense dishes have been made from a base of burdock root, eggplant, and mushrooms. The menu is short but every item is made with high quality ingredients, and daily specials are based on the freshest seafood available. This isn’t a party place like most South Bay Japanese restaurants, but a serene place in which to dine on subtle, wholesome real food and discover good sakes. There’s nothing else like it in the area.
(820 Manhattan Avenue #105, MB – 310-798-7722)
Had I not decided to hold this list to ten, I might have gone on with places almost of this caliber – India’s Tandoori for reliable South Asian cuisine, Mashawi Kebab for Lebanese, Pitfire Pizza, and the excellent sandwiches and salads from Made By Meg all were under consideration. 2013 was a very good year, and it looks like another fine one to come. Keep reading, and I’ll do my best to keep you informed.