99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Venice/Santa Monica

Father's Office

photo by Anne Fishbein

Both locations of Father’s Office, Sang Yoon’s duo of gastropubs, are basically temples to the idea of after-work drinks. It’s as if the chef imagined exactly what you’d want after a day of drudgery. Of course you’d want beer, lots of it, and really good beer at that. You’d want food, not too complicated or expensive, but also a huge step up from crappy bar food. You’d want a place for grown-ups; no kids allowed. (Especially if you have to go home to your own kids, who wants to see other people’s kids while you’re trying to unwind? And if you don’t have kids ... um, who wants to see other people’s kids while you’re trying to unwind?) You’d want a burger — a great burger, a burger that’s been crafted to hit all the pleasure receptors: caramelized onions, Gruyère and Maytag blue cheese, bacon, arugula and tomato compote. The Santa Monica location feels a bit more like a pleasantly worn beer den; the Culver City location is more sleek and upscale. But both successfully conjure the feeling that this is the beer bar built just for you. No wonder it’s the restaurant that spawned a thousand gastropubs.

-- Besha Rodell

Gjelina

photo by Anne Fishbein

It may not evoke the old, funky Venice that so many of the neighborhood’s residents loudly mourn. But if you’re a fan of the newer, shinier Venice, the one with beautiful, stylish people and upscale boutiques and food that skews more California-chic than hippie-dippy, there’s really no better place to revel than Gjelina, a perpetually packed, convivial restaurant on Abbot Kinney. The back patio is one of L.A.’s greatest places to eat, bursting with sun-dappled, ivy-walled, brick-paved charm. The huge menu, of charcuterie, creative veggie dishes, small plates and pizzas, is a fantastic example of the joys of Euro-California cookery. You can get a slow-cooked lamb neck with preserved orange, chili and mint, or a pizza with wild nettles and Fresno chiles, and wash it all down with a bottle of Cahors, or perhaps a Portuguese field blend from Douro. The waits are long and you may well be eating elbow-to-elbow with strangers at a communal table, but the payoff is still quite grand.

-- Besha Rodell

Mélisse

photo by Anne Fishbein

While it’s not as expensive as some high-end sushi experiences around town, there’s no denying that Mélisse is one of the bigger financial commitments for dinner. But there’s a reason this Santa Monica restaurant has held our attention and admiration far longer than most other palaces of fine dining. Simply put: It’s the cooking. Yes, the hushed room with its cream-and-purple palette and its dramatic center light fixture lulls you into a sense of luxurious calm. Yes, the extremely formal service is a nice break from the rushed indifference or perky glibness that’s now the norm — it’s nice to be reminded that some service professionals are indeed professional. But those things aside, it’s really chef/owner Josiah Citrin’s way with ingredients that makes the experience worth the price. Certainly, the truffles and the caviar and the lobster help, but Citrin can make just as much of lentils as he can of those luxuries; many of his best dishes are born as much of technique and passion as they are of opulence. Luxury ingredients or no, this is cooking at the highest level.

-- Besha Rodell

Milo & Olive

photo by Anne Fishbein

Eating at Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan’s sunny Santa Monica bakery-restaurant, Milo & Olive, you’ll either be squished into a counter seat or seated at one of two communal tables — either way, you’ll share space. The wait for these coveted spots, and the communal eating itself, feels like a ritual — the ritual of obtaining some of the best casual food on the Westside. From the open kitchen, now run by longtime Cube chef Erin Eastland, come beautiful crusty pizzas, gorgeous pastas (the gnocchi with pea tendrils was one of the most delicious dishes of the winter) and simple but lovingly conceived vegetable dishes. Butternut squash, roasted and served with honey date butter, hazelnuts and crispy sage, felt decadent and wholesome all at once. Baby broccoli with garlic and lemon was sweet and vital, tasting like vegetal life-force. At brunch and breakfast, food tends toward hearty and comforting: farro with kale, feta and poached eggs; eggs in a basket. Don’t bother resisting Nathan’s baked goods at the end of a meal — to do so would be to miss half the point and half the joy of eating here.

-- Besha Rodell

Rustic Canyon

photo by Anne Fishbein

Since chef Jeremy Fox took over the kitchen at Rustic Canyon in the beginning of 2013, Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan’s convivial Santa Monica restaurant has had a renewed sense of purpose. Fox, who earned star status as chef of the meat-free Ubuntu in Napa, unsurprisingly has a deft touch with fruit and vegetables. Where other chefs in town serve beets with their goat cheese, Fox accompanies his with vibrant green kiwi fruit, topped with curlicue pea tendrils, pine nuts and the sweet tang of saba. But Fox also is flexing some serious creative muscle with the restaurant’s meatier pleasures, like a slick coppa de testa topped with a lovely bread salad. If you’re craving posole, Rustic Canyon serves one of the best versions in town, its salsa verde underpinning as bright as spring and rife with the brine of the mussels and clams swimming in the broth. The restaurant remains a boon for wine lovers — indeed, the entire California-chic operation feels as close to wine country as you can get without leaving the city — and Nathan’s influence as one of our city’s best bakers shows itself on the brief, seasonally driven dessert menu.

-- Besha Rodell

Superba Snack Bar

photo by Anne Fishbein

The pioneer that set off a new wave of eateries along Rose Avenue in Venice, Superba Snack Bar is also undoubtedly the best among them. In fact, a year and a half after opening, chef Jason Neroni and crew are serving some of the most creative and delicious food on the Westside. The restaurant feels like a modern bohemian beach house with a fantastic deck. Half of the seating is outdoors — blankets are provided to mitigate the chill of the lovely ocean breeze. And Neroni’s cooking is only getting stronger. His pastas are more elegant than in Superba’s early days: a recent Jerusalem artichoke ravioli topped with shaved smoked ham (which presented very much like feathery sliced prosciutto) was simply stunning, the root vegetable’s funky sweetness giving the dish a soft luxury. Vegetables are another strong suit — rather than simply roasting a red fall squash, Neroni blends the soft center into a sformato, similar to a creamy souffle, then brûlées the whole thing for a dish that’s as decadent as it is creative. There’s barely a restaurant in Venice these days that better captures the laid-back but exuberant spirit of the neighborhood.

-- Besha Rodell

The Tasting Kitchen

photo by Anne Fishbein

It’s a gorgeous place, the Tasting Kitchen. The food is remarkable. The cocktails shine. In fact, Casey Lane’s Abbot Kinney restaurant is one of those places that does so many things so well, it reminds you how comforting it is to eat at a place that gets everything right. It’s been almost five years now that Lane has been turning out beautiful handmade pastas, lovely vegetable dishes and fantastic charcuterie. You can get a whole, salt-crusted fish with black rice and satsuma, or tortellini with hen and black garlic, or one of the best chicken liver crostinis in town. If this sounds familiar, it is — half the restaurants in L.A. these days serve food that sounds very much like what’s on the Tasting Kitchen’s menu. But that only makes this place shine even more: In comparison, very few of the Tasting Kitchen’s imitators come close to the delicious harmony Lane and his staff have on offer here, day after day.

-- Besha Rodell