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How Pasadena’s Restaurant Scene Became LA’s Biggest Comeback

Restaurant owners and prominent chefs are taking a fresh look at the usually sleepy suburban city north of Downtown, meaning lots of new openings — and more to come

Neighborood restaurant profile of Mi Piace during coronavirus pandemic
Diners in Old Pasadena late last year, before another round of lockdowns
Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

Amid all the shifting uncertainties and changing priorities of the past pandemic year for greater LA’s restaurant industry, one glowing (and unexpected) bright spot has emerged: Pasadena. The standalone city northeast of Downtown, at the edge of the broad San Gabriel Valley, has quietly become one of the busiest dining scenes anywhere in Southern California.

After years spent crowding its main retail drag with chain restaurants and watching as big openings clustered in Downtown LA, Venice, and even East Hollywood instead, Pasadena has begun to attract its own star talent and is even seeing long-awaited places edge closer to opening — just as the county moves into the least restrictive dining tier in the state, too.

Since January, Pasadena has opened or announced half a dozen sizable restaurants, most recently the brand new U Street Pizza. The standalone restaurant from the Union team (located right next door) is already bustling with locals looking to score New York-style pies made by chef Chris Keyser, a longtime Marc Vetri alum. Further east, the talk of the city is still Saso, the patio-focused Basque Spanish seafood restaurant from chef Dom Crisp at the historic Pasadena Playhouse. The restaurant opened in February and has been slammed ever since.

Looking even further back, hip LA-wide option Tacos 1986 opened on Union Street in October as part of a massive redevelopment effort there, and just across the street from upscale French bistro Perle, which opened during the pandemic. Boyle Heights taco legends Guisados, with its own chain of citywide locations, opened at the start of the pandemic as well.

Open sky dining at Saso with directors style chairs during the pandemic.
The patio at Saso
Wonho Frank Lee

Just in the past two weeks or so, Amara Kitchen has opened in the Altadena unincorporated area north of Pasadena, bringing casual healthy cafe food to the area as an offshoot of the Highland Park original. The broad Altadena area has been of particular focus for restaurants and diners in the past year, as pop-up (and soon-to-be restaurant) Side Pie turned heads with its wood-fired oven slinging pizzas from a side yard. HomeState, the mega-successful breakfast taco specialist with locations from Playa Vista to West Adams to Hollywood, is getting in on the action too, having taken over the closed Lincoln location at the Altadena/Pasadena border, with plans to open in a few short months.

The future of Pasadena is looking bright too, with multiple planned projects still in the works. The largest (at least in terms of popularity) is sure to be Howlin’ Ray’s, the Chinatown Nashville-style hot chicken specialist that has been plotting a standalone opening on South Arroyo Parkway since 2019, just down the street from Superba Snacks + Coffee and Shake Shack (which also opened late last year). May 5 offered another upcoming restaurant announcement as well, the all-day Agnes on Green Street. That project comes from a pair of fine dining veterans who have worked across San Francisco and in LA at places like M. Georgina, and are now serving fine cheeses and wood-fired dishes from an open hearth this summer.

That’s all to say: Pasadena’s scene keeps rising and will continue to draw restaurateurs and diners for quite some time. It helps (at least for some restaurant operators) that the city has its own public health department, meaning it does not need to explicitly follow the guidance of the LA County Department of Public Health and enforcement. In fact, while the vast majority of LA County only officially entered into the least-restrictive yellow tier today, Pasadena began yesterday, May 5.

An overhead shot of a pizza with pepperoni cups and shaved cheese at the edges.
Pizza from U Street
Wonho Frank Lee

The city has its own budget and controls its own streets as well, which led to many pandemic-era modifications to suit outdoor dining. Union Street, the site of so much robust restaurant development in the past year-plus, saw one of its one-way traffic lanes completely eliminated in favor of protected outdoor dining space, shared collectively by restaurants like Union, U Street Pizza, and Perle — a move (among other build-outs and changes) the city could soon make permanent. It’s a good time to be dining in Pasadena.