The annual Eater Awards identify and celebrate excellence in the restaurant industry in cities across the country. Over this past year, Los Angeles saw dining trends come and go, from a proliferation of Spanish restaurants to a palpable surge in red sauce Italian American haunts. Westside hotspots Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood once again witnessed some of the splashiest newcomers in 2023, along with a smattering of notable openings further east in Cypress Park and Frogtown.
While Downtown is still finding its way following COVID-19, empty storefronts are gradually finding new and dynamic tenants as the area transforms. As ever, the Los Angeles restaurant scene continues to flourish because of the individuals who dedicate their working lives to delighting diners with seamless service and thoughtful cooking. This unwavering commitment to hospitality is what makes the veritable cornucopia of dining options in the Southland nothing short of astounding. There aren’t enough awards to go around but still we celebrate the restaurants that shaped Los Angeles’s restaurant culture in 2023. Here now, the editorial staff presents Eater LA’s 2023 Eater Awards. — Cathy Chaplin, senior editor
Best New Restaurant: Bar Chelou
If there’s a chef who captured Southern California’s attention in 2023, it’s Doug Rankin.
In January, he opened Bar Chelou and quickly found local support a mile or so east of bustling Old Pasadena. Those who previously visited Rankin’s shuttered Bar Restaurant in Silver Lake also followed, along with diners who wouldn’t ordinarily make the trek to Pasadena for a meal. Bar Chelou’s new regulars came from all corners of the Southland, with many first-timers lured by a satisfyingly salty, slightly acidic, and wonderfully rich clam toast. Others may have heard about the crispy potatoes with a pillowy interior sprinkled with Rankin’s favorite umami seasoning aonori, or the showstopping carrots râpées with coconut dressing, lime, peanuts, and thin fried potatoes on top of shredded carrots. These diners continue to fill the dimly lit, gauzily draped room because they trust the chef and the collaborative process shaped by Rankin and his team.
At Bar Chelou, Rankin is having a self-described good time making food in a nearly 100-year-old building next to the historic Pasadena Playhouse. Chelou translates to “quirky” or “weird” in French, which is shown in his sometimes undefinable Californian-Asian-French menu. His dishes showcase mostly seafood and vegetables with a small section dedicated to four proteins like the dry-aged short rib with blackberry vinegar, or the dish that ends up on nearly every table: the rainbow trout. Rankin’s team removed nearly every bone before roasting the fish with an herby pil pil sauce and garlic chive oil over corn-flavored rice.
Rankin is quick to credit his team, who also came from Bar Restaurant, for Bar Chelou’s success: chef de cuisine Emilio Perez, pastry chef Raymond Morales, and sous chef Peton Johnson. Rankin’s partner Taylor Parsons oversees the wine list and ensures that the perfect bottle of wine arrives at the table. Rankin’s prior tenure with notable chefs José Andrés and Ludo Lefebvre also plays a part on the Bar Chelou stage. The restaurant is now part of Northeast LA’s fabric. Bar Chelou is simply the place to be whether dining before a play, eating with a group, or at the bar for a solo meal, glass of wine, or the dazzling cocktail with gin, Chambord, lemon, and sparkling wine, aptly named the Chelou 75. —Mona Holmes, reporter
Most Mind-Blowing Dining Experience: Poltergeist
The less a place makes sense on paper the more Angelenos seem to love it. That’s the case with Poltergeist, an indefinite residency that burst forth like an untamed creature from the mind of chef Diego Argoti. Of course, Argoti would be quick to point out the teamwork of creativity that assembles the bizarre, at times astounding, at times befuddling, and almost always compelling set of dishes from Poltergeist, located at Button Mash arcade bar in Echo Park. Immediately after ordering, plush, buttery Parker House rolls fly out with miso butter, furikake dukka, and Fresno chile butter, an indication that sweet, salty, and fatty flavors are regular tools of the kitchen. A terrific Thai Caesar salad defies expectations with the brightness of lemongrass and a heaping crispy house of puffed rice.
Honey walnut prawns could be the most straightforward dish on the menu if it weren’t for a side of wobbly horchata panna cotta that amusingly mystifies the table. And that’s the real theme of Poltergeist: getting people to just dig in and eat the pastiche of ingredients and flavors on the plate, from a rolled cabbage stuffed with mapo tofu or yellow curry bucatini tinted with vadouvan and topped with tomatillo zhug. There are instances in which an ingredient or two taken off a plate might streamline things, but that’s not the Poltergeist way. Submit, relent, and acquiesce to the weirdness and glory, and one’s mind just might be bent like a culinary David Lynch featurette. — Matthew Kang, lead editor
Best New Community Restaurant: Ruby Fruit
Since January, anyone passing by the Ruby Fruit likely noticed the buzz emanating from the bygone Ezett space. Former Ezett employees Emily Bielagus and Mara Herbkersman took one month to convert the room into their dream bar with a casual menu. But look closer, because Ruby Fruit is not your average wine bar. This space is an essential one in a city where the majority of queer bars skew toward gay men. Visitors to the Ruby Fruit (named after Rita Mae Brown’s novel Rubyfruit Jungle) will find a unique, welcoming, and powerful experience while standing in a room where most of the crowd are women or non-binary folks fully celebrating life.
Ruby Fruit’s daytime options include tuna melts along with breakfast salads and sandwiches with a mellow vibe where many bring laptops for work. During later hours, there might be a lively sip and sketch event underway with bites like a smoked fish dip, salt cod croquettes, a Danish street-style hot dog, and an olive oil cake topped with whipped farmer cheese. Don’t fret over what to drink: the staff is well-versed in determining whether you’ll enjoy the Barbera from the Calleri vineyard in Santa Cruz, a bubbly malvasia from Italy, vermouth spritz, or a cold bucket of Miller High Life. For those who don’t imbibe, the Ruby Fruit also has some delightful options on its non-alcoholic menu.
The bar’s success stems from its light and easy menu, excellent drinks, and Herbkersman’s strategy to pack the room. The no-reservations approach makes the wait half the fun while exercising patience at one of Los Angeles’s hotspots. —Mona Holmes, reporter
Best New Food Truck: Del Mar Ostioneria
Does anyone in the food industry have a better origin story than this? A guy walks around an industrial area lugging around fresh ceviches in an ice chest when an entrepreneur happens to taste it. The man rolling around the ice chest, Francisco Leal, partners with Roberto Pérez, whose father-in-law owns a choice piece of Mid-Wilshire real estate, and a superlative food truck is born. Leal isn’t just an amateur though: he put in 17 years with the Pizzeta Restaurant Group in Culiacán preparing barra fría and barra caliente, the two main aspects of Sinaloan-style seafood spots. (Leal also opened and later closed a sushi restaurant in La Paz, Baja California.) Del Mar Ostioneria, their food truck, serves some of the city’s most thrilling Mexican seafood, from loaded fish and shrimp tacos to a chipotle-laced lobster taco in handmade blue corn tortillas.
The hot stuff is pretty good, but the real draw are the ceviches and fresh shellfish, like mango aguachile using raw shrimp covered in spicy ponzu and mango habanero. There’s a sweetness to the plump wild-caught shrimp that just works with the spicy sauces and that farm-raised shrimp can’t emulate. Ceviches are loaded into fancy steel rounds and presented as they would be at a much fancier restaurant, with the same quality and even better balance of flavors. Eating this level of seafood on patio tables with cars whizzing by on La Brea Avenue makes for a more evocative LA dining experience than one with pulsing electro tunes and expressionless servers. Del Mar Ostioneria is a picture of what great food can be in Los Angeles without the strictures that dictate what a restaurant should be. And that’s worth celebrating. — Matthew Kang, lead editor
Best New Tasting Menu: Sushi Sonagi
Ask any fan of the old Kura Sushi on Sunset in West Hollywood what the place was like and the sentiments will be the same: it felt like the proverbial “secret” sushi spot that Angelenos love to gatekeep. Sure, gatekeeping can be somewhat of a necessity when it comes to great sushi — no one wants their regular seat taken by the masses. Thankfully, that era feels dated. Ungatekeeping, or “sharing,” is back, so here’s the intel: Sushi Sonagi is the most exciting new sushi omakase restaurant in Southern California. It starts with Korean American chef Daniel Son, a South Bay native who helped his dad run Kura Sushi for years but only after stints at places like Noma in Copenhagen and Ryugin in Tokyo, plus time as Akira Yoshizumi’s itamae (sushi helper) in the Bay Area. Sonagi is a personal reflection of years of toiling at Kura, mixing a low-key omakase for locals and those in the know alongside casual rolls that West Hollywood denizens expected.
Son’s work in Gardena is a pure omakase experience in the vein of a place in Tokyo or Beverly Hills, though at a price point that’s far lower. He likes to start with a parade of quick succession otsumami, or snacks, like ankimo toast or fried kakiage or grilled bonito topped with ginger pesto. The snacks change with the season, as do the 12 or so pieces of nigiri that follow. Son favors aging much of his fish for flavor, some in a standalone dry-aging fridge and others more traditionally with konbu. Perhaps the best part of Sonagi, aside from the intimate ambience and warm service, usually from Son’s wife, Janet, is the sense of direct interaction from an affable, approachable chef. Son is always happy to answer questions about the provenance of the mackerel or the aging that went into the bigeye tuna. He’ll happily explain the blend of Japanese rice he uses, 70 percent Sasanishiki and 30 percent Koshihikari, to express his particular style. Toward the end of the meal, you’ll start to see a cohesion of his approach, sprinkled with Korean panache like the show-stopping dolsot abalone rice, which makes Sonagi an inimitable variant of LA-style sushi. — Matthew Kang, lead editor