Two West Coast titans duke it out for the title of best food city
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NorCal vs. SoCal
Arguing for S.F.: Josh Sens (San Franciscomagazine’s restaurant critic since 2002). Comparing the food scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles isn’t like comparing apples and oranges. It’s like pitting handpicked Fujis against plastic fruit. A really, really big bowl of plastic fruit. Give L.A. some credit. A good ethnic joint is rarely farther than a 2-hour drive through traffic. We’ve heard the tired knocks against us, that we’re snobs, smugly celebrating our seasonal supremacy. But consider this: When asked their reasons for visiting San Francisco, 94 percent of domestic travelers choose “dining out.” And what’s our largest feeder market? You guessed it: Los Angeles. So when you tire of your TMZ-stalked celebrity dens (where, think about it, no one really eats), come north. A revolution began here, and we remain in the vanguard, led by the ranks of the country’s most imaginative chefs. We’ll hook you up.
Arguing for L.A.: Jonathan Gold(restaurant critic forL.A. Weeklyand a Pulitzer Prize winner). The Bay Area thinks we’re the black hole of civilization. We think San Francisco is a nice place to spend a weekend. But as the Bay Area restaurant scene, sputtering along on the fumes of Chez Panisse’s glory days, shudders through its mannerist phase, nourishing its populace on beet boudin noir, bicycle-delivered coppa from a woolly pig named Al (he was a Virgo), and pizzas topped with nettles gathered by Carthusian monks under a waxing gibbous moon, Los Angeles cooking roars through its own glory days; the vitality of its great agricultural region expressed through the great multicultural mosaic.
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San Francisco: Star Wattage
Coi. Fleur de Lys. La Folie. It’s no accident that when the Michelin Guide rolled into California, its first stop was San Francisco, not L.A. Stars of the other kind shine here too. Iron Chefs (Mourad Lahlou). Top Chefs (Jamie Lauren). Food Network talent (Tyler Florence). Difference is, diners here can tell a culinary artist from somebody who plays one on TV.
About the scoring: We weighed each writer’s argument against Sunset’s collective food IQ and then scored. Cities earned up to 10 points in each category except “smug factor,” where they lost points.
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San Francisco: New Ideas
Food trucks? Check. Burgers? Check. We keep pace, yet we don’t rest our laurels on fleeting fashions. The finest of our chefs, like Daniel Patterson of Coi and Jason Fox of Commonwealth, deal in food too distinctive to be called trendsetting. It defies definition, not to mention imitation. But try a dish like Fox’s marrow-stuffed squid with tamarind pork, borlotti beans, and black garlic (pictured), and you realize: This is not a fad. It’s the new face of California cuisine.
4 of 19Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith
San Francisco: Great Markets
Around here, farmers’ markets are as common as gas stations in L.A. We’ve got the oldest one in the state (Alemany Farmers’ Market), and one where every chef worth his volcanic rock salt shops (Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, pictured). Fresh and seasonal culture runs so deep, it spills into neighborhood markets like Bi-Rite in the Mission, where the guy working the deli counter is apt to hold a degree from the Cordon Bleu.
5 of 19Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith
San Francisco: Obsession Factor
We’ve got paparazzi too. They’re food-ographers with iPhones who treat the cavatelli with braised lamb at Cotogna as if it were one of the Kardashians. Food blogging? It’s the bane of office bosses, the scourge of local workplace productivity. And when a Twitter feed goes out from the Curry Up Now trucks, legions of 9-to-5ers leave behind their “duties” and dash into the street for a chicken tikka masala burrito that’s brilliant enough to melt their teeth.
6 of 19Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith
San Francisco: Booze & Caffeine
House bitters? Bor-ing. We’ve got bartender geniuses making black-pepper tinctures and pineapple gum. We’ve got small-batch booze cred with Distillery No. 209 Gin. And by the time Angelenos were catching onto terms like “artisan roasted,” we had moved on to single-origin wash-processed espresso grown on east-facing Andean slopes. Sounds ridiculous. Until you get your first jolt from Blue Bottle Coffee and realize that coffee, in the right hands, has all the nuance of fine wine.
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San Francisco: Crowd Control
Sure, we’ve got restaurants (Quince, Gary Danko) that book up as far out as a Lady Gaga show. But we’re not a city that cordons off its masses behind velvet ropes. It’s not hard to get an audience with Corey Lee and his sea urchin over risotto with black truffles, even though the man behind Benu last worked at French Laundry. How populist are our most crowded places? Two of the toughest tables (Flour + Water and Una Pizza Napoletana, pictured) are at restaurants that do pizza.
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San Francisco: Smug Factor
In a city where the average preschooler can ID six varietals of peaches, world weariness sets in prior to puberty. Then come menus saddled with more descriptors than The Origin of Species (“oven-roasted, saba-marinated James Ranch lamb loin with organic Chino Ranch Green Tiger tomatoes”) and waiters nervy enough to correct your pronunciation of guanciale (pictured). All right already! You know it means pork-jowl bacon; you’ve been sight-reading the word since the second grade.
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San Francisco: Variety / Diversity
We’ll see your juke joint sequestered in a strip mall and raise you our Richmond District, a micro-continent sustained by Burmese tea-leaf salad and Shanghai-style soup dumplings. We’ve got a Chinatown, a Japantown, a sprawling Latin quarter, and tiny pockets stuffed with everything from Latvian pierogies to Laotian larb gai. Best part: This ethnic smorgasbord sits within a manageable 7- by 7-mile city where people on their way to dinner have been known to, get this, walk.
10 of 19Photo by Jennifer Cheung
Los Angeles: Star Wattage
Don’t get us wrong—we love our Michelin stars, Mélisse, Spago, and Providence (pictured) among them. But stars mean something else here. It’s no coincidence that Los Angeles is the birthplace of the celebrity chef—or that at our food trucks, pop-ups, and unequaled universe of Asian restaurants, you can enjoy 5-star cooking for the price of a movie ticket.
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Los Angeles: New Ideas
What non-vegetarian restaurant trend hasn’t started in L.A.? The first important pop-up restaurant, at LudoBites (pictured, chef Ludo Lefebvre); the perfectionist hamburger, by Sang Yoon at Father’s Office; the first haute food truck, from Kogi; and truly regional Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Mexican. For starters.
12 of 19Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero
Los Angeles: Great Markets
We may be a bit behind on the artisanal butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, but all the superlatives bestowed on the Ferry Plaza could transfer to our Santa Monica Farmers Market. It’s so clotted with chefs, cookbook authors, and strollers on Wednesday mornings that it can take an hour to buy a radiant head of Romanesco from Alex Weiser, a bundle of Vietnamese mint from Romeo Coleman, or a glowing pint of strawberries from Phil McGrath.
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Los Angeles: Obsession Factor
Is there anybody here who doesn’t have a food blog, or at least contribute the occasional item to Squid Ink? Because it really doesn’t seem like it if you’ve ever showed up on fried chicken night at Akasha or a pop-up night at Biergarten. The Bay Area may have a higher concentration of Yelpers, but L.A.’s dedicated corps of restaurant bloggers (MyLastBite, Gastronomy, StreetGourmetLA, etc.) could fill a stadium—and during food-truck festivals, sometimes do.
14 of 19Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero
Los Angeles: Booze & Caffeine
L.A. may be the birthplace of the White Russian, but we’re making amends with style, and at least we didn’t peak in 1872. Seven Grand (pictured) sells more bourbon than any other bar west of the Mississippi, and Tiki-Ti, inventor of the mai tai that actually tastes good, remains the greatest tiki bar in the world. And coffee? Heather Perry from Coffee Klatch is the Sandy Koufax of American baristas. Is L.A. home to the 10-minute pour-over cup? Don’t be silly. We’ve got things to do.
15 of 19Barbara Davidson / Contributor / Getty Images
Los Angeles: Crowd Control
On the one hand, we’ve got Spago, which invented the “5:30 or 10:30?’’ reservation response, and the tempura bar at Matsuhisa, into which no mortal will ever be permitted. On the other, most of the best new spots, like Son of a Gun and Lazy Ox (pictured), are small-plates joints you can slide into as long as you call first. And at some of the city’s best, from midtown’s Oaxacan Guelaguetza to Park’s Barbeque in Koreatown, all you have to do is show up.
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Los Angeles: Smug Factor
If a fingerling potato falls in a forest, and nobody is there to put it on their Instagram page, does it make a sound? In a crowd used to seeing movies three weeks before they open, and hearing songs months before they’re released, it can occasionally feel that if you haven’t tried the Korean live octopus at Masan or the foie gras loco moco at Animal, you barely exist.
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Los Angeles: Variety / Diversity
L.A. is, of course, the most important nexus of immigration in the world. Just look at our concentration of Vietnamese, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Samoans, Thais, Armenians, and of course, Mexicans (pictured, Olvera Street). Huge swaths of midtown have essentially become a district of Seoul. And here, the newcomers cook for themselves—it’s not just Chinese, but Hangzhou, Xinjiang, or Shandong.
18 of 19Photo by Joseph Sohm / Visions of America / Corbis
And the Winner Is...
Los Angeles: 50 / San Francisco: 49
Why it won: 6 spots to convince you L.A. is king
1. Mozza. The blistered, raised pies at Pizzeria Mozza, developed by bakery master Nancy Silverton, are of no particular Italian style, but are so good they deserve a region of their own. Next door, Osteria Mozza is famous for its roast guinea hen and handmade pasta. The Scuola di Pizza is best known for weekly whole-hog dinners. And locals head to Mozza2Go on Mondays, when the Puglia-style focaccia is sold by the slab. $$ to $$$$; Hollywood.
2. Jitlada. The most popular Thai restaurant in town is famous not for its pad Thai, but for its stunning specialties from Thailand’s southern tail—curries enhanced with cassia buds or sataw beans, fried fish rubbed with fresh turmeric, mango salad with cashews, and the most awesomely spicy dishes your tongue will ever meet. $$; 5233 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.
3. Providence. With an arsenal of modernist techniques, sparkling sustainable fish, and all of L.A.’s flavors at his disposal, Michael Cimarusti has created one of the finest seafood restaurants in the country. $$$$; 5955 Melrose Ave., Hancock Park.
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3 More Reasons Why It Won
4. The Varnish. A proto-speakeasy hidden behind a nondescript door at the back of an old sandwich shop downtown is the center of the Los Angeles cocktail cult, a temple of spirits where bliss is measured out by the dram. 118 E. Sixth St.; 213/622-9999.
5. Animal. Are you a man? Do you love a man? Do you want to eat like a man? Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo didn’t create the nose-to-tail movement, but they have ridden its wave to its ultimate end: boy food times 10, which is to say extremely innovative cooking disguised as meaty snacks. $$$; 435 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood.
6. Kogi (pictured). What are the odds that the most influential L.A. restaurant in years would be a truck? But here we are—after 2 1/2 years, lines hundreds of people long are still hungry for Roy Choi’s mash-up of Korean and Mexican street food. $.