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A Running List of L.A. Restaurants That I Still Love Despite Mediocre Food

12:00 PM PST on December 8, 2022

    casa vega

    Photo via Eric Huang/Flickr.

    I posted this on Twitter last week. Everyone has a favorite place like this. I have two: Casa Vega, where the cuisine is what a recent transplant from Iowa sixty years ago might think Mexican food is supposed to be, and Edendale, which always has only one good thing on the menu, but the minute too many people figure out what that dish is, they eighty-six it. It's as if the management wants their dining room to be empty all the time—which, if true, would be a decision I support because the Edendale vibe is well-served by its never being crowded.

    Casa Vega and Edendale have another thing in common: Old Hollywood. There's a booth in Casa Vega where a brass plaque commemorates a scene from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood that was filmed at the booth authentically. (I sat in that booth recently and drank a margarita like I had a three-picture deal at Paramount, while stomaching an enchilada with sour cream on it.) The walls of Edendale are lined with stills from Tom Mix cowboy movies, shot at the silent era movie studio on whose ruins Edendale now sits. 

    Turns out, if a restaurant has Old Hollywood vibes, I don't care what they serve.

    People who responded to my tweet felt similarly about other old-timey Los Angeles restaurants. Smoke House, in Burbank; the great vibe, bad food. Micelli's, in Hollywood, where Sinatra once ate, but probably wouldn't today. One friend named Canter's, which shocked me at first, but then I had to acknowledge that, yes, Canter's is no Langer's. But I had lunch with my dad there the day I was bar mitzvahed, so it will live forever in my heart. Canter's not only has a vibe, but it also has a sub-vibe, by virtue of its association with Haim and Guns N' Roses. The Rainbow, which another friend posted, is also haunted by hair metal, palpably, and reinforced by the patrons who still dress like Mötley Crüe groupies from 1988, while the entrees there are best described as "edible."

    The fare at these restaurants? Meh. The vibe of these old places? Your youth.

    Yamashiro came up in the replies—a perfect example. Yamashiro is a 22-year-old's idea of a good date spot for sushi. You might make out there, in front of that romantic view, but you will not feel the same love for your hamachi nigiri. El Coyote was also a popular response. You might take someone home from there, too, but you won't take your leftovers to go. A number of Silver Lake lifers offered up Casita del Campo, which was the ironic hipster spot when they moved to the neighborhood during its first wave of gentrification. I'm pretty sure you won't find that cantina listed in their Postmates history. The fare at these restaurants? Meh. The vibe of these old places? Your youth.

    A few people said Musso's, Dan Tana's, Little Dom's, or Rao's. I suspect these people are either New Yorkers (who "know Italian"), or they got their tastebuds ripped out by COVID. These places have both perfect vibes and great food. If you responded to my tweet with one of the above, please turn in your Los Angeles card. The relatively new spots (the first of which is now permanently closed) Sawyer and Bacari came up a few times, which I think says something about the sorry state of fourth-wave gentrification now washing over Silver Lake (new-generation hipster spots pale in comparison to the last generation). One person said Manuela, which is simply incorrect. Next time, order the biscuits.

    By far, however, most of the replies named old restaurants that have somehow lasted longer than the quality of their food suggests they deserve. Neptune's Net, Old Tony's, Philippe’s, Damon's Steak House, Bob's Big Boy, Formosa, The Galley, The Pantry, The Tam O'Shanterthese all found their way into the thread. A few people even named old restaurants that went under years ago. A lot of RIPs for Casa Escobar, Pacific Dining Car, Conrad's, and Ed Debevic's. One guy even mentioned Gorky's, which closed in 1993 and where my parents used to take me during Ronald Reagan's first term. I appreciated that one because I remember seven-year-old me never liked what I ordered.

    Angelenos, it seems, have a soft spot for heritage.

    That doesn't make us different from any other people, obviously. But maybe because we're so starved for it, compared to the residents of older cities far away from here, that when any establishment can survive in an environment as inhospitable to tradition as Los Angeles, we overlook our other interests in favor of keeping that experience alive. Die-hard foodies adore these restaurants despite their most devoted epicurean tendencies.

    It can warp your politics, too. People who care deeply about the housing crisis went full NIMBY when the wrecking ball came for Taix. I am, hypocritically, one of them. I will support any candidate for the local office who promises to upzone this City for density, but if a developer ever points a bulldozer at Casa Vega I will chain myself to the valet station. It's important to me, for some barely comprehensible reason, that my grandkids one day get to enjoy a truly forgettable "Mexican Pizza" (with olives!) among the ghosts of Tinseltown past.

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