I I n many ways, 2016 seems like the year the rest of the country caught up to the fact that the food scene in LA is among the best in the country: It was hard for a month to pass without a story in Lucky Peach, the New York Times, or Bon Appétit "discovering" either a neighborhood like the San Gabriel Valley or a new-ish restaurant like Baroo getting insane accolades.
Of course, if you've been living in LA for the last decade or so, none of this should be a surprise -- and this year's batch of superlative newbies should only serve to cement our status as a food-tourist destination. Let's revel in it. (Speaking of superlatives, that's how we decided to dole out our props for Thrillist's best restaurants of 2016. Enjoy.)
Courtesy of Erven

Best new restaurant

Erven

Address and Info

Santa Monica

Though it blew up as a nationwide trend this year, it's not like LA is new to plant-based (read: vegan) food: Cafe Gratitude's tempeh-stuffed bowls are essentially a how-the-city-is-run punchline at this point, and nice no-meat restaurants from Gracias Madre to Crossroads have made splashes in the past few years.

But Nick Erven's new no-frills restaurant right off the main drag in Santa Monica (and in the same spot as the former Real Food Daily, which is almost like spitting on a coffin) is a revelation: a chef-driven spot with no meat that not only doesn't apologize for its lack of flesh (like the aforementioned Crossroads, which has been recently promoting a burger that bleeds like real meat -- delicious, but still) but doesn't even need meat substitutes to sell itself. It's almost vegan by accident, and that's the way Chef Erven -- himself a meat-eater and the former chef at the now-defunct St. Martha, a restaurant known for its shortrib -- wants it. The kale cavatelli is perfectly unctuous, with crisp kale and chewy noodles that can take on any order at Bestia. The "spaghetti" -- really a ramen -- has a broth made of yeast instead of pork. You won't miss the fat. Non-pastas, including vegetable dishes like Brussels sprouts with tofu and a bowl of falafel, all feel like the absolute best version of the dish you can imagine; there's no cutting flavor or texture corners on each dish's journey from menu to plate. And their desserts are similarly revelatory, especially a cookie sandwich with a toasted marshmallow sauce that's not made from marshmallow at all -- it's somehow rendered from chickpeas. Seriously.

Erven isn't just our pick for the best new restaurant in LA because it's next-leveled a trend, it's the best new restaurant in LA because it stands apart from that trend. Take a carnivorous friend or two, order a few things each, and ask them if they miss the meat. Confidently, we can say they won't -- because that's exactly what we did. And they didn't.

Dylan + Jeni

Best new date spot

Here's Looking At You

Address and Info

Koreatown

There are a few key elements that go into a great date spot: It's got to be good looking, for one, but not so good looking that it's distracting. It's got to have fascinating flavors -- otherwise, what are you going to talk about? -- and great cocktails to get that conversation going. It should have dishes that appeal to picky eaters and foodies alike -- after all, how are you going to judge your date's taste if you can't see what they pass on -- but each dish should burst with flavor, because if it doesn't, what's the point?

Here's Looking at You is a perfect date spot, because it nails all of these points, and more. Located in a tight space on a Ktown corner, and cheffed and run by Animal expats (of course), the meaty menu gives you the option between sweetbreads and tartares and trout and bonito, all served to share (of course) and all with flavors both familiar and otherworldly. The staff is attentive, the room is gorgeous, and whomever you take will like you more for having taken them there. And if they don't, you will know, definitively, they are not the one anyways.

Courtesy of Kali

Biggest surprise

Kali

Address and Info

Melrose

When Kali opened up earlier this year in a narrow space on Melrose, few would have expected its chef, Kevin Meehan, to become a food festival favorite and one of the most exciting new chefs in the city. It's not that his food before Kali was unheralded, it's that it was undereaten: Previous to opening the restaurant, Meehan had focused on a popup that never seemed to gain the critical prominence of other underground eating clubs like Wolvesmouth or Barbershop.

Well, no more: Meehan's emerged as an unmistakeable talent, his take on new-American/Californian/chef-driven/whatever-we're-calling-it-these-days a definitive highlight of the city's new bites this year. His signature dish -- a cheesy, earthy black barley "risotto" -- is one of the ugliest plates of food you'll ever be served at a fine restaurant, but ignore the fact that it just looks like a brown pile of mush and dig in. Your tastebuds will open up in a way they haven't before, and you'll ask yourself "where did this come from??" It's a question diners have been asking, thankfully, all year.

Courtesy of 71 Above

Best new spot to take out-of-towners

71Above

Address and Info

Downtown

LA's reputation for urban sprawl is unparalleled, but the city is often underecognized for how beautiful that sprawl can be from above. Which is why this restaurant -- which is on the 71st floor of the same building that hosts the new Skyslide attraction Downtown -- is worth heading to with guests who may ask themselves how you manage the city. The glistening lights below offer up all of the city's hopes and dreams on a large scale; the seafood-focused menu from former Cliff's Edge chef Vartan Abgaryan will please those hoping for deliciousness on a scale much smaller.

Courtesy of Salazar

Best new outdoor dining

Salazar

Address and Info

Frogtown

Even if it didn't have a massive, gravel dining patio as its main dining space, Salazar would be notable for more than its excellent mostly barbecued Mexican food -- the spot from Mexicali chef Esdras Ochoa is really the first destination restaurant opening in Frogtown, the emerging arts district near the LA River that's the latest rapidly gentrifying 'hood in LA. But Salazar does have this outstanding patio, which is the perfect place to have a spicy margarita or three, a carne asada taco or three... and since it's unlikely you live near there, share a ride home with a friend or three. (Also, if you haven't checked it out, they have the absolute best new restaurant website of this or any other year.)

Ray Kachatorian/Courtesy of Gwen

Best sequel

Gwen

Address and Info

Hollywood

Remember back to three years ago, before Curtis Stone opened Maude, now solidly one of LA's best fine-dining destination restaurants? It was unclear whether Stone would take LA seriously as a food city and whether he would take his dayjob as a restaurateur as seriously as the TV gigs that made him famous. The dust has long-settled, and anyone who's been in to Maude while Stone's working the stoves knows for sure he's the real-deal -- which is why his follow-up restaurant, Gwen, was one of the most exciting openings of the year.

Located in a somewhat cursed location (RIP, District and Mercantile, etc.), Gwen's a majestic, huge, two-story room -- a far cry from the tiny space that houses Maude -- and like any bigger-and-better sequel, Curtis and his brother Luke are doing more here: There's a butchery, and a tasting menu, and a bar with bar bites. If Maude was Star Wars, Gwen may be Stone's Empire Strikes Back -- which means we're excited for the whole franchise, since there's no possibility of prequels existing in the restaurant world.

Yasmin Alishav

Best new burger

Wolf

Address and Info

Melrose

There were some great new burgers this year, and this category was an honest tossup between Wolf's decadent avocado-topped monster (aka the 10k Burger) and Winsome's burger, a sesame-seed-bunned runny-cheesed affair with incredibly tasty pickled shallots piled on top. But Winsome doesn't have a gooey egg on top of theirs. Checkmate.

Mikolaj Wysznyski/Courtesy of Sonoratown

Best new under $10 meal

Sonoratown

Address and Info

Downtown

"This place is so good I've been here three times this week," the 20-something dude with the hipster haircut said before our first meal at this hole-in-the-wall Sonoran spot -- barely more than a window -- Downtown. And after we ate the chimichangas, fried into fresh flour tortillas, and tacos filled with mesquite-grilled carne asada tacos and headed to pick up our car upstairs, the 50-something parking attendant said, "those tacos -- great, eh?" It's no surprise everyone agrees: What they're doing at Sonoratown is something special, and with a menu that allows you to stuff your face for less than a Hamilton, it's absolutely worth every cent.

Courtesy of Raindrop Cake

Best new import (NY edition)

Smorgasburg

Address and Info

Downtown

Sorry, Catch: Despite your hard-to-get-rezzie, the NY import of the year is this much-more populist option, an open-air market dedicated to chefs doing things they can't do anywhere else. That means that Instagram-worthy foods like an oddball raindrop cake are next to Indian-style tacos and down the hall from the best pastrami in the city (that'd be from Ugly Drum, our hope to get the stall-to-brick & mortar upgrade that's come to the best stalls in NY). Organizers have also started to put on special themed days, bringing the city's best burgers, ice creams, and more to their slice of parking-lot heaven. The only downside? If you're not with a crew, there's only so much you can try. Bring friends.

Flickr/Evan Blaser

Best new import (Everywhere Else edition)

Gus's Fried Chicken

Address and Info

Koreatown

When the food world heard that Tennessee's infamous Gus's Fried Chicken was landing in a sorta-food-dead zone right on the outside of Koreatown (yes, we are aware that the official designation for its hood is "Country Club Park," so no need for comments, OK?) anyone who'd ever visited the South did a little paunchy jump for joy: After all, Gus's is renowned for crispy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside fried chicken that's just a bit spicy and bursting with flavor. The LA location comes as the city experiences a fried bird renaissance, and immediately established itself as a worthy competitor to locally beloved spots like Honey's Kettle and Howlin' Ray's. To which we say, with a bit of Southern charm: welcome.

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1. Erven 514-516 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401 (Santa Monica)

Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Nick Erven opened this minimalist Santa Monica restaurant in 2016 after leaving Fundamental LA to create a plant-based menu of his own. His simple but sophisticated kitchen whips up entirely vegan plates like chickpea fritters, mushroom bread pudding, and saffron risotto that will make you rethink your own meat-filled diet.

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2. Here's Looking at You 3901 W 6th St, Los Angeles, CA 90020 (Koreatown)

The brainchild of Chef Jonathan Whitener and Lien Ta (both of Animal), Here's Looking At You is a fusion restaurant that features a mix of meat, seafood, and vegetable small plates. Though the menu isn't limited to one, or even two, cuisines, Japanese influence is a constant. The seasonal cocktail program is as much an adventure as the food, and the wine selection is heavy on California and French reds, whites, and rosés.

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3. KALI Restaurant 5722 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038 (Hollywood)

From former Patina chef Kevin Meehan and the ex-wine director at Providence, Drew Langley, Kali routinely racks up rave reviews from critics and foodies alike. The à la carte and chef's tasting menu are both subject to change daily, but each features carefully composed dishes sourced from organic California farms. The Larchmont District space is an intimate but spacious spot perfect for a romantic dinner or one-of-a-kind meal out.

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4. 71Above 633 W 5TH STREET, Los Angeles, CA (Downtown)

Prepare yourself for some sweeping LA views at 71Above, a posh DTLA restaurant whose name alludes to its sky-high location 71 floors above ground. If you can take your eyes off the lights twinkling over the city, you’ll want to focus on the elegant three-course menu featuring upscale and seasonal dishes. As for cocktails, expect classy house-made concoctions in the swanky lounge area.

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5. Salazar 2490 Fletcher Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90039

Located in a converted auto body shop in Frogtown, Salazar specializes in Sonoran-style Mexican food, which means mesquite barbecue, tacos, and burritos. The mostly outdoor space has a huge desert-themed patio with communal tables and utilitarian chairs. Expect plenty of mezcal, tequila, and Micheladas.

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6. Gwen 6600 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028 (Hollywood)

From Curtis Stone (the Australian celeb chef behind Maude) and his brother comes Gwen, an upscale butcher shop meets whole-animal restaurant with a five-course tasting menu. On it, you'll find everything from slow-roasted ribs to handmade orecchiette, plus charcuterie and other "Butchers Scraps." The ultimate bonus: whether or not you're already a fan, you should know that Gwen serves Australia's revered St. Ali coffee -- a rare find in the US.

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7. Wolf 7661 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046 (West Hollywood)

Marcel Vigneron, the molecular-gastronomy-obsessed runner-up from season two of Top Chef, may be the most love-to-hate-him character in the show's long run. Thankfully, he's much less villainous in person, and his food is much less precious than what he put out on the show. Wolf tries to utilize every single part of each animal that comes through its kitchen, resulting in internationally inflected dishes like Thai-inspired shrimp dumplings with pork belly and vadouvan lamb rack with romanesco and labneh.

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8. Sonoratown 208 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90014 (Downtown)

Named after an old LA neighborhood that's since been replaced by Chinatown, this hole-in-the-wall serves Sonoran tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. Every day, the kitchen makes fresh flour tortillas that are the base of each menu item, particularly the chimichanga. The Sonoratown standout is soft-fried and stuffed with shredded chicken, Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses, fire-roasted tomatoes, and Anaheim peppers. It's best with a healthy scoop of green tomatillo salsa, a bottle of Mexican coke, and perhaps followed by a mesquite-grilled carne asada taco. There are only about a dozen seats in the place, but the cheap price tag and high quality means any lines are worth it.

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9. Smorgasburg 746 Market Ct, Los Angeles, CA 90021 (Downtown)

A West Coast outpost of the Brooklyn-born open-air market, Smorgasburg LA brings chefs from across the city to a five-acre parking lot on Alameda to serve you their favorite, most popular dishes. Every Sunday, you can walk from stall to stall at the Downtown outdoor market, visiting dozens of vendors, sampling their offerings, and shopping through creations by local artists. Bring cash and be prepared to wait in line; parking is free for two hours.

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10. Gus's Fried Chicken 1262 Crenshaw Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019

Gus's is proof that Nashville-style hot chicken isn't the only Tennessee chicken that's worth your time. An import from Memphis, the spot on Pico and Crenshaw has the super-crispy, just-spicy-enough fried chicken of your dreams. Not to mention, the sides, including the mac & cheese and bacon-laden collard greens, will rock your world.

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