When an angel called to tell me I had been invited to Los Angeles, I momentarily had cold feet. The source of my concern was a recent conversion to vegetarianism, or, to be more accurate, veganism. To my fevered brain, America was the land of T-bone and trans fat, where vegetarians cowered under bushes and didn’t venture out onto the streets.
I could not have been more off the skewer (bless the angel who coaxed and cajoled me). Unbeknownst to my ignorant, fretting self, a vegan revolution had swept through America, particularly under the benign Californian sun. For all its laidback vibe, Los Angeles—originally El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula—has embraced this culinary shift whole-heartedly. My imagination may be stuck in the 1980s, but modern American food has moved on, and is now all about farm-to-fork concepts, with a heavy emphasis on fresh, locally sourced produce, the revival of heirloom vegetable varieties and, when applicable, the use of sustainably reared meat. The portions, as I learned, have remained reassuringly American. You don’t starve in the land of milk and honey.
Shortly after landfall, I found myself at the Larchmont Village location of Café Gratitude (cafegratitude.com), brimming with the eponymous emotion. It wasn’t the food, about which in a sec, but because I had an enviable perch by the window, patting myself for reserving ahead as the raw-food mecca filled up rapidly with patrons. There was a strong likelihood I was sitting at the very table where Beyoncé and Jay-Z had celebrated the latter’s 44th birthday in 2013 after they had declared they would go vegan for 22 days. That must have been hard, but Beyoncé cheered herself up by turning up in pepperoni leggings and a mini-pizza-printed crop top by Kiko Mizuhara for Opening Ceremony.
While I waited for my repast to arrive, my dreamy-eyed server left me with a question: “What are you excited about today?” It’s something of a ritual at Café Gratitude. They also name their dishes after moods and affirmations. I can vouch that the young coconut ceviche was correctly labelled ‘Brilliant’ on the menu. Naturally, I couldn’t resist following that up with the Indian curry bowl (neither could Beyoncé and Jay-Z, incidentally). Called, um, ‘Humble’, it had squishy-soft red lentil dal, roasted garnet yams, coconut mint chutney and spicy tomato jam all piled onto a mound of fluffy, brown rice. My libation was their best-selling Chlorophyll juice (‘Healing’).
The owners of this chain of popular cafés did land head first into controversy a couple of years ago when it was revealed that, after 40 years of being vegetarian, they were raising, slaughtering and eating animals on their farm north of San Francisco. “Cows make an extreme sacrifice for humanity but that is their position in God’s plan as food for the predators,” they said in a statement, earning them death threats in the bargain. This did not affect the enjoyment of my meal in any way—the food was just too damn good.
Dinner that night was at the Hearth & Hound (thehearthandhound.com). Set in an historic Hollywood landmark on a quiet stretch of Sunset Boulevard, it opened last December to much applause. Chef April Bloomfield’s fame rests on the casual-chic Spotted Pig which has been operating in New York’s West Village since 2004. She’s trying to replicate the same vibe—and success—in her LA restaurant. Not your obvious vegetarian choice, but it was atmospheric and there was plenty of chatter worth eavesdropping on. Having stuffed myself injudiciously at lunchtime, I had no option but to scale back. It was just going to be salad. My bright-eyed, bushy-tailed server looked concerned at this man who was dining alone, nary eating a thing. When I expressed some interest in the Mexican Coke—not what you think!—listed under the beverages, she brightened up. In fact, when I told her I’d never had it, she was amused enough to put it on the house. I’ll always remember the Hearth & Hound as the place where I had this ambrosial drink (it’s made with cane sugar, not the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup, which is what makes the difference).
Next morning, I enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the Hollywood sign along with breakfast, from my rooftop perch at the new Dream Hollywood hotel, the latest from a chain of stylish properties run by the Indian-origin Chatwals. The Highlight Room (thehighlightroom.com) is noted for simple flavours and splendid grills. I ordered the avocado toast, with a perfect poached egg sitting atop (eggs allowed, right?), washed down with cold-brewed coffee.
I was now fuelled up for a walk through the Original Farmer’s Market (farmers marketla.com), an LA classic since 1934. With over 100 gourmet grocers and restaurants, it’s paradise for foodies. Notable vendors include Magee’s Kitchen, Light My Fire hot-sauce shop, Magee’s House of Nuts and Kip’s Toyland, LA’s oldest toy shop. I waded through a sea of camera-wielding Japanese tourists and climbed the stairs to the market’s office to pick up a T-shirt for my wife.
Although the market boasts a slew of dining options, I was lunching down the road at Jon and Vinny’s (jonandvinnys.com) where I managed to nab the last seat on the communal counter facing the kitchen during peak lunch hour. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are the chef’s behind this restaurant, having made their mark with Animal just down the block. With pastas, salads and pizzas, it’s comfort-food central. When my order was ready, the chef just handed it over. A rocket and parmesan salad and a warm chocolate chip cookie to go and I was out the door in a jiffy.
There was more walking in store that day, at the Warner Bros Studios, so I revived myself with coffee at Central Perk (wbstudiotour.com), the iconic coffee shop from F.R.I.E.N.D.S., which still operates at the studios. Then it was time for an early dinner at H.O.P.E. (‘Healthy Organic Positive Eating’; eatwithhope.com) in Studio City. After some retail therapy across the road at Trader Joe’s, that supermarket for the upmarket and health conscious (neither of which I am), I tried to size up the diners. They seemed...normal. I had expected woolly headed hippies, I guess. The bright, modern café serves vegetarian Thai with add-on meat substitutes like seitan. My red curry was decidedly American-sized and excellent to boot.
But the current toast of this town fixated on acronyms is P.Y.T. (pytlosangeles.com). With a mostly plant-based menu, Josef Centeno’s restaurant in downtown LA made it to Esquire’s list of ‘America’s Best New Restaurants’ in 2017. The plan was to do lunch there, but when I turned up the next day, they were shut. I think this was serendipitous because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone into Bäco Mercat (bacomercat.com) next door. Run by the same chef, the offerings at this casual sandwich place centre around the bäco, a soft, signature flatbread created by the chef himself (a little yoghurt added to the dough does the trick apparently). I chose the only vegetarian bäco on the menu, the Fava Fritter (feta-poblano, chickpea, salmorejo). It reminded me of our own bready kulchas, but this stuff was divine. I had it with a surprisingly good salted cucumber and avocado salad and a side of patatas bravas.
That evening, I cast the net a bit wider, heading out to Venice Beach for dinner. Occupying a high-ceilinged rustic-chic space on Abbot Kinney, Venice’s most happening boulevard, Gjelina (gjelina.com) reminded me of a cosy barn. Everyone else had the same idea, and I had to wait for the better part of an hour before securing a seat. The joint was positively buzzing.
This is where I had the first of my two lapses. The star of Chef Travis Lett’s menu revolving around New American fare is the crispy duck confit and, purely out of curiosity, I ordered one. Little did I know that I would wolf the entire thing down. Perhaps the impending end of a memorable trip had led to that brief moment of weakness. I have no regrets, however.
What are the chances that my dining companion at the communal table would turn out to be Corey Daniels, a soothsayer who tells fortunes using fashion magazines (thefashionmedium.com)? I guess someone’s gotta do it. Corey could not predict, however, that I would deprive him of most of his pizza. As for what he did tell me, that’s a tale for another day.
Next morning, I was back on the same boulevard. My Uber driver’s eyes popped out of their sockets when I told him that the Butcher’s Daughter—setting of my last breakfast in LA—was a vegetarian establishment (thebutchersdaughter.com). It’s styled as a ‘vegetable slaughterhouse’, and they treat fruits and vegetables the same way a butcher does meat—chopping, filleting and carving fresh produce into appealing creations. My stack of buckwheat pancakes was scrumptious, but so high I had to cycle to the Santa Monica Pier to work off the extra calories.
And, before I knew it, I was at the airport, bidding a teary farewell to Los Angeles. For comfort, I turned to food...and suffered my second lapse. In my defense, I had starved on the flight in, despite two meals, a snack, and an extra meal that landed on my lap purely by chance. So I felt a need to tank up and gravitated towards the Larder at Tavern’s airport outlet (tavernla.com/the- larder.html). Conceived by James Beard Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin and James Beard nominee sommelier Caroline Styne, the Larder is all about local, organic produce and meats, and celebrating the people who produce them. I was promptly transfixed by the Pilgrim, a sandwich as big as my head, which was commandeering commandeering their display. It was Christmas in a bun, delicious slices of slow-cooked turkey breast, resting in a bed of tangy cranberry sauce and caramelised onions. Yes, Lord, I gave into temptation. I had been a bit of a pilgrim myself, so did I not deserve this?
If an airport outlet can dish out such delicious fare, you know you were just in culinary heaven. They don’t call it the City of Angels for nothing.