I love Los Angeles—the city where I was born and raised, the place where I live today. But after I started traveling, I realized that the region where I feel most at peace is Europe. Something about the way Europeans emphasize meals and the simple things in life just resonates with me.
Perhaps this is why, even when I’m not traveling, I seek out these kinds of dining experiences here in the United States. Lucky for me, Los Angeles has a great international food scene with many restaurants that capture this European feel. I’ve been assembling a list of restaurants around my city that make me feel like I’ve slipped through a secret portal to Europe. Currently, these are my two favorite spots.
The Little Next Door
When I meet friends for lunch at this French deli and cafe in West Hollywood, there is always that moment during our meal when we share a knowing glance and acknowledge that we feel like we are on vacation. We often entertain the notion of drinking wine with lunch on a Wednesday. And I seem to always adopt the tradition of having a post-meal espresso, something I usually only do in Europe.
The place could be straight out of Paris. As you walk in, past the trellised ivy, stained glass windows and bistro tables draw you back toward the main room, where a case of beautiful French pastries awaits. Colorful macarons, flaky croissants, crusty baguettes, perfectly frosted éclairs, immaculate Napoleons, and sweet fruit tarts fill the shelves of that case. You’ll also notice a fancy, almost whimsical looking, vintage espresso machine behind the bar.
But I caution you, don’t go right for the sweets; there is breakfast, lunch or dinner to be had first!
The menu boasts a mix of my favorite French cuisine: Everything from croque monsieurs and madames to escargo and moules (mussles). There are quiches, savory tarts, and a sirloin French dip sandwich. The Little’s menu, like many menus in France, also represents the culinary influence of North Africa, including Maghrebian items such as a merguez sausage wrap with a tangy side salad and spicy harissa dipping sauce. Of course for brunch, I love some of the traditional egg breakfasts with a Mediterranean twist.
(The truth: I’m only scratching the surface here. There is so much on this menu. I have been “wowed” by every item I’ve tried.)
The experience of eating at this restaurant varies depending on where you sit. You can perch yourself inside, along the bar or next to the wall of wines. Or you can sit outside, on the patio. The latter option is where I prefer to kick back as the almost all-French staff buzzes around. And true to French restaurant customs—they never nudge you to leave before you are ready, even if there’s a line of people waiting for a seat.
Weekend brunch hours in particular can be pretty packed. My suggestion for The Little Next Door is to go during the week or during off-peak dining hours. And if you happen to have celebrity sightings on your to-do list in LA, this is not an unlikely spot to find ‘em!
Viewfinder Tip: If you must Tweet or Facebook about a celebrity sighting at a Los Angeles restaurant, be sure to do so discreetly.
In 1948, a Greek immigrant named Sam Chrys opened a Greek food importing business and market in East Los Angeles. Today, Chrys’s son, lovingly known as Papa Cristo, continues the family tradition—only he has expanded it into much more. The business now also is a casual restaurant, market, and catering company. And Papa Cristo and family are committed to the highest of standards.
For example, they serve only Feta cheese from Feta, in Greece. The imported cheese has flavors that are more complex and less salty than the American imitations, and its texture is smoother. Papa Cristo’s also prides itself on Kalamata olives from Kalamata (which also is in Greece). Papa Cristo himself told me that if you want to know if a Kalamata olive is the real deal, check to see if the pit pops easily from the flesh. If it does, the olive is legit; if not; the olive likely is from somewhere else.
Papa Cristo’s famed rack of lamb
Overall, the restaurant’s most popular dishes are the rack of lamb and the roasted lamb sandwich. Also prized: steamed white fish with capers, olives, peppers and tomatoes. For Papa Cristo, cooking is all about letting natural flavors of the high quality ingredients shine.
On a recent trip to the restaurant, I had a beautiful rack of lamb accompanied by a delicious Greek salad (Feta from Feta, and Kalamatas from Kalamata) and roasted potatoes. I also sampled the eatery’s fresh hummus and yogurt sauce. I finished off my meal with a small cup of traditional Greek coffee (similar to Turkish coffee, but not as thick) and a nice portion of baklava.
In the market section of Papa Cristo’s, Greek products including olive oil, tahini, wines, baklava, and other sweets await. And often the restaurant holds dinner gatherings during which live music and dancers infuse the ambiance with even more Greek culture.
But the real star here is the food. It is transcendent. Sampling these flavors, I could almost imagine myself sitting on a dock in Greece, listening to the water lap at the shore. In that moment, the experience transported me from East L.A. to Europe. Departures can happen at any time; for unique escapes from reality right in the middle of Los Angeles, give these two restaurants a try.
What sort of dining experiences do you seek out when you travel?