I go out to eat a lot here in L.A., so I have to find the best places that don’t cost a fortune.
I’ve lived in this city for more than seven years now, which is ridiculous. Over that time, I’ve eaten at many, many, many places. This list is my first in a series of two about Los Angeles restaurants; this one is going to focus on my favorite fast, cheap, easy places to eat in L.A.
For this list, I tried to just go with places that are only in L.A., or chains that are mostly southern California based. That’s the commitment to excellence that I have, for you.
1 | Porto’s
This is a fantastic restaurant in Burbank. And I know I don’t usually go to the Valley. In fact, I try to avoid it out of principle. But my ex-girlfriend lived near this place and it was great. It’s a bakery and restaurant with some Cuban overtones. Essentially, that means they use delicious cheese on the sandwiches and serve those balls of dough-wrapped meat.
The food is great, the desserts are better and it’s incredibly underpriced. Also, they get about 50,000 people at lunchtime, but, to their eternal credit, they’ve figured out a way to brilliantly control the crowd and make you feel like it’s organized chaos.
2 | California Chicken Cafe
When I moved to my new house last September, the first night I was exhausted and needed something to eat. I started walking down the street and realized that I lived about five minutes from a California Chicken Cafe. And at that moment I said to myself, holy crap I’m going to be going here a lot.
CCC is one of the more popular fast, cheap L.A. restaurant chains (there are only five or six of them, and they’re always crowded). They make excellent salads (including the Chinese Chicken Salad, which is really just a candy-coated salad) and rotisserie chicken. In fact, they really run things around chicken. So the restaurant really doesn’t just have a clever name.
3 | Daphne’s Greek Cafe
Daphne’s is getting more popular and these are springing up everywhere, which is a good thing. They’re an ethnic food restaurant chain that actually gets the cuisine, such that it both tastes great and remains authentic. (Unlike ones that get it wrong — see Express, Panda, Bell, Taco or Garden, Olive.)
I’ve been going to different Daphne’s for at least six years now and I’ve never gotten sick of it. How’s that possible? I think of something a friend and former-co-worker of mine, John, said when we went for the first time back in 2002: “There’s really no meat like shaved meat.”
4 | In-N-Out Burger
I know INOB isn’t only in L.A., but it is only in this part of the country. And there’s a simple reason why everyone’s heard of it and every single In-N-Out constantly has a line inside and at the drive-thru. It’s incredibly good.
The menu is tiny (just hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, milkshake, soda, milk and coffee). The prices are, at this point, lower than most other fast food places (and half of what Fatburger costs for worse food). And it never, ever misses on being delicious.It’s a good thing they won’t expand outside of this part of the country (because they won’t use frozen ingredients, they have to stay within a certain radius of their meat processing plant). Because if they did, America’s obesity levels would go up again. Guaranteed.
5 | Souplantation
For years and years, I’d drive by the different Souplantations in town and laugh at how ridiculous that name is. Then, in 2003, I became roommates with my friend JD, who’s a vegetarian, and he got a recommendation that Souplantation would be a good place for him to eat. So we went to try it out.
I was shocked to find out what it was. An all-you-can-eat buffet of pre-made and make-your-own salads, soups, pastas, muffins, breads, fruit and dessert. I fell in love with Souplantation, and that love remains strong today.I also like it for the challenge: Because at the Plantation, you have the potential to eat really healthy or really, really crappy. Do you have salad, a bowl of chicken soup, maybe one muffin, and cantaloupe? Or do you go crazy and dip cheese focaccia bread into the chili, put a brownie in a bowl then put ice cream over the top of it and eat bowls and bowls of macaroni and cheese? It’s always a great battle.
6 | Damon and Pythias
This is a strange little sort-of-Greek-themed sandwich and salad restaurant in Westwood where everything I’ve tried has been spectacular. (All items have centered around their flank steak, which is really, really good and thus makes everything it touches better. It’s like the opposite of Stephan Marbury.)
Anyway, in the above paragraph, I wrote “restaurant” and not “chain” because they tried to open one in Santa Monica, which I was happy about… and ended up shutting it down in like a month. It’s location in Westwood almost makes it prohibitively difficult — unless I’m feeling extremely patient in a quest for parking or I have other stuff to do in Westwood to justify the hassle. Maybe that absence from this place makes my heart grow fonder. Or maybe it’s just my love of steak.
7 | Astro Burger
There are a couple of these in the Hollywood/West Hollywood area, and I’ve always liked them. They have a strong emphasis on vegetarian options — pretty much every single possible fake meat is there — but they do a really good job not making those items taste like, ya know, crap.
8 | Zankou Chicken
This is another place that shaves its meat. They also understand the joy of hummus. But, most importantly, their staff wears the most badass yellow shirts ever.
9 | Z Pizza
L.A. doesn’t have its own signature style of pizza like New York or Chicago, but if it did, it would probably be bougie pizza. Which Z Pizza does very well. They were putting things like pine nuts and grilled chicken on (delicious tasting) pizzas way before anyone else around here. They also make the best Margherita/Napoli pizza (that’s mozzarella, basil, olive oil and tomato) that I’ve ever had.
10 | Diddy Riese
This is one of the most fascinating dessert places ever. It’s in Westwood, it always has a line out the door, and there’s a reason: Their cookies are so cheap that most of the conversations in said line focus on how they could possibly be turning a profit.At Diddy Riese, for $1.50, you get to pick two cookies and a flavor of ice cream and they make you an ice cream sandwich on the spot. The cookies themselves are three for a dollar… and that’s an increase from when I moved to L.A. and they were four for a dollar.
11 | The Counter
The Counter is a really cool idea — it’s a totally customizable burger place. You go in, they give you a little clipboard and you can pick everything for your burger. This ranges from traditional stuff (lettuce, tomato, thousand island) to very, very un-traditional stuff (onion strings, plum sauce, cranberries, a soy ginger glaze).
It’s really expensive, but it’s worth it… the food and ingredients are clearly very high quality. And the customizable angle makes sure that you never eat the same thing twice.
And that’s important, because this list was otherwise really about just pounding the same handful of restaurants to eat the same handful of things.