It’s the question that ends up in the Eat Your Heart Out LA inbox more than any other – can you recommend a restaurant for a first date? The brutal truth is that location doesn’t matter when there’s great chemistry (fact: my favorite date took place at a perfume counter of a department store). But a solid restaurant selection for a first date will undoubtedly enhance the evening. The perfect spot needs to resonate with the appropriate amount of decibel and the most flattering calculation of overhead wattage. It shouldn’t be too fancy. The waiters shouldn’t be too hot. The vibe shouldn’t be too macho. Starlets shouldn’t be dining inside and paparazzi shouldn’t be congregating outside. The menu needs to accommodate both picky eaters and foodies. The service should be attentive, but relaxed. And by all means, the restaurant must serve alcohol. Eat Your Heart Out L.A. has selected its top 10 first date restaurants, giving you a variety from casual/no-reservations spots to dim-lit sit-down dinners where you won’t have to cash out your 401K. The computation for getting to date number two is a complicated algorithm that you may never quite understand, but if you pick one of these spots, at least you know the problem isn’t location. It’s most likely the person sitting across from you.
A Frame, Culver City
It really doesn’t matter that A Frame doesn’t take reservations, because starting off your date by the outdoor fire pit, a couple of beers in hand, while you wait for a table, is actually going to feel just right. And once you do sit down, whether that’s at the community table or not, you’ll find yourself at home. The soul of A Frame vibrates from the cement floors to the peaked roof. You hear it in the timber of the staff’s friendly voices. You taste it in a piquant bite of the hoisin-chili glazed ribs. In the tender pull of the cracklin’ beer can chicken. This is a place where it’s more appropriate to laugh than to whisper. A place to “get your hands dirty” as the menu suggests. There’s really no better environment to get to know the person across from you. And if you don’t click with your date, no problem, you’ll be returning here with your friends.
A Frame, 12565 Washington Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90066. (310) 398-7700.
Baco Mercat, Downtown
One of the most stressful aspects of choosing a restaurant for a first date is determining the appropriate price range. At Baco Mercat that pressure is alleviated because prices swing from $7 to $58 which allows you to avoid looking frugal or flashy. Let your date select their own dish, and then you can assess whether it was an appropriate selection. Start with the burrata or the pork rillettes which you can smear on toasted bread. Then move onto the “baco,” explosive sandwiches with the likes of crispy shrimp sriracha and chives, or a flatbread topped in guanciale and an oozing fried egg. Baco Mercat scores even higher on the date barometer because it’s walking distance from both speakeasy, The Varnish, and margarita bar, Las Perlas. Stroll over to one of those spots for a post-dinner nightcap, that is, if the night is going smoothly.
Baco Mercat, 408 S. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013. (213) 687-8808.
Ordinarily, a place like Cleo, with its boisterous scene and its feet planted in a Hollywood hotel lobby, would be the last place we’d deem first-date-worthy. But with chef Danny Elmaleh behind the menu and an infectious punchiness in the room, there’s something about this Middle Eastern mezze-style hotspot that makes it a surprisingly pleasant date haunt. There is an abundance of options for carnivores and vegetarians alike. The lamb kefta and the lebeneh mezze are not to be missed. The same goes for the brussels sprouts spiked with almonds and dressed with a red wine vinaigrette, and the artichoke flatbread, garnished with potatoes, aged mozzarella and a toss of arugula. Cocktails such as the Clementina, pricked with the fire of serrano chiles, are so good, you’re going to want to order at least one. Two or three if the date is in decline.
Cleo, 1717 Vine Street, Los Angeles, CA 90028. (323) 962-1711.
Father’s Office, Culver City/Santa Monica
Sure, you’ll have to order at the bar, and yes, you may have to split up with your date so one of you can scout out and snag a seat, but there is something about the casualness of this process that immediately relieves pressure and softens the seriousness of the whole evening. Once you’ve scored a spot, you’ll be glad you did. That’s your cue to repose with one of the rare brews on taps. Remember that legendary burger you’ve heard so much about? The one smothered in caramelized onions, bacon, gruyere and punched up with maytag blue? Well this is where it’s made. It’s going to be messy, but order it anyway. There’s something inherently equalizing about two people diving into sloppy burgers on a first date. It’s funny. It’s real. It’s what first dates should be about. Father’s Office is a bit of a time warp; you’ll be surprised how quickly the hours fly here. And once again, on a date, that’s a particularly good thing.
3229 Helms Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034. (310) 736-2224.
1018 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90403. (310) 393-2337.
Mother Dough, Los Feliz
A date at Mother Dough is simplicity at its best. You don’t need to take a long break from conversation to peruse the menu – you can sweep through the options, a few pizzas, a few starters, in mere seconds. The red brick walls and dim illumination are flattering. The room beats with a pleasant energy, and it’s easy to hear your date regardless of which table you snag. Besides, who doesn’t like pizza? These Neapolitan pies are slightly crisped and remarkably fresh. The light Margherita will satisfy even the most conservative palate, while the whiskey fennel sausage pizza will impress the most sophisticated. And of course we wouldn’t recommend a first date spot that doesn’t serve alcohol, but you can avoid overdoing it by sticking to a spot that only serves beer and wine.
Mother Dough, 4648, Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027. (323) 644-2885.
Osteria La Buca, Hollywood
Let’s start with the important stuff: Osteria La Buca serves a killer agnolotti, and brussels sprouts coated in gooey egg yolk with a heavy grating of grana-padano. By all means, if you need a “date” as an excuse to go here, please indulge. The space balances clean modern lines with rustic accents. If you have a reservation, the staff won’t make you wait for a table, but should you decide to pop in at the last minute, the bar is a great spot to sojourn until a spot opens up. The bucatini carbonara is a seductive dish that may set the mood, as is the creamy cacio e pepe, which makes up in flavor what it lacks in portion. Notably, the wine list offers a few reasonable bottles, which always makes selecting one less stressful. Get the wine flowing, and the rest will follow.
Osteria La Buca, 5210 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90038. (323) 462-1900.
Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica
One of the nice things about Rustic Canyon is you can go light and varietal, with a bevy of small plates, or big and sweeping with their hearty main dishes. The menu rotates nightly, but you may start with lightly breaded cauliflower or squash blossoms, aromatic and gently crisped. Or perhaps you’ll opt for a handmade pasta, or their epic onion fondue burger, which you must garnish with a farm egg and thick confit bacon. Rustic Canyon calls itself a wine bar, and there are myriad bottle options to prove it. There’s even a nice selection of craft beers including local favorite, The Bruery, on tap and Trappistes Rochefort by the bottle. The setting is warm and bustling, so perfect for a date, that you’ll most likely just take ten steps to the bar and settle in, forgoing a different location for a nightcap.
Rustic Canyon, 1119 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401. (310) 393-7050.
Salt’s Cure, West Hollywood
The legendary 2x2x2 has made this tiny nook a coveted destination for weekend brunch, but Salt’s Cure is also a perfect date spot for any night of the week. The tiny setting instills a comforting intimacy, but the minimalist decor and the buzz of the modest, open kitchen, exudes ease and rawness in the best form imaginable. The menu, with the exception of an enviable bacon cheeseburger, changes so frequently that sometimes ingredients will swap between your starter and your entree. It’s driven by both the marketplace and the chefs’ whims, and when those chefs are Chris Phelps and Zak Walters, that’s a good thing. The evening may include an IPA braised pork shank, or a cut of yellowtail, sometimes smoked, sometimes grilled. The wait staff is accommodating, and also perceptive. Sometimes when your date has stepped away from the table, they’ll ask how your first date is going, a glimmer in their eyes.
Salt’s Cure, 7494 Santa Monica Blvd # A, West Hollywood, CA 90046. (323) 850-7258.
Sotto, Beverly Hills
This is where first-date-dreams are made of, the perfect amalgamation of romantic atmosphere and soulful cooking. Because when you’ve got a pizza oven imported from Naples, chefs Zach Pollack and Steve Samson in the kitchen, and Julian Cox on cocktails, you’ve basically got the epicurean version of an All-Star team. Even the kitchen is a beauty, which you can gaze at from the bar, where you should be indulging in a preprandial concoction such as the La Pesca Gustosa, cognac and brandy united with muddled peaches and sage. Then sink into a number of exceptional dishes. The braised lamb ragu pasta is striking, so are the delicately charred, airy crusts pizzas, such as the one coated in sausage, fresh mozzarella, rapini and chilies. Sotto is the perfect spot for a first date, or any date, for that matter.
Sotto, 9575 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90035. (310) 277-0210.
Urbano Pizza Bar, Downtown
We can’t decide what we love more about Urbano – its menu, its prices, or its complete lack of pretentiousness. What we do know is that their Neapolitan style pizzas are simply divine. Grab a seat at a two-top or ease onto the community table, and begin with a shared plate such as the “pulled to order” fresh mozzarella or the trio of pork meatballs, coated in a pulpy tomato sauce. Then get your hands on one of the remarkable wood-fire pizzas, like the aromatic fennel pie, topped with smoked rounds of mozzarella, goat cheese, fennel and white truffle oil. With a considerable selection of beers on tap and reasonably priced wine bottles, you’re going to want to stay awhile. It’s just that sort of place. Settle back, listen to the great tunes rocking the stereo, and be glad you came. Your date will be glad too.
Urbano Pizza Bar, 630 West 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90017. (213) 614-1900.