Los Angeles isn’t just having a Spanish moment anymore: It’s practically an explosion. Over the past half-decade, Spain’s varied, malleable, and deeply regional cuisine has taken over the hearts and minds of many diners in LA, and the movement is still gaining strength.
Prior to 2018, Los Angeles’s Spanish food scene had ebbed and flowed but never reached a high tide. In the mid-aughts, there were mostly casual spots like Spain Restaurant on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, Santa Monica’s Manchego, and La Paella on San Vicente Boulevard near the Beverly Center. In 2014 came a fresh wave of chef-driven Spanish restaurants led by Perfecto Rocher’s Smoke.Oil.Salt., followed by 2015’s modern Spanish restaurant Gasolina out in Woodland Hills, and José Andrés’s well-regarded Bazaar, which closed in 2020.
“The more the better,” says Sandra Cordero of Gasolina. “Spanish food has been so, so underrated in Los Angeles. There simply weren’t a lot of places to go for a long time.”
The scene really began to shift with the opening of Otoño in Highland Park in 2018, with chef-owner Teresa Montaño at the helm. The native New Mexican had previously run Ración, a now-closed Spanish restaurant in Pasadena that was lauded by the late Jonathan Gold, before turning heads with Otoño’s staple dishes and robust bar menu. That same year, the less-heralded Gabi James opened with a broader California-Spanish menu down in Redondo Beach, though it still leaned heavily on jamón serrano and other Spanish ingredients, and had Mozza alum Chris Feldmeier leading the kitchen.
Today the city is rich with Spanish options, many of which seem to have come out of nowhere, almost all at once. There’s Soulmate, the 2021 West Hollywood patio restaurant right on Robertson Boulevard that pours strong gin and tonics, hosts a robust brunch business, and sells plenty of nightly plates of pan con tomate. In September 2021 Tatel opened not far away in Beverly Hills, serving paella and lots of seafood with the backing of some of Spain’s biggest celebrities (think Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Pau Gasol).
Now in just the past year, more than half a dozen Spanish restaurants have opened in Los Angeles, including Dono in Santa Monica (June 2022), and the dual arrival of Agua Viva and San Laurel (June 2022) from returning chef José Andrés in Downtown. Andrés is one of the world’s most-respected chefs, and his hotel restaurant openings across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall were highly anticipated by eager diners for more than a year. Meanwhile, Silver Lake’s Bar Moruno (March 2022) and Pasadena paella specialist Dos Besos (April 2022) are both less than a year old, and while they play to a decidedly more local audience, each has drawn a crowd.
That’s a lot to process even for people who love Spanish food already, but Cordero says she’s not really worried about the big, expensive Spanish restaurants that have opened recently. “A lot of these are really big-box concepts,” she says. “They’re heavy on design and money, with big groups behind them. Of course, those places can be great, but to me, they miss a bit of what Spain is really about. It’s about hospitality, about getting together. Spain is so welcoming and so generous. They really want you to eat and share what they really love. With these big concepts, that can get lost.”
Feldmeier has been cooking Spanish food for years, most notably at the first iteration of the restaurant Bar Moruno back in 2014. That Original Farmers Market project, though heralded at the time, was short-lived, but it hasn’t stopped Feldmeier from continuing to think about (and expose customers to) the flavors of the Iberian peninsula. And he’s not alone.
“Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne have done more for Spanish food in Los Angeles than almost anyone,” says Feldmeier. “They’ve been pushing those flavors since the Campanile days. Now they’ve got their [pan-Iberian restaurant] Caldo Verde in Downtown, and it’s just so exciting there. I think the city has grown up a little bit.”
It wasn’t until 2022 that Feldmeier was able to return to Bar Moruno as a concept, landing it this time in a tall-ceilinged Silver Lake space with partner David Rosoff, also a Mozza alum. Together the pair turn out tinned fish platters, fire-roasted meats and vegetables, and lots of vermouth, and they’ve found a very willing neighborhood audience.
“It’s so beyond time for Spanish food to have a larger foothold here,” says Feldmeier. “It’s delicious and rustic and a little bit country, and it can also be incredibly fancy.”
Rosoff, who has a head for operations and a heart for wine, agrees. “It’s the kind of food that people here want to be eating,” he says. “There’s a thirst for and an appreciation for things that, previously, people were maybe traveling to eat, or that they haven’t tried locally before. So it opens the door for something that’s both a little bit familiar and new at the same time.”
Another well-regarded opening was 2021’s Saso, a mostly patio Basque restaurant in Pasadena’s Playhouse District, though it has since closed. Barcelona export Telefèric is the newest purely Spanish arrival, opening in late February in Brentwood, while roving pop-up Serrano continues to cook its own snacky Spanish food like Iberico ham on Bub & Grandma’s baguettes and tortilla de patata at places like Melody in Virgil Village.
And that’s not all. There are at least four more Spanish restaurants to know, including the just-opened Flor y Solera from the Factory Place Hospitality Group down in the Arts District, which focuses on regional Spanish food. Highland Park’s Otoño is expanding its footprint this spring, adding a wine bar, market, and events area to its space, and José Andrés is still planning to open Bazaar Meat in Downtown LA sometime this year. Even New York City’s Casa Dani is opening at the Westfield Century City eventually, serving food from celebrated Spanish chef Dani García.
Serrano pop-up chef Jorge Serrano is very familiar with García, having run a restaurant for the chef in the coastal Spanish city of Marbella. Serrano spent his early years in Spain and his formative cooking years across Europe before landing in Los Angeles in 2022 with plans to bring his own Spanish food to the city. Like Gasolina’s Cordero, he says that big-name players like García are good for the overall cause of true Spanish food, even if they do operate at a much larger scale than small, independent restaurants.
“As a Spaniard, I find that 90 percent of people doing Spanish food in America (or at least in LA), they’re not Spanish,” says Serrano. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you don’t have the actual culture and food instilled in you from being raised there, it’s difficult to duplicate the food to the right degree.”
“I want to do real fucking Spanish food,” he says. “If you don’t like certain dishes, I’m so sorry but I can’t alter that dish 50 percent just to fit the American palate.” Serrano cites paella as just one example. In Spain, he says, paella “is not any higher than one finger height, maybe two or three centimeters,” but because “Americans love quantity” a lot of the paella made stateside is massively thick, sometimes as deep as three inches. “That’s not a real paella.”
Broadening out to the greater Iberian peninsula offers some further insight as to how Los Angeles is eating right now, with a focus on produce-forward snacks, lively atmospheres, lighter cocktails, and plenty of wine. There’s Caldo Verde, that Portuguese-influenced Downtown restaurant run by Styne and Goin, and the forthcoming overtly Portuguese bar and snack spot Barra Santos that should open soon in Cypress Park.
Even pan-regional Basque cuisine is here, thanks in part to Downtown LA’s Café Basque from Daniel Rose, the international chef with big restaurants in New York, Chicago, and Paris. There’s also Doug Rankin, previously of Bar Restaurant, who’s now running Bar Chelou in Pasadena in the former Saso space.
That’s all to say: It’s a good time to be a fan of Spanish and pan-regional Iberian Peninsula food. Los Angeles is suddenly awash in options that move well beyond paella, with even more planned for later in 2023. Rosoff from Bar Moruno says that’s a good thing.
“We’re a 45-seat restaurant with 17 more seats at the bar,” says Rosoff. “To see these other restaurants as competition would be shortsighted and foolish. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to a number of different Spanish restaurants that are not all small plates, that are just restaurants with progressions and different portion sizes. I think diners are going to respond well to that.”
Serrano agrees that the moment makes sense (even if it took a while to get here), given the overlapping ways in which Angelenos and Spaniards often eat.
“There’s a kind of sharing, out-in-the-plaza vibe to a lot of Spanish dining,” says Serrano, a mood matched by LA’s love of flavor, atmosphere, and the open air. “That’s the most attractive part of Spanish food: community.”