LA's urban history may be shorter than East Coast and Midwest cities, but there are iconic Los Angeles restaurants that have stood the test of time. Some endure because they have awesome food, others because they have a unique venue or convenient location, and a few have all three.
Here are the most historically iconic LA restaurants in order of when they were established.
Cole's Restaurant (1908)
Cole's is the oldest restaurant in LA in its original location, but not under the same owners. It went from an old-timer rendezvous to a hipster hangout after a takeover and makeover by 213 Nightlife group that operates a dozen Downtown LA establishments. The dinner menu is true to its roots, but the two bars, including the backroom Varnish, add appeal for the younger crowd. Cole's claims to be the originator of the original French Dip sandwich, but so does LA's next historic restaurant.
Philippe the Original (1908)
Philippe's also opened in 1908, but at a different location. It was forced to move in 1951 to make room for the 101 freeway. Its current location is across from Union Station at the edge of Chinatown. Phillipe's also laid claim to creating the first French Dip sandwich, and in a KCET poll, Philippe's French Dip won out over Cole's as being the most "iconic" LA dish, and won out over most other Los Angeles foods for LA icon status, with the exception of the strawberry donut from the Donut Man, which was voted most iconic.
Musso & Frank Grill (1919)
Musso & Frank has been a Hollywood staple since 1919 and plenty of history has been quietly made in its dark booths. Some of the waitstaff seem to have been around about as long at the restaurant. The menu has been around forever too and has lots of stodgy favorites from the early 20th century. A seat at the counter is my favorite spot to feel part of history.
Pacific Dining Car (1921)
First class dining, 24 hours a day, in a restaurant built to resemble an old railway car is what you'll find at the Pacific Dining Car, which opened in 1921 in Downtown LA. Originally the restaurant was at 7th and Westlake, but it moved to its current location in 1923. The food is really good and very pricey, but it's the only place you'll find fine dining at 3 a.m. when you're hungry after clubbing.
Tam O'Shanter (1922)
Tam O'Shanter was opened in 1922 by the same folks who later opened Lawry's Prime Rib. It is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles operated by the same family in the same location for its entire history. The Scottish establishment in a half-timbered building with multiple fireplaces in LA's Atwater Village was a favorite of Walt Disney and is still popular with the Disney Imagineers. Walt's favorite table is marked with a plaque and has drawings by Disney Imagineers scratched into the wood surface of the table. The Tam is known for their annual Robbie Burns Night celebration every January 25.
Original Pantry Café (1924)
The Pantry Cafe opened in 1924 in another Downtown LA location, but like Philippe's, was forced to move to make room for a freeway. It has been at its current location on Figueroa since 1950. It has also changed owners, with former LA mayor Richard Riordan as current proprietor. He didn't change the "greasy spoon" menu, which is written on the wall. Part of the breakfast menu is offered 24 hours a day. The prices are average for a non-chain diner in LA, which is more than you'll pay at IHOP or Denny's for the same breakfast, but it's a local legend. The food is on the heavy side, which is awesome or disgusting, depending on your preference – better for sopping up a night of drinking than pre-shopping. There is often a line out the door on weekend mornings or at 2 a.m. on club nights. They only take cash, but there's an ATM inside. It's a few blocks from of all of the activity at L.A. Live and Staples Center, so draws post-event crowds.
Pig N Whistle (1927)
Pig 'N Whistle opened its doors next to the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in 1927 to serve hungry theater patrons before the days of in-theater concession stands. Its fancifully carved wooden ceiling was covered over for years but was restored to its original glory in 1999. A regular stop on Hollywood pub-crawls, the English-style pub hosts live bands and DJs and serves up a quite decent shepherd's pie.
Taix French Country Cuisine (1927)
Taix's original location opened in downtown Los Angeles, as part of the Champ d'Or Hotel in 1927. The restaurant moved to Echo Park in 1962, where it continues to be run by the Taix family. Its menu offers original French country cuisine favorites like ratatouille, escargot, moules marinière, trout almandine and frog legs Provençales.
El Paseo Inn (1930)
El Paseo Inn opened in 1930 at the other end of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Site at Olvera Street (W-23) from its current location. The building it's in now was originally part of the Pelanconi Winery, which opened sometime between 1871 and 1875 in the days when this was the heart of LA's Italian community. It changed ownership as a winery a couple times before a Mexican restaurant called Café Caliente opened in this space when the Mexican Marketplace was established in 1930. In 1953, El Paseo Inn moved to its current location at E11. It was purchased by Andy M. Camacho, whose Camacho Incorporated continues to own this restaurant, as well as Camacho's Cantina at Universal CityWalk and Mariasol Restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier.
There was once a dance floor in the middle of the restaurant, but the live music these days comes from strolling folk musicians and mariachis. The bar within El Paseo Inn is a historic landmark as well. Given its location, you'll find more tourists than locals dining on the house-made tortillas and traditional Mexican fare.
La Golondrina Restaurant (1930)
Casa La Golondrina relocated from the former La Mision Café on Spring Street, which opened in 1924 and was razed to make way for the new City Hall. It was one of the original restaurants on the new Mexican Marketplace on Olvera Street in 1930. La Golondrina was the first local restaurant officially identified as serving Mexican food as opposed to "Spanish." The restaurant is in the oldest brick building in Los Angeles, the original Pelanconi House, part of the Pelanconi Winery complex. There are two rooms inside with completely different décor, and a patio opens onto Olvera Street.
Unfortunately, the most historic restaurants on Olvera Street are unreliable as far as quality and service, so your chances of having a satisfactory dining experience are 50/50.
Canter's Restaurant, Bakery and Delicatessen (1931)
Still in the hands of the original Canter family, Canter's Deli has been a Los Angeles institution since 1931, when it opened in Boyle Heights. It moved to its current location on Fairfax in 1953 after a short residence down the block. The restaurant maintains its 50's décor, although the façade and signage had a makeover along the way. As one of few restaurants open all night on the west side, Canter's has been popular with TV and movie industry types, as well as rockers coming off performances on the Sunset Strip. The authentic Jewish deli experience depends on the day and is not kosher, but you'll find matzo ball soup, house-made pickles, lox, and bagels, and they regularly trade awards for best pastrami with Langer's Deli downtown.
Canter's added a bar next door in 1961 called the Kibitz Room. It has live music or comedy almost every night, but unlike the restaurant, closes at 2 a.m. (no entry after 1:40 a.m.). Regardless of who is on stage, evenings often evolve into jam sessions, since the musicians in the audience are often bigger names than the ones on stage.
Cielito Lindo (1934)
This taquito stand at the end of Olvera Street has been selling taquitos since 1934, shortly after the Mexican Marketplace was established. In order to get approval to sell food on Olvera Street, the Guerrero sisters were told they had to sell something different from what the other restaurants were selling, so they came up with their own special recipe for taquitos with a thin guacamole sauce and opened Cielito Lindo. They eventually added a couple burrito options, tamales and chiles rellenos, but still don't sell the ubiquitous tacos you can find everywhere else.
Pink's Hot Dogs (1939)
Paul Pink started selling 10 cent chili dogs from a cart in a field at the corner of La Brea and Melrose in Hollywood 1939. In 1946, he built a small building on the same corner, which is now Pink's Hot Dogs. You'll still find people—including the occasional star rolling up in a limo—lined up for the dozens of fancy hot dog variations. Some are named after celebrities like Martha Stewart (relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut & sour cream), Rosie O'Donnell (mustard, onions, chili & sauerkraut), Emeril Lagasse (mustard, onions, cheese, jalapenos, bacon & coleslaw) and Giada de Laurentiis (sauteed peppers, onions & mushrooms, chopped tomato, shredded mozzarella cheese). These are hot dogs you need to eat with a shovel. They also serve some insane burger concoctions and tortilla-wrapped burrito dogs. For your sweet tooth, there's cake by the slice.
Miceli's Restaurant (1949)
Miceli's, just a half block from Hollywood Boulevard, is Hollywood's oldest Italian restaurant. The dark, carved wood décor, red-checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling are classic. The singing waiters make any occasion festive. The food is OK, but it's the ambiance that makes it worth a visit. They have a second location in Universal City that maintains a lot of the same feel.