Los Angeles has a stronger burger culture than any other city in the U.S. It’s here that the quintessential fast-food burger really took hold in the ’50s as car culture took off.
The first In-N-Out Burger opened in Baldwin Park, an L.A. suburb, in 1948 and came to epitomize the kind of above-average, freshly made patty that has become the standard – and became the locus of an East Coast-West Coast rivalry when Shake Shack introduced its own version in 2004.
Over time, chefs and restaurants have elevated the toppings on basic patties, such as tomatoes, lettuce, and special sauce, into as serious a statement as the provenance of the beef (or faux beef). But they’ve never lost sight of that classic SoCal style.
So put the top down on your car, work up an appetite with a run up Runyon Canyon, and grab a fistful of napkins. Here are 12 favorites to try that are recommended by chefs and restaurateurs across two continents who have spent a lot of time sampling the options.
Belcampo Meat Co.
8053 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, and other California locations
The Order: The Fast Burger with Broccolini
Recommended by Ludo Lefebvre, chef/owner of Trois Mec, Los Angeles
Anya Fernald has made a name for herself as a sustainable rancher who raises organic, grass-fed beef at the base of Mount Shasta in Northern California. She also has a mini-chain of Belcampo restaurants in and around L.A. and San Francisco that feature her meat.
Chef Ludo Lefebvre particularly loves her fast-food-style riff on the burger: “The meat is delicious and organic, which is so nice to find, plus the onions, cheese, and lettuce make truly the perfect ‘fast’ burger.” He goes for the double burger made from freshly ground beef shaped into two thin patties and topped with house-made American cheese, lettuce, red onions, and tomato.
1320 2nd St., Santa Monica
The Order: The Vegan Burger with French Fries and Chocolate Shake
Recommended by Akasha Richmond, chef/owner of Akasha, Los Angeles
Stylish fast-casual HiHo features only one type of beef – prime Wagyu that’s 100 percent grass-fed and -finished – and two types of cheeseburgers, the Classic and the HiHo, which has the added benefit of mustard-grilled patties. This being L.A., you can get them as a lettuce wrap instead of in a bun.
But chef Akasha Richmond raves about a less-obvious option: a vegan burger carefully crafted out of black beans and brown rice. It’s mustard-grilled, instead of deep-fried like so many others, and it gets an extra kick from a hit of cayenne pepper. But what makes the burger is the house-made bread, butter pickles, and caramelized onion jam, she says. “HiHo is my favorite stop after the Wednesday farmers market.”
7998 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
The Order: Double Cheeseburger with Chili Cheese Fries
Recommended by Liam O’Keefe, brand director of Bleecker Burger, London
Now relocated on a new stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, this West Hollywood restaurant traces its history to a 1950s burger stand and comes with the mission of preserving a piece of classic post-World War II, Route 66 nostalgic history.
Liam O’Keefe of London’s Bleecker Burger advocates for Irv’s old-school double cheeseburger, visibly handmade and served on paper plates decorated with doodles. “It is a really classic American burger, like nothing you would eat in England,” he says. “And the hospitality is outstanding.”
The Apple Pan
10801 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
The Order: The Steak Burger and Pecan Pie
Recommended by Jon Shook, chef/owner of Animal, Los Angeles
“To me, Apple Pan sums up the L.A. burger. It opened in 1947, and it helped launch and inspire a lot of other burger restaurants,” such as 1950s-styled chain Johnny Rockets, says local chef Jon Shook.
Behind the U-shaped counter of a modest, single-story building in West Los Angeles, employees in retro white paper hats and short-sleeve shirts offer customers a choice of two burgers: steak or hickory.
The steak option is a not-too-thick patty topped with a chunk of iceberg lettuce, pickles, mayonnaise, and the house “special sauce” on a grilled fluffy bun; it costs US$7.10, plus an additional 50 cents for cheddar topping. “It is a little taste of history.”
1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica
The Order: The Office Burger with Garlic-Parsley Frites
Recommended by Curtis Stone, chef/owner of Gwen, Los Angeles
For most people, Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue evokes images of stylish boutiques. For many, including star chef Curtis Stone, it’s better known as home to the flagship Father’s Office.
Sang Yoon took over the longtime beer bar in 2000, added a small kitchen, and introduced his monumentally juicy burger, making it with dry-aged beef before everyone else did.
Father’s Office is also notorious for its “no substitutions whatsoever” policy; the burger comes with caramelized onions, arugula, Maytag blue cheese, a garlic-butter toasted bun, and that’s that. “No ketchup, no substitutions, no other burger like it,” says Stone.
5722 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
The Order: Dry Aged Beef Burger with Fingerling Potatoes and Pickles
Recommended by Suzanne Tracht, chef/owner of Jar, Los Angeles
An L.A. burger tends to conjure up images of drive-thrus and old-school counters (see Apple Pan, above). Kali is the opposite: a modern, two-year-old dining room with a tasting menu and dishes such as sea urchin spaghetti with ricotta whey.
Chef Kevin Meehan serves his burger only at lunch, where it’s a favorite of local chef Suzanne Tracht. “They use ground prime Holstein from Flannery Beef, and I like my burger at a perfect medium-rare. It comes with an awesome buttermilk-rosemary bun that’s made in-house, cheddar, caramelized onions, crispy fingerling potatoes, and house-made pickles.”
14742 Oxnard St., Van Nuys
The Order: A Cheeseburger with Chips
Recommended by Kris Yenbamroong, chef/owner of Night + Market, Los Angeles
Old-school Bill’s keeps unconventional hours. It opens early in the morning and closes by 4 p.m. “Bill is almost 100 years old, and the steel-top griddle that he uses at his tiny burger mecca in Van Nuys is supposedly older than he is,” says chef Kris Yenbamroong.
“You can’t deny the juju of a cooking apparatus that has that kind of seasoning on it. It’s like a pizza oven that’s been broken in over the years, or your grandma’s old wok.”
There’s only one order here, a quintessential L.A. cheeseburger – white bread bun, iceberg lettuce, tomato, chopped onions, mayo, pickles, American cheese, and a nice char on the thin patty. “I usually order two.”
Everson Royce Bar
936 E. 7th St., Los Angeles
The Order: The Single Burger and Smoky Potato Taquitos
Recommended by Paul Kahan, chef/co-founder of One Off Hospitality, Chicago; and Scott Collins, co-founder of Meatliquor Group, U.K.
At this neighborhood bar-turned-destination, James Beard award-winning chef Matt Molina, formerly of Mozza, creates his burger patty from prime beef chuck, topped with Tillamook cheddar and Dijonnaise on a buttered egg brioche bun. Housemade dill pickle spears come on the side.
He has said it’s inspired by the one at Au Cheval in Chicago, so maybe it’s no surprise that Chicago chef Paul Kahan likes it so much: “This burger is no shenanigans! What I love the most is how simple it is, but what makes it stand out is how you can really taste the delicious meat flavor.”
Meatliquor’s Scott Collins likes it, too. “It’s everything you want from a simple burger,” says Collins. “It is well-sourced, with no untoward ingredients like arugula. It’s a homage to the traditional American diner cheeseburger, a good single-hander, and it tastes great.”
1520 North Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, and numerous locations around the world
The Order: Umami Burger with Cheesy Potato Tots
Recommended by Richard Turner, group executive chef of Hawksmoor Restaurant Group, U.K.
While many burger spots brag about the provenance of the beef, nationwide chain Umami has become famous for its toppings, specifically a powder sprinkled on its patties that’s made from porcini mushrooms, oven-dried tomatoes, and a Parmesan crisp all tucked inside the bun.
Altogether, this imparts a savory flavor bomb. “It is a punchy burger, very beefy. It’s right there in your face,” says British butcher and chef Richard Turner. “It’s also quite juicy, dribbling down your chin. Posh chefs would call that roasted Parmesan disc a tuile. A purist wouldn’t like it, but it isn’t a purist’s burger.”
13850 Francisquito Ave., Baldwin Park, plus hundreds of locations in California and the U.S. West
The Order: Animal-Style Cheeseburger and Fries with Pickled Peppers and Neapolitan Shake
Recommended by David Carter, founder and pitmaster of Smokestak, London
One of the worst-kept secrets in the burger world is “animal-style” at In-n-Out. Although not officially on the menu, order it and get a mustard-cooked patty topped with a mixture of caramelized onions, Thousand Island dressing, and pickles; you can get the mixture on fries, too.
Smokestak’s David Carter used to live in L.A. and also fell in love with the chain’s sweet, soft buns. Simply put, burgers here are “amazing,” he says. Other notable food-world fans include Wolfgang Puck (who was introduced to the chain by his wife), Thomas Keller (who says it inspired a secret fantasy of his own burger restaurant), and Gordon Ramsay (who immediately hit up the drive-thru for seconds).
8284 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
The Order: Impossible Burger with Truffle Fries
Recommended by Scott Collins, co-founder of Meatliquor Group, U.K.
Crossroads is a vegan restaurant that doesn’t want to be labeled as one. It was the first place in L.A. to showcase the buzzy, meatless Impossible Burger, which, as the name suggests, tastes impossibly like a beef burger in everything from oozy juiciness to chewy texture.
Topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles, it’s a surprising favorite for London-based Scott Collins, a champion of all things meaty. “It was actually very tasty, as weird as that sounds coming from a meat eater,” says Collins. “They did a really good job. It has a charred flavor, the texture is so good - it’s a guilt-free burger. That’s not always been my style, but I am evolving.”
Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers
11127 Venice Blvd., Culver City
The Order: The Famous Burger with Onion Rings
Recommended by Liz Johnson, former chef of Freedman’s, Los Angeles
In a Culver City strip mall, a big sign announces Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers, which has been in business since the early ’70s and claims to have created the bacon-and-avocado combo now famous the world over. Its no-frills menu, which also offers hot dogs and taquitos, and Hollywood movie poster decor is pure SoCal kitsch.
Food & Wine Best New Chef Liz Johnson discovered it when she move to L.A. and appreciates the play of ingredients. “It’s a flat patty served with creamy avocado and crisp bacon, plus ranch dressing and spicy peppers.” Mostly, she says, “it is just delicious.”