Where to watch chefs work their magic in L.A.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in September 2016.

CNN  — 

You can call up any hot restaurant in Los Angeles and be told they have no weekend tables available this month but may have a Tuesday 5 p.m. slot in the spring. What’s an even tougher mission for fine-dining warriors here?

Scoring a front-row seat by the kitchen of a top toque performing her or his magic right before your eyes.

It may take some time (and money) to check off the following vital L.A. chef’s table-style experiences in the mecca of culinary stars and impossible reservations. But what’s an unforgettable dinner-and-show without a challenge?


Bestia's roasted bone marrow.

When done right, inspired Cal-Italian comfort food works well under just about any roofed structure.

Especially, it turns out, a repurposed warehouse in the factory-adorned outskirts of the Downtown Arts District – home to one of the most packed contemporary trattorias west of Umbria.

Busy, boisterous, bustling with bandanna’d chefs turning out burrata pizzas, bold housemade pastas and addictive ricotta dumplings with pork sausage and black truffles, the Bestia experience is best reserved well ahead.

A range of seating options includes funky booths, communal tables and a pair of patios.

For the real show with dinner, opt for a counter seat by the pizza oven or at the kitchen-adjacent chef’s table – a wooden perch seating up to seven where roasted marrow bone, spinach gnocchetti and pan-roasted chicken gizzard demos are on the house.

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Trois Mec

Only in L.A. does a Food & Wine-lauded dining room run by a star chef sit sort-of incognito in a sunburnt strip mall behind an old Raffallo’s P ZZA (missing I) sign from the space’s former tenant.

Ludovic Lefebvre’s Trois Mec – tapped repeatedly in its three years as one of L.A.’s best restaurants – is easy to drive right past.

Much harder: being quick enough to snag an online prepaid dining ticket (released every other Friday morning at 10 a.m.) at this 26-seat Modern American must-try – home of the best unkept $85 prix fixe dining “secret” in town.

Revolving five-course tasting menus are unpretentiously served in an open-kitchen setting where Lefebvre and his crew would be joining you if they were any closer.

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Le Comptoir

Don’t bother trying to call Le Comptoir for a reservation – as there’s no phone number.

Best to email a request for an early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) reservation at this 10-seat counter hiding in Koreatown’s historic Hotel Normandie – and patiently wait for French Laundry-alum chef Gary Menes to get back to you.

The seven-course tasting menu ($89 before wine pairings or corkage) showcases Menes’ singular form of French California cooking, with a focus on seasonal vegetables sourced from the chef’s own organic urban garden in Long Beach.

Meals might be supplemented by Japanese Wagyu beef or a diver scallop upon request.

But it’s the freshly harvested beans, figs, squash, leeks, asparagus, carrots, delicately halved grapes, etc. that are the stars of this show. Diligently prepared, plated and elucidated sans white tablecloth or pretension for a snug gathering of counter foodies.


N/Naka's octopus and cucumber salad with sesame aioli and sanbaizu (three-cup vinegar) gelee.

Guests have been booking long in advance to secure a spot in the 26-seat dining room of kaiseki chef Niki Nakayama – well before Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” recently widened the audience of one of the world’s only female masters of Japan’s traditional culinary art form.

Nakayama’s 13-course prix fixe menu ($185 per person) features a stunning procession of seasonal creations almost too beautiful to wreck with silverware.

Dishes, paired with wine or sake, might include a traditional unagi (eel) with daikon and foie gras or (a house favorite) spaghettini with abalone, truffles and ponzu.

Service includes detailed explanations of each creation along with eating suggestions for the optimal sensory experience.

Near meal’s end, expect an appearance by chef Nakayama, known for deferentially recording each guest’s dish appraisals – for next time.

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A Season 6 victory in US reality TV show “Top Chef” (over co-finalist sibling Bryan) put prodigiously innovative Michael Voltaggio on the culinary star map seven years ago.

Today, it’s a footnote for Ink. – the tattooed chef’s lively Melrose Ave. kitchen, named in the hopes that it will make the “indelible impression” which it has.

The menu changes frequently, but modern Californian cuisine signatures can include chicken-fried quail, salt-and-charcoal potatoes with housemade sour cream and an eye-dropper of black vinegar, and for dessert a deconstructed apple pie with caramel, shortbread and burnt wood semifreddo that gets repeated “mind-blowing” nods from Yelp.

Close-up views of the open-kitchen crew at work and play are best grabbed (first-come, first-served) from the six-seat counter overlooking the garde manger station.

Tempura Endo

At Tempuro Endo, diners can admire delicacies like shrimp toast turning golden.

Battered-and-fried food is relegated to lowly “fun” status most of the time.

Not tempura.

At least not the serious version of it being performed at Tempura Endo, the first US outpost of top Kyoto-based tempura restaurateur Koichi Endo.

Tucked in a quiet space on the edge of downtown Beverly Hills, the eight-seat omakase bar offers three tasting menu options for small groups with healthy dining budgets.

Multi-course tempura meals starts at $150 per person, blooming to $280 for the Higashiyama special.

In return, guests experience haute Kyoto-style tempura cooking from a master chef crafting weak-flour-battered, Chardonnay-laced, premium cottonseed oil-sizzled delicacies – like halved scallops slivered with truffle or seaweed-wrapped sea urchin roe – into fried artistry. With play-by-play narration.

The meal ends with a traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony, and plenty of new respect for crispy stuff in its most exalted form.

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Two years ago, Curtis Stone (star of TLC’s “Take Home Chef” reality show) realized his dream of opening a 25-seat, open-kitchen conceptual dining room named after his grandmother in the heart of Beverly Hills.

And people came. Or at least called repeatedly to see if there were any cancellations.

The online reservations game at Maude begins – and swiftly ends – on the first day of the month prior to seatings for the following month.

Prix fixe menus inspired by a single seasonal ingredient revolve monthly, featuring a lineup of nine thematic dishes you’ll never have anywhere else, with close-up views of one of L.A.’s most creative culinary labs in action.

The themes for the rest of 2016 are Grape (September), followed by Chicory (October), White Truffle (November) and Black Truffle (December).

Los Angeles-based Jordan Rane is a Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers. His work on travel and the outdoors has appeared in more than 50 publications.