I’m crushing especially hard on two casually brilliant Los Angeles eateries – Gjusta in Venice and Sqirl in Silver Lake. Both have attracted a lot of media and social media love in recent years, so I thought it would be fun to take you on a virtual visit. We ate at Gjusta four times in 48 hours during my last girls getaway in LA. And then I topped that off with a bonus trip to Sqirl, out of my usual LA orbit but absolutely worth the drive. Drool warning ahead.
Fresh and innovative, but still comforting and accessible, Gjusta and Sqirl both make food you would eat daily if you could. Both restaurants feel like the future of American food, made by people who fuse flavors like chefs, are connected to the earth like farmers and actually care about your health like a loving grandma.
I’m stalker-obsessed with Gjusta, industrial-hip bakery/deli in Venice by artist, surfer and self-taught chef Travis Lett that manages to synthesize the California ideals of health, creativity, laid-back cool and sunny gorgeousness.
Venice was a shabbier, seedier, boho neighbor to upscale Santa Monica when Travis Lett opened Gjelina, his original and iconic Venice restaurant 10 years ago. Gjelina began as a little neighborhood place on Abbot Kinney with a great dining patio, attracting neighbors with its veggie-forward, Italian-inspired, California cuisine. My friend Anne used to live down the street and was an early regular.
Then Google moved into Venice, followed by Snapchat. Abbot Kinney became hipster swanky. And Gjelina became a big-time scene.
To service the overflow, Lett opened a small takeout shop next door, GTA (Gjelina Take Away) in 2011. But GTA offers no seating.
The allure of Gjusta, opened in a nearby residential neighborhood in 2014, is its open-door accessibility combined with a democratic, grab-a-seat dining patio. An industrial space housing an expansive kitchen, Gjusta is fronted by long counters displaying a bewildering lineup of bakery items, deli selections and a changing selection of prepared salads and pizzas. Technically Gjusta is takeout-only, but if you’re patient and/or lucky, you can snag one of the few seats inside or a table on the patio.
Lett’s particular magic is making you crave farm-fresh food that is also adventurous and good for you. And Gjusta has a cool hangout vibe, quintessentially LA-casual – glossier, blonder and more urbane than the rest of the Golden State – but also quirky and nonjudgmental.
The experience of Gjusta can be chaotic – searching out the number dispenser, navigating the printed menu and the daily specials on display, finding somewhere to sit – but when you bite into the food, it’s pure luxury.
The extraordinary sourdough bread, made with organic flour from cult favorite Central Milling Company in Utah, is the basis for the breads and pizzas that anchor Gjusta’s menu.
You won’t want to skip the crust on Gjusta’s breakfast pizza.
I first came to Gjusta last year and spent a full year since dreaming of the tomato confit-burrata sandwich. Grilled country baguette, spread with the sweet/tart concentrated flavor of roasted tomatoes, stuffed with soft, creamy burrata. Three simple ingredients, each one the very best of its kind.
This year when we came back, they were out of tomato confit. We consoled ourselves with these glorious breakfast toasts at a patio table. Tough life.
Gjusta is mobbed on the weekends, but weekdays are fairly chill.
On our second morning, tomato confit was back. Melted burrata on a toast isn’t quite as luscious as milky fresh burrata in a split baguette, but it was still dreamy. Bless you, Travis.
Even after a meal, it’s hard to resist buying a treat to go from the bakery counter.
Gjusta is known for its baklava croissants, but this time I was intrigued by a tahini croissant. One bite and it’s my new favorite – a sweet pastry with the subtle richness of sesame in the tahini paste and the added nuttiness of black and white sesame seeds sprinkled over. A little extra Gjusta to go.
I stayed an extra day in Los Angeles on this year’s trip, and Anne and I made a pilgrimage to Sqirl, a destination brunch spot in Silver Lake that is all over Instagram. It’s a tiny place with an intimidatingly long line down the street on weekends. The line is just to order food – you then get a number and hope a seat opens up before your meal comes. Sqirl is not a place for the tightly scheduled.
Since this was a weekday, Anne and I made the 45-minute drive from Santa Monica to wait in a relatively painless weekday line. Fortunately the weather in LA is usually nice, so the outdoor wait is not unpleasant.
Chef/owner Jessica Koslow launched her business making jams in 2011, expanding a year later into a breakfast cafe to feature the jams. Since then she’s enraptured locals, food industry veterans and Insta-fans alike with her creative take on brunch.
Once you get in the door, you can watch the staff working away in the tiny kitchen and peek at diners’ plates as you make final decisions on your order. Sqirl is a cheerfully cramped space, with a communal table and stools lining a counter along the side wall.
I love Anne for convincing me to order twice as much food as we could actually eat. The cashier took the long order and said, “So you’re ordering for your whole party?” I glanced at Anne saving me a seat and smiled back at the cashier. “Yes I am.”
First out was Sqirl’s famous ricotta brioche toast. I couldn’t choose from the three housemade jams of the day, so I went with all of the above. Inspired by the cheese blintzes of Koslow’s youth, the ricotta toast is part French toast, part cheesecake. It was like starting the meal with dessert – each bite a full mouthful of soft, rich sweetness. The ricotta is also made in house, and it’s as fresh and creamy as it looks.
Avocado toast is so California, and Sqirl’s version is extra special, with a layer of garlic creme fraiche under the avocado, a tangle of pickled carrot curls and a shower of za’atar.
The bright green sorrel pesto rice bowl is a must, but don’t expect basil, garlic, cheese or nuts here. Koslow’s sorrel pesto is a tart blend of sorrel leaves, kale, olive oil and lemon juice. Bites of preserved lemon are added into the rice, and the bowl is garnished with feta, a mild jalapeno sauce, a sliver of pickled radish and a perfectly soft-poached egg. It’s a hearty serving, with a citrusy freshness that keeps it from being heavy.
We really didn’t need the massive breakfast sandwich with egg, sausage and halloumi cheese on brioche bun. But of course it too was excellent.
Anne and I rolled out of Sqirl, laughing at our excess. It went against my Chinese grandma frugality – “no waste” is a central tenet – but it was a little thrill to take a break from my sensible adult life and have it all, all at once.
(for more LA, see my previous post, Girls getaway: Los Angeles.)
320 Sunset Ave, Venice
1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice
8a-midnight (except 11p close Sundays)
720 Virgil Ave #4, Los Angeles
6:30a-4p weekdays; 8a-4p weekends