No one thinks of Los Angeles and immediately thinks, density.
Instead, you should think of Los Angeles like a huge database: search with fine-tuned filters, and clusters of things will begin to appear. When seeking out natural wine in Los Angeles, the heat map glows bright, carbonic-Pinot-red right around the busy strip of Sunset Boulevard running between Silverlake and Echo Park. Five of the best places in town to explore natural wine are strung together in walkable distance, from the French and Italian varietals on offer at an upscale red-sauce pizza joint (Cosa Buona), to glou-glou for taming the heat from an infamous Thai hotspot (Night + Market Song), to the coolest wine bar in the whole city (Bar Bandini). In a span of a mile and a half, you can scope a dynamic variety of natural wine lists, from sommeliers and wine buyers with exciting points of view. If you’re wondering if Los Angeles is the best place in the country to drink natural wine right now, start here. You might find your answer after these sips along Sunset.
Bar Bandini is the anchor of the natural wine scene of Sunset Boulevard, and arguably, for the entire city as well. This Echo Park wine bar’s rotating keg selection regularly showcases California hitmakers, from Deux Punx to Evan Lewandowski to Methode Sauvage to Tony Coturri. Their Instagram chronicles the arrival of new bottles in stock like they’re sneaker drops from a Fairfax hypebeast store. The “if-you-know-you-know” language (no tasting notes, no descriptors; just an esoteric claim to magic in spaced-out letters, and a tag citing the maker) could make it feel a little culty, but for locals still blissfully unaware of the natural wine trend, this place pulls double duty as an accessible, cute, twinkly dark little wine bar on Sunset. That kind of reach is important, a duality that encourages both the magnetizing elements of natural wine appreciation and the casual drinkers just looking for a nice time near the corner of Sunset and Alvarado.
Hospitality is the key that makes it all work, of course. Bandini’s by-the-glass list is a romp to taste through, always featuring a couple of skin contacts, a punchy couple of pet-nats, and an admirable range of mellow to funky that leaves room for anyone at the bar to find what suits them. Bartenders are generous with try-before-you-buy tastes, offer knowledge without pretension, and tend to be fun to talk with about whatever they’re pouring at the moment. The room is long and moody, a dark tea-lit corridor intermittently lit up by the flashing of red siren lights from a firetruck emerging from the station next door. It’s also piercingly loud on weekends, perfect for dates but only in that, “What? You’ll have to scootch closer so I can hear you,” kind of way (that is to say, maybe not the first place you go… but maybe the last).
Opened in 2006, Elf has long (well, in restaurant years) embodied so many of the things that are currently in vogue here in Los Angeles. It’s a leafy, bohemian space of textured tile and dark walls with Moroccan lanterns that flush the room with warm, amber light. The kitchen’s influences land somewhere on the map between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, with rustic rainbows of produce gracing gorgeous salads and shareable mains of roasted hen of the woods risotto, harissa asparagus tart, or pasta with Greek yogurt and za’atar.
Elf has been doing haute-vegetarian cuisine before plant-based was a culinary catchword-cum-California cliché. And, of course, since 2012, Elf has offered an all natural wine list, selling bottles from winemakers like Olivier Cousin, Frank Cornelissen, and Marc Barriot years before the wave fully arrived in Los Angeles. It’s a place where you can actually feel the warm-fuzzies of The Meaning of Natural Wine come to life. What makes it so? The close-knit friendliness of the service team adds a warm layer, as does the lovingly executed concept of humble food taken to another level (if you’re ready to revolutionize your personal relationship with hummus, come see about Elf).
As a whole, Elf Cafe’s experience feels luxurious without being fancy, which, perhaps, is a probable thesis for the allure of natural wine, and the contexts for which we crave our culture these days. It’s a thing of casual beauty.
Chef duo Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson did a few things exactly right at the exact right time: open an all-day cafe in Los Feliz in 2017 with a natural wine list and a highly Instagrammable Middle Eastern-meets-California menu. These trends may be peaking in LA at the moment, but Kismet nailed the complex harmony right out of the gate. The jeweled crispy rice with a runny egg yolk glazing its core is the stuff of Instagram legend at this point, and the rabbit for two, described as “a feast, with flaky bread, greens, pickles, tahini, and labneh,” is a romantic display of California-style simplicity. The wine list changes constantly, and their by-the-glass program tends to offer a handful of whites and reds by the glass, and one each of an orange, rosé, and sparkling. But the fun really gets down in the bottle list—right now the skin contact section is nearly a dozen bottles deep. You’ll find West Coast stars, like La Clarine Farm, Michael Cruse, and Sonoma Mountain Winery, while the rest will take you all over the world, from Touraine to Basque Country to Catalonia to Maine.
As a Joint Venture Dining Group restaurant—the dining empire by Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo—Kismet is in rock-solid company. The group’s kind of a lodestone for what local dining looks like right now, and for where others tend to follow. That spirit’s evident in the restaurant’s name: Kismet set a bit of LA dining fate in motion. For all intents and wine purposes, it remains one of the most attentively tuned and delightful wine lists in town. Revisit and be rewarded.
It’s easy to be seduced by a place that does high-brow comfort food, particularly of the Italian-American persuasion. Thank you, Cosa Buona, for your master class in the art of the mozzarella stick. Occupying a historic corner for pie slinging (for decades, it was Pizza Buona, Echo Park’s former reliable delivery joint), Cosa Buona is the neighborhood pizza place through the lens of a James Beard chef-of-the-year semifinalist and a partner in natural wine shop down the street.
It’s run by chef Zach Pollack, who also co-owns nearby Alimento in Silver Lake. So, naturally (pun intended), the wine list features exciting bottles from low-intervention producers from across France and Italy, at very approachable prices. Our Sunset Boulevard list features spots that tend to give a lot of California love, so consider Cosa Buona’s edge as having the more geographically-focused natural wine programs on here. Dining-wise, it strikes a midlevel balance lacking in a lot of approaches to pizza in Los Angeles, one that tends to shake out at the two poles of cheap eats and finer dining. Cosa Buona is a chic, casual spot for pizza and wine in the $$-price range. We’re talking pies under $20, glasses under $15, and plenty of bottles under $50. You’re in good, wine-curious company, as the wine list demarcates “wines for curious palates” in the sidebar.
Night + Market Song
I’ve already written about Night + Market Song for this site, but it’s impossible to leave it out on a tour of Sunset’s natural wine scene. It’s essential, and the fun factor is level eleven. At Night + Market Song, everything is loud: the high-heat food, the ebullient love of weird and beautiful wine, the zingy neon floral decor, the bumping music over sore-throat conversation decibels. The vibe is one of a bustling house party, where you can order a glass of their exclusive collaboration Coturri (Petite Syrah), sink into the couch in the living room-slash-lobby, and reimagine what a 90-minute (no reservations!) wait for your table can be. Put on your rose-colored glasses and look at it all more like a pre-funk for the meal to come, you know? Chef Kris Yenbamroong’s four-alarm Thai dishes give wines a fabulous purpose here: to cut the heat, to refresh, to chug.
“Wine can be fun” feels like a cliché at this point, but I gotta give it up to N+MS to illustrating what, exactly, that could mean in the presence of mouth-numbing, mind-blowing food amongst oil clothed tables and pink beaded curtains. Grab a group, order a magnum of Les Capriades Pet Sec, and party like it’s nineteen Thai-dy nine.
Dylan Tupper Rupert is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Rookie, the Guardian, MTV News, Billboard, and the Pitchfork Review.