In 1987, long before “fusion” became a dirty word in the world of fine dining, Nobu Matsuhisa opened his first eponymous restaurant in Los Angeles, or more precisely, Beverly Hills. No, not Nobu—that came later, in 1994, when the chef opened a joint venture with devoted regular Robert De Niro in NYC’s Tribeca, the first of what would become an international extra-fancy sushi chain with all the glitz and glamour such touristic endeavors require. (Here in L.A., you’ll find locations in West Hollywood and Malibu.)
No, first came Matsuhisa. In its early years, the no-frills spot that bears his surname was once the place to be for see-and-be-seen Hollywood types. It’s also the original locale where Matsushisa rose to fame as a veritable sushi pioneer with now widely imitated dishes, like yellowtail jalapeño and black cod with miso. These days, in a city full of upscale sushi options, the chef’s original La Cienega eatery might no longer be considered cutting edge, but a pricey pilgrimage to this Beverly Hills icon is still more than worth the time and money for sushi-loving Angelenos. Inside the restaurant’s largely unchanged interior, you’ll find the same Peruvian-inflected fare as Nobu, minus the dressed-to-kill tryhard crowds and the typical difficulty in snagging a dinner reservation.
Instead, longtime regulars, couples on dates and casually dressed businessmen fill the dining room’s bar and tables, as well as the smaller, relatively new patio outside. Attentive servers bring cooked dishes from the kitchen and dutifully call out the tasting notes for those who spring for the omakase (which starts at $125 and tops out around $220). Behind plastic sneeze guards, the chefs work briskly, cutting maki and doling out single pieces of nigiri to those at the counter, while a whiteboard of daily specials leans against the tinted window that insulates diners from the outside world.
The menu, overall, reads and tastes like a ‘90s time warp. Whether you find that appealing or not, that’s largely the point of Matsuhisa, where an older, more raw seafood-averse generation of L.A. diners first fell in love with Japanese sushi, or at least a variant thereof, as they inched towards less well-known cuts of nigiri after meals of lightly seared “new-style” salmon sashimi and adorable little sashimi tacos. Not every dish holds up in 2022, particularly at the price point, but many do, including the aforementioned filet of black cod with miso, the inaniwa pasta with lobster and pretty much any and all of the dressed sashimi plates (not all of which you’ll find at Nobu). The nigiri remains excellent, if not the main focus of dining here. If it’s your first time, the omakase spanning raw and cooked dishes isn’t essential, but will definitely help counteract any decision paralysis over the lengthy à la carte offerings.
If I’m being honest, some younger, sushi-savvy diners might not enjoy Matsuhisa’s fusion-style offerings as much as they delight in other, more traditional-leaning spots around town. Ironically, many of them, including Studio City’s Asanebo, Santa Monica’s Shunji and Morihiro in Atwater Village, are run by chefs who cut their teeth at the La Cienega restaurant or even newer sushi bars founded by Nobu Matsuhisa’s protégés. It’s true that Matsuhisa might not be groundbreaking, but where else can you casually pay respects to where many hallmarks of L.A. style sushi (and Nobu) all began?
The vibe: Located on Beverly Hills’ Restaurant Row, this largely unadorned, slightly cramped sushi bar is nothing like Nobu. That’s a good thing in our eyes for less fussy, but still fine dining priced meals, like a longtime anniversary dinner or group dinner among sushi aficionados.
The food: A menu of Peruvian-inflected Japanese cuisine that reads like a time capsule from the ‘90s, plus many of the same premium priced items you’ll find at Nobu locations around the world. Standouts include the OG yellowtail jalapeño, toro toban-yaki and inaniwa pasta with lobster, though all dishes are carefully executed with high-quality ingredients, even if they come off a bit dated.
The drink: House green tea, Matsuhisa “exclusive” (but not really) cocktails, Japanese beer, and high-end sake and wine, including a delicious lychee martini and bang-for-your-buck flights of Nobu brand hokusetsu sake.
Time Out tip: If you typically order straight nigiri, spring for at least a few of Matsuhisa’s fusion cold and hot dishes. Even puritans need to let their hair down sometimes, and there’s no better place to do it than here.