There are a million reasons to visit Pasadena—bargain shopping at the Rose Bowl flea market, perusing fine art at the Norton Simon Museum, getting lost in Craftsman architecture at the Gamble House—but the city is quickly becoming a veritable dining destination, too. Among the quaint coffee shops and tourist-driven chains that populate Old Town and beyond lie fantastic eateries worth discovering. From a former train station turned restaurant to a cafe serving some of the best falafel in L.A., these Pasadena restaurants are your best bets for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
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Fresh ingredients are the constant focus at this phenomenal Northern Italian, farmers’ market-driven place: a roasted beets salad features thinly sliced radishes mixed in with meaty beets and chunks of cara cara oranges, while sweet olives and walnuts are scattered about as garnish. The mussels and guanciale is stellar, too, with huge mussels swimming in the most delicious broth, which you can take advantage of with the toasted bread to scoop up bits of salty guanciale and garlic. Don’t even think about skipping the polenta here—it’s one of Union’s best dishes, and something that will have you talking about the restaurant days later.
Sushi Enya’s specialty rolls are comically large—so much so that you can’t order them at the narrow bar. But it’s worth grabbing a table at the opening rush for them: The thin-sliced rainbow roll is sure to become a conversation piece for its taste as well as its appearance, as will the spicy salmon lemon roll. For seafood purists, you can’t go wrong with anything on the sashimi menu. A jazzy lounge soundtrack and a minimalist interior make Sushi Enya an easy win for dates and group dining alike.
No matter what your feelings are about waiting in line, there’s a methodical beauty to the near-constant queue at Mediterranean Cafe. Step up to the counter, place your order, fork over a few dollars, and before you even have your change back, there’s a blue tray with your lunch waiting on the counter. As consistent as the service is, the food is that much better. Though the shawarma plate mainly keeps the lunch break crowds coming, the falafel is an essential add-on: two pieces the size of a large macaron, crisp on the outside and like a light cake on the inside. The spiced sides are good enough to devour as is, but you’ll find yourself scraping every last drop out of the small cup of tahini.
Pasadena’s newest soup dumpling obsession arrived under the most surreal circumstances: a narrow dining room in the hallway of a vaguely English courtyard that quietly soft opened to instant comparisons to Din Tai Fung and earned a Beastie Boys shoutout. Though the newcomer has yet to cement itself among the San Gabriel Valley’s xia long bao elite, its pork and blue crab dumplings are by far the best in Pasadena. Make the meal worth your wait—because yes, there will probably be a wait—with fried rice, crispy dumplings and sauteed string beans with garlic.
Campanile’s Mark Peel has been delighting Angelenos for decades, working in some of the city’s most hallowed kitchens, including Spago’s, and co-founding La Brea Bakery. But he pivoted to a concept much more casual with Prawn, his Grand Central Market food stall that serves internationally-inspired seafood-centric stews and sandwiches, like his must-order Thai lobster roll. Now he’s brought the concept to Pasadena, where this outpost of Prawn expands to include a raw bar in a nautical, modern setting.
Like a West Coast version of Dean & DeLuca, it’s highly likely that you’ll pick up one of the prepared goods while waiting in line at Lincoln. Bags of candy, homemade jam, pickled veggies and well-spiced crackers line the shelves around the high-ceilinged space. Stay focused: You have some serious decisions to make for breakfast or lunch. Parmesan eggs with crème fraîche and grilled bread, a savory breakfast bowl with white beans and fennel sausage, and plenty of sandwiches fill the menu, along with daily specials like blueberry pancakes and yogurt with granola. Lincoln is a champion of bowls, but if you’re just here for a coffee and a freshly baked pastry, you can find that here, too, enjoyed on one of the sunny picnic benches outside.
What used to be Del Mar Train Station’s holding room for luggage is now The Luggage Room, a pizzeria serving organic and gluten free varieties that will make you forget the space was ever the scene of jumbled suitcases. Fresh produce is key here, and can be found in options like the Avocado Festival, Mushroom Party and Mother Earth (featuring artichokes, roasted peppers and broccolini). Or make your own, and enjoy alongside one of the Luggage Room’s select wines.
Float presents a relaxed alternative to the power lunches and fast casual chains in Pasadena’s South Lake Avenue district. You’ll find the cafe and its few outdoor seats at the end of an oddly charming facsimile of London’s Burlington Arcade. The sandwich menu is small but varied, from the tangy Chipotle Bacon Club to the Harvest Vegetarian’s appetite-satisfying combo of veggies, hummus and honey goat cheese spread. The other side of the menu sources local favorites for coffee (Coffee Manufactory) and ice cream (Fosselman’s). Bottled soda pop selections and floats served in mason jars with candy-stripe straws contrast with exposed light bulbs and Taschen books in the interior.
Though the menu at the budding Dog Haus empire reads like a drunken cookbook of street dogs and Denny’s breakfasts, the plump, flavorful hot dogs at one of two original Pasadena locations show more tact and restraint than their sloppy inspirations, thanks in part to the sweet, soft Hawaiian bread buns. Among the long list of dependably delectable dogs, burgers and brats, the Sooo Cali is the hot dog of choice, with its thick slices of avocado, crispy onions and spicy basil aioli. Out front, the picnic bench patio offers a charming alternative to the sports bar-like interior. In both areas, the delightfully cheesy ’80s touches are inescapable, from the loud soundtrack (think Toto) to the menu (The Abe Froman, Scott Baioli).
The first thing you need to know about Ramen Tatsunoya is that there’s going to be a line, and frustratingly, you can’t just put your name down: You’ll have to wait in the alleyway until there’s space for you to squeeze in. Once seated, choose between koku tonkotsu, jun tonkotsu or spicy tonkotsu as the broth base and top with egg, dried seaweed, green onion and chashu. Is the ramen worth the wait? That depends on your patience. But it’s for sure the best steaming bowl in Pasadena.
The only thing better than a hangover breakfast burrito is the preventative one you consume the night before. At Lucky Boy, you can have it both ways with massive, griddled breakfasts in roll form. The famly-owned operation has been slinging these for roughly 40 years, packing each with bacon, chorizo or sausage and home fries and cheddar, served as early as 6am and as late as 2am. Pro tip: There are two Lucky Boy Burgers, but only the spot on Arroyo keeps the lights on this late.