Where to eat in Downtown L.A. from the 2023 101 Best Restaurants guide

Jon Yao’s cooking begins with nostalgia — for the Taiwanese American food made by his mother and grandmother, for his coming of age in the San Gabriel Valley. As the ornate mosaics of seafood and vegetables, punctuated occasionally by meat, roll out from his kitchen in courses, it’s evident how he transforms his sentimentality from the inside out. He’s a master technician who takes apart station wagons and reconstructs them as Bentley Continentals.

Those of us who have followed Yao’s career tend to refer to the airy, wood-and-concrete-lined space in Row DTLA as Kato 2.0, since the restaurant began as a bootstrap operation in a West L.A. strip mall in 2016. It’s been nearly two years since the move, an upgrade of outsize proportions, and every ambition that first landed Kato at the top of the 101 Best Restaurants list in 2019 has been more fully realized in spades. Yao’s longtime business partner, Nikki Reginaldo, leads a staff of servers with serious demeanors; she brings levity with wit and boss R&B playlists. Ryan Bailey came aboard in the new location as the third leader and the beverage guy. Between his 70-something-page wine list, including the city’s most trailblazing nonalcoholic drink program, and bar director Austin Hennelly’s alchemical, easy-sipping cocktails, I sometimes wish I could come solely to imbibe. But the food thrills. Look for the most unassuming presence by the stoves, and there’s Yao. His quietness hides his relentless creativity. He’s swapping out luxe Hokkaido scallops in plum reduction one week for lobster over buttery shrimp toast the next, using Sichuan pepper as brain teasers, making the rightful case for pig’s ears as delicacies, and offering a savory-sweet bao filled with salted egg yolk custard as a climax.

Dinner in the main dining room is $275 per person, with a slightly abridged $170 tasting menu of Kato classics at the bar that’s ideal for solo diners and usually includes a dish involving caviar, mussel liquor, smoked onion cream and a filling side of milk bread. It’s wonderful, but the main experience feels more refined, more driven, each time I visit. So much of our fine dining winks with signifiers of our culture — a sashimi plate here, a Mexican ingredient there — but Yao’s cuisine originates from an interior place. This is me, it says. And when we taste it, we understand: This is Los Angeles.

Read the full review of Kato 2.0.