Once upon a time, the culinary culture of Los Angeles was defined by the city's dominant Midwestern heritage. It was mostly a basic meat-and-potatoes fare, or else bad imitations of what passed for good eating in New York or Chicago. Sure, there was always Mexican and Chinese food around, but ethnic cuisine was only acceptable if it was toned down -- the spices reduced and the dishes emasculated to fit in with Angelenos' bland-is-best sensibilities. In fact, for far too long the most reliable meal in the city was a burger, a side order of greasy fries, and a drink.

Happily for those seeking more civilized dining, the city's movable feast is now globally varied. As one might expect, the culinary cartography of L.A. parallels the metastasized character of our ethnic communities, with flare-ups of great food emerging in the least-expected places: tucked away in anonymous strip malls and bracketed by a liquor store and a laundry, or hidden in decrepit sections of the inner city. It's no coincidence that the traditional DMZ between the Eastside and the Westside, La Cienega Boulevard, is known as Restaurant Row. It used to be that the wealthy gourmands of Beverly Hills and West L.A. would head east for something a little out of the ordinary, and this was as far as they would drive. Conversely, when the citizens of the Eastside wanted to splurge and step up for the night, they'd head west, winding up in the same place.

The culinary scene remained in this stalemate until the '70s, when California Cuisine first hit the streets, drifting south from Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in Berkeley, daring local chefs to explore the fresh and foreign. Throw in the cacophony of herbs and spices brought to the city by the Pacific Rim immigrants, and you begin to get an idea of what's on the menu at L.A.'s forward-thinking restaurants.

Who are the kitchen gods of L.A.? For starters: Wolfgang Puck, Nobu Matsuhisa, Joaquim Splichal, John Sedlar, Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Mark Peel, Celestino Drago, and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (together known as the "Too Hot Tamales"). What's new? Dining alfresco in mostly smoke-free environments, the evolution of quality fusion fare, upscale Latin-influenced food, more and more chefs featuring "exotic" proteins like pork belly and beef cheeks, and a new wave of destination-dining at boutique and luxury hotels.

And if you're wondering about those A, B, and C ratings you see in the windows of our local eateries, they're the work of the County Public Health Department, which started rating the county's 34,000 food outlets in 1998. Food-selling establishments get inspected several times a year; more than 75% of them get an A, while only 3% get a C. But if you're worried about mouse poop in your pasta, check out www.lapublichealth.org/rating so you don't have any reservations about making your reservations.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.