The trouble with Sherman Oaks is that in terms of local history, Sherman Oaks is utterly dull. The story of what is considered Sherman Oaks today, however, is a fairly uncomfortable foray into classist thinking. For example, one might think that Van Nuys Middle School is located in Van Nuys because that just makes sense. Instead, it's in Sherman Oaks.
In 1991, outspoken residents of the well-to-do areas of Van Nuys decided that they were really residents of Sherman Oaks because they were writing that as their return address for years. The post office told them they were wrong. I imagine their monocles popped out with murmurings of "Well, I never." They successfully seceded. This prompted a mass jumping-of-ship in the area, as the borders of Sherman Oaks were redefined by the forces of the white upper middle class class homeowners in the area.
So, what does this mean for the culinary culture of the area? One would imagine that the upper crust would be treated to the finest au jus. However, take a drive down Ventura Boulevard and it's immediately evident that the local restaurants are overtaken by the corporate chains. Even the historic Galleria's face lift left it with a Cheesecake Factory and El Torito. The good news is, like every single neighborhood in Los Angeles County, if you keep looking and eating, you will find the spots that mean the most to the neighborhood. And for that, Sherman Oaks, we can't stay mad at you.
Nat's Early Bite: Listed in our 2010 guide to L.A.'s Top 10 Brunch Spots, Nat's is the diner with the heart of a household -- a very packed household where you're going to wait a while to get your chilaquilles or steak and eggs. It's the kind of place that makes muffins daily, sells homemade marmalade, and probably has the same specials since the day it opened.
Decked out in true L.A. style with the framed photos of famous diners (often just famous in their own minds), Nat's is a place where the owner will greet you by name by the second visit. What sets it apart is more than just familiarity and outstanding food. Located next door is "The Big Kid," a toy store filled with everything you loved as a child no matter what decade. That store shares an intercom with Nat's, allowing you to browse nostalgic magic until you're called to your table. 14115 Burbank Blvd, (818) 781-3040
Carnival: Failing to include a Lebanese restaurant in an article about iconic Sherman Oaks restaurants would be a crime, and I won't have that on my rap sheet. From the unremarkable faded exterior of this Middle Eastern restaurant, there would be low to no expectation that could match the inside of Carnival. Once inside, the walls have an unmatched display of murals, painted as a gift to the owners by an artist from Jordan, depicting historic Lebanon, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Venice. Chef and owner Afif Al-Hakim, whose first job was at a Brazilian restaurant in Lebanon named Carnival, opened the doors in 1984. He's been cooking their signature shawarmas ever since. With portions as generous as the Gates Foundation, a quick look at their Yelp reviews reveals a well-fed and loyal local falafel fan base. 4356 Woodman Ave, (818) 784-3469
Casa Vega: Ray Vega grew up in a restaurant family. He had chips and salsa in his blood. So, in 1958, he lit up the skyline with neon and claimed the corner of Ventura and Fulton as his own. To this day, the restaurant is run by the Vega family, and given that the Vega in charge has three sons and lives nearby, it's a fair assumption that they'll continue to be the mole destination of the Valley for a long time to come.
However, they're not stuck in the past. Ray's daughter keeps her eyes open to the changing attitudes of the area and updates her menus accordingly -- which is to say that they serve free-range chicken and don't cook with lard. That info will come in handy when you make their recipe for tortilla soup. 13301 Ventura Blvd, (818) 788-4868
Mogo Chinese Food & Mongolian BBQ: In the same giant shopping center as Gyu-Kaku, In-N-Out, and Pineapple Hill Saloon, Mogo is very easy to overlook. Mongolian barbecue had its real hey day in the 1990's and still manages to delight people who find themselves standing at the helm of a giant, circular grill watching a cook practically dance with their food.
It's actually a creation from Thailand, and the name is a nod to stories of Mongolian soldiers slicing meat thin with their swords and cooking it on their shields. But actual Mongolian food is high in fat with a strong Russian influence.
Mongolian barbecue is not hard to find across the country, and has become more of the food court or fast-casual variety of cuisine through the years. While Mogo's will certainly do take out and features a vast Chinese menu, the real experience is had when you dine in. With all you-can-eat trips to the buffet accompanied by dense sesame bread, won ton soup, and green tea ice cream, you could spend hours stuffing your face from your worn wicker chair. 4454 Van Nuys Blvd, (818) 783-6646
UPDATE: Unfortunaltey, Mogo's is now closed.
Corky's: "Make no mistake about it, you aren't going to be getting 'fine dining' at Corky's," boasts the restaurant's website. So you can put away the tuxedo on Corky's night. This local diner, banquet hall, and lounge has something you don't often find in Los Angeles -- a massive parking lot. Walk in through the back and you enter a bar with a life of its own, hosting comedy shows and live band karaoke.
If you get sick of the bar scene, just wander back to the safety of the dining area and enjoy a half chicken pressure fried with mashed potatoes and cole slaw. Corky's is there to appeal to the everyman, and their focus on keeping prices low means that working class Sherman Oaks has a place to enjoy family breakfasts and nights out. 5043 Van Nuys Blvd, (818) 788-5110
This list would not be complete without the following honorable mentions: La Frite, Marmalade, Antonio's Pizzeria, Midori Sushi, and Valley Inn