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Diners at the bar raise their cocktails for a cheers.
Not far from Cal State Long Beach, Selva is fit for a celebratory meal with plenty of seating and a menu that blends Colombian and Californian flavors.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Celebrate graduation or move-out day at the best restaurants near L.A.’s college campuses

Graduation season is upon Los Angeles. Parents and extended family members are traveling in for the occasion, while students are wrapping up finals and preparing to walk across the stage into a new, postgraduate phase of life.

This year, due to nationwide pro-Palestine protests on college campuses, some of those annual celebrations look a little different. Citing security concerns, USC canceled its mainstage commencement and held a smaller ceremony at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum last week; attendance was limited to graduates, their families and loved ones.

At UCLA, a pro-Palestine encampment was destroyed with more than 200 protesters arrested, though graduation ceremonies remain on schedule for June 13 through June 16. At other campuses across Southern California, campus life is marching on as usual, with some students heading home for the summer while others enter the “real world” of interviews and job hunting.

Dining options near college campuses usually are focused on convenience and affordability, such as the USC Village development that opened in 2017 with a Trader Joe’s and Starbucks below new student housing. Fine-dining options fit for a special occasion like commencement can be harder to come by.

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But in the neighborhoods just outside of L.A.’s college campuses, there are plenty of restaurants that affirm the city’s status as a global food capital and are fit for a celebratory meal. Whether you are visiting for college tours or helping a family member move in or out of the dorms, skip the student dining experience at least once for establishments that offer a rich glimpse into the city’s culinary world, from a classic deli near Cal State Northridge to Yucatán-influenced seafood near USC, Persian cuisine within walking distance from UCLA, Colombian comfort food convenient to Cal State Long Beach and more.

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Two stacked halves of a short rib grilled cheese in front of a Joan's on Third sign
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Joan's on Third near Cal State Northridge

Studio City Deli Bakery $$
The second location of Joan McNamara’s gourmet deli and mini market was once a post office. It now houses a coffee bar, deli, bakery and kitchen serving breakfast and lunch, plus grab-and-go and pantry items. Joan’s on Third touts a Chinese chicken salad with a cult following, and a satisfying tuna melt on chewy ciabatta bread. In the short rib grilled cheese sandwich, tender beef complements jammy caramelized pickled onions, tied together by a generous serving of melted Jack cheese. A slice of flourless chocolate roulade with whipped cream is a great way to end the meal. Joan’s is quiet on weekday afternoons and busy on weekend mornings. Parking is difficult on Sundays when the farmers market takes over Ventura Place. Allow time for your parking search.
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Tables at the entrance of Lum Ka Naad's cozy Northridge interior dining space.
(Sonja Stott / Los Angeles Times)

Lum Ka Naad near Cal State Northridge

Chatsworth Thai $
Around the corner from the CSUN campus, this cozy restaurant features a lengthy menu of Northern and Southern Thai specialties that reflects the upbringings of owners Alex and Ooi Sonbalee. If you feel overwhelmed by the massive menu (with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options), servers are happy to provide recommendations, such as the crispy fried pompano sprinkled with fried garlic flakes and served with a green garlic sauce. Or you can split a hearty portion of poh taek, a spicy seafood soup with shrimp, whitefish, scallops, squid and green mussels swimming in a silky broth brightly seasoned with basil, lemongrass and ginger. Lum Ka Naad takes reservations on weekdays and is busiest during lunchtime.
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Dishes from Selva: corn arepa, Colombian hot dog, Bandeja paisa, braised greens, smoked pollo, arroz chaufa, yucca fries
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Selva near Cal State Long Beach

Long Beach Colombian $$
With a menu inspired by Carlos Jurado’s trips back to his homeland of Colombia, Selva’s comfort-driven plates and smoky meat platters stun at brunch and dinner. A typical avocado toast is transformed into a sophisticated avo patacon. Smashed fried plantains are a foundation for helpings of beans, sofrito, avocado, pickled onion and a glistening fried egg. French toast features dollops of coconut whipped cream and a slathering of basil-blueberry jam, cut with the flavor of sweet-tart plantains. For dinner, servers recommended the mighty Selva Bandeja, a platter starring steak, Colombian sausage and chicharrón. Selva accepts reservations but walk-ins are welcome, as the dim, wood-trimmed dining room beyond the bar has plenty of tables and booths among hanging plants. The space is well set up for a celebration or a quick escape from the Long Beach campus.
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A man and a woman sit at a red banquette in a Cambodian restaurant with several plates of food on their table
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Sophy's near Cal State Long Beach

Long Beach Cambodian $$
The Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town enclave features a large dining room full of natural light and potted plants with plenty of space (and a large parking lot) to cram friends and family in for a special-occasion dinner. The menu is magazine-like in length, and highlights beef jerky as one of Sophy’s specialties. (Food columnist Jenn Harris agrees, comparing it to decadent Wagyu in her restaurant review.) Hefty logs of dried and fried flank steak arrive with vinegar sauce packed with pepper and garlic. A lovely marinated crust encapsulates a tender middle. For contrast, pair the jerky with ahmok, catfish curry steamed in coconut milk and thickened with egg. It quivers slightly when set on the table the way a mousse would, and if not cut with the slight spice of chile peppers the dish would take on an almost dessert-like quality.
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Fish filets on a plate with fresh onion rings and lime wedges
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Coni'Seafood near Loyola Marymount

Del Rey Mexican Seafood $$
Inside Coni’Seafood’s dining room with cement and raw wood walls, diners feel transported to the Nayarit coast, where owner Connie Cossio’s father, the restaurant’s founder, hailed from. At the second location of this mariscos-focused staple (find the original in Inglewood off Imperial Highway), appetizers are generously sized and tostaditos are smeared with smoky marlin p?té before getting heaped with shrimp and octopus. All the seafood is sourced from Sinaloa and Nayarit, and the freshness of this product is celebrated in every bite. Whether you’re visiting town to help your student with another grueling move or to watch them turn their tassel, a meal here will make your trip feel a little more like a vacation.
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interior of a restaurant with arched shelves holding bottles of liquor
(Emma Arends)

Superfine Playa near Loyola Marymount

Playa Vista Californian Italian $$
A trendy spot with plenty of seating for large parties, curated wine and cocktails, produce sourced from local farmers markets and validated garage parking, Superfine Playa is an easy pick for those near LMU. Steve and Dina Samson’s Cal-Italian osteria offers house-made pastas and brick-pressed and wood-fired meats for dinner, while brunch includes lemon ricotta pancakes and a Caprese omelet. For those seeking simplicity, smashburgers and fries are served all day.
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Olive oil walnut cake with pomegranate seeds on a green plate
(Jesse Cudworth )

Lulu near UCLA

Westwood Californian $$
Parents arriving from the East Bay will rejoice at restaurateur Alice Waters’ and cookbook author David Tanis’ Lulu, a perfect L.A. restaurant for out-of-towners and an easy 15-minute walk from UCLA. The farm-to-table menu is constantly changing with the seasons and sources food from local farms that practice regenerative organic agriculture. Reservations are recommended, but walks-ins are accessible for smaller groups. Three-course prix fixe menus for lunch and dinner are an easy solution, but there are really no wrong choices here. Sitting in the lantern-lit canopy of two elegant Chinese elm trees in the Hammer Museum’s courtyard, both the space and the food are an exhibit to enjoy. Grilled artichoke is deftly complemented with spring snap peas and manchego chips. Ricotta gnocchi takes on the pillowy chew of a homemade marshmallow alongside a generous serving of lacy morel mushrooms. Dessert could include a simple fruit crumble with whipped cream, lemon pound cake or a seasonal sorbet.
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A bowl of ash reshteh soup, grilled trout, yogurt with shallots, and yogurt with cucumber
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Taste of Tehran near UCLA

West Los Angeles Persian $$
A staple of Westwood’s Tehrangeles and a constant on The Times’ 101 Best Restaurants list, Saghar Fanisalek’s Taste of Tehran bursts with Persian flavors. Koobideh kebabs showcase juicy grilled and seasoned ground beef served with a heap of saffron rice and a blackened tomato that’s tender from the open flame grill. Stews alternate depending on the day; the fesenjoon is a fan favorite, the spiced sweetness of walnuts and molasses contrasting against tart pomegranate. Housed in a nook of Westwood Court, the walk from campus takes about 40 minutes and travels through a patch of Little Persia.
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A whole grilled fish with tortillas, tomatoes and other sides
(Dylan + Jeni / For The Times)

Holbox near USC

Historic South-Central Mexican $$
The Times’ 2023 Restaurant of the Year, Holbox offers an eight-course tasting menu for $120 per person on Thursday and Friday evenings at 6 and 8 p.m. But if you’re not in the mood to splurge, a strategic $25 affords entrees such as pulpo asado and mesquite-grilled branzino, in addition to ceviches, aguachiles, oysters and house tacos, including the signature smoked kanpachi. Snag a seat at the bar or a table within the Mercado La Paloma food hall to experience chef-owner Gilberto Cetina Jr.’s love letter to Mexico’s coastal flavors. Park in the Mercado lot or simply walk from your student’s dorm to experience this L.A. gem.
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Crustless ricotta cheesecake on a plate decorated with swirls of strawberry jam
(Sonja Stott / Los Angeles Times)

Maccheroni Republic near USC

Downtown L.A. Italian $$
In a small brick building with secluded outdoor seating and plenty of heat lamps, Maccheroni Republic sits in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. A nod from the Michelin Guide credits restaurateurs Antonio Tommasi and Jean-Louis de Mori for bringing to life a place that feels fancy but not stuffy while still delivering high-quality handmade pastas. A surprising number of gluten-free and vegan dishes makes this Italian restaurant a destination for diners with a variety of diet restrictions. Save the bread in your basket as a vehicle for appetizers such as burratina con crema di pomodori, dumpling-shaped cheese in a bed of pear-tomato chutney. Pair your starter with pastas including the rigatoni alla Norma with Khorasan pasta, delicate morsels of eggplant and pearls of fresh mozzarella. For dessert, try the crustless ricotta cheesecake that arrives on a plate decorated with swirls of strawberry jam. Maccheroni Republic offers $6 validation at the Broadway Spring Center Parking structure, but if you’re feeling adventurous (or didn’t rent a car), the Metro E Line delivers you directly to your destination in 25 minutes from the USC station.
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