36 Hours in Downtown Los Angeles
By CHRIS COLIN
THE sprawl, the scale, all that freeway time — for many, Los Angeles is an acquired taste. But not downtown. New York-like in its density and mishmash, the long-blighted center has become an accessible, pedestrian-friendly destination in recent years; Angelenos walk around en masse, using their actual legs. The immense L.A. Live entertainment complex is largely responsible for this comeback, but the studiously vintage bars and imaginative restaurants that seem to open every other day are also part of the revival. Skid Row and the drifts of homeless camps haven’t vanished altogether, and the grittiness still varies by block. But this part of town is alive again, in ways that make sense even to an outsider.
1) DO THE CRAWL
The Downtown Art Walk — a party-in-the-streets bonanza that draws thousands of revelers the second Thursday of every month — is one way to experience the area’s robust art scene. But you can do your own art walk anytime, and you should. Lured by low rents, a number of impressive galleries have found a home here, many of them on Chung King Road, a pedestrian alley strung with lanterns in Chinatown. For starters: The Box (977 Chung King Road; 213-625-1747; theboxla.com), Jancar Gallery (961 Chung King Road; 213-625-2522; jancargallery.com), Charlie James Gallery (975 Chung King Road; 213-687-0844; cjamesgallery.com) and Sabina Lee Gallery (971 Chung King Road; 213-620-9404; sabinaleegallery.com). The shows are intimate and occasionally provocative, featuring a broad array of contemporary artists: William Powhida, Orly Cogan and others. Most galleries stay open till 6 p.m.; Jancar closes at 5 on Fridays.
2) THE CITY AT ITS BRIGHTEST
Whether you’re catching a Lakers game, touring the Grammy Museum or attending a concert at the Nokia Theater, there is always something splashy to do at the 27-acre, $2.5 billion sports and entertainment behemoth that is L.A. Live (800 West Olympic Boulevard; 213-763-5483; lalive.com). Just strolling the Tokyo-ish Nokia Plaza — 20,000 square feet of LED signage — is diverting. An array of restaurants and bars is clustered at the periphery, but as with Times Square, many visitors just prefer to stroll around this giant pedestrian zone, trying to take it all in.
3) A LATE, GREAT BITE
Gorbals (501 South Spring Street; 213-488-3408; thegorbalsla.com) is one of the more fantastic — and odd — downtown dining options. The chef and owner, a previous “Top Chef” winner, is part-Scottish and part-Israeli, and his hybrid concoctions are terrific. My banh mi poutine merged Quebec and Vietnam in ways criminally neglected until now. Bacon-wrapped matzo balls, anyone? Small plates range from $6 to $16. The casual restaurant is tucked into the lobby of the old Alexandria Hotel, a well-worn but charming landmark where Bogart, Chaplin and Garbo once roamed the halls.
4) ON THE NICKEL
The maple bacon doughnut is a stand-out on the breakfast menu at the new but ageless Nickel Diner (524 South Main Street; 213-623-8301; nickeldiner.com). The rest is mostly well-executed diner food, about $7 to $10 per dish. What’s remarkable is the location — until recently, this block was one of Skid Row’s most notorious. It’s a testament to downtown’s revival that the intersection of Main and Fifth (hence “Nickel”) is now home to a place where people line up for tables.
5) NICE THREADS
The 100-block Fashion District mixes high and low seamlessly. Though many shops sell wholesale only, you can still find a wide selection of deeply discounted designer clothes, fabric and accessories. The jumbled shops and warehouses at Ninth and Los Angeles Streets are a good place to start (feel free to bargain). And don’t miss the rowdier Santee Alley (thesanteealley.com), where cheap meets weird in a thoroughly Los Angeles way. In this chaotic open-air bazaar, energetic vendors hawk the impressive (perfect knock-off handbags) and the odd (toy frogs emblazoned with gang insignias). For a more organized Fashion District expedition, Christine Silvestri of Urban Shopping Adventures (213-683-9715; urbanshoppingadventures.com) leads three-hour romps, tailored to your particular agenda and with an insider’s radar for the best finds; the tours cost $36 a person, with a minimum of two people.
6) ACCESSIBLE ARCHITECTURE
The arrival of the conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic has brought new crowds to the symphony, but the Walt Disney Concert Hall (111 South Grand Avenue; 323-850-2000; laphil.com) — Frank Gehry’s deconstructivist celebration of all that is big, curvy and shiny — deserves a visit even without a ticket. Bring a picnic and wind your way along the semi-hidden outer staircase up to an excellent city vista and rooftop garden oasis. Free guided tours and self-guided audio tours are available most days. Check first (musiccenter.org/visit/tours.html) for schedules.
7) LAZY BONES
Since 2010, Little Tokyo’s Lazy Ox Canteen (241 South San Pedro Street; 213-626-5299; lazyoxcanteen.com) has been the kind of tucked-away gastropub people love to insist is the city’s best. Casual and buzzing, the bistro’s long menu features adventurous delicacies, from trotters to crispy pig’s ears to lamb neck hash. It’s hard to pin the cuisine to a specific origin, but a penchant for bold, meat-centric comfort food is evident. Get several small plates, most $7 to $15 each.
8) PICK A SHOW, ANY SHOW
If you’re downtown for a performance, chances are it’s a sprawling affair at L.A. Live. But a handful of smaller settings offer funkier alternatives. The Redcat Theater (631 West Second Street; 213-237-2800; redcat.org) hosts all manner of experimental performances — a recent Saturday featured theater, dance, puppetry and live music from a Slovene-Latvian art collaboration. Club Mayan (1038 South Hill Street; 213-746-4287; clubmayan.com; $12 entry fee before 10:30, $20 after), an ornate old dance club most nights, occasionally hosts mad events like Lucha VaVoom, which combines burlesque and Mexican wrestling. And the Smell (247 South Main Street; thesmell.org; $5 most nights), a likably grimy, volunteer-run space, hosts very small bands circled by swaying teenagers.
9) DRINK AS IF IT’S ILLEGAL
Was Los Angeles a hoot during Prohibition? No need to guess, thanks to a slew of meticulously old-timey new bars that exploit the wonderful history of old Los Angeles. From upscale speakeasy (the Varnish; 118 East Sixth Street; 213-622-9999; thevarnishbar.com) to converted power plant-chic (the Edison; 108 West Second Street; 213-613-0000; edisondowntown.com) to an old bank vault (the Crocker Club; 453 South Spring Street; 213-239-9099; crockerclub.com), these spiffy places do set decoration as only Los Angeles can. And fussily delicious artisanal cocktails are as plentiful as you’d imagine, most in the $9 to $14 range. The well-scrubbed will also enjoy the swanky Seven Grand (515 West Seventh Street; 213-614-0737; sevengrand.la), while the well-scuffed may feel more at home at La Cita Bar (336 South Hill Street; 213-687-7111; lacitabar.com).
10) DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
The Bamboo Plaza isn’t as elegant as its name, but on the second floor of this run-down little Chinatown mall is the Empress Pavilion (988 North Hill Street, suite 201; 213-617-9898; empresspavilion.com), the dim sum mecca that’s lured Angelenos here since well before the downtown revival. The vast dining room holds all the appeal of a hotel conference room, but that only underscores the focus on the shrimp har gow, the pork buns and dozens of other specialties, generally $2 to $5 each. There will be crowds.
11) BIG ART
That rare breed who has gone from gallery owner to director of a significant art, Jeffrey Deitch has thrilled (and vexed) critics since taking over the esteemed Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Come see for yourself what he’s done with the place, and its renowned collection, including works by Rothko, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg. The museum is spread over three locations; downtown is the main one (250 South Grand Avenue; 213-626-6222; moca.org).
IF YOU GO
Rising from the L.A. Live wattage is a gleaming new two-hotel complex, at 900 West Olympic Boulevard, part JW Marriott (213-765-8600; lalive.com/stay/jwmarriott) and part Ritz-Carlton (213-743-8800; lalive.com/stay/ritzcarlton). The 878 rooms at the JW start at $189, the 123 rooms at the Ritz at $299, and even the most basic deliver a supreme pampering.
The 24th floor of the Ritz is also home to WP24, the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s take on modern Chinese cuisine.
It doesn’t gleam, but the Moroccan-themed Figueroa Hotel (939 South Figueroa Street; 213-627-8971; figueroahotel.com) reflects an equally appealing side of downtown. Every nook of the 86-year-old building features some warm and worn décor reminiscent of Casablanca, and hours can be passed at the tranquil outdoor pool and bar. Rooms start at $148.
Links of Interest
Places to Shop and Eat