What’s to Do in Downtown L.A.

Yes, Virginia…L.A. has a real downtown.

It’s got cool restaurants, wine bars, galleries, museums, theater, music and a handful of historic tours. It’s full of bustle, grime, fancy lofts, sadness and glory.

In other words, these days, it’s where you’ll find the city of Los Angeles.

When I first moved to L.A. back in 1993, “Downtown” was a scary place that no nice young woman still speaking to her parents ever went. Naturally, it’s where I found the best room rental deals in the classifieds.

I’ll never forget the water-stained studio apartment with the naked guy out front at the bus stop. At 2pm. Or then there was the ramshackle Craftsman on Traction (I swear, that was the street) in which fourteen people were running a commune in Miss Havisham‘s house, replete with 1912 plumbing.

The very next day, I found a listing on a UCLA bulletin board and by week’s end had a respectable room many, many miles away, in Westwood.

Downtown hadn’t always been so undesirable. It had long been home to the Convention Center; corporate offices in shiny skyscrapers; wholesale districts for jewelry, fashion and flowers; as well as several of the city’s greatest cultural offerings.

However, for several decades now, it’s also been the site of America’s largest Skid Row, where newly-released prisoners and uninsured mental patients are sent to wander aimlessly, build makeshift encampments and seek often inadequate assistance in building better lives for themselves.

The main hub of Skid Row is Los Angeles Street, which runs one ironic block parallel to Main Street, the heart of Downtown’s urban renewal. Further west from Skid Row is Little Tokyo, where some of the the area’s most expensive housing continues to rise. This juxtaposition of Have and Have Not isn’t unique to L.A., but it does illustrate a gritty/shiny sense of the city’s reality.

These days, that old water-stained apartment building I once fled has been replaced by a fancy loft co-op. That shabby house was knocked down long ago, and for a while, one of L.A.’s favorite restaurants stood nearby.  The city hasn’t yet reconciled how thousands of homeless people fit into this slow-moving wave of urban development, but whether or not anyone’s ready for it, Downtown is becoming pretty darn popular.

Here are just some of the things you’ll find to do in Downtown L.A.:

Restaurants
Blossom (426 S. Main Street) A cheap, delicious and cheery place for Vietnamese
Border Grill (445 S. Figueroa Street) Creative pan-Latin from two local celebrity chefs, this fun place features a hoppin’ outdoor patio and a shuttle to area performance venues
Bottega Louie (700 S. Grand Avenue) Deafeningly loud but fun, with a popular cocktail bar, huge dining room, and one of the city’s sexiest bakery/gourmet deli cases
Cicada (617 S. Olive Street) Glorious Art Deco decor on the ground floors of the historic Oviatt Building, the kind of place you’ll want to make an entrance

Church & State (1850 Industrial Street, #100) A friendly little southern French bistro with festival lights strung across the dining room
Empress Pavilion (988 N. Hill Street) The grande dame of Chinatown, grab any available table for traditional dim sum, then roll out onto Central Plaza
The Lazy Ox Canteen (241 S. San Pedro) A small plates, gastro-pubby kind of place, featuring ingredients that might stump even diehard foodies
Pete’s Cafe & Bar (400 S. Main Street) 1930s decor and a lively bar scene create a warm setting for comfort food (hello, short ribs) and a great wine list
Café Pinot (700 W. 5th Street) On warm evenings, sit outside in the courtyard beside the stunning Central Library and dine on fancy farmer’s market fare
R23 (923 E. 2nd Street) Special occasion dining in an art gallery/design-y setting that will stretch your sushi horizons
WP24 (24th floor of the Ritz-Carlton) Wolfgang Puck’s spin on Cal-Asian, amidst the sparkle of skyscrapers; drop a bundle on your anniversary or try small plates in the lounge
Wurstküche (800 E. 3rd Street) In case you won’t make it to Belgium this year, here you can both still indulge in a sausage, beer ‘n’ fries extravaganza

Bars
Broadway Bar (830 S. Broadway) Dress up a little and swan around this former movie palace with a handcrafted cocktail or two
Golden Gopher (417 W. 8th Street) On a still-seedy street, this friendly little joint features lamps with golden gophers, a tiny convenience store, great cocktails and a photo booth
Edison (108 W. 2nd Street, #101) Several floors deep in a former 1920s power station, this swanky place is fun for club-goers of all ages, with plenty of dim corners for canoodling
Gallery Bar at the Millennium Biltmore (506 S. Grand Avenue) Step back into the 1930s and cozy up to each other amidst a little warm, gilded elegance
Mignon (128 E. 6th Street) Belly up to this small rectangular bar full of Eastside hipsters to enjoy European wines and cheeses
Rooftop Bar at The Standard (550 S. Flower at 6th Street) Dip your toes in the pool or lounge in a trippy little vibrating waterbed pods, surrounded by Downtown’s tall buildings
Seven Grand (515 W. 7th Street) A nouveau billiards hall/hunting lodge that celebrates sartorial flourishes and amber liquors
The Varnish (118 E. 6th Street) Feels like a 1930s speakeasy, where some of L.A.’s best bartenders revive antique cocktail recipes; there’s a secret entrance though Cole’s next door

Galleries
Downtown Art Walk (2nd Thursday of each month) Downtown is home to some of the city’s most progressive galleries, and Art Walk is the best time to check them all out. Essentially a huge, multi-block street party, along Main Street you’ll find food trucks and an outdoor market selling local designers’ wares as a DJ spins.

Museums
The Gallery at REDCAT (W. 2nd & Hope Streets, beside the Disney Concert Hall – enter on 2nd)
Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 N. Central Avenue)
Japanese American National Museum (369 E. 1st Street)
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) (250 S. Grand Avenue)
Museum of Neon Art (136 W. 4th Street)

Performance Venues
The Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County (135 N. Grand Avenue) is comprised of four venues:

Ahmanson Theatre Big-ticket Broadway stage productions
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Opera, ballet and musicals
Mark Taper Forum Generally features Tony/Pulitzer Award winning plays
Walt Disney Concert Hall Home to the L.A. Philharmonic, this twisted-metal landmark hosts musicians and singers from around the world

And at the heart of the L.A. Live entertainment complex (800 W. Olympic Blvd.), you’ll find:

Nokia Theatre
STAPLES Center

 

Stuff That’s Been Around for Ages and is Still Cool
Angel’s Flight (351 S. Hill Street) Billed as “the shortest railway in the world”
Bradbury Building (304 S. Broadway) A Victorian gem, and the oldest still-in-use office building in the city
Central Library (630 W. 5th Street) A 1920s icon in the city, this astonishing building contains an amazing rare books section and a beautiful art gallery
Chinatown (centered along N. Broadway and N. Hill Street) Re-created in the 1930s by Hollywood set designers, be sure to visit the vintage Central Plaza
Clifton’s Cafeteria (648 S. Broadway) Around since 1931, a fun place to get a cheap, hearty, non-fussy meal surrounded by a kitschy Tiki/woodsy/waterfall fantasy
Grand Central Market (317 S. Broadway) Geared towards the local Latino community, you’ll find foods from Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba and more, in addition to fresh produce
Little Tokyo/Japanese Village Plaza (350 E. 1st Street) America’s first Japanese neighborhood fans out from a bustling plaza between E. 1st and 2nd Streets
Olvera Street (845 North Alameda Street) Originally created as a tourist attraction, this pedestrian lane still offers a mini-trip to Mexico, replete with paper flowers and street food
Union Station (800 N. Alameda Street) The city’s finest (and still humming) train station, this soaring Art Deco space features a unique, romantic restaurant/bar called Traxx

Downtown Tours to Take
Esotouric Bus adventures into the secret heart of Los Angeles
Little Tokyo Walking Tour A free, self-guided tour of the whole neighborhood
Los Angeles Conservancy Designed to highlight local preservation issues, offers screenings in Downtown’s old movie palaces and tours of the area.
The Undiscovered Chinatown Walking Tour (first Saturday of each month, $20 per person)

Getting There
Be warned, it’s not cheap to park. Expect to drop $3 an hour at a meter. It’s the same or more at public lots, but in this part of town where blocks are long and sometimes hilly, it’s advisable to pay once, walk away and avoid a ticket. Click here to find public parking lots in Downtown L.A.

Better yet, skip driving altogether and take the subway. Many L.A. neighborhoods are connected to Downtown via the Metro, where trains and stations are clean and adorned with amazing work by local artists. We’ve taken the train Downtown a couple of times now, and despite the need for good walking shoes, it couldn’t be easier. Here, check out the Metro site for yourselves.

See? You’re halfway there already.

 

Comments

  1. Great little recap! I agree, the city has changed TONS since I was a kid.

    Can’t believe you left out my most favorite place, Philippes, across from Union Station and not too far from Olvera Street or Chinatown! I go there to eat for my birthday every year and it’s always on my must list when friends come in from out of town.

  2. Oh, right — Philippe’s! Cole’s gets all the buzz now what with The Varnish next door…and it’s just unfair: http://www.philippes.com/

  3. Downtown L.A. has change quite a bit. There is still more changes needed, but some life is visible to Downtown after 6:00 P.M. Great post!

  4. Dear Melanie,
    Me and my husband will come to L.A. next week for vacation. Which hotel would you recommend? where should we go for sightseeing? I like your article very much. thank you,

  5. Meryem, hello — and thank you! This post includes many of the places I’d send you for sightseeing — and another one of my posts includes a few more, as well as most of the L.A. hotels I’d recommend:

    http://www.travelswithtwo.com/2012/10/03/museums-la-visit-los-angeles-museums-for-free/

  6. Downtown LA looks amazing! I really want to visit america at some point.

  7. Great post! I would like to add something else to the list!
    My husband (and dance partner) and I have opened a vintage swing era dance studio in downtown. It’s going to be on the 10th floor (beautiful views!) of the Santa Fe lofts. We have been traveling the world for the last 10 years teaching and now that we are married and expecting our first child, we decided to settle down 🙂 Check out details on our website: LindyLoft.com

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