Downtown Los Angeles travel guide

Downtown Los Angeles is heading uptown as trailblazing bars and eateries bring new life to the central business district.

By George Epaminondas
At dusk the faded movie palaces on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles come alive in a beckoning neon display. A dozen historic theatres from the vaudeville era ornament the strip here, most of them now reserved for special events, film shoots or retail stores.
But on a recent summery evening a gaggle of patrons filed into the majestically restored United Artists Theatre for a screening of the cult horror classic, Leprechaun. Meanwhile, at the adjacent Ace Hotel, a raucous group of diners enjoyed oysters, hanger steaks and Negronis at brass-top tables that spilled out onto the street. More revellers thronged the hotel's sprawling rooftop lounge, drank newfangled cocktails at the nearby Broadway Bar adjoining The Orpheum Theatre, or indulged in the adventurous gastronomy of neighbouring restaurant Alma. It was, all in all, a high-spirited scene that evoked the age when downtown LA was a merrymaking hub.
Detractors have long maligned the city as a cluster of interminable suburbs in search of a metropolis, yet that wry observation is starting to ring hollow. An urban experiment is under way with the potential to dramatically alter the topography of the city - the renaissance of downtown LA, or DTLA as it's known. The rebirth of the city's central business district, frozen in time for decades, spans the revitalisation of landmark structures, the unveiling of new buildings, and the evolution of residential neighbourhoods; the area is currently home to 50,000 residents, five times as many as a decade ago. Though it's still a work in progress, change is in the air. Streets that once looked abandoned after business hours now hum with people. Slowly but surely, DTLA is becoming a confluence of art, architecture, design and food that's cosmopolitan enough to entice even the fussiest urbanite.
On the food front, blazing a trail are Alma's Ari Taymor, Orsa & Winston's Josef Centeno, and Bestia's Ori Menashe. It would be hard to name another restaurant in Los Angeles that has a two-month waiting list for a table, but such is Bestia's outsize appeal, with hordes of diners also vying to secure a coveted seat at the bar. While Menashe is opening a second restaurant this year, a Middle Eastern eatery that mines his Israeli heritage, Centeno already juggles multiple venues. Following the success of Bäco Mercat (famed for its wonderful flatbread sandwiches), Bar Amá (a crowd-pleasing Tex-Mex joint), and Orsa & Winston (specialising in inventive small plates), Centeno recently opened Ledlow, an appealing new bistro. Does he ever snooze? "Not restfully," he says.
Downtown's golden age was the early 1900s, when banks first appeared on South Spring Street, department stores prospered and ritzy hotels were opened, including the Biltmore, built in 1923, which still hosts guests. After World War II, as LA became known for suburban sprawl and endless freeways, the area fell into decline. The current revival kicked off early last decade and continues apace. The Broad museum, a contemporary art museum from philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, opens later this year, replete with a breathtaking design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Next year, Soho House, the members' club from London, will launch its second LA outpost in downtown's Arts District. In 2017, the Wilshire Grand Hotel will assume its lofty place as the tallest building on the West Coast. And local architect Frank Gehry, who conceived South Grand Avenue's Walt Disney Concert Hall with its famously undulating stainless steel exterior, is at work on another milestone project, a retail, hotel and residential complex.
Some observers have equated downtown Los Angeles to New York in the 1970s and '80s, in reference to its musty buildings, dusty discount stores and warehouses being adapted into galleries, artist's studios and living spaces. To be sure, a powerful transformative force electrifies the area: from the rag-trade ateliers of the Fashion District to the pagoda-style buildings of Chinatown; from Olvera Street's Mexican bazaar to high-end retailers such as Acne Studios and APC; from LA Live's billion-dollar entertainment complex to Skid Row, where thousands of homeless people still reside. It's this arresting clash of cultures that gives the district a sensibility all its own. Observing the transition from ghost town to vibrant downtown is part of the appeal, especially for visitors to LA who rarely venture beyond Hollywood.
Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles
Taking shape in the former United Artists Building, a seminal edifice dating back to 1927, the Ace is synonymous with urban renewal, architectural grandeur and zeitgeisty cool. After opening its ornate doors in early 2014, it has become a gateway to exploring the downtown resurgence. The lobby emits the pulsating energy of a movie set as inked-up, denim-clad scenesters convene. There's a Stumptown café at the entrance, and a top-notch restaurant, LA Chapter, to the right. The rooftop has a pool, DJs, live bands, cocktails and killer views. Be sure to peek inside the 1600-seat Spanish Gothic theatre next door for a glimpse of its glittering mirrored dome and murals depicting United Artists founders Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin in mythical poses. In contrast to the gilded theatre, the Ace's 166 hotel rooms and 16 suites have an almost Brutalist vibe, their exposed concrete walls and metal furnishings alleviated with colourful Pendleton blankets, digital radios and eccentric in-room treats like wasabi peanuts and taffy bars.
My cosy bolthole had a view of the hotel's "Jesus Saves" sign, a neon remnant of an earlier religious tenant. Certainly, god is in the details at the Ace: we loved the Moon Juice booth outside the hotel, the illustrations on the ground floor by local artists the Haas Brothers, and the exceptional service - the staff handle everything with missionary zeal. The Seattle-based hotel group is known for its sensitive restorations of properties in Palm Springs, New York and beyond but this hotel might be their most galvanising effort to date. It is effectively reshaping DTLA, as many businesses have sprung up around it. Rooms from $283; 929 South Broadway, +1 213 623 3233
The Line
The Line is anything but straight-laced. Situated in Koreatown, just five kilometres from downtown, it has a boisterous charm that echoes the multicultural vivacity of the neighbourhood. Occupying a mid-century high-rise from 1964, the hotel has been imaginatively retooled by fusing an industrial chic sensibility with whimsical design. Brightly hued window shades animate the exterior, quirky artworks enliven the interior walls, while a hive of azure-stained plywood booths furnish the buzzy lobby lounge. Most of the 388 rooms are small but infused with personality. Indian ottomans, red pendant lamps and chairs upholstered in Mexican blankets are among the quirky details. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer vistas of frenetic K-town as well as the Hollywood Hills. One of the hotel's biggest draws is the food, devised by LA chef Roy Choi. Choi, celebrated for his food trucks offering Korean tacos, oversees two stellar restaurants. Pot, in the rear of the lobby, serves novel twists on Korean hot-pots; try the Jamaal Wilkes pot, named for a famous basketball player, with tofu, shrimp and mussels. The Commissary, adjacent to the pool on the second floor, is a light-filled greenhouse with a focus on seasonal vegetables and fruit. The Line also boasts a rollicking nightclub and a late-night bakery serving Korean, Taiwanese and Mexican delicacies. With so much on offer it makes sense that the inn attracts an eclectic clientele, from gothic rockers to Korean flight attendants. At The Line it's all about the modern mix. Rooms from $281, 3515 Wilshire Bvd, +1 213 381 7411
The name means "beast" in Italian but here it could easily translate to "the best." Husband-and-wife team Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis have fashioned a sizzling destination restaurant devoted to rustic Italian fare, including house-made charcuterie, zesty pizze and exceptional pasta. Pan-roasted chicken gizzards, agnolotti with braised oxtail, and a chocolate budino tart were among the most commendable dishes on my visit. Reservations are essential, or arrive before 5pm for a spot at the bar. 2121 East 7th Pl, +1 213 514 5724
Orsa & Winston
It's remarkable what Josef Centeno can accomplish on one small plate with his sensational cooking, a mash-up of French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Californian influences. Served in the form of daily changing tasting menus of six, 10 or 20 courses, it's haute cuisine without a trace of haughtiness, served in a minimalist interior. Revelatory dishes include the satsuki rice with uni and ikura chowder, and sautéed okra with slivers of geoduck clam. 122 West 4th St, +1 213 687 0300
LA Chapter
The Ace Hotel tapped Jud Mongell and Ken Addington, the charismatic duo behind Five Leaves in Brooklyn, to bring to life this brasserie that hops at all hours. Brunch dishes such as avocado toast and ricotta pancakes have a distinctly Australian provenance (Mongell has worked at Bills in Sydney), but my favourite fare appeared at dinnertime. The watermelon and cucumber salad is creatively plated to resemble a watercolour chequerboard while the sea urchin chitarra is nothing short of sumptuous. People-watching is also a specialty of the house. 930 South Broadway, +1 213 235 9660
Faith & Flower
This ambitious newcomer is equipped with a super-long yellow banquette, mirrored walls, original artworks and a glittering chandelier the size of a blue whale that hovers above the raw bar. It's popular with the Zegna-suited types, who come for the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, yet you could just as easily stop by for oysters and Champagne, or a pot of tea and the outstanding cookie plate. Chief mixologist Michael Lay is a whiz with a shaker, and he also oversees the restaurant's elaborate absinthe program. 705 West 9th St, +1 213 239 0642
Grand Central Market
This extraordinary landmark has operated as a food emporium since 1917. It's filled to the rafters with vendors purveying organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, imported cheeses and Mexican spices. It's also a sure thing for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Highlights include the egg sandwiches at Eggslut; the hamburger at Belcampo Meat Co; the smoked salmon fish plate at Wexler's Deli; and an almond-macadamia milk cappuccino at G&B coffee. It's arguably the best cup of joe in LA. 317 South Broadway, +1 213 624 2378
Bäco Mercat
The signature dish at this lively lunch and dinner spot is a "bäco", a flatbread sandwich with various fillings (my pick is the el pesco with crisp prawns and Sriracha sauce), but the extensive menu includes an abundance of vegetable-based small plates. The latter offerings explain the other part of the name - mercat is Catalan for market. This influential restaurant, from Josef Centeno, kickstarted the commercial activity now unfolding on Main Street. 408 South Main St, +1 213 687 8808
At this unassuming 40-seater, Ari Taymor has announced himself as one of the most visionary chefs in the country - and he's only 29. Taymor's multilayered menus have the ability to challenge, inspire, delight and hypnotise. Standouts of the 10-course dinner include a dish of American wagyu with matsutake mushrooms and celeriac, which radiates with an autumnal beauty. The frozen duck liver with smoked maple is embellished with a hint of coffee granola, adding surprising crunch, while the sculptural chamomile semifreddo with liquorice ice-cream is a sublime ending to the meal. 952 South Broadway, +1 213 244 1422
Bar Amá
Tex-Mex cuisine is typically a low-brow affair - not in the skilled hands of Josef Centeno. His rendition includes elevated dishes such as fried zucchini flowers with queso fresco and honey, slow-roasted beef belly and mole eggplant with almonds and lime. Traditionalists can still order enchiladas, fajitas and addictive puffy tacos, a deep-fried dream of a tortilla with beef, chicken, prawns or chorizo. 118 West 4th St, +1 213 687 8002
The newest addition to the Centeno universe seeks to reinvent classic American fare, and it does so persuasively. Vegetable crudités, devilled eggs, Caesar salad and crab salad have rarely tasted so enticingly modern. The former diner has been ventilated with white tiles, dark woods and expansive windows. 400 South Main St, +1 213 687 7015
Church & State
Chef Tony Esnault, who worked with Alain Ducasse in a previous life, heads this French bistro which serves pristine takes on onion soup, moules frites and steak tartare. It occupies a former biscuit factory, built in 1925, and more than lives up to that delectable legacy. Church & State is a brilliant option for lunch or dinner. 1850 Industrial Street, +1 213 405 1434
The Springs
Raw food, organic juices, biodynamic wines, yoga and reiki are on the menu at this wellness centre and Zen sanctuary. It's a one-stop shop for yogis, vegans and juice junkies, of which there are plenty in LA. 608 Mateo St, +1 213 223 6226
The Varnish
This seductive speakeasy is in the back of a sandwich store famous for its French dips, hot baguettes served with jus for dipping. The bar features moody lighting, retro music and classic cocktails mixed by dapper barkeeps. Submit to the "bartender's choice" for one of their off-menu libations. 118 East 6th St, +1 213 622 9999
Broadway Bar
Opened in 2005, this convivial bar was recently remodelled with florid carpeting, leather banquettes and ornate chandeliers. Order an Orpheum, named for the landmark theatre next door and made with Bourbon, lemon, honey and bitters, and head upstairs to the balcony that overlooks Broadway. 830 South Broadway, +1 213 614 9909
This hip hybrid has been dubbed a "discobar" since it's both a serious watering hole (with an extensive cocktail menu) and a clamorous nightclub (with a glowing LED dancefloor). The tunes might be old-school, heavy on 1980s and '90s tracks, but the crowd is most definitely not. Enter through a backdoor in an alleyway and arrive early to avoid the queue. 819 South Flower St, +1 213 688 0888
Villains Tavern
At this baroque saloon, apothecary bottles line the walls, the vintage bar dates back to 19th-century New York, and the signature drinks are served in Mason jars. It's unapologetically divey, but that's precisely why it has a dedicated following among artists, musicians and assorted downtown hipsters. Blues, jazz and swing bands hit the patio stage almost every night of the week. 1356 Palmetto St, +1 213 613 0766
For staggering views of the city skyline, especially beguiling at sunset, make a beeline for this rooftop lounge. Located on the 16th floor of the Pershing Square Building, it's decorated with comfortable seating, cosy fire pits and tropical greenery. The French bistro on the floor below serves faithful versions of moules marinière and bouillabaisse, but few things trump the luminous vistas up top. 448 South Hill St, +1 213 802 1770
"Transparency" might be a watchword in the corporate world but at Stumptown it assumes another level. As clients order their espresso, cold brew or pour-over here, they peer through an expansive window into the café's roastery. Since opening here in late 2013, the vaunted Portland-based entity has been an instant (caffeine) hit with downtowners. 806 South Santa Fe Ave, +1 213 337 0936
Blue Bottle
This Oakland-based coffee roaster added almond milk to its repertoire for their first LA satellite - a wise move given the proliferating number of dairy-free Angelenos. Along with espresso and drip coffee, Blue Bottle is known for its New Orleans-style iced coffee, a cold brew enriched with roasted chicory and organic cane sugar. 582 Mateo St, +1 213 621 4194
Alchemy Works
At this airy, inviting store owners Raan and Lindsay Parton blend homewares, clothing, skincare and vintage pieces in a fresh way. The lauded retail space has multiple lives: it hosts events, exhibits artworks and contains a Warby Parker eyewear shop-in-shop, as well as a Blacktop Coffee outlet next door. Raan is also responsible for Apolis, a stylish menswear store. 826 East 3rd St, +1 323 487 1497
Acne Studios
When this fashion-forward Swedish brand was scouting for an LA flagship it jettisoned Rodeo Drive for Broadway's Eastern Columbia Building, an Art Deco gem from 1930. It's the perfect setting for its architectural designs, adventurous prints and angular jeans for men and women. A mushroom sculpture by Carsten Höller lends the store a hallucinogenic edge. 855 South Broadway, +1 213 243 0960
Please Do Not Enter
Intrepid French émigrés Nicolas Libert and Emmanuel Renoird opened this boutique last year with a mandate to showcase singular artists and designers. The store features Kobja's witty cane-toad purses, Arik Levy's eye-catching sculptures and Walter Van Beirendonck's menswear as well as other eclectic finds. "It's all the things we love - fashion, jewellery and art - in one place," says Libert. 523 West Sixth St, Suite 1229, +1 213 263 0037
Plaid backpacks, brass letter openers and marble necklaces make up some of the offerings at this contemporary design store founded by husband-and-wife pair Ted Vadakan and Angie Myung. What unites the disparate objects is the notion of "fun follows function" - everything is vivid and accessible. Poketo also has a small satellite store at The Line hotel. 820 East 3rd St, +1 213 537 0751
Shareen Vintage
Vintage curator Shareen Mitchell scours the country for one-of-a-kind clothes that line this enormous warehouse. The fashion repository has a dedicated following among celebrities, stylists and designers who use her pieces as references. Unlike some fanatical collectors, Mitchell is happy to repurpose antique clothes to imbue them with a modern edge. Since there are no changing rooms, it's women only. 1721 North Spring St, +1 323 276 6226
Iko Iko
Located on the northern edge of Chinatown, just alongside Shareen Vintage, this new store stocks edgy clothes, handmade furniture and intricate jewellery. Owners Kristin Dickson-Okuda and Shin Okuda curate pieces that are anything but expected, and everything is produced in small batches for design individualists. 1727 North Spring St, +1 323 719 1079
Ace Hotel, Los Angeles
Embodying a wide variety of styles, including Beaux Arts, Art Deco, Corporate International and Postmodern, downtown LA is a repository of outstanding architecture. The Bradbury Building (304 South Broadway) from 1893 still draws sightseers for its decorative ironwork, marble staircases and cage elevators. The marble-clad Union Station (800 North Alameda St) from 1939 is a pastiche of Deco, Spanish Revival, and Mission disciplines. Another notable structure is the Industrial District's Coca-Cola Bottling Plant (1334 South Central Ave), an example of Streamline Moderne, its long, flowing lines designed to invoke speed and motion. Rising from the Financial District are numerous glimmering behemoths composed of glass and steel. The jewel in the downtown crown is still the Eastern Columbia Building (849 South Broadway). The Art Deco marvel is sheathed in turquoise terracotta and arrayed with sunburst motifs, geometric shapes and gilt trims. For informative architectural tours, consult the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Art flourishes downtown
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA; 250 South Grand Ave) specialises in important works by Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Edward Ruscha and others. A satellite gallery in Little Tokyo, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 North Central Ave) focuses on more esoteric artists and populist themes. Gallery Row, which stretches along Main and Spring Streets between 2nd and 9th Streets, is studded with smaller, independent galleries, and hosts the Downtown Art Walk on the second Thursday of each month. Also worth a visit is Chung King Road in Chinatown, for its smattering of galleries, boutiques and stores selling Asian antiques. Internationally renowned gallery Hauser & Wirth is opening an LA branch in early 2016. And, of course, astounding murals abound, especially in the Arts District. "It's crazy how much downtown has changed," says local artist Marco Zamora, whose work has been exhibited globally. Zamora's captivating collages hold up a mirror to his surroundings, from the area's disenfranchised populace to detritus from the Flower District.