Once upon a time, when I was just a burgeoning screenwriter, I spent an inordinate amount of time crafting wonderlands populated with neurotic, conflicted characters.
For my characters, part of their crises of consciousness was coming to grips with the cities in which they lived, cities that just as frequently had no idea what they were – much like modern-day Downtown Los Angeles. I’ve long had an affinity for LA, precisely because the city has never been sure what it wanted to be.
The beach has always belonged to Santa Monica, the surf to Malibu, while all the best parties happen in the Hills. West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip lay claim to the arcane and the unusual, while the rapidly gentrifying Eastside has hipness to spare. Beverly Hills has plenty of “look at me” flair, while even South Central sees its fair share of intrepid travellers these days.
With so much to see and do in and around the city, its no real wonder Downtown has had trouble carving a niche of its own. But some time in the last decade, Downtown got sick of being overlooked and decided to use its old bones to
Once-forgotten Art Deco masterpieces are now home to world-class museums and art galleries; chic hotels, upmarket restaurants and trendy cafes court the creative crowd; funky bookshops share rarefied space with experimental breweries; and Frank Gehry’s gob-smacking Concert Hall (built with steamboats full of Mickey Mouse’s money) remains every bit as impressive as the day it went up. The word on the street is that Downtown has found itself by revelling in non-identity. But that’s just the rumour; I needed to see for myself what sort of mischief the new Downtown inspires.
City of letters
Part of the new Downtown is very old-school. The Last Bookstore – a prophetic name if there ever was one – has occupied two floors of the Crocker-Citizens National Bank Building since 2011, when owner Josh Spencer moved his ever-growing collection of tomes from a smaller location to the historic 1490-square-metre space it now occupies.
Since Josh stacked it (one shelf after the other), they have come (they are bibliophiles, and they are legion). The Last Bookstore is something of a wonder; the ground floor is filled with row upon row of new and used books, while upstairs, through a tunnel of literary love made from timeworn novels, some 100,000 books lay in repose.
When I wasn’t distracted by the amusing art installations (mostly made from old books), I spent considerable time stocking my own coffers, coming away with three Douglas Coupland novels, two surf magazines from the 1980s, a black-and-white guide to colour photography, and a pristine copy of The Art of Beekeeping. Total damage to my wallet was $7.
I stopped an elderly lady from overpaying for a copy of Dan Brown’s Inferno in lieu of In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, then crashed a poetry jamboree put on by the good folks at Red Hen Press. Somewhere in there, time slipped away and I began running the risk of spending my entire day and night in the bookstore. In fact, during the public phenomenon known as The Downtown Art Walk (second Thursday of the month, downtownartwalk.org), it’s nearly impossible to get anyone out of The Last Bookstore, as it has become something like the beating heart of the historic centre.
I missed the Art Walk by a few days, so I settled for a wander through the recently renovated Spring Street Park, a space tucked in among the city’s architectural treats. A guy with a silver chain connecting the piercings in his eyebrow and lip took a seat on the bench opposite mine and asked if I was learning anything from my beekeeping book.
A former apiarist from some place in the South, my new friend was stung by LA’s electric buzz while visiting a few years back and never returned home. He’s made a living as a musician ever since and moved from West Hollywood to Downtown about a year ago when “the place started to get it together”. I didn’t have time to ask what he meant by that before he asked me if I was interested in the Pie Hole. It just so happened that I was interested. Very interested.
Every great neighbourhood, reimagined, reinvigorated or otherwise, needs a Pie Hole, and that Pie Hole needs to be open past 11pm. My new friend encouraged me to buy a slice of Earl Grey pie while he snacked on a wedge of Angel City Steak and Ale, “a prelude to a night of pints,” he called it, while we waxed lyrical over the allure of The Arts District – its residents, its restaurants, its renovations – with shot after shot of Dark Arts Espresso. We whiled away the evening until a creative writing student started glancing at my notebook with lust in his eyes, so we packed up my literary loot and zipped across the street to Little Tokyo, into the depths of the Honda Plaza, and up to the bar at Men Oh Tokushima Ramen for a bowl of the shop’s signature porky goodness. We promised one another that we would return in the daylight to tour the Japanese American National Museum – long one of LA’s most important cultural touchstones – and the James Irvine Japanese Garden.
Because you can never have too much of a good thing, we walked to Wurstküche for exotic sausages, pommes frites and towering pints of bier – not beer – and made fast friends with all the Germans sharing our endlessly long table. I ordered the Rattlesnake and Rabbit sausage with sauerkraut and jalapenos, and when it didn’t bite back I celebrated with the Bacon and Duck.
We had a quick tipple at Angel City Brewery, where I sampled White Nite golden stout, while my friend was content to sip his Angeleno IPA and snack on Tater Tots from the food truck parked out front. By LA standards the pints, at around US$6, are a steal. We gathered a few folks at our picnic table for a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity (a party game), which served to quickly and awkwardly end my new friendship, though that’s all I’m willing to say about that.
Shop till you drop
You may think me strange, but I’ve long avoided shopping in LA. I’ve never seen the point in overpaying for threads I’m not sure are ever going to be in style. But then again, I had never scoured for swag at Guerilla Atelier, a former pop-up that had such a strong following the owners decided to make things more permanent with a shop on East 3rd Street.
The boutique features couture from designers such as Annelore, Finamore, and Melissa McClure, and art installations from Sandeep Mukherjee, which makes Guerilla Atelier feel more like an underground design collective than
a shop, which is ace in my book.
On the subject of aces, the new Ace Hotel is reason enough to skip the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood sign and kick your feet up next to the rooftop pool. The hotel, housed in the refitted United Artists building, stays true to the Theater District’s Art Deco style, but has worked in simple touches of LA minimalism.
LA Chapter, Ace’s funky restaurant, is one of the finest new foodie venues in the city. I didn’t have to wait two months to get a table, which is brilliant considering how often I felt the urge to pop in for the strangely wonderful Lamb Pho Dip, followed by a drink at bar Upstairs under the twinkling LA lights. I even found time to poke my head inside the restored United Artists Theatre and decided I’d make it the setting of my next poorly received novella.
History and culture have always been woven into the fabric of the Downtown core, but it wasn’t until recently that the city embraced its eclectic roots and realised it could be a little something for everyone. Downtown has become an essential stop for visitors looking for a glimpse of LA life and just the place to come if you’re after inspiration.
Things to do in Los Angeles
Downtown’s shiny fusion of old and new is a visitor’s dream come true; the draws of the rejuvenated neighbourhood are so many that you may never even make it out to the beach and you won’t miss a beat when you skip Hollywood. Plot these five additional points on your itinerary.
WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL
This is undoubtedly Downtown’s architectural diamond and one of legendary architect Frank Gehry’s crown jewels.
Even if you’re not in town for the theatre, take the excellent self-guided tour (narrated by the always-quirky John Lithgow) and stick around to watch the building shimmer under the early evening light.
111 S Grand Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles. laphil.com
HANDSOME COFFEE ROASTERS
A cuppa at Handsome Coffee isn’t cheap, but what you’re paying for here is top-quality beans and tremendous roasting craft. The shop has a relaxed vibe – worth noting, considering the high-test java – and makes a great base for an afternoon of people peeping, one of the most enjoyable ways to spend a day in LA.
582 Mateo Street, Downtown, Los Angeles. handsomecoffee.com
GRAND CENTRAL MARKET
The famed Euro food hall has been in continuous operation since 1917, and always offers something
new to see and something fresh to eat. The Mexican food stalls get most praise, though new additions Eggslut, Sticky Rice, Horse Thief BBQ, and Valeria’s deserve more than a look. They’ve made the Grand Central a top-tier lunch destination for gastro swashbucklers.
317 S Broadway, Downtown, Los Angeles. grandcentralmarket.com
EL PUEBLO DE LOS ANGELES HISTORICAL MONUMENT
The Mexican street market, curio shops, food trucks, street musicians and bars draw thousands of visitors to Olvera Street every week, though they often overlook the Avila Adobe, the oldest building in Los Angeles, built in 1818. Soak in the culture while you wander this historic neighbourhood with a cup of fresh ceviche in hand. Olvera Street and its historic buildings is just across from Union Station, another grand historic architectural marvel that’s well worth a look.
125 Paseo de la Plaza, Los Angeles. elpueblo.lacity.org
If you’re the type who needs to have your jeans tailored – and who isn’t these days? – pop into Acne Studios, an ultra-glam shopaholic’s dreamscape where the slick clothing designs are only matched by the groovy layout of the shop. Yes, the name is atrocious, but thankfully the clothing makes more sense; the collection includes hip knitwear for men, chic dresses for women and a slick in-house ’zine that’s worth a glance.
855 S Broadway, Downtown, Los Angeles. acnestudios.com
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