City Life: Rediscovering downtown L.A.
Downtown Los Angeles: A once-deserted city center is coming to life again after years of neglect. Credit the revival to a boom in city living, lively new arts and entertainment venues and events such as the Art Walk that are drawing thousands of curious new visitors and locals back to what was the premier theater district and commercial hub in the early 1900s.
Seattle Times travel writer
If You Go
Downtown Los Angeles
Virgin America, Alaska and United Airlines fly nonstop between Seattle and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). There are also flights into Burbank, Long Beach and Orange County. Round trip fares are in the $200 range. Flight time is about 2.5 hours
The city of Los Angeles is huge, but there's no need for a car downtown. It's possible to walk most everywhere, or get around on the Metro subway, light rail or 35-cent Dash minibuses (www.ladottransit.com) that stop at major downtown tourist and business locations. See http://discoverlosangeles.com/getting-around/land/los-angeles-public-transit.html.
The FlyAway bus connects LAX with Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Fares are $7. See www.lawa.org/welcome_LAX.aspx?id=292.
Lots of downtown options, depending on your budget. For a touch of old-school class, look for last-minute specials at the Millennium Biltmore (www.millenniumhotels.com). A recent Internet sale advertised an April rate of $134, with taxes, for a standard double. Rates start at $176 with taxes at the nearby Standard Hotel, popular for its rooftop pool and open-air lounge (www.standardhotels.com). Close to Staples Center and the L.A. LIVE entertainment complex is the Moroccan-themed Figueroa Hotel (www.figueroahotel.com). Rates start at $168 including taxes. Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) has listings for rooms in private downtown condos and apartments.
The Edison, 108 W. Second St. Speakeasy atmosphere. Happy-hour drink and food specials Wednesday-Friday, 5-7 p.m. Live music, dress code. www.edisondowntown.com
The Nickel Diner, 524 S. Main St. Gourmet diner decorated with old signs advertising 10-cent soup and 15-cent baked beans. Known for its bacon-laced maple doughnuts. www.nickeldiner.com
Gorbals, 501 S. Spring St. in the Alexandria Hotel. "Top Chef" winner Ilan Hall creates dishes influenced by his Scottish-Israeli roots. www.thegorbalsla.com
Clifton's Cafeteria, 648 S. Broadway. Local institution since 1931. Cheap food, faux forest décor and a mix of low-income downtown residents, newcomers and tourists. www.cliftonscafeteria.com
What to do
• Get your bearings on a walking tour with the Los Angeles Conservancy. The group offers Saturday-morning guided walks covering historic downtown, the Broadway theater district, the modern skyline, Union Station and other destinations. Cost is $10 for nonmembers. Advance reservations required. Use discount code LAARTS11 for a two-for-one offer through April 30. Call 213-623-2489, or see www.laconservancy.org/tours.
• Even if you can't afford a ticket to see celebrity conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the L.A. Philharmonic, don't miss taking a free audio or guided tour of Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry who did the EMP in Seattle. See www.laphil.com/visit/tours.
• Explore the shops, art galleries, restaurants and cafes in Gallery Row along Main and Spring Streets. Sidewalks are jammed during the Downtown Art Walk, noon to 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month. The area is quieter other times. Most of what's of interest is along Main and Spring between Second and Ninth streets and the blocks in between. See www.downtownartwalk.com.
• Use the Dash buses to explore museums in different neighborhoods. Recommended is the Grammy Museum at the L.A. LIVE complex (www.grammymuseum.org); the free Motion Picture Costume Design exhibit (through April 30) at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in the wholesale fashion district (FIDMmuseum.org); and the two downtown branches of the Museum of Contemporary Art (www.moca.org), free on Thursday evenings. The Geffen Contemporary in Little Toyko is closed until April 17, when it reopens with "Art in the Streets," an exhibit on the history of graffiti and street art.
Contact the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, 866-733-6952, or see http://discoverlosangeles.com.
— Carol Pucci
Northwest Travel Guides
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LOS ANGELES — It's 5 p.m., and already there's a crowd gathered around the alley entrance to the Edison, a 1920s-styled speakeasy on the edge of what was once Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
An elegant, reservations-are-a-must lounge by night, the Edison nods to budget-conscious Angelenos on Thursday afternoons with a 35-cent happy-hour drink special in the refurbished, century-old power plant.
A hostess points the way to a flight of stairs leading to a basement boiler room furnished with sofas and antique tables scattered among hulking generators.
Silent movies flicker on two large screens as waiters dart about taking orders in the dim light. Tonight's special (one per customer) is the "Diablo," a tequila, lime juice and ginger-beer concoction that pairs well with the $5 Kobe beef slider and sweet-potato fries.
A few blocks away, gourmet food trucks, selling mac-and-cheese sandwiches and miniature whoopie pies, fill parking lots along Main Street for the monthly Art Walk.
Inside the newly expanded Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, a Hollywood winery pours chardonnay as people gather around a pile of chocolate-chip cookies stacked in the corner, wondering whether they're art or edible.
Welcome to downtown L.A., a once-deserted city center that's coming to life again after years of neglect. Credit the revival to a boom in city living, lively new arts and entertainment venues and events such as the Art Walk for drawing locals and visitors back to what was an elegant residential quarter and premier shopping and theater district in the early 1900s.
Grabbing attention are modern additions such as architect Frank Gehry's silvery Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic and its popular young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. But more awaits.
"Lofts for Lease" signs hang outside once-abandoned office buildings and hotels, beckoning to young urban dwellers more in tune to biking or walking to work than long freeway commutes from L.A.'s suburbs.
Their days are spent in the office towers on Bunker Hill, L.A.'s mansion district in the early 20th century, now a financial center and hub for the performing arts.
Open plazas, fountains and reflecting pools create a traffic-free pedestrian zone leading to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a landmark of swirling, stainless-steel opened in 2003. Benefactor Lillian Disney envisioned a "little brick church covered in vines." Visitors can judge Gehry's interpretation for themselves on a free, self-guided audio tour.
Weekends are for relaxing over breakfast at new coffee bars and diners in the historic center.
"It's the cutting edge of what's happening downtown right now," says Pam Taylor, a volunteer who leads downtown walking tours for the Los Angeles Conservancy.
"Lower downtown," as it's called, is reconnected once again to Bunker Hill by a one-minute, 25-cent ride on the orange and black Angels Flight, a funicular railway built in 1901 to carry residents to and from the shops and theaters, just two blocks away.
Angels Knoll, a park next door to Angels Flight, made famous in the 2009 film "(500) Days of Summer," will be weeded soon by a flock of goats brought in by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. In various stages of restoration are Beaux Arts and Art Deco-style former bank buildings, theaters and hotels, abandoned when people left downtown for the suburbs after World War II.
Starting with the opening of Staples Center sports arena in 1999, now part of the L.A. LIVE mega-sports/entertainment complex, the changes haven't been without controversy.
L.A. has one of the country's largest homeless populations. Pawn shops and discount stores along the former Broadway Avenue theater district cater to a low-income population of Mexicans and Salvadorans. Elaborate 1920s and '30s movie palaces, many with marble staircases and ornate balconies, sit idle, or are used for church services or reality-show tryouts.
But wander the streets during Art Walk, or on a Saturday morning when the locals gather on the terrace of CoffeeBar, the newest addition to the Spring Street indie coffee scene, and downtown starts to feel like parts of Manhattan or Seattle's Belltown, gritty in places, but safe, and alive with new energy.
Downtown hotel choices range from the high-rise Ritz Carlton and Marriott near Staples Center to the restored Biltmore, adorned with painted ceilings, murals and classic photos from Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s and 1940s.
Nearby, the Standard Hotel in the former Superior Oil headquarters building attracts a fashionable crowd to its rooftop bar carpeted with astro turf.
Working with a $100-a-night budget, I slept in style in the Grand Central Square apartments atop the Million Dollar Theatre, built for showman Sid Grauman (of Grauman's Chinese, the Hollywood Boulevard movie palace known for the concrete blocks bearing the footprints and handprints of stars).
While trolling through Airbnb.com, a global Internet network of accommodations offered by locals, I spotted a listing for "Urban Bed & Breakfast" and rented a sunny guest room with private bathroom from L.A. native Guillermo Ortiz.
Terra-cotta sculptures of bison heads and Texas longhorn skulls decorate the facade of the Grand Central Square apartments, testimony to the amount that reportedly was spent on the building.
Offices were converted into apartments. The theater, closed to the public for a decade, reopened in 2008 for live performances, film shoots and private parties. Next door, vintage neon signs welcome visitors to the Grand Central Market, a farmers' market since 1917.
"You have to search for places," Ortiz told me. "Things may not seem like much from the outside, but they're incredible inside."
Across the street was the Bradbury office building, built in 1893, and a stop on the L.A. Conservancy's walking tour.
The facade is plain-looking, but the interior reflects mining and real-estate millionaire Lewis Bradbury's vision of what a building might look like in the year 2000. Visitors are free to roam the sky-lit lobby, and admire the open cage elevators, marble stairs and iron railings.
When Ortiz recommended a restaurant inside the faded Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street, I was skeptical, given the seedy bar on the corner.
He remembers the Alexandria as a popular spot for quinceañera parties, the elaborate celebrations for Mexican girls turning 15. Today the hotel houses a mix of low-income tenants, loft-dwellers and a theater company that employs downtown residents as actors.
The surprise: Gorbals restaurant, hidden behind closed doors off a deserted lobby. The owner, "Top Chef" winner Ilan Hall, draws on his Scottish-Israeli roots to create tapas-style treats such as latkes with smoked applesauce and bacon-wrapped matzo balls.
Less chic and hardly minimalist is Clifton's Cafeteria on South Broadway, across from the State Theatre, now the Cathedral de la Fe, where Judy Garland performed in the 1930s.
Clifton's opened in 1931, looking much like it does today — a Disneyesque fantasy forest, decorated with fake trees, moose heads, waterfalls and a faux fireplace. Breakfast here costs less than a latte at CoffeeBar. But change is coming to Broadway, too, and to Clifton's.
The Clinton family, the owners for five generations, recently sold Clifton's to Andrew Meieran, owner of the Edison.
No word yet on 35-cent drink specials, but there are reports of plans for a tiki bar upstairs.
Carol Pucci: email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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