In the not-so-distant past, the streets of Downtown Los Angeles sat mostly vacant after the corporate class headed west for the day. The scene felt more like an abandoned movie set than a go-to destination. Amenities for travelers were few — especially when beaches and cobblestone streets lined with high-end boutiques constantly called them to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. But in a breath, nationally acclaimed restaurants run by rising-star chefs have surfaced in the once-desolate area, along with hip hangouts, award-winning arts and culture, and a thriving cocktail scene. When visiting the City of Angels these days, here are five things you need to know about the newly revived downtown L.A. area.
Tasting Tour And Menus
Downtown’s restaurant scene is brimming with upscale offerings, and the best way to experience it is through one of many tasting menus around the city. Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Patina pioneered modern fine dining in downtown. Its clean, modern décor is matched only by satisfying cuisine created by executive chef Charles Olalia. Tasting menus here pique any palate. Selections such as a layer cake of big eye tuna (stacked tuna with avocado dressed with a ponzu vinaigrette) and Millbrook Farms venison loin served with butternut squash and vegetable forestière dot the traditional tasting menu, while additional menus inspired by vegetarian, gluten-free and Paleo diets are also offered.
Newer to the downtown dining scene are the tasting menus at a few other establishments. At Alma, for instance, 2014 James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee Ari Taymor incorporates meticulously forged and hyper-local ingredients into the two tasting menus — a five-course menu with vegetarian options, and a longer chef’s menu — he offers nightly in an inconspicuous spot across the street from downtown’s new Ace Hotel. Feast on eclectic selections such as smoked ocean trout with turnips topped with roe; and English muffin with uni, burrata, caviar, and licorice herbs.
James Beard nominee for Best Chef: West, Josef Centeno, continues to raise the bar on downtown dining with his third restaurant, Orsa & Winston. (Centeno’s nomination was for his efforts with Bäco Mercat.) The intimate dining room is crowned with an open kitchen where, on many nights, foodies can observe Centeno carefully tweezing out elements onto plates. While it’s possible to order à la carte, the tasting menu — four-, five-, eight-course or a “super-omakase” that requires three-day advanced notice — is where Centeno’s creativity shines through in ocean trout crudo served atop crème fraîche with pickled rhubarb and pomelo; Satsuki rice with seared diver scallop and sublime San Diego uni; and hand-torn pasta with carrot sofrito, spigarello and braised beef cheeks or Maine lobster.
It’s easy to pick out the sweeping stainless-steel curves of downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The notability of the iconic façade is matched only by the stellar acoustics inside the Frank Gehry-designed structure. Home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic from fall through spring, the hall shines with contemporary and classical programming lead by artistic director Gustavo Dudamel. The building is just one venue that makes up the Los Angeles Music Center campus, which is additionally comprised of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum—landmarks that are home to arts groups such as the L.A. Opera, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center, and the world-class theater and musicals from the Center Theatre Group.
There is no shortage of top Italian cuisine in downtown Los Angeles. One of the godfathers of the movement is chef Celestino Drago, who presents classics with a contemporary twist at Drago Centro, a restaurant located in an expansive, stylish setting that was once the vault of City National Bank. It’s a given that the handmade pastas and sauces are the stars here, but Drago also offers a unique selection of dishes celebrating wild game. Peruse the menu for creations such as rabbit ravioli with baby artichokes, shaved carrots and rosemary bread crumbs; pappardelle with roasted pheasant and morel mushrooms; and duck breast with polenta, Brussels sprouts and brown butter fonduta.
Trade the traditional for the industrial at Bestia and The Factory Kitchen. At Bestia, husband and wife team chef Ori Menashe and pastry chef Genevieve Gergis serve a menu that lives up to the restaurant’s name, which translates to “Beast” in Italian. The chef’s selection of house-cured meats is only the start of the wild times. Also indulge in pan-roasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and aged capra sarda; ricotta cavatelli with house-made pork sausage topped with black truffles and grana padano cheese; and the “Coffee & Donuts” spiced chestnut zeppole (think of it like an Italian doughnut) served with whipped cream and coffee ice cream, which was recently put back on the menu after fans of the dish rallied the kitchen.
At the same time, Trattoria-style The Factory Kitchen is drawing crowds from all over Los Angeles to its unassuming location in downtown’s Arts District. The menu of house-made pastas, focaccinas and meat entrées changes frequently, depending on what’s fresh and available, but staples that are not to be missed include mandilli di seta (pillowy handkerchief pasta covered in ligurian almond basil pesto) and gnocchi malfatti (gnocchi made from ricotta and semolina tossed with wind boar ragù).
Carefully Crafted Cocktails
Within the last few years, L.A. imbibers have traded in their rum and cokes for more curated and crafted cocktail choices. Bar Jackalope’s intimate space in the back of Seven Grand whiskey bar seats 18 people and offers more than 120 varieties of whiskey, from American bourbons to Japanese varieties. Aim high with tastes of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, or Old Forester Birthday Bourbon; or order Bar Jackalope’s signature Highball made with Japanese whiskey mixed with soda water on draft. Cocktails and music collide on top of a lit-up dance floor at Honeycut. The venue is divided into two distinct spaces: A cocktail bar and disco. On the cocktail side, find a billiards table, booths and an upright piano. The bar offers more than 50 carefully crafted cocktails such as the Argonaut with pisco, Aperol, grappa, strawberry, lime and seltzer. The disco end has a more focused cocktail menu and also offers live music performances and DJs that lure you onto the LED-enhanced dance floor. And if that weren’t enough, behind a secret door in the back of Cole’s restaurant you’ll find The Varnish, the nationally recognized speakeasy where you can sample expertly created seasonal drinks such as the Jersey Buck (rye, apple brandy, allspice dram and ginger beer), or go for the Bartender’s Choice and have one of the bar’s deftly equipped mixologists concoct a potion using the liquor of your choosing.
L.A. On Display
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is the only museum in the city dedicated exclusively to art produced since 1940. The contemporary attraction is situated on two campuses in downtown Los Angeles — MOCA Grand Avenue and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA — and another in West Hollywood, MOCA Pacific Design Center. View the permanent collection downtown that includes more than 6,800 works by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg. L.A.’s independent visual art offerings culminate in the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk, a monthly self-guided event that spans more than 50 galleries in the city’s historic core. Galleries stay open late, restaurants jump in on the action (such as the local farm-driven Artisan House) and around 25,000 visitors reap the benefits every second Thursday of the month.
Photos Courtesy of Wutzwhat Photography, Federico Zignani and Seven Grand