Life

If You Only Explore One City Center This Summer, Make It Downtown L.A.

Was there ever a city that contained more multitudes than Los Angeles? Writing a city guide would be a joke — it’s bigger than many European nations. Here is the one place where the travel writer’s favorite cliché “a land full of contradictions” actually might hold water. This year, we’re going to try to tackle LA, but not all at once. We’re going to parcel it out over the course of months. By the time we’re done the whole place probably will have completely changed again and we’ll have to start over. That’s fitting. There’s always been something particularly Sisyphean about the City of Angels.

We’re going to start in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA), with Uproxx’s music editor Caitlin White and food & travel editor Steve Bramucci waxing philosophic about their favorite spots as if they were JGL and Zooey Deschanel sitting on the bench at Angel’s Knoll in 500 Days of Summer.

Caitlin: Back in the early 2000s, when I last lived in Los Angeles before a stretch in NYC, Downtown LA was not really a place anybody I knew wanted to be going. Yes, there was the Staples Center, but even that was still being accepted into the neighborhood at the time. It had barely been open for a decade. They were just breaking ground on LA Live right around the time I moved here, and the main sentiments I remember hearing about Downtown LA was that it was either dangerous or boring.

Turns out, five or six years can make a huge difference in a city’s lifespan.

Steve: I remember those days! I wrote a travel article about DTLA in 2010 that kind of took off and I realized, “Oh, this is about to be a thing.” LA Live was thriving and 213 Hospitality had just opened all of their famous speakeasies in the area. Caña, a private rum club, was brand new.

I remember visiting a few times over the span of months and just thinking, “There’s food, art, bars, partying… this place has a scene.”

Caitlin: A scene and a buzz! Now that I’m back, Downtown LA feels like the spot 20-somethings go to relax, go out, and explore.

It’s also my pick for an escape without going far. You can ditch Venice or Echo Park for a weekend in DTLA, hanging out in the sleek, walkable neighborhood for the weekend. You feel like you’re really traveling and it won’t break the bank. Plus the hotels all have pools if you get homebody syndrome. Street food, brand new bars, fancy Italian, museums and sports all lie within blocks of each other. How do you beat that?

Steve: When downtown (and really all of Los Angeles) took off for me was in 2012, when I finally started reading Raymond Chandler — the famous father of noir. If you’re one of those people who says, “I just don’t get LA” his work will help change your mind. You realize that it really is a city that was built in the 30s and 40s. There’s more history than people realize.

Downtown Los Angeles is big and brawling and schizophrenic, so we’re bringing you a big, brawling schizophrenic guide to the city. Brought to you by both of us. -CW & SB

STAY

Courtyard Marriott — 901 West Olympic Boulevard

If you’re planning to attend an event at LA Live, or a need a hotel that’s central to downtown, affordable, and still feels luxurious, then the Courtyard Marriott is for you. It’s literally steps from LA Live and the Staples Center, and close to a host of other bars, restaurants, museums and stores. It hits the sweet spot of a business-casual, upscale hotel that doesn’t break the bank. The ceilings are high and the decor is all glass and steel, new vibrant colors and good, clear light; it feels like a fancy place to be in, but you never get the feeling of snobbery that some nice hotels carry in the air.

There’s something welcoming and familiar about the large lobby and central location, but the rooms are completely quiet and private, like you’ve been whisked away to another city even if you’re just a few miles from home. If you are far from your own home, the beds will make you believe you’re on a new and improved planet. For those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to explore the city, there’s a gorgeous outdoor pool complete with cabanas, a bar inside the hotel, and of course, room service. -CW

The Millennium Biltmore — 506 S Grand

That lobby tho. This is the ultimate vintage hotel property in DTLA, though it’s now owned/managed by Millennium Hotel Group, so you get your amenities.

A quick history run down:

  • The Oscars were held (and founded, and dreamed up) here.
  • It’s where JFK accepted the democratic nom in 1960.
  • The Beatles stayed in the penthouse and the crowds were so unrelenting that they had to access their suite via helicopter.
  • It’s a designated historic building.
  • Plus Chinatown, Mad Men, Ocean’s 11, and… literally everything (Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” vid! Fight Club!) was filmed on site. There are whole websites about it.

If you want your DTLA with a dose of history, artistic frescoes, and plenty of luxury, this is the place to be. -SB

The Milner Hotel Downtown Los Angeles — 813 Flower Street

This is a much smaller hotel than many in the area, at just twelve stories it’s a cozy and quaint option for those who want more of a hostel feeling. This is one of the most affordable hotels in downtown LA — which is great if you’re on a budget, and it’ll definitely do in a pinch — but make sure to go into the experience expecting it to be such.

There is parking, wifi, continental breakfast, hair dryers and toiletries, and a built-in bar, The Back Door Pub, which is another downtown staple. The pub is exactly what people mean when the say “hole in the wall” and you have to enter through a nearby alley to get into the divey bar. Once you find your way in, and notice that everyone there is a regular, you’ll get the appeal. -CW

The LA Hotel Downtown — 333 S Figueroa Street

It’s all there in the name — this hotel profits directly off the fact that it embodies downtown LA, and with a location on Figueroa and 3rd street, it really couldn’t be more central. Though it’s been in place for a while, the hotel was recently renovated, something that’s reflected in the gorgeous walls of windows, and tasteful, sleek design in the rooms. With an open floor lobby, entering the hotel is like stepping into a mini ecosystem, and the full restaurant Ziran and in-house cocktail spot Bar9 help create an atmosphere that’s friendly, welcoming and convenient. When it does come time to venture out, you’re only a matter of blocks from any of the bars, entertainment and restaurants that are listed below as some of the highlights of downtown. -CW

View this post on Instagram

#losangeles 🌴🌊

A post shared by Michael Duarte (@miichaeldp) on

The Standard — 550 S Flower St

The Standard in DTLA is famous as: Place where lots of people have had sex latenight in the rooftop pool. Or on the pool deck. Or on the daybeds. Or in the elevator.

Point being: It’s an incredibly sexy hotel that’s still shockingly affordable. It’s vintage, it’s hipster, it’s throwback, but none of those things feel cliché. Instead, the burger pop up Smorgasburg and the eclectic biergarten feel like places you want to hang. Before or after sex. Probably both.

Besides all the rooftop parties, the Standard also hosts ping pong night (again: the fun factor beat the “hipster trope” factor). Go hit them with topspin… if you can tear yourself out of your sleek-ass room. -SB

https://www.instagram.com/p/BU-5SsZgz7i/?taken-at=1196689

Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles — 929 South Broadway

Ace Hotel has expanded from its initial base in Portland, Oregon (where we’re both from, so shouts out) to a number of major cities across the country, including New York, New Orleans, a soon-to-be-opened Chicago location, and of course, Los Angeles. Fun fact: There is also an Ace located out in Palm Springs that’s a divine place to stop in if you’re out in the desert — the pool and bar are phenomenal.

Anyway, Ace is known for its utterly trendy design and atmosphere, attracting some of the most posh and celebrated cultural figures to stay and partner with the brand. This is a luxury, boutique hotel in every sense, so expect price to be on that level, but know that your accommodation will be as well. Plenty of people head up to the Ace rooftop bar on the weekend just to hang out, so the crowd there is always popping, and the hotel also boasts its own a beautiful old theater, located right next to the hotel. If you’re planning to see a show, splurging on a room for the night is a nice way to make the experience even more special. -CW

EAT

Clifton’s648 South Broadway

If you’re looking for a place that epitomizes the spirit of old downtown LA, look no further than Clifton’s — this place is practically right out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and that’s how they’d like it to stay. Within the Clifton’s complex there are multiple experiences available: There’s the cafeteria, the Monarch Bar, the Old Mill, the Gothic Bar, and the Ballroom. Recently, they added a full Tiki bar called Pacific Seas, that is one of the best iterations of the bespoke cocktail trend in all of Los Angeles. Built back in 1935 by Clifford Clinton, the multi-level, wooded lodge building was based off Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It includes waterfalls, murals and indoor trees, and is one of the oldest original buildings still standing downtown. For those who would like a taste of LA’s golden age, brought straight into the 21th century, there’s no better place. Dress up — you won’t regret it. -CW

Bottega Louie — 700 S Grand

Bottega Louie is big and noisy and decadent — just how you’d imagine grand restaurants from the 1950s. It’s filled with little midcentury-meets-old-Rome design touches and the coveted corner booths are just shadowy enough to hide celebrities and mobsters.

The restaurant markets itself around its colorful macarons, and they are good, but the pizzas that come out of the massive kitchen are even better. The pastas are also superb. It’s great Italian food with few twists, just smart, upscale, and well executed. Go expecting noise and chaos, the pizzas will make it all worth the trouble. -SB

Cole’s — 118 E 6th St

As if inventing the French Dip sandwich wasn’t enough of a claim to fame, Cole’s also has delicious cocktails, a cozy, old-world feel, and an outdoor patio where you can sip and chat late into the night. Even older than Clifton’s, Cole’s has been open since 1908 and is the oldest public house in LA. When Henry Cole opened it, the building where it’s located was part of the Pacific Electric railway network, a massive system which helped redefine the entire west coast.

In 1974, the bar was marked as a historical landmark in the city of Los Angeles, and in in 2008 it was bought by the aforementioned 213 hospitality group — who are a major force in downtown’s revitalization — and reopened after a $1.6 million dollar renovation. So, the Red Car Bar is a living, breathing monument to the way LA once was, the perfect mix of relaxed deli vibes and the comfort of an old saloon watering hole. It’s definitely worth visiting even if, somehow, you don’t like sandwiches or French dips. However, if that’s the case, you have a bigger problem on your hands than this guide can solve, and you should consider getting some help.

Bestia — 2121 7th Place

Bestia was the last time I remember a whole city’s food scene losing its collective mind over a new restaurant. This has become one of the toughest reservations in town, and with good reason. The food is always from scratch and just familiar enough to interest the mainstream, while still making room for tons of wide-ranging inspiration. Dishes like the tortellini mortadella with lentils reflect chef Ori Menashe’s history with Italian food through the lens of a childhood spent in Israel.

That’s the thing about Bestia: It is — and this is perhaps the best compliment to give a restaurant — fully imagined. No creative shortcuts were taken. There’s never an ounce of laziness. This is the food of a chef with grand ideas. -SB

Nick & Stef’s — 330 S Hope Street

There are steakhouses, and then there are steakhouses — at least that’s what I thought to myself the first time I went to Nick & Stef’s for dinner. Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: A dinner at this restaurant is going to be expensive. Possibly even… very expensive. Still do it. Go all in. Because when it comes to a classic, old-fashioned steakhouse, there is really no place doing it better than Nick & Stef’s. Period. Between the vintage, almost kitschy dark dining room — complete with art deco era furniture — and the choice, premium cuts of meat, the sharp, delicious cocktail menu, and a wide range of inventive sides and appetizers, the dining experience at this restaurant is aimed to please literally any and everyone.

Get a steak for under $50, the Filet Mignon at a cool $46 (medium rare, do I really have to tell you this?), a Seafood Tower (the Nick, ostensibly for two at $85 is more than enough for three or four ), and a Reverse Vesper Martini ($14) for one of the most decadent and satisfying meals of your life. Oh, and if you have vegetarian friends accompanying you, or happen to be one yourself, the salads and side dishes are loaded with delicious options to please them, as well. This place is a win-win, perfectly balanced and incredibly inviting. Final note: You’re kidding yourself if you don’t get the custom made chocolate soufflé to finish things off. Make sure to put in that order in a timely fashion though, it takes about 20 minutes to arrive because it’s custom made. -CW

Daikokuya — 327 E 1st Street

Daikokuya is the alpha and the omega of LA ramen — which is still the best in the country, even with NYC’s ramen scene surging. The lines are sprawling, celebrity-infused affairs. Waits on weekends can climb into the three hour range. The menu sprawls a little, but you don’t need to wander far. Get the tonkotsu ramen and know instantly why this place gets so much love. It’s rich, filling, and leaves you warm through and through.

If LA had an official comfort food, ramen would be it. And Daikokuya is clearly the starting point for any exploration. -SB

Salt & Straw — 829 E. 3rd Street

Yet another Oregon transplant, Salt & Straw now has five locations in Los Angeles, along with a spot up in the Bay. The family-owned and operated business is run by cousins Kim Malek and Tyler Malek, who got the inkling to start their own business and move to Portland right around the same time. There are four locations up there now, along with the five down here and the Bay, which brings the total up to ten ice cream shops for the duo.

So what is it that makes this ice cream so unmissable? It’s carefully homemade, delicately crafted, and wildly inventive. Flavors like Honey Lavender, Cinnamon Snickerdoodle, Black Olive Brittle and Goat Cheese (!), and Olive Oil and Lemon Custard redefine the combinations and tastes that patrons are expecting from ice cream. Make sure to stop in for some delicious, cold sweet treats while you’re wandering around among the bars, bookstores and steakhouses. -CW

Roy Choi’s Kogi Food Truck

Kogi is so legendary in LA that people will figure out the truck’s current location, get into their own cars, and drive to wherever it may be parked — just to get a taste! Luckily, for someone hanging out downtown that amount of effort generally isn’t required; a Kogi truck is almost always parked right on Grand street at some point throughout the day. You can check the daily schedule here for specifics.

Kogi is the invention of Roy Choi, a chef who combined the beloved flavors of Korean barbecue with the street-minded portability of tacos and other simple Mexican items like burritos and quesadillas. Choi founded Kogi back in 2008 and it quickly grew all the way into an empire that extends well past LA itself and out into the surrounding suburbs. -CW

PARTY

The Golden Gopher417 West 8th Street

It’s worth mentioning that the reinstatement of downtown LA as a place the rest of LA actually wants to come visit is due almost solely to 213 Hospitality. Helmed by Cedd Moses, the group currently has opened a total of 19 bars, restaurants, brewpubs in the downtown and arts district. At that saturation level, it seems possible the quality level on some of the spots would dip, but in fact the opposite is true. Golden Gopher is one of the earlier spots that 213 helmed, and remains one of the most beloved, but its newer counterparts are on par aesthetically and service-wise.

What makes the Gopher special is that it was renovated back in 2004 from its original iteration as the Golden Sun saloon, which was purchased in 1905 by President Teddy Roosevelt. Moses owns it now, but he’s maintained the exposed brick and incorporated nostalgic video games, glittering, custom chandeliers and 16 craft beers on tap to make it a perfect mix of old and new. Think of a speakeasy saloon with a touch of elegance and not an ounce of arrogance. -CW

Cana — 714 W Olympic Blvd

If we’re going to highlight our favorite 213 Hospitality venues, I’m going for Caña. A few reasons why:

  1. I like rum and believe it’s wildly underappreciated
  2. I like smoky-feeling bars that seem like they belong in a noir novel, but aren’t actually smoky.
  3. I like watching bartenders absolutely obsess over their tinctures and shit.
  4. I don’t care what trends you think are played out, I still love the speakeasy vibe.

Caña is a social club, so you go, sign up, get a membership card, then enter. It would feel totally contrived, except that’s how they got their liquor license. They’re grandfathered in, which is far more authentic.

This is a perfect place for a quiet after-dinner drink with a date, or to have real cocktails and good conversation with a few friends. It’s 100% worth the trouble. -SB

Seven Grand — 515 West 7the Street, 2nd Floor

This is another 213 hospitality bar, but with a bit of a twist: Seven Grand is one of the most extensive whiskey lists in the entire city. In fact, the bar also offers a special membership, called the Whiskey Society that is self-described as the following: “A unique membership program providing guests the opportunity to further explore the spirit via education and experimentation with comprehensive tastings featuring Master Distillers, International Brand Ambassadors, and notable members of the liquor industry.” While visitors may not be able to get access to those special classes and events, they can certainly partake of the extensive list, excellent cocktails, pool tables, and soak up the vintage decor. Seven Grand was so popular it spawned a second location down in San Diego in 2012, also featuring the Whiskey Society club. Final note: Inside of Seven Grand, catch the even-more-exclusive eighteen-seat Japanese whiskey bar, Bar Jackalope, an intimate spot with over 120 varieties of whiskeys, international and domestic.

Arts District Brewing Co. — 828 Traction Avenue

If I note that this is yet another spot that’s part of the 213 fold, will you fully get the sense of how dominant their presence is on the downtown scene. However, each of the three properties I’ve included here have completely different vibes and functions, and Arts District Brewing Co. has a way more laid back and low key vibe than the first two bars included here. The craft brew pub is only a couple years old, it opened in 2015, and features an on-site, brewhouse with 15 barrels that can produce up to 3,300 barrels of beer in a year. The huge, spacious bar and enormous patio are well-light and bright — nothing like their dark, secluded cocktail bar counterparts — and ping-pong, cornhole, skeeball, darts, and photobooths, give the spot a family feel.

Learn And Explore

The Last Bookstore — 453 S Spring Street

https://www.instagram.com/p/BSiArHDFTFl/?taken-by=harmonicait

The name sort of captures the desperate, tender reverie that us book-obsessed feel about the way the internet and technology have replaced books with digital components. Are there any other bookstores in LA? Yes, of course there are, but they don’t posses their own spirit, their own weird, windy vibe, their own tunnels and book sculptures and soaring ceilings and the old musty smell of books well-loved by a reader who came before you. The Last Bookstore has the same kind of magic in it that The Princess Bride does, or that Narnia had; it’s a normal looking place with hidden worlds to uncover if you can just get yourself in the right frame of mind, they will appear. Go here to explore, shop, and bask in what may well become one of very, very last used bookstores standing. As long as we have one, I’ll hold out hope.

LA Live800 W Olympic Blvd

Another huge force in the resurgence downtown is the entertainment complex known as LA Live. A complex of movie theatres, sporting arenas, music venues and shopping centers, LA Live offers all the accouterments that anyone visiting downtown might want — there’s even a spa at the Ritz Carlton if you’re seeking luxury and relaxation. The main two venues in the area are the Staples Center, which hosts sports and music/entertainment, and the Microsoft Theater. If you want to dive into the music industry, check out the Grammy Museum. Sports? The Lakers and Clippers (NBA), Kings (NHL) and Sparks (WNBA) all play home games at LA Live. Massive events and conferences of all orders are routinely held at the convention center, and there’s a mall and a plethora of restaurants scattered throughout. Basically, this is the hub for everything happening in every realm downtown, and worth walking through and checking out if you’re out and about spending time in this neighborhood.

The Broad Museum221 South Grand Avenue

Founded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad in 2015, the Broad (pronounced “bro-d”) is a new museum downtown that mostly pulls from the private collection of the couple themselves. Recently, more exhibits have been circulating through the third floor’s special exhibit platform, but overall, the collection of the Broad’s has already included highlights like a Cindy Sherman exhibit, pulling hundreds of visitors to the museum each day. One of the most interesting aspects of this museum is that it offers completely free admission — which also means the spots tend to go very fast. You can reserve spots here in advance, and you absolutely should if you’re new to the city, or will be coming through. If you’re going to be visiting downtown, this is a must-see spot, if not for the art inside, then certainly for the decorative outdoor facade of the museum (pictured above), making the building itself part of increased visibility and beauty in the neighborhood.

Museum Of Contemporary Art250 South Grand Avenue

Located directly across the street from The Broad, the Museum Of Contemporary Art on Grand Street is one of four satellite locations for the venue, three of which are located in LA. They boast the MOCA Grand Avenue, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in the Arts District, and MOCA Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. The fourth installment is Michael Heizer’s seminal artwork Double Negative (1969-70) in the Nevada desert, a bit off the beaten track if you’re going to be downtown, but the Grand and Geffen Contemporary locations are both easily accessible from downtown, and feature a host of rotating installments, like the incredible Kerry James Marshall exhibit that was recently on display at the Grand location.

×