A decade ago, Downtown LA was a ghost town. The clock would hit five and its army of office workers would march back to the ’burbs. Oh, how things have changed. The seeds of renewal were sown in the 80s when a law passed allowing people to live in warehouses. Creative types began slinking back to the city centre, fostering communities fiercely protective of the area’s artistic and industrial history. Since the turn of the millennium Downtown’s population has doubled, transforming it from a place you’d never dare wander at night into a cultural hub of more than a dozen unique districts, where revellers stream between the newest bistros and bars.
Before frying your senses during a night soaked in booze, whip your brain into shape with the contents of the Last Bookstore, the world’s largest independent bookshop. Scour shelves of poetry and graphic novels or sink into an armchair and chew through a chapter on modern art. If you’re shooed away – it’s technically a shop, not a library – hide out on the second level among stalls selling art and curiosities and soak up the aroma of ageing paper wafting from 100,000 pre-loved books stored in the ‘Labyrinth Above the Last Bookstore’.
453 S Spring Street
Wander the Broadway Theater District, a strip peppered with charming but shabby Art Deco architecture and capped with Grand Central Market, an entire bacon-scented block dedicated to multiculti cuisine. The first theatres opened on South Broadway in 1910 and the district flourished as studios cranked out flicks to feed America’s love for the screen. As the twentieth century trudged on, Downtown sunk into decline, the cinemas’ curtains closed and there they sat, decaying, until the recent stream of life saw many converted into churches, swap meets and shops. When you hit the market stop for a US$3 snack from Tacos Tumbras a Thomas, or find Wexler’s Deli for the tastiest smoked salmon and pastrami in LA.
Grand Central Market
317 S Broadway
Put Downtown in perspective with a trip to the top floor of Perch. This multi-storey affair features a French restaurant, balcony and bar on one level and a patio crowning the upper deck. Elaborate floor tiles and fairy lights twinkling on trees give the rooftop a provincial European vibe, but look past the glass barriers and the scene could not be more inner-city urban. Settle on a couch with a glass of Californian pinot noir and watch planes soar over the high-rise offices swelling around the deck.
448 S Hill Street
You’ve been up, now go down, beneath the concrete and into a 1920s boudoir where fairies dole out absinthe and black-and-white films dance on the wall. To access the Edison you first need to locate an unmarked door on a side street and clear inspection – that means no flip-flops, hoodies or torn jeans – before making the grand descent down metal stairs. A century ago the space housed a power plant, and ancient machinery still sits in place between leather armchairs, lush drapes and Art Deco fixtures.
108 W 2nd Street #101
The streets of Downtown are a playground for bumbling TV cops and murder mysteries, so get with the theme and try your skills as detective. Two local establishments – Philippe The Original and Cole’s – opened in 1908 and each swears they gifted the city the famous French dip sandwich, consisting of tender strips of roast beef layered in a baguette and served with a dish of the juices. Both claims bear equal clout, but scour the garlic-scented dining room at Cole’s and uncover a secret worthy of attention. No, you won’t solve the who-made-it-first mystery but an unmarked door hides something even better: the Varnish. This speakeasy holds 60 at best, so put your name on the guest list, head back to the bar and slam down a pickleback (whiskey and pickle brine) while you wait. Cole’s might be bustling, but the Varnish is all sultry jazz, dark wood and apothecary bottles of elixirs. Settle into a booth and a waitress channelling Frida Kahlo will whisk cocktails and ginger beer topped with piquant cubes of crystallised ginger to your candlelit table.
Backroom of Cole’s
E 6th Street
Ask a local where to eat and Bestia will spill from their lips before you’ve had time to exhale. Grab an Uber and cruise to an almost abandoned lane on the cusp of the Arts District. From the outside Bestia’s warehouse doesn’t look much chop but the interior has all the right trimmings – red brick walls, concrete floors, exposed piping and feature light globes. Hard furnishings make the joint roaring loud, but the Italian nosh is so good it’s worth a mild case of tinnitus. Order the roasted bone marrow and take pleasure in the somewhat macabre experience of scooping the rich mess from a femur cleaved in two onto a bed of handmade gnocchetti while ‘You Can Do It’ jostles the sound system.
2121 7th Place
Move over flashy cocktails, craft beer is on the rise, and where better to sample a flight of the stuff than at an Arts District brewery? Giving new purpose to a warehouse that once made wire for suspension bridges, Angel City Brewery produces a range of beers and even grows its own hops on the roof. Sure, the way they play with flavours is a purist’s nightmare, but for the rest of us a brandy-finished beer or sake-based ale tastes a treat. At one end of the establishment vats brew about 8000 barrels a year and the remainder welcomes guests to chill out as they please. Don’t be surprised to see people hanging with dogs, artists sketching, chess contests and punters lobbing beanbags at a platform in a battle of cornhole.
Angel City Brewery
216 S Alameda Street
Within stumbling distance of the brewery stands a modern take on the 1980s arcade, where reliving your youth costs only a quarter. A line marks the entrance to EightyTwo, a rotating trove of old favourites including Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. Make your gaming sesh a touch more adult with on-theme cocktails sporting names like n00b and Kill Screen, or pep up with a Wizard Mode, a mix of rye whisky, cold brew coffee and vanilla-infused black tea. When you need a break from tinny electronic tunes, head to the garden for a breather but don’t rest too long ’cause 25 cents will never again buy this much fun.
707 E 4th Place
Switch back to beer, but the imported kind this time. Styled as a Bavarian beer hall, Wurstküche pours 23 European beers from the tap and serves an impressive selection of snags. A cabinet at the entrance displays raw sausages waiting to be cooked to order and piled high with your choice of fried onion, sauerkraut, sweet capsicum or hot peppers. If you’ve recovered from dinner order the favourite: the Rattlesnake & Rabbit with jalapeño peppers. Totter down the corridor to the hall and plonk your rump behind a long wooden table adorned with pillars of ketchup and mustard.
Corner 800 E 3rd Street and Traction Avenue
LA starts powering down at 1.30am and bolting its doors soon after, but don’t throw in the towel just yet – you’re needed in Little Tokyo. On the second floor of a nondescript shopping centre, Max Karaoke keeps on going, every night of the year. Bring your own grog, stock up on salty snacks at the front counter and spend the next couple of hours serenading the city with your newfound love for DTLA.
333 S Alameda St, #216
United Airlines has daily direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles.
In 2014 the Spanish Gothic former United Artists building reopened as the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles. The rooms, spread over the 13-storey high-rise, range in size, but each has a little bit of the rock ’n’ roll aesthetic for which the hotel group is renowned. Jewels in its crown include the rooftop pool and the lovingly restored 1600-seat theatre that now hosts live music, movie premieres and other events. Rooms from about US$259 a night.
Check the city’s official tourism website for more information about what to do when you get to LA.