Drink, Eat, Gary Fong, Los Angeles — March 30, 2012 at 9:13 am



Bottega Louie


LOS ANGELES – Don’t get us wrong.  We love Los Angeles.  However these days, whenever we visit that traffic-clogged, vanity-fueled, sprawling flatness and have a night out it turns out – more often than not – to be a bit more than we expect….and not in good way.  Hollywood seems to be even more touristy (which didn’t seem possible), the Westside (pick your part…Santa Monica, South Bay, Culver City, etc.) is more sterile than we remember, and West Hollywood/3rd Street has become even more overrun with nouveau-entertainment types.

But then there is Downtown (which is located in the east side of LA, in case you didn’t get the quote).  This formerly glorious, always trying to reinvent itself part of LA also delivers a bit more than expected…but unlike the other areas – which inevitably disappoint – Downtown, especially nowadays, is the exception.  In fact, when it comes to things to do and see, Downtown is probably the most exciting part of the city at the moment (seriously).  Yes, Downtown has finally come into its own and it’s become the sort of area that it’s always strived to be – a bona fide destination spot with interesting eating and drinking establishments, a vibrant art scene, a rich history, great architecture and, best of all, a cultural mix that is probably more representative of the city than any other part.

So, in light of this renewed Downtown LA, we thought we’d pull together a “greatest hits” list of the things that we at Zen love.…from restaurants/bars and art venues to favorite hotels and must-see architecture.  We’ve even thrown in a couple of suggested routes of how to spend an afternoon or evening in Downtown LA as well.


Food & Drinks:  Sophisticated Upstarts & Classic Joints

To many people, the true test of a destination always seems to be its food and beverage options.   Whether it’s finding a bar that can make a great martini or a restaurant that serves foodie-caliber eats, Downtown usually does a pretty good job at meeting most, if not all, expectations.  With its broad range of offerings – from classic, old-time establishments and new upstarts – Downtown can make for a great evening out, often times comparable to (if not better than) the likes of what you get in West LA or Hollywood.

So what’s down there?  Well, on the restaurant front, probably one of the most exciting places these days (and our current favorite) is Bottega Louie on 7th Street.  Housed in a former bank space this high-end P&P (pizza and pasta) bistro reminds me of NYC’s Balthazar with it’s wide open space, high ceilings, white tablecloths and attractive looking crowd (it’s near LA’s Fashion Institute, which might explain the crowd).  The cocktails are kick ass (their Moulin Rouge concoction is quite tasty) as are the ridiculously delicious macarons.  The “real” food is pretty good as well.  They’re known for their pizzas, though the pastas are where we tend to go – the sautéed trenné pasta with braised prime rib eye, Tuscan black kale & shaved Grana parmesan is a fave.  Other Downtown restaurants getting lots of buzz these days include the recently renovated Water Grill (great raw bar) on Grand and 5th Street; Wurstküche (which bills itself as an exotic sausage grill) and the Pie Hole (which does sweet and savory pies), both can be found on Traction Avenue in the LA Arts District.

Cole’s French DIp

Rival Philippe’s

If the classics are more your style, Downtown has it’s share of those as well.  At the top of the list are the rival French dip sandwich joints – Cole’s and Philippe’s.  Both places claim to have invented the beef dip classic and both do it justice and then some.  There’s also the famous Pacific Dining Car, which may be the only 24-hour high-end steak restaurant in the world.  The food is also fantastic.  And of course, you can’t talk about Downtown restaurants without mentioning the Original Pantry Café on 9th Street.  Primarily a diner/coffee shop and owned by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan, the Pantry has the odd distinction of serving their famous coleslaw with everything which, depending on your taste, could be a good or bad thing.  They also do a pretty good breakfast (yes, with coleslaw) and, like the Dining Car, are open all the time.

Biltmore’s Gallery Bar

As for drinking establishments, you pretty much have your pick of the category – hotel, dive, classic, new, mixologists, with-a-view, no signage, etc. – which is good news for those of us who love a good pub crawl.  We’ll just mention a few of them here.  Probably our favorite is the Gallery Bar at the Biltmore Hotel, which not only does a pretty good martini but also has these fantastic old-time bartenders who’ve love to tell stories about the hotel. The bar’s European style décor (look for the famous Biltmore Angels) is pretty great as well; if you’re lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) there might be some karaoke singing going on as well.

View from the Rooftop Bar at the Standard

On the other hand, if you like your cocktail served with a view, Downtown LA can do that too.  The top option (and our preferred) is the rooftop bar at the Standard Hotel, which is probably has one of the best city panoramas in all of LA.  The recently opened Perch is another good one.  It’s outdoor terrace is especially nice (it overlooks Pershing Square)….but make sure to avoid the rather sad McCormick and Schmick’s-like inside bar area.  The after-work crowd that it seems to attract can be rather questionable as well.  Some of the other Downtown bars worth a visit include The Varnish (mixologist; no signage but located in a back room at Cole’s), Artisan House (organic), and Nola’s (live blues and jazz).

The little things that make Downtown LA worthwhile:  People watching at Bottega Louie and believing for the briefest moment that you’re as sophisticated and chic as the rest of them….then devouring a six-pack of their ridiculously good macarons, once you realize that you could never be as sophisticated and chic as the rest of them. Also, a french dip sandwich from Cole’s or Philippe’s and, finally, a late night, rare steak accompanied by a dry martini at the Pacific Dining Car.  

For the latest in travel, follow us on Twitter at @ZenArtOfTravel.

Photos:  Gary Fong

Author:  Gary Fong


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