Los Angeles has long struggled to identify itself as a city with a thriving core instead of just a sprawling collection of suburbs, loosely connected with congested highways. But an unlikely urban center has begun to arise, away from the beaches and picturesque hills. From six square miles of grizzled pavement, sputtering with crime in the shadows of Skid Row (where there’s the highest concentration of homeless people in America), Downtown L.A. is becoming a viable economic and cultural fulcrum. A spike in ground floor retail, a cutting-edge food scene, and a bustling nightlife laid the groundwork for a new, vibrant community. Car-obsessed Angelenos are actually walking. A streetcar system is on its way. Contractors and developers are swooning over the empty warehouses in the Arts District and theatre facades on Broadway, converting them into fashionable living spaces or top-notch kitchens and Angelenos are quickly buying into this new civic vision.
1:07 P.M. Get a real taste of DTLA by roaming the historic Grand Central Market, a 30,000 sq. foot arcade packed with butcher shops, fruit stands and more than 20 lunch counters. Stand still for a moment and absorb the clamor of the market: meat cleavers pounding carnitas, hands patting fresh pupusas, the sizzle of fried eggs. It’s an urban poetry that’s been happening for nearly 100 years. It’s never too late in the day for Eggslut’s updated version on a classic breakfast sandwich, which features smoked bacon, an over medium egg, cheddar, and chipotle ketchup, all on a Portuguese bun. Cross Broadway Blvd. to scope out the Bradbury Building, an architectural landmark built by a gold-mining millionaire in 1893. In its narrow atrium, sun washes through the skylight in the 50-foot-high ceiling onto the Victorian style handiwork of Italian marble stairs and wrought-iron railings. If this all looks familiar, think back to the rooftop scene in Blade Runner.
2:22 P.M. Independent boutiques, high couture storefronts, and an outpour of new restaurants have led DTLA’s resurgence, but it’s occasionally a headier affair. Cue The Last Bookstore on Gallery Row, a behemoth 10,000-square-foot converted bank, re-imagined with a steampunk aesthetic. Head up to the Labyrinth in the mezzanine, a maze of Borges-like passageways, which features a sci-fi vault room with embedded control panels, an arching book tunnel, and a “portal hole.” A hallway of art galleries exists on the other side of the mezzanine, forming the Spring Arts Collective, which includes notable artists like David Lovejoy and Jena Priebe.
3:19 P.M. The catalyst behind DTLA’s frontier spirit is surely the Arts District, a locus of creative energy set in an industrial sector to the east. The Arts District is a roughhewn patch of vacant lots and factories, void of historical decadence. In the ‘70s artists colonized the area, which set the stage for dramatic growth. Hit up District Gallery, run by Jonathan Jerald. This part raconteur, part-historian will share a wealth of information about artists in the area, like George Herms and Paul McCarthy. On to SCI-Arc, an experimental design/architecture school, which occupies a turn-of-the-century Southern Pacific freight station once used to collect citrus from the nearby groves. Pop in to see one of their rotating public exhibits, and then head on over to Angel City Brewery for the Angeleno IPA, a citra-hopped ale with hints of grapefruit.
5:54 P.M. Construction sites dot all corners of DTLA, but Angelenos are beginning to learn the value of preserving the old bones of its rich buildings. That is true of the Ace Hotel, which opened its doors last January in what has now become the flashier end of South Broadway, thanks to high-end shops like Oak, Aesop, and Tanner Goods (with the latter offering free PBRs to walk-ins) following suit. Next door is the United Artists Theater, a 1927 Spanish Gothic-styled cathedral formerly run by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, and many years later used as a cathedral site for televangelist Gene Scott. The theater seats up to 1,600, and hosts concerts and dance events. The best show is on the terrace, where you can watch the sunset while enjoying a cocktail on draught up on the best rooftop bar in the city, aptly named Upstairs. It’s a modern, concrete setting accented by a coral tree and wooden seating arrangements designed by Alma Allen.
7:41 P.M. It’s a conceit you’ll hear over and over again if you’re tuned into the food world: L.A. has the most exciting restaurant scene. This is due in no small part to what has emerged from Downtown over the past five years, now remarkably considered the center of fine dining in the city. For dinner, head to Italian-Mediterranean influenced Bestia, a rustic, family-style establishment run by husband and wife team Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis. Snag a seat at the bar in front of the salad station for a prime view of the open kitchen. Start off with the beef heart tartare, bright and savory, mixed with pine nuts, fresno chilies, dill, and champagne vinegar. Splurge on the Cavatelli alla Norcina, slightly chewy ricotta dumplings bolstered by house made pork sausage and black truffle confit. Wait the extra ten minutes for the chestnut zeppole, an Italian version of doughnuts served with coffee ice cream.
9:15 P.M. There’s been a lot of noise surrounding the new crop of bars that has sprung up over the past year. But for a time-honored tradition, make your way to Cole’s P.E. Buffet, a drinking hole established in 1908 and once a favorite amongst Pacific Electric Railway commuters. With its red upholstered booths, tin ceilings and muted lights, Cole’s is the late night noir counterpart to its French Dip rival Philippe’s. Clear your sinuses with the house special Pickleback, a shot of whiskey followed by a swig of their spicy Atomic pickle juice. But the real treat is tucked in the back of Cole’s: a tiny speakeasy called The Varnish, which serves some of the best classic cocktails in the city. The atmosphere is subdued, and attention to detail is paramount (think hand-carved ice). Go for the Improved Whiskey Cocktail (rye, maraschino liqueur, Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe).
11:48 P.M. No one who has ever gone to La Cita, a lively Mexican dive bar next to Grand Central Market, has given much thought to the mediocre margarita. Because we all know sometimes you go to a place to get drunk, not to drink. The dance floor is always packed with boozy, moving bodies, and on Friday nights, you may catch a set by local Reggae acts like The Expanders. In the back is an outdoor, red-lit patio perfect for those warm LA nights, with plenty of seating and additional bar areas.
1:45 A.M. Even with a revamped bar scene, drinking in DTLA past 2 a.m. just ain’t gonna happen. But all savvy drinkers know when to call it a night and hit up the local late night diner. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliable one than The Original Pantry, a round-the-clock Norman Rockwell-esque greasy spoon open since 1924. Hand-painted signs adorn the walls, and waiters who’ve worked there for 40 years know how to properly take care of you; it’s a sixth sense they’ve developed. Expect generous portions of standard American classics: NY strip steaks, apple pie, and the “Set Up,” a recession special of bread, butter and coleslaw for $6.95, cash only. DTLA’s landscape is rapidly evolving, but there is great comfort in knowing little has changed inside the Pantry, including the obligatory short stack order of golden pancakes that has been easing people into sobriety for decades.
Justin Bolois is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The Art of Eating, Juxtapoz, LA Weekly, and Bon Appetit. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBolois.