It would seem dishonest (to me, especially with this having been my first visit) to omit part of my impressions of downtown LA. Most of it is welcoming and there are too many exhibits, restaurants and too much impressive architecture to miss it, but also, there are places (and people) that are threatening, off-limits and most sadly, forsaken–epic problems apparent come night, even with places that are thriving, welcoming, bright blocks away. Invisible lines on the sidewalks. It’s heartbreaking and bordered on unbelievable to me, despite having been to some of the largest urban corners of the world, at all hours even when they were new to me. I don’t know what else to say about it, at least not here, so I will move uncomfortably, humbly, regretfully into my next paragraph the way I moved from those blocks to my destination.
Behind a discreet, unassuming closed door, at the back of Coles, the Varnish exists to serve you a fancy yet quaint, very thoughtful cocktail in a setting to match. Small tables, dark wood banquettes and a concise menu with some special written above the bar. This is from the owner of the respected and multiple award-winning cocktail lab Milk & Honey in NYC, I hear Varish has racked up a few of it’s own. It’s cozy and surprising unpretentious given it’s accolades and, well, given what you might expect. Worth a visit for a great drink and also to for a great chat with your best friend, if you’re as lucky as I was.
There are cute little boutiques in Little Tokyo like No. A, and a sweet-shop and sushi-lined courtyard to check out, with alleys of shops down the side and it’s worth seeing, but the good (non-Touristy) food is on the outside, along the street. The place to check out, with a line regardless of the time of day, is Daikokuya for ramen, real ramen. So I did–non-veg broth, topped with pork belly and all. (Yes, I paid for it.) They have just the one soup on the menu with only one option–extra lard added back to the broth (no, I didn’t, even I had the sense to know I’d die on the spot), and various fried appetizers. You get in and you get out, fast. Steph said it reminded her exactly of the ramen spots in Tokyo and that includes the pace.
But Laxy Ox, Japanese-influenced but with Korean, middle-eastern and Italian-inspired dishes on the menu too, is not a place you want to rush to. We went twice(!) albeit mostly because they were out of fried shishito peppers the first time, so I had no choice but to try again. Instead, on our first visit, I had to settle for the “huevo ‘Andoni ’, french fry puree & chorizo oil with summer truffle”. I’m not even kidding. That exists. I’ve had egg yolk sprinkled with freshly shaved truffle on pasta, on pizza, on it’s own, and now on french-fry puree.
There are some stunning loft-conversions on Industrial street but other than that, it’s pretty damn industrial and I’m not sure why else you’d find yourself there if it weren’t for Church & State. Straight-up modern french bistro menu with a communal vibe I attribute to the long table and boisterous crowd and an interior that seems exterior–the main long wall of the restaurant entirely windows looking out onto the night, and strings of light cross-crossing the restaurant and seeming to provide the bulk of the low-lighting. There is a house cocktail menu, or you could have the absinth, advertised on a chalkboard pillar (too chicken!), and too many good things to choose from on the menu. Odd to choose the mac ‘n’ cheese as my favourite but when this gratin is exceptional with a mornay sauce leads with Comté followed by Gruyère and Emmental.
But the most memorable dining experience I had downtown, in no small part because I was a tourist, I’m sure, was dinner at The Gorbals in the belly of the Alexandria Hotel on what is a pretty grungy block. The hotel was host to celebrity and VIP residents and diners in Hollywood’s golden days, they lobby is lined with framed portraits of some, the staircases are grand, the ballrooms upstairs are… locked (don’t ask how I know). The restored details definitely added to the charm of getting to the Gorbals dining room. It’s windowless but cozy. The menu is interesting, for instance, it includes “pig’s head” (no, of course I didn’t!) and also the best fries ever and a simple salad so great it inspired the first recipe I worked on when I got back. I would go there for a dry martini served in a champagne coupe and fries at least once a week if I could.
Aside from the abundance of eateries, so many worth a special visit, LA’s downtown is home to stunning architecture and art. I only got admire the Gerhy-designed concert hall, Union Station and the US Bank Tower on my walk to the museums and barely had time to do that on my sprint to the MOCA. The LA Museum of Contemporary Art’s main building on Grand is impressive in structure too and inside houses impressive collections including abstract expressionist works I’d never seen like very colourful Klines (a fave of mine), but I was simply blown away by the Geffin. MOCA’s Geffin Contemporary, blocks away in Little Tokyo (a good walk or you can take their shuttle) is one of the most exciting galleries I’ve ever been to. It’s basically a massive, refined warehouse that is sectioned off yet able to become a fluid area that can include it’s large, concrete outdoor area and it showcases large-scale, avant guard, completely contemporary exhibitions of all kinds. I was so fortunate to see their commission of Cai Guo-Qiang’s work. From the ceiling hangs his “Crop Circles” installation made from 1 million reeds, and 3 signature-style gunpowder paintings. The most impressive of those is “Sky Ladder”, beautiful on it’s own but awesome for it’s size (created in the space and stretching one looooong wall of the gallery) and execution: ignited in the Geffin in front of spectators on the sidelines which is how his paintings are finished. If you are there, you can watch this and other mind-blowing projects in a small theatre on site, but I highly encourage you to watch the videos regardless (watch your volume, you’ve been warned), you’ve never seen anything like it. It pains me that I missed Transmission, an exhibit curated by Mike D for MOCA (at the Geffin) which started days after I left LA, featuring so many great artists (I love what I’ve seen of Mike Mills’ work, for instance). You have to check out this videowhere Mike D takes us on a tour. Can you imagine how fun? Do you love the Geffin as much as me now?
But how can I talk about LA and not speak of food trucks? They are around, always, somewhere and they have twitter accounts and websites dedicated to how you can hunt them down at almost any time of day. Or you can catch them congregated together for events like The Downtown LA Artwalk which happens monthly: Galleries open up their space, special installations are set up in parking lots, projected onto buildings, popping up, shining down and it happens over several blocks once evening falls. The food trucks take to two huge parking lots at different ends of the “venue”, and I mean, dozens of them in each. There is music, there is seating, there are patio lights, and you don’t have to wait long to try the most famous among them like Kogi, Komondo and Border Grill.
So, yeah, downtown LA is all about food and art. What else matters?