Downtown L.A. in the Thick of Things

You know you’ve left Rodeo Drive when you see a cluster of people huddled around a wooden crate, waving money in the air and pointing to one of three bottle caps that may or may not hide a pea-sized marble. A peppy version of the classic shell game is underway not far from the 90-year-old Orpheum Theatre, where an 11-year-old Judy Garland performed vaudeville a few years before wearing ruby slippers, and from the posh apartment building that Johnny Depp calls home when he’s in town. And it all fits together beautifully.

Downtown L.A. could be called New York City Lite, but you’d be ignoring the fact its theater district is larger and older than the Big Apple’s or that there’s plenty of parking on most days, among other things. There’s nothing imposing about Downtown L.A.—it’s not the type that overwhelms, but rather, just another neighborhood in the City of Angels with a small-town feel that holds on to great history and culture even as it welcomes a new crop of attractions.

Despite its ongoing revitalization and trendy hotspots, this is where Angelenos can come back to reality, but only if they choose because there’s plenty of chic, nouveau and Hollywood to go around, too. On any given day, five to seven movies and TV shows are being filmed here, and looking up as you walk around is always a requirement for those who get a kick out of a generous mix of architectural styles. One of L.A.’s prettiest buildings is the Art Deco Eastern Columbia structure on Broadway Street, which stands out for its blue-green color and adornments on its facade. The stainless steel curves of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, are a modern conduit to performances by the L.A. Philharmonic and its beloved rock star conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, who has achieved rock star status in the city for his talent and youthful energy. And just one block away is the main building of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. The city’s high-rises surround green escapes such as peaceful Grand Hope Park and its coyote sculptures, found in front of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising’s Museum & Galleries.

Another surprise for visitors: mass transit. DASH buses provide cheap (currently 35 cents) and easy transportation around downtown, while travelers coming in from Hollywood, for instance, can take the metro. Even if you’re not hopping on a train or metro, you’ll want to stop by Union Station to admire its majestic waiting room and the patios that surround it. The station is also close to three of L.A.’s most famous cultural enclaves: Chinatown, Little Tokyo and colorful Olvera Street, birthplace of the city and now a living museum of sorts.

Downtown is easy to navigate on foot—the Downtown Center Business Improvement District puts out a great map—but those who prefer guided excursions can look into Red Line Tours, which offers tours of the area that can be customized to focus on historic or contemporary aspects of the city.

the dining scene Almost 100 restaurants have opened in Downtown L.A. over the past three years, with W. 7th Street becoming the Restaurant Row of the area. Locals keep driving in for ground beef and pickle tacos in a 1920s setting at Mas Malo, or a burrata pizza with a side of rainbow-colored macaroons at marble-and-brass beauty Bottega Louie and then there’s a taste of more than 270 whiskies at Seven Grand Bar. They’ll detour to Rivera Restaurant on S. Flower Street for Puerto Rican mofongo or Brazilian feijoada, but if they’re in a decidedly less trendy mood, stop by for a quick lunch at Clifton’s Brookdale on S. Broadway. This landmark opened in 1931 and retains its cafeteria-style and Disney-esque kitsch, but has a new chef recreating comfort foods and classic recipes at hard-to-beat prices.

Another interesting stop is the Grand Central Market on S. Broadway, which opened in 1917 and is home to dozens of vendors selling everything from Hawaiian BBQ to Salvadorian pupusas.

Increased interest for Downtown L.A. came when L.A. LIVE arrived in town and brought along more than a dozen restaurants and bars, as well as The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles and the JW Marriott Los Angeles at L.A. LIVE. Visitors stopping in to admire music memorabilia or get a walk-through of the recording process at the Grammy Museum can move right along to trendy Katsuya to sample amazing sushi and then to the Conga Room, which welcomes the biggest names in Latin music and offers salsa lessons on Saturday nights. L.A. LIVE and Nokia Plaza are the new meeting place in Downtown, with the Nokia Theatre bringing in high-caliber performances throughout the year.