In a city full of iconic neighbourhoods – Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu, West Hollywood – Los Angeles’ downtown area (colloquially abbreviated to DTLA) is often overlooked by visitors. Plotted in the late 19th century, the area became a vibrant commercial hub by the 1920s, its thoroughfares lined with multi-level department stores, opulent hotels and national financial institutions. By night, all of LA would descend on Downtown for its vibrant nightlife, with Broadway alone home to more than a dozen theatres and movie houses.
The area began to decline after World War II, when the new freeway system pushed affluent residents and businesses out into LA’s suburbs, but what remained was a hub of cultural diversity, beloved in particular for its food offerings. And while it suffered during Covid’s peak more than many neighbourhoods, the word is that DTLA is back.
So, with fond memories of my previous visit a decade ago, sipping cocktails in speakeasy bars tucked beneath historic art deco buildings, I’m jumping on rumours of a post-pandemic Downtown rebirth with an empty, eager stomach.
As I leave the panoramic views of the Hollywood Hills from my room at the new Moxy Hotel, on the edge of DTLA, to explore, three bartenders tinker at a new drink behind the angular hotel lobby bar while a DJ sets up his decks next to a pair of pinball machines. Though they share a building on Downtown’s south-west corner – across the road from LA Lakers’ home court Crypto.com Arena – the Moxy and AC Hotel each have distinct aesthetics and vibes. While cocktails at the AC’s panoramic rooftop bar tempt, after a long flight it’s the more youthful Moxy’s lively, rejuvenating energy and free coffee I’m grateful for.
My first stop, a 20-minute walk from the hotel, is Grand Central Market, where an electric food court of almost two dozen food stands gather. Though I’m tempted by tacos, ramen, pad Thai, fried chicken and lobster rolls, I kick off the day’s eating with a plate of pork chop suey from China Cafe and a loaded, cheesy Eggslut breakfast sandwich, washed down with a Golden Road blonde ale and chased with a strawberry-loaded doughnut from the beloved Donut Man.
A hearty walk to Frank Gehry’s discordant, angular Walt Disney Concert Hall settles the stomach, then it’s on to explore some of the more classic local architectural highlights. There’s no greater – or more accessible – concentration of LA’s mid-century buildings than Downtown, where spectacular art deco-style theatres, department stores and offices have been repurposed into dining, retail and residential spaces. Must-visits include the 1927 Tower Theatre, the first theatre in LA to offer the “talkies”, now arguably the world’s most spectacular Apple Store, and the multi-level, maze-like Last Bookstore, inhabiting a former bank at the base of the pre-war Spring Arts Tower.
In another sign that life is returning to this neighbourhood, the streets of DTLA are once again dotted with vans and tents spruiking tacos, tortas and other Central American street food. Everyone has their favourite food truck, but few are as beloved as South Hill Street’s Tacos El Comelon, identifiable by the salsa verde trails dripping from their superlative chicken tinga tacos. For a more weatherproof experience, Guisados offers tortilla-wrapped street food spirit in a comfortable indoor setting.
Back at the hotel, after a pit stop at the lobby bar to sample the results of the bartenders’ earlier experimentation – an “LA Spritz” with an Icelandic liqueur, soda and prosecco – it’s time to grab an Uber to dinner. Come nightfall, cars flood Downtown, shuttling celebrities and civilians alike to a cluster of warehouses in the east side’s arts district that have been reborn into LA’s hottest restaurants. Bestia is celebrated for both its lush Italian-inspired food and for its celeb-spotting opportunities, but tonight it’s slick new mod-Mexican eatery Damian directly opposite that I’ve managed to get a rare seat at.
Damian has quickly gained national attention for chef Enrique Olvera’s menu of modernised Central American classics showcasing largely Californian ingredients. The lobster al pastor and uni tostada might already be local legends, but it’s the lusciously slow-cooked, de-boned whole duck served with warm tortillas and an array of salsas that I’ll be dreaming about for a while.
Day two kicks off with a touch of home courtesy of an “Australian-style” flat white from Bluestone Lane, just off the lobby of the Moxy Hotel. I reluctantly forgo their stacked avocado toast – and an extra dose of national pride – for a proper American breakfast of eggs, pancakes, sausage, gravy and biscuits at the counter of the historic Original Pantry Cafe. Established in 1924, the diner has been a beloved fixture downtown for almost a century, and while its “We Never Close” slogan mightn’t be as true as it was pre-pandemic, the 30-minute wait for a seat is testament to its lingering popularity.
An afternoon of taking in the giant street art murals that fill these streets, several featuring late LA basketball legend and local benefactor Kobe Bryant, is rewarded with a visit to DTLA’s most iconic venue, Cole’s French Dip. Famous for being one of two purported originators of the French dip sandwich (a prime rib-stuffed roll served with a dunkable pot of gravy), Cole’s timber front bar – with its stained-glass windows and “Charles Bukowski pissed here” placard in the gents’ bathroom – is the perfect place for a Manhattan and a juicy sandwich.
Dusk lures me to the La Lo La Rooftop Bar flanking the exterior of the AC Hotel’s top floors. With 270-degree views of the city, a rotating roster of local DJs, inventive cocktails (the Farmers Market Margarita and fairy floss-surrounded Paloma in the Clouds are highlights), and a colourful Mexican tapas menu, this is one of the hottest, breeziest spots in LA to watch the sun go down.
Later this year the Moxy and AC hotels will open Level 8, their most adventurous undertaking, featuring a whole level packed with eight interconnected food and drink venues designed by charismatic local hospo legends the Houston brothers. Part foodie magnet, part speakeasy and part theme park, the sprawling night hub will include a rotating poolside carousel bar, a French teppanyaki restaurant, a Peruvian grill and a theatrical bar-slash-wrestling venue styled as an abandoned chapel that’s only accessible via a confession booth.
Until then, I’m pretty content sipping my mezcal Martini on the 34th floor, watching the sun set over the Hollywood sign and plotting my next visit Downtown.