Hidden Downtown

Posted by Glenn Gritzner on August 10, 2009

Hello Enthusiasts –

As you can tell by the title of this post, we’re going to be talking today about hidden gems in Downtown – some bars and restaurants, but also just cool places to visit.

But before we get started, I’m going to ask you to indulge me in a little urban philosophizing. It all relates – just bear with me for a second.

It has been fashionable to bash Los Angeles pretty much since the day our fair city was founded. Sure, it has had its champions, but it is more well known for its critics – hell, even our unofficial anthem, I Love LA, is actually conflicted and sarcastic about its subject. Traffic … smog … crowds … cars … and all that sun to wash it away while at the same time creating shadows to hide in. That, plus being home to an industry that captures the world’s fascination usually for all the wrong reasons.

So why do some of us love Los Angeles so much? To me, the reason is simple even if it isn’t frequently articulated: it’s a city that can be whatever you want it to be.

New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Miami, to name a few – all great cities. But they are what they are. They are “take them or leave them” cities. They’ve been what they’ve been for centuries, and they’re going to stay that way whether you like it or not. If you’ll excuse some vulgarity, they’re like a cheap hooker on a Saturday night – they’re there for the taking, no questions asked. You either want to take/make them home, or you don’t and if you don’t, someone else will be along shortly who will.

Los Angeles doesn’t come to you. Los Angeles is like the girl who makes you work a little harder, but makes the work worthwhile. It isn’t obvious. The buildings rarely beckon. You can’t just walk around and get a sense of the City.

But if you put in that work, you discover a City that is all your own. Want a life filled with experimental theater and underground art exhibitions? You got it. Want to just bum around the beach, with restaurants that welcome you in your swimsuit and flip flops? No sweat. Want to be secluded in the hills, surrounded by trees and mountains? You can do that. Ride horses on a Saturday (below the Hollywood sign, no less)? Just up the hill. Take in a polo match? Just across town. Soccer with your buddies on a dirt field? Just around the corner. Better yet, want a little taste of all of it – even all in the same day? LA’s your town.

So you see – LA is a custom-built City. It conforms to who *you* are. It doesn’t make you conform to it. It elevates the individual instead of subsuming us.

OK – on to the task at hand. With that as our backdrop, today, I’m going to try to tell you about a few “hidden gems” in Downtown. Places that are part of doing the work of discovering the LA that reflects who you are. Or at least, hopefully places that you’ll find interesting.

Some of the more hidden places I’ve already written about. So if you didn’t read my past posts on the O Hotel, the Varnish, the French Garden, or the Crocker Club, click the links (you might have to scroll a little to find the actual references to these places) – I won’t bore the rest of you with repeats. But those definitely count as at least somewhat hidden.

But here are a few more that at least I think are worth checking out. Add your own by commenting at the bottom:

Cafe Nine
453 S. Spring St., Suite 900 – yes, on the 9th Floor.

This place is almost literally hidden on the 9th Floor of the building that houses the Crocker Club on 5th & Spring. There’s a relatively small sign on the sidewalk that at least tells you you’ve come to the right place. You walk in, and the security guard somewhat abruptly asks what you need. You tell him you’re going to Cafe Nine and he lets you through – it’s a little jarring, but adds to the sense that you’re going somewhere secret. You go up to the 9th Floor, and to your left, you simply see an “Open” sign – the door’s not even open. But then you open the door, and voila – a lovely little cafe. Blue walls, modern furniture, a welcoming vibe. And, perhaps the most shocking of all, evidence that the kitchen is trying to do something interesting. Moroccan chicken chipotle sandwiches, creative salads, and real quality to the food. Plus, there are the little signs that they’re taking this seriously – Illy coffee, daily specials, obscure beverages. So next time you want to impress your friends by *really* taking them somewhere off the beaten path, check this place out.

Redcat Lounge
631 W. 2nd St., on the 2nd St. side of the Disney Concert Hall

Most people know that Redcat – the “experimental theater” space behind the Disney Concert Hall – exists, even if not so many people have actually been there. What fewer people know is that there’s a cute little bar in the lobby, open to anyone. It’s got free WiFi, warm plywood, and cool books for sale – they partner with Dutton’s. It’s even open from 9 am – 9 pm, or until after that night’s show closes. Raise your hand if you already knew about it. Yeah, sure you did.

The park at 4th & Olive
Otherwise known as “that place where they sat on the benches in 500 Days of Summer.”

If you haven’t seen 500 Days of Summer, you should. Why? Read this if you haven’t already. If you have, you probably wondered “where ARE those benches they sit on during all those key scenes?” Here’s the answer: 4th & Olive, northeast corner. You walk there and sure enough, there’s a gate to a little park, sitting right next to Angels’ Flight, open to anyone – it even had a security guard there when I checked it out. The good news is that there are lots of benches there, perfect for some quite alone time (or a little lunchtime canoodling with that chick from Logistics you’ve been eyeing). You can even try to figure out which one Tom & Summer were sitting on when he was pointing out all the cool buildings. The bad news is that all the homeless people know that this place exists, with its welcoming grass and benches ripe for the sleeping. So you might have to step around some splayed out sleepers. Oh well – it’s all part of urban adventuring, right?

The back bar at Hotel Figueroa
939 S. Figueroa, just north of LA Live

This Moroccan-themed boutique hotel is oft overlooked by people heading out for a drink, which is a shame. The lobby is beautiful in and of itself, and there are lots of little nooks and crannies to explore. But for my money, the bar through the lobby and around back, next to the pool, is the place to go. Bougainvillea, candles, worn wooden chairs, and beautiful blue water make this feel like the ultimate downtown getaway. In this setting, the lights flickering in the surrounding buildings add to the romance, and it’ll just be you and a couple of hotel guests hoping not to be noticed – especially if you go on a night when LA Live is quiet. I know “that chick from Logistics” is my running joke (and for those who haven’t yet figured it out, go watch Office Space), but this truly is a place to take someone who you want to linger over a drink with – and the hotel is right upstairs.

The lobby of One Bunker Hill
601 W. 5th, corner of 5th and Grand

Originally built for Southern California Edison in 1930-31, this was originally a grand structure on Bunker Hill, renowned for its then state-of-the-art earthquake resistance and, appropriately, was one of the first all-electric buildings in the west. Now, it’s easy to miss this Art Deco gem – but you shouldn’t. There isn’t anything to “do” here, unless you want to grab a snack in the snack shop. But it’s worth the 30 seconds it will take to walk in the front door and look around – and many of you will want to linger. As you walk in, look at the three relief panels over the door, representing water (hydroelectric energy, to be precise), light, and power. Then, the lobby itself is all murals and marble, an ode to the days when buildings were seen as statements and not just tall glass boxes. If you haven’t been there before, you’re going to walk in and instinctively say “wow – I never knew this was here.” Check it out.

Magnolia
825 W. 9th St., behind the Pantry at Figueroa

This is the second version of a restaurant near the Arclight on Hollywood that has been serving good, dependable, casual fare for a few years now. Before it was Magnolia, it was a little Italian restaurant that was decent but never ever crowded. I always wondered how it stayed in business, and now we have our answer – it didn’t. Magnolia seems more built for the long haul, and it’s a perfectly pleasant place. But it truly does seem hidden-in-plain-sight. Once you find it, it doesn’t seem so hidden – and it actually has a decent bar and some nice outdoor seating. But it’s tucked in behind the Pantry, not easily seen from Fig and only a little more easily seen from 9th. It’s nothing too fancy, but that’s a good thing – it’s a nice break from your usual haunts, and certainly worth knowing about.

So there you have it – at least a few of the places in Downtown that many people don’t know about and are worth checking out. Feel free to post yours in the Comment section – assuming, that is, you’re willing to tell people about it.

Happy travels.