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2010 Year in Review, and The Case for a Downtown New Year’s

Hello Enthusiasts –

Don’t say I didn’t warn you – the posts will come when they come.  I bombarded you for awhile, and now it’s been over a month.  C’est la vie.

However, I did want to do an end of year post.  Last year, I did a “Best of” Downtown.   Not this year – this year, I’m going to look forward instead of back, along with a little bit about New Year’s.

But as I reflect about the last year in Downtown, a few thoughts do come to mind:

1)  Downtown has become both a newsmaker AND a trendsetter.  There’s a saying in public life that news travels west, while trends travel east.  i.e., New York and Washington drive news cycles, but California and Hollywood drive trends.  I think that the same *used* to be true about Los Angeles:  news traveled west from Downtown, whereas trends originated on the Westside and traveled east.  But this year, I think Downtown also started to legitimately drive trends in Los Angeles and, by extension, the rest of the nation.  I’m not a fashion or art blogger, but I do know that many fashion and art trends are originating in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles fashion and art worlds originate in Downtown.  But when I think about my own bailiwick, the trend is even more pronounced.  Downtown started the cocktail revolution, which is now firmly ensconced throughout the city – you can’t open a new bar without dealing with the question of whether you will be a “mixology” bar or not.  It’s not that every bar has to serve great cocktails, but bar owners know that they have to deal with the question.  In fact, most of the new “cocktail” bars that are opening right now are in Hollywood, shepherded to fruition by Downtown veterans – and if Hollywood graduates from the vodka/Red Bull ghetto, we’ll know we’ve really made progress.  Hell, if the stodgy old Raymond revitalizes itself by opening a cocktail bar, you know things have reached critical mass.

Same holds true for restaurants.  The hottest restaurant during at least the latter half of 2010 was Test Kitchen (RIP – although it lived far longer than it was originally supposed to).  Yes, Test Kitchen was on the Westside, but its soul was firmly developed in Downtown – further evidence of trendsetting.  The mixologists were from Downtown, and many of the chefs have Downtown roots.  John Sedlar from Rivera tested his new menu there.  Neal Fraser tested the new menu for his upcoming restaurant inside St. Vibiana’s there.  The suddenly departed chef from First and Hope popped up there.  And with it’s “anything goes, everybody is welcome” vibe, it would have fit right in down here.  Beyond that, Ludo Lefebvre’s pop up restaurant, LudoBites, most recent incarnation was in the Valley, but it went into supernova when it was in the Gram & Papa’s space in Downtown.  After that, the next incarnation ran out of reservations – for the whole entire run – in 90 minutes.

Of course, this isn’t to say that great restaurants aren’t opening elsewhere in the City, and the Westside will probably always have the highest critical mass of great restaurants.  But the *trends* in restaurants and cocktails are emanating from this part of the world.  And that will only solidify Downtown’s rising claim as the symbolic, not just geographic, center of sprawling Los Angeles.

2)  Downtown is entering a critical new phase in its resurgence.  Los Angeles loves the new, though it’s willing to embrace the old.  For the last couple of years, Downtown has been home of the new – new bars, new restaurants, LA Live, the whole nine.  It’s been easy to be excited about Downtown because there were always new places to try.  But the pace of new openings has slowed down as the existing establishments get their legs underneath them, and as people are seeing how this market performs.  This is where quality ownership comes in.  You have to work to keep places fresh and interesting.  Revolving entertainment, creative promotions, aggressive outreach.  Luckily, most of these places are owned by people who feel invested, both literally and figuratively, in Downtown’s success so I think they will at minimum work very hard at this, and I think most of them will succeed.  But as Downtown graduates from the place people *want to* check out versus the place people *already have* checked out, the trick will be getting them to come back.  Places like Seven Grand and the Edison have successfully learned how to outlive their “white hot” days and still thrive; let’s hope most of the other places that were new 6 or 12 or 18 months ago do the same.

3)  Downtown is still emerging.  This may seem to contradict my last paragraph, but the other fact about Downtown is that it is still undiscovered by many Angelenos.  The difference is that now most of them *know* about it, they just haven’t all made it down here.  So Downtown can’t get so focused on catering to the people already here and forget how many people still haven’t been here.  It’s amazing how often I hear “yeah, I hear Downtown is really cool now.  I just have to get down there one of these nights.”  And any time I show a newbie around, their already high expectations are blown away.  So this is the real trick for bar and restaurant owners and managers:  remembering that Downtown still needs discovering, while still remaining interesting and vital to those who have discovered it.

The bottom line of all this is that I think this coming year is going to be fascinating to watch in Downtown.  It won’t always be about the next place; it might be about new iterations of the last place.  It might be about new promotions or menus or reboots, a la Ciudad’s metamorphosis into Border Grill.  There will still be new discoveries, but those new discoveries will have to fit into an existing fabric instead of being part of creating that fabric, and I’ll be right here, watching and experiencing it all.

Now, onto more immediate concerns: New Year’s.

New Year’s Eve can create falsely inflated expectations to have the night of your life, or at least the best night of your year.  But with wildly inflated prices, overthought negotiations with friends, and figuring out what to choose, it can all just get a little daunting.  That’s why I suggest giving Downtown some serious consideration for your big night out.

Why?  Downtown solves many problems at once.  If you decide to go to a restaurant or a club elsewhere, you’ll probably pay so much money that even if it’s terrible, you’ll feel too guilty to leave.  AND, even if you wanted to leave, you probably will not be walking distance from your next hypothetical destination.  Downtown solves all of this.  First, most places Downtown don’t charge exorbitant New Year’s Eve prices – even The Edison is only $75, and gets you champagne and dessert.  The Varnish is $125, but gets you all you can drink (!) and a bunch of cool stuff.  I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I think the O Hotel – which has a rebooted cocktail and food menu – is charging $38 for all sorts of food and drink (maybe even all you can drink).  And lots of places, you’ll just be able to walk in, usually with some sort of DJ or other entertainment.  The point is, you’ll have lots of options, you won’t blow the bank, and you can feel like you’re having a real night out.

And if you want dinner, there are a ton of options as well – Rivera, LA Live, First and Hope (which is doing great live music in the Fedora Room), WP 24, all sorts of good stuff most of which still have reservations available.   But maybe the best deal is at the newly rebooted Border Grill, which has somehow enlivened and revitalized itself, even though it’s mostly consisted of putting a fresh coat of paint and some new wall art onto Ciudad.  Their New Year’s deal is a 4 course meal for $45 with $5 wine pairings AND – this might be the best part – free shuttle service to “the destination of your choice.”

So while you’re negotiating with your friends over whether you’re going to pay $150 at Restaurant A or $175 at Club B, make it easy on yourself.  Just pick a place to start Downtown, roughly decide where you might want to go, and let Downtown whisk you into 2011.

NOTE:  After I published this the first time, Cedd Moses sent me notice of what he is doing at his places for New Year’s, which is verrrrry cool.  Get this:  $119 gets you into 8, count ’em, 8 bars in Downtown on New Year’s Eve all of which have OPEN bars (!) AND either a DJ or live music.  Go to This Is What I Should Do For New Year’s for details.  I know I don’t have to tell you this, but Cedd owns all the best bars in Downtown:  Seven Grand, Cana, Broadway Bar, Golden Gopher, etc.  This is what I would do if I could this year…

Have a great holiday, and happy travels.