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Best & Favorites of 2009

Hello Enthusiasts –

Well, this is it. The last post of the year. 2009 saw the birth of this blog, and it seems to have struck a chord with some of you, which is great. Downtown is going strong, and the City of Angels never loses its ability to surprise and delight, if you let it.

The end of the year always brings a look back, and a chance to reflect. Sure, it’s a cliche … but I’ll indulge too. So, here you go: your Amateur Enthusiast’s Best and Favorites of 2009 Awards. Why both? Because sometimes the best of something isn’t always your favorite. It reminds me of what Thomas Keller said when he was asked why he opened Bouchon just down the street from the French Laundry: because he wanted somewhere he would eat himself after he was done cooking. (I don’t have time to explain that to you non-foodies, so if you’re curious what all that means, do some Googling…)

(Note: I’m not going to give you my usual locations, phone numbers, pictures, etc. I’ve written about most of these before, most of you already know where they are, and if neither of those help, you’re resourceful – you can figure it out yourself.)

So … in no particular order:

Best Place for a Quick After Work Drink
This one is heavily dependent on your current location, because you’re not going to drive somewhere for something like this. However, the place that I think has the best after work vibe and is probably most centrally located for the highest number of people is Library Bar, on 6th & Hope next to Wolfgang Puck’s. It opens early, it’s comfortable, and it’s easy to get a drink. I just wish they had better happy hour specials.

Favorite Place for a Quick After Work Drink
This one isn’t as centrally located, but I like to go to The Association, on 6th just past Main, next to Cole’s (look for the unmarked door that’s an exact replica of 10 Downing Street with a dude hanging out outside). It opens at 5, but nobody will be there. You walk in and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The bar is long and inviting. The bartenders are knowledgeable and will pour a mean cocktail, but also approachable and will just get you a shot if that’s what you need. You half expect Jeff Bridges or maybe Sam Elliott (Google him) to be at one end of the bar, nursing a beer. It just feels like an “end of a long day” destination.

Best Happy Hour
Different people want different things out of their happy hours. But for me, for its mix of good drinks and good food, all at decent prices and in a convivial setting, I’ll take Chaya Downtown. The cocktails are unique enough, there is a wide selection of food, and they also have decent wine and beer specials – you know, for your friends with simpler tastes.

Favorite Happy Hour
Still Chaya, but an honorable mention should go to Nick & Stef’s, especially if you can find a table outside. It’s got a good ‘blowing off steam after work’ vibe, it’s got good food and drink specials, and you feel like you’re among friends. It just gets so crowded that it can be hard to find a seat and get decent service. But still a good, fun happy hour.

Best Cocktails
This is an easy one. Note that this isn’t for best anything else but cocktails, and that has to go to The Varnish, inside the back of Cole’s at 6th just past Main. The Varnish does not cut a single corner when it comes to making drinks (which is why it takes you so long to get a drink there!). Their drink menu is creative, complex, and very good. But they will also make custom drinks, just for you. How thorough are they? If you order something as simple as a Rum & Coke (but why would you?), they use the Dutch formulation of Coke because it tastes better with the rum. The fact that it also feels like a speakeasy and is a little bit hidden just makes the drinks taste even better.

Favorite Cocktail
My favorite cocktail in Downtown is also at the Varnish: the Remember the Maine, but I substitute Chartreuse for the Absinthe rinse. This is a very personal choice, though – if you like vodka tonics, you won’t like the Remember the Maine.

Best Lunch Spot for…
Picking a “best lunch spot” is ridiculous, because it totally depends on what you’re looking for in a lunch spot. So I’ll break it down into a few categories:

Impressing a Client
Even this is a tough one because it depends on the client, but I think the most reliable “impressive” lunch spot is Drago Centro. You can either do a fairly efficient lunch – they manage to be quick without seeming rushed if you need to get in and out – or you can do the 5 course lunch extravaganza with wine. The service is excellent, the food is top notch, and the setting is impressive.

… a “Quick but Decent” Lunch
Sometimes you want to sit down somewhere and be waited on, but you don’t want it to be too expensive or take too long. For that, I still think Engine Co. #28 is the best. They’re an institution, they know what they’re doing, the food is good, it comes out quickly, and they can usually fit you in, even when they’re busy.

… When Someone Says “Let’s Go Somewhere New/Interesting”
Sometimes you have lunch plans with someone, and they say “let do something different.” And then everyone sits there and can’t think of anything. I’m here to help. For me, this is a tie between Yxta, on 6th & Central, and E 3rd, near 3rd & Traction in the Artists District. Yxta is in a very random location where most people don’t expect to find a good restaurant. It’s pretty straightforward Mexican food, but the decor is interesting and people won’t expect it. E 3rd is a Korean influenced steakhouse with an interesting interior (I always say I expect to see shady Asian gangsters doing deals with Denzel Washington in the back), good lunch specials, and unique but accessible food. And, again, it adds the “unexpected” factor.

… When You Want To Go Somewhere “Cool”
“Cool” is a different definition for everyone, but the restaurant I find that offers the most consistent wow factor is Rivera. It’s in an out of the way location on 11th & Flower, it serves unique food, it’s gotten great press (you can tell people the Times gave it 4 stars if you want), and it has a very interesting interior. To be honest, it’s a little pricey for not enough food, but the quality is great and it will usually impress people. (Great cocktails too, if it’s a Friday and maybe you can take a little longer. We won’t tell anyone. Get the Blood Sugar Sex Magik).

And Finally … Best Lunch Spot For When You Want To Show People That You Can Be Down With The Peeps
We all have that friend. The friend who thinks you’ve sold out, or that you always spend too much money for lunch, or who thinks you’ve lost touch with your roots. Well, prove them all wrong at Aladdin’s, on 11th & Hope. This place defines ‘dive’, but only in the best way. Some of you remember my blog post on this – well, get over there already! Good eats, good prices, friendly owners, and a reminder that you can still be down.

Best Intersection For An Unplanned Night Out
As compact as Downtown is, things can still be spread out. Where you want to go for happy hour might be far from where you’re going for dinner, which might be far from your nightcap spot, and so on. But there’s one place you can go for an “all in one” night. And that’s 6th & Main. So park somewhere near there. And then you’re just a couple blocks from all sorts of stuff. You might amble over to The Must, at 5th & Spring for a glass of wine (or two) and some dinner before heading out. Or maybe you want to go to Cole’s on 6th for historic french dip. My favorite after work spot, The Association, is right there as is the home of the best cocktails in Downtown, The Varnish, in the back of Cole’s. (and as of early next year, Las Perlas will be serving you amazing mezcal and tequila right across the street). Or, you can head back down to 5th near Spring and traipse down into Crocker Club, for drinks in a real honest to goodness bank vault. 4th & Main is the home of Pete’s, for a more proper meal, or you can end your night at the Edison, on 2nd & Main – a little more of a hoof, but still eminently walkable. Or you can go casual and go to Rocket Pizza or Downtown Burger Bar or good Thai food at Warung, all on 4th between Spring and Main. The point being that you can eat, drink, and sober up, all in one compact place. (and if you go soon, 4th Street has really pretty lights hanging down between Spring and Main. It’s presumably for the holidays, but I’m not sure why it’s just that block). Anyway, just start at 6th & Main and explore.

Best Hotel Bar
I think the best hotel bar in Downtown is probably the Gallery Bar at the Biltmore. It feels like the bar at a nice hotel should feel. It’s a little clubby but still comfortable, the bartenders wear bowties, they have good bar food, there’s sometimes live music, and it all just feels plush. This is where you’d find the George Clooney character from Up In The Air hanging out, flirting with the woman in the corner, nursing a double Scotch.

Favorite Hotel Bar
My favorite “hotel bar” is in the O Hotel, on 8th just past Flower. I put it in quotes because the O is definitely a boutique hotel – the restaurant and bar don’t really feel connected to a hotel, per se. But it’s in the lobby of an actual hotel, it’s rarely crowded, it’s got a cool vibe, they take good care of you, and it’s off the beaten path. Great for impressing Downtown newbies as well.

Best Breakfast
Much like lunch, choosing the best breakfast depends on what you want. But the best breakfast *food* in the nicest setting is probably at the Checkers Hotel, at 5th & Grand. People overlook this place, but it’s luxurious, still boutique-y, not very frequented, and has good service and good food. Pricey for breakfast, but good for especially when you get sick of the Dining Car.

Favorite Breakfast Spot
There’s no way this is the “best” breakfast because they should just give you angioplasty right after you eat there, but my favorite breakfast spot in Downtown, hands down, is the legendary Pantry, at 9th & Figueroa. Say what you want about Dick Riordan’s time as Mayor, I think we can all agree that his biggest contribution to civic life in Los Angeles was buying and saving this institution from closing its doors. No, the waiters aren’t really ex-cons, but they have all worked there for decades, the breakfasts are old fashioned and just how you want them, and the sourdough toast is the best in town.

And now for the biggies:

Best (and Favorite) Restaurant
This is a tough one, because, again, it all depends on what you’re looking for. But for me, for the mix of food quality, prices, service, vibe, and overall “I want to go back there” factor, the best restaurant in Downtown is … Bottega Louie. It fills such a necessary niche in Downtown. You can take work colleagues or clients there, you can start a fun night out there, you can end your night there, you can casually meet friends there, you can have Sunday brunch there, and it works for all of that and more. The high end food is great, but the pizzas and salads are also fantastic, and the sides are absolutely tremendous – I sometimes make a meal out of just those. The service is excellent, even when it’s packed and loud – and it’s just as excellent when you grab a table in the bar area. The cocktails are superb (many people don’t realize this, but Bottega Louie gives all the “cocktail bars” in town a serious run for their money in the quality and creativity department), the desserts aren’t an afterthought, and they do all this for very reasonable prices. The prepared foods are stellar, and the little gourmet shop carries really unique product. All in all, Bottega Louie is the entire package, and Downtown is the better for it.

Best (and Favorite) Bar
Most of you know the answer to this one, but I really did think hard about it. I think great bars have a certain undefinable quality that just attracts people back to them. You don’t have to think about wanting to go there – you just want to go there. The bartenders are friendly, the drinks are great, it’s high quality without being off putting, the jukebox is good, and they have enough variety, whether it’s live music or special tastings, to keep even the regulars entertained. And so, yes, for me, always, Seven Grand. Seven Grand is literally ground zero of the cocktail movement in Los Angeles. All the “all stars” either started there or worked there once upon a time. But even with all the turnover, and as it has matured into (relative) middle age, it maintains its place as the epicenter of Downtown bars. They continue to turn me on to new whiskeys, spirits, and other cocktails but at the same time, if you just want a beer or a gin and tonic, they’ll happily pour you one. Even non-whiskey types or non-Downtown types feel an affinity for Seven Grand after going there. It’s just what a Downtown bar should be: high quality, low attitude, comfortable, energetic, and fun.

Honorable Mentions:

I don’t really have a category for these, but I feel like a few other places should get mentions in a “Best of” blog post:

Wurstkuche, near 3rd & Traction in the Artists District. For interesting sausages (rattlesnake and rabbit, anyone?), great beers, and overall uniqueness.

The Edison, which got a passing mention above, but deserves to be singled out for perhaps the most dramatic setting of any bar in the entire City, and for having probably the best and most varied live entertainment in Downtown.

Mendocino Farms, for great, gourmet, yet still quick sandwiches. Best sandwiches in Downtown, by far.

Rowdy Red, which I STILL think is the best burger in Downtown, despite arguments from some of you.

CorkBar, at 12th & Grand, for great wines in a great setting with better-than-it-has-to-be food (the gougeres and mac and cheese alone are worth the trip)

And finally … LA Live. Yes, LA Live. For giving us a good movie theater, group-friendly restaurant options, easy (though expensive) parking, and reminding us that for Downtown to thrive, it has to attract more than urban pioneers like us.

So there you have it. My sign off for the year. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, and here’s to even more adventures in 2010.

Stay safe, and happy travels.