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Four Places To Add To Your List

Hello Enthusiasts –

Well, we’re back. Your loyal Enthusiast’s enthusiasm for Downtown never waned, but your loyal Enthusiast did want to take a break from writing about it for awhile.

So why come back now? I hate the term “back by popular demand”, but I do have to say that it’s the question I get asked the most. Not my opinion on the latest political developments … not my sage advice on thorny public policy questions. No, the question I get asked the most is “whatever happened to your blog?” And the question I get asked the second most is “where should I go for … [fill in the blank]”. I’m literally a one man Urban Daddy. The question is usually something like “So, I’m headed to Hollywood with a few friends for drinks and it’s sort of a special occasion but we don’t want anywhere too fancy, so where should we go?” I really should start charging for this.

But I digress. Anyway, I finally got to a point where my desire to reanimate my alter ego – and your persistent requests for me to do so – is ruling the day. So I may not be posting every single week, but the Amateur Enthusiast won’t disappear for so long again.

Given my hiatus, we have some catching up to do. So, admittedly, some of you may have been to the places I’m going to write about. But I bet even more of you haven’t. So I’m going to categorize these four places in different ways. The first is:

The Bar You’ve Heard Of But Haven’t Been To Yet, And You Should Make The Effort To Go

That bar is … La Descarga. The first thing to know about La Descarga is the location: it’s on Western, north of Santa Monica. Most of you are reading that, and looking up while thinking “what neighborhood is that, exactly?” Yeah – it’s not a neighborhood. It’s just … Western, north of Santa Monica.

The second thing about La Descarga is how you get in. First, you have to make reservations. No, it’s not a lame Hollywood rope scene – it just has strict capacity limits, and has to manage those (unfortunately, that does mean you have to plan to go in advance). So once you’ve done that, you’ll pull up to your random stretch of no man’s land (thankfully, they have valet parking), you’ll get out, and the guy at the door will check your reservation. After waving you through, you’ll hike up some stairs, and enter a door on your right. You’ll walk into a sparsely furnished office, with just a desk, a random piece of art on the wall, an armoire on your right, and a girl (always a girl) seated behind the desk with some sort of retro dress/gown on. She’ll check your reservation again, and ask you if you are ready. You will seem a little confused and say “yeah, I guess so.” She will get up and walk to the armoire. She will turn around, look at you, and say “OK, then. Bienvenidos a La Descarga” as she is opening up the armoire. You will then walk INTO the armoire, all Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe style, push aside some random clothes hanging there, and walk out the backside of the armoire. And you will walk onto a catwalk, looking down onto … Havana, circa 1958. It looks like this (thanks, FoodGPS):

It seems a little gimmicky, but it works. The place just envelopes you, and makes you feel ready for a good night out.

La Descarga is a rum bar, with serious rum cocktails. But they’ll make you whatever you want, and you’ll like it. The drinks are great, but you’re not really there for the drinks anyway.

Behind the bar you are looking at here on the left is another smaller bar, where they serve the sipping rums and the cigars (it doesn’t really seem outdoors, but it doesn’t smell smoky either. Go figure.). And if you know how to talk to a bartender, he might just pull out some stuff of questionable origin for you…

Finally, go on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday and, starting at 10 pm, every hour on the hour, you’ll get a little retro show. Three guys up on the catwalk play bongos, bass, and a saxophone or maybe a trumpet, and a girl comes out the other side and does a nice little Cuban dance. Comes down the stairs, dances with a couple of the fellas, and goes back into hiding. It’s sultry, without being offputting for the girls.

So yeah – it’s been open a few months and your loyal Enthusiast let you down by not giving you the inside scoop. You’ve probably heard of it by now. But if you haven’t been … make the effort and go.

Next up:

The Restaurant You’ve Heard Of But Haven’t Been To Yet, And You Should Make The Effort To Go

Now, we’re on to First and Hope. Now this one, even more of you may have already been to, but I’m still surprised by the number of people who I invite there, and they say “what’s the name of it?” And I say “First and Hope.” And they say “I get where it is, but what’s it called?” And then it starts to sound like a Laurel and Hardy routine. But the point is, fewer people have been to this place than they should.

First and Hope calls itself a supper club, and it really succeeds at providing that vibe. Before we get too far, here’s a pic (thanks, Eater LA):

No other restaurant in Downtown – or the City – looks like this. You walk in, you check out the decor, you see the hostesses in their sleek silver gowns, and you immediately think it’s gonna be a special night, even if you’re just going there before the theater. (and if you ARE looking for somewhere pre-theater, don’t even think of anywhere else. Kendall’s is boring and this is right across the street).

The food, while it might change soon (long story – old chef left right after a great LA Times review … don’t ask why), is sort of gourmet Southern, which you wouldn’t really expect. But it’s good, and it’s fun, and it even gets whimsical sometimes, like the nights when the special is the gourmet TV dinner, with little individual places on the plate for your vegetable and your starch and your little dessert cobbler.

Plus, the cocktail program – set up by the now-legendary Aidan Demarest and Marcos Tello – is top notch (First and Hope bartenders keep winning national competitions…), and on Thursdays, they set up a farmers market bounty of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and such. Let’s say the watermelon look especially ripe – you can say “gee, the watermelon looks good, and maybe that would be interesting to try the cilantro with, and I normally drink tequila”, and they’ll whip something up. It’s a lot of fun.

Finally, the piece de resistance, which even people who have been there a few times sometimes don’t know about is The Fedora Room. Why don’t they know about it? Because it’s all the way to the back and on the left – easy to miss. But whereas the main room is all cool and reserved, the Fedora Room is hepcat and jazz. Piano, cocktail tables, old school mike – and probably an old school torch singer belting them out for you – great way to end the night.

So maybe you haven’t been there, or maybe you have but you’ve “only” had dinner or a drink – go back and take it all in.

Next, we have:

The Bar You Haven’t Heard Of Yet, But You Should Go Before Your Friends Find Out
And that bar would be … Villains Tavern.

I’m just gonna say it: Villains is the coolest bar to open in Downtown since probably The Varnish. Why? Some things you can’t point to but, like all good bars, some things are just undefinable.

First, it’s got a great look, and it’s a true indoor/outdoor space, which is pretty unique in Downtown. I’m giving you two pix so you can at least get a sense, even though they don’t do it justice (both from the Times online):

Second, close readers of this little vanity project of mine will note that I’m a big believer in context – there’s something about the unexpected that makes things more interesting. Well, Villains is on Palmetto. Where is Palmetto, you say? It’s wayyyyy on the other side of Downtown. It’s near Church and State, but it feels like it’s tucked away in its own little part of the world. Which makes the finding of it all that much more fun – you skeptically follow your GPS there, and then once you get there, you have found a cool oasis in the middle of the randomness.

Third, the drink program is a-ma-zing. Dave Whitton formerly of Seven Grand fame runs the place, and the great thing is that he got to perfect his program while still at 7G, so he has hit the ground running. The drinks are unique, interesting, diverse, and I have yet to try one that doesn’t work.

Fourth, they have entertainment much of the time, and that’s always welcome in my book.

Fifth, it has food, which is also unlike most bar-forward places in Downtown. And it’s actually good food – not just a bunch of fried bar crap.

Finally, and this is where the indefinable part comes in … it all just adds up to a place you want to go back to. The memorable design … the out of the way location … the good drinks … different entertainment every night … it’s a place made for repeat visits.

So … go. You’ll love it.

And last but not least:

The Restaurant You Haven’t Heard Of Yet, But You Should Go Before It Goes Away.

And this one is … Test Kitchen. No, it’s not in Downtown – but it’s spearheaded by Downtown folks, and is worth all you Downtown Enthusiasts making a trek to the, gasp!, Westside.

Test Kitchen could be really gimmicky. It could ride the “cool and different” wave without being that good. But it doesn’t – it is the most interesting restaurant to open up in LA this year.

You may have heard of “pop up” restaurants, where a restauranteur takes over someone else’s space and runs a restaurant for a few weeks. The most famous recent one was LudoBites, which set up shop in the Gram & Papa’s space Downtown for a few weeks. This is the same concept, but taken to a whole new level.

Test Kitchen is exactly what the name says: it’s a test kitchen for chefs to try new things for a limited period of time, usually just one or two nights. So let’s say a chef is between jobs, or wants to try something new – they set up shop at Test Kitchen for a few nights and see how it goes. And, to make it even cooler, they pair up with some of the City’s best cocktail gurus so that every night, your meal has interesting, unique cocktails to go with it.

Examples of who has come through: Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio, Neal Fraser from Grace, John Sedlar from Rivera, to name a few, all of whom were trying out menus for new restaurants.

So here’s how it works: you go online and look at what’s coming up. They post the menus for the next few chefs – obviously, given that the kitchen is turning over every couple of days, substitutions don’t really work, so you better want to eat what they are cooking. It’s usually pretty reasonably priced for a multi-course meal. You make your reservation, you pull up to the unmarked building on Pico (just west of Beverly, just across from a Ralphs), and in you go. (no picture – it’s nice, but decor is somewhat irrelevant. The coolest thing is that they have a chalkboard over the open kitchen telling you who happens to be the chef on that particular night, but I couldn’t find a picture of that).

What’s cool about it is that the chefs can really do their thing – they don’t have to worry about whether they can source the product for the next three months, or whether they will be able to sell a certain number of whatever they are cooking. Everybody eating there has already tacitly agreed to eat what they want to cook – otherwise, don’t come.

Which also means that the cocktail guys can do their thing, too. The night I was there, the chef was Shelley Cooper, formerly of First and Hope. She was serving soft shell crab and frog legs and Asian-inspired pork osso buco, and sweet potato fried pie (with bacon butterscotch sauce and candied bacon and yes, it was every bit as good as it sounds). For those of you saying “ew, frog legs” – well, you either didn’t have to go, or you just didn’t have to eat them, but you knew going in that it would be one of the choices, so you make your peace with it. She was paired with Aidan Demarest, who still runs the beverage program at First and Hope (and doesn’t exactly bartend every day anymore). He concocted something he called Churro on a Burro – tequila that was essentially infused with brown butter, mixed with lemon, creole shrub, and mexican cinnamon (and a couple other ingredients). The butteryness and cinnamony sweetness was perfectly offset with the lemon and the herbalness of the shrub. Would I order it every night? No. Was it one of the most interesting drinks I’ve had in a long time? Absolutely.

And on top of all that, the service was absolutely incredible – not only was it timely and friendly, but the servers knew everything about our dishes, and even suggested wine pairings. Pretty impressive given that the menu was going to totally change the next night.

Test Kitchen has the downsides of a new restaurant every night – they run out of stuff, sometimes there are hiccups, the seatings aren’t always exactly when your reservation is. But the upside is that it has the excitement of a new restaurant every night, it has the air of expectation and experimentation that adds to the excitement, and you can really tell that everyone there is trying their hardest, every single day.

So go to the website (or sign up for the Twitter feed, of course), find the menu you like, make resos, and go! They can’t keep this up forever, so it won’t be around much longer…

So there you have it. A long post, but hey, making up for lost time. Who knows what I will be posting on next and when, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this blog and its readers over the last few months: absence makes the heart grow fonder.


La Descarga
1159 N Western Ave, north of Santa Monica
(323) 466-1324

First and Hope
710 W 1st St, at Hope (duh)
(213) 617-8555

Villains Tavern
1356 Palmetto St, at Santa Fe Ave

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd, west of Beverly
(310) 277-0133