A Cocktail Renaissance: How Cocktail Bars Transformed Downtown LA into a Tourist Destination

The Broad Museum Credit: Spencer Lowell

So a Hollywood power broker, a ripped personal trainer, and a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills walk into a Pressed Juicery. This isn't a joke. It's most people's conception of Los Angeles, a company town where TMZ tour buses roam the streets like military surveillance vehicles, stalking B-list celebrities.

But there's another Los Angeles, a creative stretch of urban sprawl where locally owned restaurants are redefining the dining scene and world-class art galleries operate on streets that were littered with syringes five years ago. This is Downtown L.A., or DTLA, an electrifying two-mile radius, from the Staples Center to the upstart Arts District that may be the coolest stretch of graffitied warehouses in America.

The neighborhood hasn't always been this way. Downtown L.A.'s heyday was in the 1930s and '40s, when the area was full of supper clubs and glittery marquees. But urban flight began in the 1950s, and the lights dimmed dramatically. Then, in the 1980s, much of L.A.'s garment industry fled to China, and Skid Row quickly settled in.

So it was no coincidence that Kurt Russell chose L.A. to escape from in his 1996 dystopian satire: The formerly grand downtown appeared irreparably screwed. But in the late '90s, a handful of visionaries squinted and saw possibility — it was a wild West Coast where a community of artisans began to smooth out the rough edges.

Raan Parton, the creative director for the men's store Apolis, was one of the earlier tenants on East Third Street, where the rent was rumored to be 30 cents per square foot. "Our first studio was a former heroin den," he says. "There had been a murder in the space, so no one wanted it. We got in and power-washed the place, burned some sage, and crossed our fingers."

The gamble paid off. Today the streets still feel raw, and there's an unironic sense of wonder, of not knowing what's hiding around every corner. Behind an orange door simply labeled "Bar" on East Seventh Street lies Everson Royce Bar, though you'd never expect the awesome hoedown happening on the patio out back. It's like being invited to a friend's barbecue, with twinkly lights, well-above-average pork buns, and no velvet rope.

This isn't Raymond Chandler's L.A., a sordid backdrop for lonely souls. This is more like New York in the 1970s, an alluring Venn diagram in which danger meets the thrill of the undiscovered. Chase Spenst, co-owner of the Wheelhouse — a new bike shop–coffee joint (which improbably manages to do both well) — says of  his DTLA neighbors: "It's a bunch of people choosing community and culture over convenience." And now's the time to visit. Here's your road map.


Day 1: Cocktail Revival

There may be no better neighborhood in America for drinking than Downtown L.A. To start, there's Westbound, a dark, copper-clad bar on the site of an old Santa Fe Railway station that delivers a mean Sazerac with a fistful of popcorn. Seven Grand, a sleek wood-paneled den not too far away, stocks more than 700 varieties of whiskey. Bar Jackalope, a recently opened private room, is quieter, with a separate entrance inside and a stash of rare Pappy Van Winkle. The Varnish is a seven-year-old speakeasy-like bar installed in a onetime storage room at the back of Cole's, an historic pub and sandwich shop that claims to be the birthplace of the French dip sandwich.

The man who predicted all of this — and who opened most of the bars — is Cedd Moses, who made his money in finance before turning to more colorful pursuits. He had always been infatuated with the area, and in the late 1990s, he heard about plans to convert vacant downtown buildings into residential lofts. Moses figured that if people were going to live there, they would need a place to drink. So he opened the Golden Gopher in 2004 and never looked back. He now owns and operates more than a dozen spots, all among DTLA's best.

"People thought I had lost my mind," Moses says of those first years. "I might have lost my mind, but I found my balls."

Perhaps even more unlikely than a cocktail bar in an old storage room is a legit brewery corridor in the neighborhood. Arts District Brewing Company — celebrated for its vintage Skee-Ball machines, ping-pong table, delicious German pretzels, and, of course, beer — opened earlier this year in an old envelope factory on Traction Avenue. Iron Triangle is harder to find but worth the effort: The 3,500-square-foot tasting room on Industrial Street makes its home in a former horse stable, built in 1904, and keeps a dozen seasonal beers on tap. Iron Triangle Dark Ale is the clear favorite; despite its cold-brew color, it's crisp on the palate — and now also on draft at Dodger Stadium, just a few miles up the road.

Day 2: The Foodie Scene

According to a sign above the entrance, the Grand Central Market has been feeding Los Angeles since 1917, though never so well as today. Most every stall maintains a vintage neon sign, yet the sawdust-covered floors and bruised produce are no more — food trucks with no previous brick-and-mortar outposts have turned Grand Central Market into the hottest incubator of culinary talent in town.

Chef Alvin Cailan's wildly popular food truck, Eggslut, opened its first permanent space here in 2013, and there's been a line ever since. Eggslut regulars craving coddled eggs with potato puree served in a mason jar line up early and often. A twentysomething employee behind the counter tells me the longest line he's seen was around 100 people. "But the wait wasn't too bad," he says with a straight face. "Maybe 45 minutes." Here's an Eggslut hack: Come for an afternoon snack at 3 on a weekday and you can walk right up. Wash it down with coffee from G&B, a favorite of local music supervisor Zach Cowie. Cowie's latest obsession is G&B's Dark & Stormy. "An espresso shot with cold ginger beer doesn't sound right at all," he says, "but I'm hooked."

Chef Ori Menashe of Bestia, perhaps the hardest reservation to get in all of L.A., was 31 when he opened his restaurant in a dilapidated 3,000-square-foot warehouse on a side street with zero visibility. This isn't an exaggeration. He installed streetlights on Santa Fe Avenue because so many customers' cars were getting broken into. (Menashe still pays the electricity bill for them.)

During those first months, while Menashe's neighbors grew annoyed — even throwing water balloons at customers once — the influential Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold flipped for Bestia's steak tartar. The menu has changed daily since, but the original chicken gizzards have earned a permanent spot. DTLA is a place to take risks, not just in real estate but in palate. The lamb's neck, Menashe says, is always the first thing to sell out. Try finding that in Beverly Hills.

Day 3: The Arts

True to its name, the Arts District is lined with notable galleries. This isn't kitschy vacation art, either. In the 1970s, artists and musicians colonized the vacant buildings, and a 1981 ordinance essentially gave them squatters' rights. Sonic Youth and Beck fine-tuned their music at Al's Bar, off  Traction Avenue. The Box, run by Mara McCarthy (daughter of the influential L.A. sculptor and video artist Paul McCarthy), has been a pioneering space for artists like the late painter John Altoon.

Thanks to the recent revival, rich benefactors have come in and slapped their names on more than a few buildings, such as the Geffen, nearby. We're partial to the Broad, the 120,000-square-foot gorilla in town, housing the private collection of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, which opened to the public in 2015. The Broad (rhymes with "toad") is something of a greatest hits of contemporary art, where works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Jasper Johns rub shoulders. It's the perfect place to breeze through on a Sunday afternoon, especially since the museum is free on that day. (Our tip: Those free tickets often get snatched up well in advance, so go online and buy a $12 ticket to the special exhibition, which includes entrance to the rest of the museum.)

More pioneering is the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel space, which opened in March 2016 in the old Pillsbury flour mill on East Third Street. The gallery's mission is to give international artists a home in the States. Here, Berlin's Isa Genzken, Gerhard Richter's ex-wife and a celebrated artist in her own right, gets her first solo show in L.A. The building, painstakingly restored down to the original flour-mill molding, is itself a work of art. At 116,000 square feet, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is a straight-up compound, larger than the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which gives you a sense of its ambitions.

The gallery's restaurant, Manuela, opening this fall, has a menu inspired by 39-year-old chef Wes Whitsell's upbringing in rural north Texas. "Smoking, preserving, fermenting, pickling," Whitsell says. "I'm using the Old World techniques I was raised on." Manuela is local and seasonal (prerequisites these days, it seems), but Whitsell takes things one step further: He's installing an on-site 700-square-foot urban farm that will include finger-lime trees, tomato plants, an herb garden, and a chicken coop (for eggs). The Downtown vibe, he explains, is about "letting the true beauty of a space reveal itself."

Day 4: Action

DTLA may be a gourmand's paradise, but the neighborhood also has its share of adventure options like L.A. Boulders, a climbing gym next to the L.A. Gun Club. With 12,000 square feet of climbing space and 17-foot walls, L.A. Boulders is the largest such gym in Southern California, complete with steep overhangs.

Or better yet, explore the changing shape of the neighborhood courtesy of L.A.'s Metro Bike Share program. No visit to DTLA is complete without a ride through Grand Park. Another worthy stop is the Bradbury Building, an architectural wonder dating from 1893 that you may recognize from the climactic chase in Blade Runner or from Zooey Deschanel's (500) Days of Summer, if that's more your speed.

Even the old U.S. Bank Tower is getting in on the fun: Take the elevator to the 70th floor, where you'll find the just-built OUE Skyslide, a glass-enclosed slide attached to the skyscraper's exterior, a silly-enough attraction that earns its stripes at sunset, when the views are killer. Don't worry about earthquakes.

(I asked.) "You could hang a yellow school bus filled with children off the slide," an employee tells me. "Or two blue whales." And this being L.A., it may not be long before you see that happen — at least in a movie.

Where to Stay

When the Ace Hotel opened in the 1920s-era United Artists Building in 2014, it was a neighborhood turning point as significant as the debut of DTLA's first supermarket, Ralphs. The key to the hotel's vibe is its revamped Spanish Gothic theater, which has hosted a slew of artists from Wilco to Tig Notaro. Even if you don't stay here, check to see who's playing. The Sheraton Grand recently underwent a $75 million renovation that includes the farm-to-table lobby restaurant District on the Bloc. You'll also get a front-row seat to The Bloc, a $180 million downtown office and retail project that involved tearing off the roof of a Macy's (seriously) to create a sun-filled public plaza with local vendors, food trucks, and, soon, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse's first L.A. outpost.

Where to Caffeinate

The Wheelhouse is a semi-hidden bike shop where fixed-gear heads go for their coffee fix. The hulking space (next to the L.A. Gun Club) is part sales floor for brands like Handsome Cycles, Rivendell Bicycle Works, and Heritage, and part serious coffee bar.

Where to Snack

If you spot the Pico House food truck, flag it down and grab an order of pickled red-onion rings served with herb-quark sauce — then lick your fingers for the next two days. Chef Johnny Zone got famous with his Howlin' Ray's food truck, which brought Nashville hot chicken to L.A. and blew everyone's mind. Zone just opened the first Howlin' Ray's brick-and-mortar space, in Chinatown.