explore: downtown LA & santa monica

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As everyone you’ll meet will tell you, downtown LA has changed dramatically in the last three years. Despite the dramatic revival/renewal/gentrification, this is still a dissonant place; you walk past a lot of people wandering, yelling or panhandling at street corners and weaving among the foot traffic of the old town or the business district. And yes, there’s plenty of foot traffic, plenty of buses and taxis, a subway, a tram, and apparently some trains. This car-dominated town is trying to change, and downtown is leading the way. The palm trees and the scale of things make you feel you’re in LA; otherwise it could be any other generously sized American city center, still pedestrian-unfriendly, bloated and hard of access, but supporting enough of the kinds of businesses that exiled urbanites like – cafes, galleries, cocktail bars, boutiques – to be on its way to a liveable downtown, a just-about-walkable area to live and work.

It does feel that we’re in the place for the New York fetishist in LA, from the owner of the Nickel Diner on Main who has lines out the door for brunch on Sundays and told us she likes to think of her business as the afterlife of (storied, defunct) Florent in the Meatpacking District. Then there’s Bottega Louie on 7th, an airy and cathedral-like space with white-painted moulding and touches of marble and gold, that serves fairly priced and fresh food from an open-plan kitchen, and entices you in with pyramids of pink and blue macaroons. We ate there twice – once a pizza, and once a bagel. Both sacrilegious things to order in LA, and both quite distinct from their New York counterparts, but both quite delicious – even the pizza with its deep, chewy crust and topping of burrata, broccoli rabe and prosciutto.

New Yorkers inevitably ask, ‘how did you get around?’ We can honestly say – we walked, we took buses, and we took the metro. In other news, there’s a metro. We walked from the hotel (more on that later) to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was showing highlights from its permanent collection (including Giacometti, Rothko, Pollock, Lee Krasner, Bill Viola) and ‘The Artist’s Museum,’ of works by local LA artists from the past 30 years, which included Doug Aitken’s stunning 1999 video installation electric earth. The collection is eclectic and the curation thoughtful and often witty – the Rothko room is presided over by an oversized shop mannequin dressed in imposing 80s-boardroom garb.

We walked to bars and restaurants – to Corkbar, a friendly wine and small-plates restaurant that served a great Pinot Noir, cheese and charcuterie board and pulled-pork bruschetta; to The Chaya, a fancier French-Japanese fusion restaurant, which will be talked of hereafter as The Place with the Kobe Beef Sushi, although we could also reminisce about its lamb chops, oversized and impossibly creamy gnocchi, loup de mer that melted like butter, and brightly flavoured balls of sorbet, delivered free of charge when part of our meal was (imperceptibly) delayed.

And we walked to the bus stop to take the 720 express down Wilshire to Santa Monica, a fascinating journey through Koreatown, Beverley Hills, Westwood, Brentwood, and finally the beach, where we walked to the promenade and took pictures of a glowing sunset, the pier, and the row of ornate architectural follies that line the beach, real-estate fantasies interspersing pseudo-Alpine cottages with steel-and-glass modernist masterpieces. We walked to the pier and out to the end, where we embraced the cheesiness and the terrace fire-pit at Mariasol, with margaritas, baja-style fish tacos, guacamole and a mariachi band. Walking back to the bus stop along the pedestrianised Third Street Promenade we could look in shop windows while couples danced mambos in the middle of the sedate and sculptured walkway. Santa Monica feels Californian in ways that downtown doesn’t, not just for the obvious and easy presence of the sand, sea and sunshine, but for the smaller scale of things, the atmosphere of rather earnest hedonism – enjoy yourself but clean up afterwards, bring the family to tour the recycling facility – that downtown, with its looming corporate towers and hotels, is missing.

Yet downtown also has a historic core – you can tell, because there are signs to direct you there. This is where you’ll find Cole’s, the originator (probably – all such culinary inventions tend to be disputed) of the ‘French Dip’ sandwich, a roast-beef roll served with a side of meaty jus for softening the bread, and where there’s a door in the back leading to an open-secret speakeasy, which is accommodating enough if you’re young and hip and in a small group. Never mind – close enough, there’s the Golden Gopher on West 8th, a bar that through a quirk of licensing can sell you take-out booze, although it’s much nicer to settle into a dark corner booth with a decent Manhattan – right now, apparently, the cocktail of choice in this area that’s revelling in its rediscovered urban heart.

And, finally, the hotel – we stayed at the Biltmore, although there’s also the space-age Westin Bonaventure nearby, if you prefer the slightly faded opulence of the ’80s to the ’20s, Frederic Jameson to the Black Dahlia. The Biltmore is a grand dame but not a diva, unpretentious despite the glamour. There’s a TV showing sports above the elegantly spotlit, walnut-panelled bar, and the weekend jazz nights get pleasantly raucous. There’s every kind of photo and film shoot going on, and the basement swimming pool, tiled like a Moroccan-Italian villa, calls for a 50s-cut swimsuit and some kind of a starlet-appropriate cocktail – a grasshopper? – served on a silver tray. Somehow this cocktail revival and urban renewal seems to go hand-in-hand.

You can walk here from the red line metro at Pershing Square, where at the moment there’s an outdoor ice-rink set up, and you’re right in the center of this odd clash of the very old (by LA standards) and the very new. The loft buildings are leasing enthusiastically and it’s still possible to get a cheap apartment (according to my hairdresser, who told me she pays $1200 a month for her place, because that’s what you get told in the first couple of minutes of meeting somebody here.) Downtown might not be anybody’s picture of LA, but it might do something, all to the good, to change that gridlocked picture for the future.

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