Up until recently, the idea of walking around downtown Los Angeles was not appealing. It was an area to avoid. There have always been landmark hotels and high-rise office buildings, but it was not the kind of city that inspired a stroll around the block. I used to relish going to the LA Times building, but the decline of the newspaper industry changed the dynamics and exhilaration of the old-time newsroom. And, in part because of the preponderance of homeless people and “questionable” characters, and mostly because there truly were no desirable dining, shopping or entertainment venues that would inspire me (or pretty much anyone else I know) to go there, I didn’t consider downtown Los Angeles to be a destination of choice.
That’s all changed. In the years that have followed the opening of Staples Center and the addition of L.A. Live, Los Angeles has truly undergone a renaissance. In the past few months since we’ve made this enlightening discovery, walking around downtown L.A. has become one of my favorite things to do.
I’ve chronicled past visits to some downtown hotspots, and I will continue to do so as we uncover more great places to visit in the future. Every trip results in new discoveries – none more revealing than the city’s prodigious history, as evidenced through the spectacular Art Deco architecture found on structures stacked along Grand, Broadway, Olive, Spring, Main and other streets, and the numbered boulevards that intersect perpendicularly. Lighting is strung overhead up and down the block throughout the financial district, and great new or rejuvenated restaurants and bars emerge among the side-by-side storefronts along the avenues of what has once again re-emerged as one of America’s great cities – and nirvana for “foodies.” Even people I meet who work downtown are amazed at the revitalization they’ve seen transpire right before their eyes.
Not long after our Los Angeles journey, I walked the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego – the city’s downtown dining, entertainment and urban shopping district – and I frequently visit Old Pasadena. I’m amazed at how revitalization efforts have made these and other downtown sections “can’t miss” destinations. It’s evident even in my longtime hometown of Claremont, which is now alive day and night, which is a huge departure from the days when the downtown shut down at sunset.
Our most recent outing to Los Angeles was fueled by a celebration of Susan Descombes’ birthday. We started at the rooftop bar at The Standard on Flower at Sixth. The route to the top took us past dozens of ping pong tables and then a rooftop “Bier Garten” before we settled near the top floor outdoor pool deck and outdoor “waterbed pods” for a round of refreshing bourbon lemonades, Moscow Mules and champagne cocktails with St. Germain elderflower liqueur.
Next stop was dinner at Bar Ama’, home of puffy tacos (not on the menu) and a “bon appetite” magazine national “Top 50 New Restaurant Nominee” for 2013. Our guide Gordon Descombes was masterful in selecting an assortment of dishes for starters, while each of us picked out a specialty cocktail. Lenny Seligman and I opted for the Snake’s Blood and the La Moda Vieja (both are whiskey-based). Kristen also had a Snakes Blood, while Susan had a Vodka variation of the same cocktail. Jeannie Stoll and Beth each had a vodka based lemonade drink, while I recall that Gordon went with tequila.
After a fabulous dinner, we walked to our new favorite spot, The Varnish, hidden inside the French Dip institution Coles on Sixth at Main. It’s really hard to top this place, and I had a great opportunity to chat with mixologist Jason for a bit while he manufactured a few masterpieces. In the times I’ve been there, I’ve admired the way the artists behind the bar crafted their concoctions, and truly appreciate the care they give to each cocktail. I watched intently as Jason cracked hand-cut ice cubes into a Manhattan and stirred vigorously to increase the dilution. It was obvious he was a master craftsman and a graduate of the Bar Smarts program (he confirmed). To me, that is the ultimate achievement in his profession. I don’t believe that because I graduated from the online version of the class (he did the real thing), but because I understand the tremendous level of painstaking dedication and expertise that Jason and others have gone through to achieve their professional goals. Those people are good.
Aside from Jason’s vast knowledge of mixing cocktails, the mixologists and servers at The Varnish have a unique talent. The menu includes an item called “Bartender’s Choice,” in which the server quizzes guests about their drink preferences (spirit of choice, along with drink qualities, such as whether it is refreshing, fruity, spicy or other qualities). Jeannie’s answers returned a “Bitter Bee” drink. Sus was served a Moscow Mule and Gordon a “Flora Dora.” I had a Pop Quiz and Len stuck with an Old Fashioned. Kristen Descombes and Beth had other specialties as they stood at the bar deep in conversation (and neither one known for having a shortage of words).
While there were still places to explore, the best part of the evening was complete. We stopped for some L.A.-brewed craft beers at the Golden Gopher, and then called it a night…until the next time we go walking in L.A.