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How to Eat and Drink Your Way Through Downtown L.A.'s New Scene

Travel writers would have you believe that downtown L.A. is having its moment. But when you’re there, staying at the new JW Marriott or the even newer Ritz-Carlton adjacent, you’ll soon realize that no one has yet told the denizens of downtown. Over a too-sweet guava collins enjoyed in the shared poolside lounge between the sister hotels, I told the bartender of my itinerary: two days of drinking and eating in the heart of the city. “I’m going to Church & State,” I announced. “And last night, we had some great drinks at The Varnish.” No flicker of recognition. “Yeah,” he replied, “I haven’t heard of those places.” He wasn’t the only one—over the course of my weekend I met a hotel full of transplanted employees, newcomers from D.C. and New York City, most of whom hadn’t heard that downtown was suddenly cool.

illustration by Jacqui Oakley

From that same pool deck, you can see the future—literally. The L.A. Live complex, a recently completed project that soldiered on through the recession, is the linchpin of downtown’s revitalization. It’s almost Times Square-esque—lots of lights, lots of monstrous ads, the obligatory Trader Vic’s. The complex also houses the Nokia Theatre and the Staples Center, two of the biggest sports and music venues in town. Ringing the complex—and lining the surrounding streets—are live-work lofts, each with banners announcing availability. Obviously, all these people have to eat, but is downtown the new West Hollywood, at least as far as dining is concerned?

Year-old Bottega Louie is banking on it. The 10,000-square-foot space is astonishing in scale—its soaring ceilings, acres of white marble and cranking open kitchen (not to mention the deafening decibel level) are somewhat stupefying. Especially if you happen to walk in just after Kate Bosworth is seated and the whole room is abuzz—and not in that NYC “we know you’re a celebrity but we’re too cool to acknowledge it” way. While the kitchen has lofty ambitions, food is hardly the point—a salad, a couple glasses of wine and an expertly made chocolate soufflé will do just fine, thank you. And if your server throws out a comment about how Bottega Louie’s pizza is better than that served a $35 cab ride away, at Pizzeria Mozza—accept it as a challenge.

No, Pizzeria Mozza isn’t downtown. As high-rises gave way to the bungalows and lush lawns of West Hollywood, I felt a pang of guilt for skipping out on the burgeoning downtown scene so soon. But, I reasoned, there’s no way to know what the benchmark is unless you’ve been to the city’s current food mecca, the first West Coast collaboration between Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali. The Mozza influence is a bit like the Chez Panisse influence here. A version of Pizzeria Mozza’s justly famous burrata—pesto, burrata and stem-on, oven-roasted cherry tomatoes—is probably one of the most copied dishes in L.A. And as far as pizza is concerned: It’s really, really good. I don’t want to get mired in the great pizza debate of the ages, but suffice it to say that Silverton is justly famous for her bread, so it makes sense that the crust would be delicious. Topping it with house-cured guanciale, chanterelle mushrooms and fontina cheese only makes it better.

If Pizzeria Mozza represents the dressed-down Italian restaurant, Drago Centro housed on the far side of a downtown plaza between two high-rises, is at the other extreme. The modern interior of Celestino Drago’s latest restaurant contrasts with the classic Italian fare, from expertly executed nettle-and-mushroom risotto, the grains of rice just yielding to the bite, to a crispy square of pork belly set atop apricot-studded farro. The wine list features some gems—including a beautiful Piedmontese Nascetta by the glass—and a robust cocktailing scene has developed, particularly with the clock-punchers coming straight from their offices.

Post-Drago, it’s a short walk over to the Standard, André Balazs’ eight-year-old hotel. En route to the rooftop bar, make a pit stop at the cleverly concealed old-school black-and-white photo booth in the lobby for a souvenir strip.

Most downtown bars close on the early side, but The Varnish is a notable exception. Opened by New Yorker Sasha Petraske (of Milk & Honey fame) and well-known L.A. barmen Cedd Moses and Eric Alperin, it’s accessed through a door in the rear of the dining room of Cole’s, one of the city’s oldest restaurants and the self-proclaimed originator of the French dip sandwich. Get your name on the list, then cool your heels; they’ll only allow you into the bar once you’re assured a seat. While you’re waiting, order a drink from the bar at Cole’s or head across the street to Las Perlas, Moses’ new mezcal bar, which was a night away from opening when I was there. But pace yourself—you’ll want to properly enjoy the classics at The Varnish, like the boozy-but-balanced Blood and Sand.

If you’ve done it right, you’ll need a morning in the hotel to recover. Lying supine on crisp linens, then soaking in the outdoor hot tub, is highly recommended. When you finally make your way out into the sunshine, it’s a short walk to breakfast at the Nickel Diner, a sort of prototypical diner-gone-cool that, in addition to all the classics, makes not-so-classic donuts, like the Samoa (coconut and caramel, à la the Girl Scout cookie) or the red velvet with cream cheese icing. If that’s your thing, get there early—they often sell out before noon. The housemade strawberry-and-peanut-butter pop tarts are some panacea.

Eventually, after a stroll through Little Tokyo, it’s time to consider cocktail hour. A glass of Schramsberg’s sparkler at the Mixing Room in the Marriott/Ritz lobby makes for a fine “dresser” (that’s the drink you have while gearing up for the night), though they also have a full cocktail list with drinks crafted from pisco, cachaça and everything in between.

Dinner is at Church & State, no question. Never mind that I had to tell the cab driver the address twice, then show him a map. As we drove to the literal other side of the tracks, past the Greyhound station and down a back alley, I feared my directions had failed me. But then, a bustling bistro appeared, glowing from within. I happened to visit on Walter Manzke’s last night as chef—he’s since left to open his own place, and the kitchen is now under the charge of Joshua Smith, who plans to maintain the status quo. The dining room had the buoyant feel of a private party, as regulars came to pay homage to Manzke. Seated square in its center, watching as guests shoehorned themselves into tables and dug into small jars of pork rillettes, platters of oysters on the half shell, and escargots housed in their own puff-pastry ramekins, I felt as happy as I’d ever been in a restaurant. As our four-hour dinner wound down at 1 a.m., the staff gathered for hugs and—get this—pizzas hand-delivered from their friends at Pizzeria Mozza.

It was late, and last call loomed ominously. After being unceremoniously turned away from a packed-to-the-rafters Seven Grand, it occurred to me that perhaps the downtown hype was true—a 300-person bar was full to capacity. “You know,” said the bouncer unhelpfully, “you should come back on a weeknight.” With no weeknights in L.A. on my horizon, my companions and I walked a few blocks to The Association and waltzed right into the sleek lounge, with its tufted black leather couches and friendly bartenders, just in time for a nightcap.

the details

The Association 110 E. Sixth St., 213-627-7385, theassociation-la.com

Bottega Louie 700 S. Grand Ave., 213-802-1470, bottegalouie.com

Church & State 1850 Industrial St., 213-405-1434, churchandstatebistro.com

Cole’s 118 E. Sixth St., 213-622-4090, colesfrenchdip.com

Drago Centro 525 S. Flower St., 213-228-8998, dragocentro.com

JW Marriott at L.A. Live 900 W. Olympic Blvd., 213-765-8600, marriott.com

Las Perlas 107 E. Sixth St., 213-988-8355, lasperlas.la

The Mixing Room 900 W. Olympic Blvd., 213-765-8600

Nickel Diner 524 S. Main St., 213-623-8301, nickeldiner.com

Pizzeria Mozza 641 N. Highland Ave., 323-297-0101, mozza-la.com

Ritz-Carlton at L.A. Live 900 W. Olympic Blvd., 213-743-8800, ritzcarlton.com

Seven Grand 515 W. Seventh St., 213-614-0737, sevengrand.la

The Standard Hotel 550 South Flower St., 213-892-8080, standardhotels.com

The Varnish 118 E. Sixth St., 213-622-9999, thevarnishbar.com