The building’s bones intoxicated the Ace Hotel crew: a striking Gothic façade, art deco detailing, and a towering stone spire planted squarely in the historical center of downtown Los Angeles. In 1927, the United Artists building was erected as the office tower and theater for silent film star Mary Pickford’s maverick studio. From 1990 until 2010, it was inhabited by the Los Angeles University Cathedral. Now? It’s the fully refurbished Ace Hotel, a crucial anchor for a neighborhood in flux.
For decades, downtown was LA’s dank, dangerous core, utterly forgotten when the city began its infamous sprawl westward. That urban exodus left behind crumbling relics of glittery Beaux-Arts buildings, deco theaters, and one of the largest homeless populations in the country. But in recent years, ambitious urban pioneers have migrated back into the city’s center, creating an energized nucleus of cultural activity, developing long-vacant spaces with lofts, theaters, galleries, restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Every structure, it seems, houses a little snapshot of the creative class.
Not long ago, few tourists boldly ventured downtown. Today, the district’s growing fleet of renegade restaurants makes it one of the nation’s requisite travel destinations. We offer a guide to navigating the next generation of a great American city.
As one might expect from the Seattle-born, Portland-headquartered hotel group, the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles captures the mystique of its origins, as much an immersive cultural experience as a place to sleep. With a restaurant, a Stumptown coffee shop, a rooftop pool and bar, an ornate 1,600-seat Spanish Gothic theater, a fitness center, and a gift shop, it is a small universe of meticulous design and artistic collaboration. From the guest rooms’ brass fixtures and custom Pendleton blankets to the Upstairs bar’s steel-chain light installation and patterned canopies, the building oozes architectural references and local connections.
THE BARS ARE BACK
For some time, Los Angeles limped behind San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland as they reinvented cocktail culture. Turns out Angelenos were just taking their time. At the Varnish, hidden behind Cole’s (“Originators of the French Dip”—yes, there’s a French dip rivalry!), exposed brick walls and low lighting are paired with flawless classic cocktails. The Edison expands on the throwback theme in an ornate, sprawling underground space (formerly a power plant) that evokes a bygone era of science, art, and industry—with the occasional impromptu aerial dance routine. With a light-up dance floor (really) and cocktails on draft, Honeycut caters to the high-energy crowd, while fashion-themed Pattern Bar is the perfect spot for a romantic cocktail.
Eat Your Heart Out
Chef Ari Taymor, 28, opened Alma on a gritty stretch of Broadway in 2012. By 2013, his soulful, free-form tasting menus earned Alma the title of “Best New Restaurant in America” in Bon Appétit. The city’s new impossible-to-get-in-without-a-reservation spot, Bestia, serves gleefully rustic Italian food in a former loading bay flanking the Los Angeles River, in a room decorated with butcher-block tables and meat-hook chandeliers. Clustered to the north, chef Josef Centeno’s playful trio of cultural mash-ups—Bäco Mercat (Spanish-Italian), Bar Amá (Tex-Mex), and Orsa & Winston (Japanese-Italian)—make every meal feel like a discovery. Scattered about are more discoveries: casual Peruvian (Mo-Chica), irreverent thin-crust pizza (Pizzanista), and, charmingly old-school with a floor scattered in sawdust, Philippe the Original (“Home of the French Dip Sandwich”).
Walk for Art
As always, creative reoccupation makes for interesting art. Large institutions like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art anchor the urban landscape, while a proliferation of galleries along Spring and Main Streets have created a grassroots “Gallery Row.” The second Thursday of each month, the Downtown LA Artwalk draws more than 25,000 visitors to the central city for self-guided tours, food-cart fare, and special exhibitions.
Aimless strolling is still inadvisable in some parts of downtown, so ask for advice at the front desk before charting your course. But the Fashion District, just a few blocks east of the Ace, is fair game for the urban wanderer. Within 100 square blocks, scores of textile and retail shops cluster around the bazaar-like corridor Santee Alley, where more than 150 stores and vendors hawk apparel, jewelry, perfume, and footwear at bargain prices. Be sure to also ramble through the LA Flower District, the largest destination for fresh blooms in the country.