People love to give LA a hard time. But these days, the so-called paradise-with-a-lobotomy is having the last laugh, as a brand-new and surprisingly rich art and culture scene gives the city major bragging rights.
All this is not happening in the traditional centers of gravity. In Downtown, Venice, Culver City, and Mid-City West, artists acting as cultural shock troops have settled in, providing a catalyst for economic and cultural prosperity in once-gritty areas. It’s a process many cities have benefited from; the remarkable difference in LA is that it’s happening in so many parts of town at once. The city of eternal sunshine and Hollywood glitz has become a major cultural player. Take our tour to witness the renaissance in action.
A former no-fly zone is now a can’t-miss destination with style to spare.
A few years ago, there weren’t many reasons to go Downtown, unless you worked in one of the skyscrapers that form the city’s skyline, in which case, at quitting time, you’d run for the hills. After dark, the homeless (sadly, gathered from other districts and dumped here), junkies, and gangs ruled the streets, making it seem like some kind of Epcot Scaryland. Over the last 10 years, however, in the wake of artists who settled in empty warehouses, the city greenlit massive residential developments—shiny lofts no starving artist could afford—and earmarked billions of dollars for the creation of parks, hotels, and a Champs-Elysées-style corridor.
These days, the area is on its way to becoming a residential hub and is already one of the country’s richest cultural centers, with incredible architecture, stylish restaurants and bars, and a vital art scene. A collection of smaller districts, Downtown includes the bustling enclaves of Little Tokyo and Chinatown, and the Art Deco theaters and art galleries of the Historic Core. Several significant architectural projects kick-started the changes here, among them the undulating stainless steel sheath of Frank Gehry’s magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall (home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic) on South Grand Avenue (111 S. Grand Ave.; 213/ 972-7211, laphil.org), which is on its way to replacing the Hollywood sign as the city’s landmark icon, and the subversive modernism of José Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on West Temple Street (555 W. Temple St.; 213/680-5200, olacathedral.org), which sparked controversy with its enormous budget ($5 million for the altar alone), size, and absence of right angles.
The art scene is centered in the walkable areas of Gallery Row (between South Main Street and Spring Street) and Chinatown. “I was in SoHo in the ’70s, the East Village in the ’80s, San Francisco in the ’90s, and now here,” says Bert Green, sitting in his airy storefront, Bert Green Fine Art (102 W. 5th St.; 213/624-6212, bgfa.us). Known as the unofficial mayor of Gallery Row, Green opened one of the first galleries in the neighborhood, in 2004. “It’s a very exciting time,” Green says. “There are so many cultural events happening every day, people don’t have time to do them all.” Over 40 galleries now occupy the row, creating a homespun art community unified by an unpretentious attitude (no valet parking). It’s a quirky scene that mixes street art (the “Left Coast funk” graffiti of Crewest) with established names (the biggest Chinese stars show at Morono Kiang Gallery in the historic Bradbury Building; 218 W. 3rd St.; 213/628-8208, moronokiang.com).
Among the galleries are the fun but unsung Museum of Neon Art, which pays tribute to the gas art (136 W. 4th St.; 213/489-9918, neonmona.org), and the Comme des Garçons guerilla pop-up store, which sells limited-edition items (125 W. 4th St., Suite 106; 213/626-6606, guerrilla-store.com). Stop by Banquette Café for a delicious veggie panino (400 S. Main St.; entrées from $8; 213/626-2768) and Blossom Restaurant for Vietnamese shaking beef (426 S. Main St.; entrées from $7; 213/623-1973, blossomrestaurant.com). On an alley off Gallery Row is The Edison, a lounge in a former underground power plant where you can sip cocktails amid polished turbines (108 W. 2nd St.; snacks from $7; 213/613-0000, edison downtown.com).
From The Edison, walk a few blocks east to Little Tokyo to see the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (an outpost of the Museum of Contemporary Art nearby), housed in a former police-car warehouse renovated by Frank Gehry (152 N. Central Ave.; 213/626-6222, moca.org). Don’t leave Little Tokyo without eating fresh mochi (sticky rice with an ice cream filling) at Mikawaya Sweet Shop in the Japanese Village Plaza (213/624-1681, mikawayausa.com).
Due north a few blocks in Chinatown—a four-block expanse festooned with red paper lanterns—galleries are sprinkled along the pedestrian streets of Chung King Road and Gin Ling Way. The granddaddy of the scene is Peres Projects, run by Javier Peres, a gallerist best known for discovering rising superstar and Whitney alum Terence Koh (969 Chung King Rd.; 213/617-1100, peresprojects.com). Piggybacking the art community, a number of hipster boutiques have opened within walking distance, including avant-garde designer spot Welcome Hunters (454B Jung Jing Rd.; 213/687-9905, welcome huntersla.com) and music- and art-book store Ooga Booga (943 N. Broadway, no. 203; 213/617-1105, oogabooga store.com). Mingle with local artists at The Mountain, a low-key bar that was shot into the stratosphere when Brad Pitt showed up for its opening (475 Gin Ling Way; 213/625-7500, themountainbar.com).
Back at Disney Hall you can take a 45-minute, self-guided walking tour for free. Make reservations in advance at Patina, the award-winning Relais & Châteaux restaurant in the concert hall (141 S. Grand Ave.; entrées from $36; 213/972-3331, patina group.com). Or try your luck at its neighbor, the stylish Parisian Kendall’s Brasserie, where Placido Domingo has been known to down a post-performance drink (135 N. Grand Ave.; entrées from $22; 213/972-7322, patinagroup.com).
Just down South Grand is the MOCA flagship, a more intimate space than the Geffen (250 S. Grand Ave.; 213/626-6222, moca.org); both exhibit the museum’s permanent collection (more than 5,000 pieces by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Diane Arbus, among others).
Nearby, there are many stellar restaurants, especially for seafood lovers. Gourmets rave about the experimental courses, like the intriguing “prawn martini” at Noé, in the Omni Hotel (251 S. Olive St.; entrées from $25; 213/356-4100, noerestaurant.com); the Peruvian-style seviche is especially good at Ciudad (445 S. Figueroa St.; entrées from $16; 213/486-5171, ciudad-la.com); and the Water Grill is one of the city’s most-expensive-but-worth-it restaurants (544 S. Grand Ave.; entrées from $29; 213/891-0900, watergrill.com). For comfort food go to Clifton’s Cafeteria, a neighborhood institution with a truly surreal backyard garden (648 S. Broadway; entrées from $3; 213/627-1673, cliftonscafeteria.com). Another old-timey favorite is the Pacific Dining Car, a converted 1920s railway car that’s always open (1310 W. 6th St.; entrées from $30; 213/483-6000, pacificdiningcar.com).
For real Downtown immersion, stay at one of the neighborhood hotels. The legendary 1923 Biltmore (506 S. Grand Ave.; from $375/night; 213/624-1011, thebiltmore.com) is a smart splurge for its old-school Hollywood glamour and reasonable rates. Catch high tea in the Rendezvous Court, which resembles a Spanish cathedral. More casual is the Figueroa Hotel (939 S. Figueroa St.; from $134/night; 213/627-8971, figueroahotel.com), which has hosted travelers and stars alike since 1925. Ask for a room away from the heavily trafficked streets. Still trendy, The Standard, Downtown LA (550 S. Flower St.; from $285/night; 213/892-8080, standardhotels.com) is popular with photographers, musicians and models, and those lucky enough to procure one of their inventive rooms. Much ado has been made of its mod rooftop lounge, but go during the day or on a weeknight to avoid the crowds. As an alternative, check out the little-known Takami Sushi & Robata Restaurant (811 Wilshire Blvd., Penthouse; entrées from $19; 213/236-9600, takamisushi.com), in a penthouse with a large patio atop an office building on Wilshire Boulevard.
A famously eccentric enclave stays true to its roots while gaining an upscale edge.
Ever since tobacco-mogul Abbot Kinney won dibs in 1891 on this beachfront plot just south of Santa Monica (in a coin toss, no less), iconoclasts and eccentrics have found a safe haven here. Kinney’s idea to turn the marshy parcel into a resort town inspired by Venice, Italy—with canals, Venetian-style buildings, and amusement piers with dancers, singers, and magicians—was definitely a highly personal vision. Although fires eventually ravaged the town in 1920 and the piers were dismantled in the 1940s, the street performers stuck around. That tradition continues today on the boardwalk, where you can gawk at the real-life circus of disco-dancing Rollerbladers, Speedo-sporting bodybuilders, bongo-banging freaks, scary mimes, and militant vegans.
But personal expression in this perfectly walkable area isn’t limited to the beach. The plethora of independently owned design shops, clothing boutiques, and art galleries that have sprung up in recent years on the aptly named Abbot Kinney Boulevard form the center of this area’s recent upscale makeover. “My shop wouldn’t survive anywhere else in LA,” says Michael Deyermond, co-owner of Equator Books on Abbot Kinney (1103 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/399-5544, equatorbooks.com), a store that carries out-of-print, first edition, and rare books. “Here, businesses succeed because they are products of the owner’s singular vision; ones that aren’t, fail.”
The Abbot Kinney district runs for about 1.5 miles between Main Street and Washington Boulevard. You won’t be able to leave A+R without something; they carry items not found anywhere else, such as cutouts by German woodworker Sarah Finn (1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/392-9128, aplusrstore.com). The Japanese shop Tortoise imports one-of-a-kind vintage items, kitchenware, and ceramics, all with a simple, modern design. The husband-and-wife team who own it just opened a second location for larger furniture a few doors down (1208 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/314-8448; new furniture location at 1342 1/2 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/396-7335, tortoiselife.com).
Altered Space Gallery sells unique furniture (some by master craftsman Richard Patterson), jewelry, and “nonfunctional” art (1221 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/452-8121, alteredspacegallery.com). Furniture designer Elizabeth Paige Smith Atleier just opened a garden gallery-atelier that showcases her own MOCA–worthy designs and works of fellow local artist friends (By appointment only; 310/392-8060, elizabethpaigesmith.com). This summer, longtime Venetian Sandro Gebert launched the imposing contemporary art space Gebert Gallery, which seems out of place next to the more homespun spots but is worth a look (1345 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/450-9897, gebertgallery.com).
Take a break from shopping with a walk along the remaining canals, now lined with vintage bungalows and multimillion-dollar concept homes. Park near Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue and meander through this lovely, hidden universe.
Back on the main drag, you’ll find newer watering holes, like the low-key wine and beer lounge The Otheroom (1201 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/396-6230, theotheroom.com), and old haunts, like art-filled Hal’s Bar & Grill (1349 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; entrées from $13; 310/396-3105, halsbarandgrill.com), both places where shopkeepers and gallerists go after work. Stop at Jin Patisserie for exquisite desserts and Asian teas (1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 310/399-8801, jinpatisserie.com), and The Farmacy for herb-enhanced organic gelato and medical marijuana . . . if you have your prescription handy (1509 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; 323/848-7981, medicalmarijuanafarmacy.com/farmacy/splash.html). For brunch, try the 3 Square Café + Bakery for delicious German apple pancakes (1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; entrées from $10; 310/399-6504, rockenwagner.com), or Axe (pronounced ah-shay), for organic eats like grilled figs with goat cheese (1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; entrées from $20; 310/664-9787, axerestaurant.com).
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal than the three-course, $18 prix-fixe lunch at Joe’s Restaurant (1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd.; entrées from $26; 310/399-5811, joesrestaurant.com). Even after 18 years in business, it’s still a task to get a table at Chaya Venice, where everyone from movie moguls to artists go for the surf and turf (110 Navy St.; 310/396-1179, thechaya.com). Beechwood is a gorgeous place that serves dressed-up comfort food (822 W.Washington Blvd.; entrées from $16; 310/448-8884, beechwoodrestaurant.com). A bit off the beaten track is Piccolo Ristorante, a seriously great northern Italian spot (5 Dudley Ave.; entrées from $17; 310/314-3222, piccolovenice.com).
Despite all its attractions, Venice is sorely lacking in hotels. Luckily, Santa Monica is only a few minutes away. Along the beach, striped awnings announce the posh but casual Shutters, where some suites have fireplaces for rare cold nights (1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; from $490/night; 310/458-0030, shuttersonthebeach.com). Next door is the stately Hotel Casa del Mar, where remnants of its past as a 1920s private beach club are felt in the grand marble lobby (1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica; from $520/night; 310/581-5533, hotel casadelmar.com). Across the street from the beach is the Viceroy Santa Monica, designed in a vibrant Hollywood Regency style (1819 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; from $399/night; 310/260-7500, viceroysantamonica.com). Service here is top-notch, though the poolside bar scene takes over on weekend nights. Ask for an oceanview room on a top floor. Two blocks inland is the 18-floor Huntley, where a recent chic reinvention brought stylish Japanese Deco to the rooms, and the Penthouse restaurant, with jaw-dropping panoramic views of Venice, Hollywood, and Malibu (1111 2nd St., Santa Monica; from $419/night; 310/394-5454, thehuntleyhotel.com).
An industrial ghost town comes alive with new art and foodie draws.
“Five years ago, I couldn’t get a single investor to even look at the location here,” says chef Ben Ford of his popular gastropub Ford’s Filling Station on Culver Boulevard (9531 Culver Blvd.; entrées from $16; 310/202-1470, fordsfillingstation.net). “The reaction was: ‘I will invest anywhere but Culver City.’ ” Culver City—equidistant from Venice and West Hollywood—used to be a dreary place known as Wheel Alley (where you got your tires changed). Now it’s been dubbed a nascent Chelsea.
The dramatic change started in 2003, when galleries decamped from the high rents of the west side to transform abandoned warehouses, chop shops, and upholstery stores into gleaming cement and glass cubes. Since then, 40-plus galleries, all of which, luckily, are within walking distance of each other, have settled in. Rounding out the transformation are new bars and restaurants, high-end design stores, and theaters and music venues. But before its present incarnation, and before it was a wasteland, Culver City was known as the ritzy Heart of Screenland because classics like Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane were filmed on studio lots here.
Today, Culver City’s 5 square miles contain two main clusters of galleries. The biggest concentration is just off the Santa Monica Freeway, on South La Cienega Boulevard, Washington Boulevard, and Fairfax Avenue. Though developing at about the same time as Downtown’s Gallery Row, the art community here enjoys substantial backing from investors and local universities.
Don’t miss Blum & Poe, the anchor of the art colony, whose roster of renowned artists includes Takashi Murakami and buzzed-about sculptor Matt Johnson (2754 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/836-2062, blumandpoe.com). Its move from Santa Monica in 2003 paved the way for other gallerists. Along La Cienega are other notable early settlers, such as Anna Helwing Gallery (2766 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/202-2213, annahelwinggallery.com), Lizabeth Oliveria (2712 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/837-1073, lizabetholiveria.com), and the nonprofit LAXART (2640 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/559-0166, laxart.org). Culver’s newest addition is Royal/T on Washington, a conceptual gallery-boutique-lecture space-Japanese café (8910 Washington Blvd.; 310/559-6300, royal-t.org). Regroup with a cucumber martini on the patio of the Mandrake (2692 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/837-3297, mandrakebar.com).
On the design side, check out Gregg Fleishman’s whimsical wooden chairs at his showroom (3850 Main St.; 310/202-6108, greggfleishman.com); dealer Michele Sommerlath’s Galerie Sommerlath, a modernist flea market (9608 Venice Blvd.; 310-838-0121, galerie sommerlath.1stdibs.com), and her just-opened Le Depot, a warehouse with mid-century treasures, at La Brea Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard (open on Saturdays, weekdays by appointment; 4321 W. Jefferson Ave.; 310/838-0102, french50s60s.com); and Empiric, where mechanical-engineer Michael Towey and artist Annie Crowninshield sell a fascinating collection of vintage science-laboratory parts remade into furnishings (6201 Washington Blvd.; 310/842-9777, empiricstudio.com).
Befitting the city’s meteoric rise, it feels as though new restaurants are opening (and perhaps closing) every week. Within the Museum of Design Art and Architecture (a neon-decorated structure housing architects’ offices and the MODAA gallery) is global cuisine, foodie favorite, Wilson (8631 Washington Blvd.; entrées from $14; 310/287-2093, wilsonfoodandwine.com). In a spiffy dining room, Culver City’s royalty—architects and painters—indulge in tagliatelle with fresh truffles. Wilson’s chef-owner is Michael Wilson, son of the late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who joins Harrison Ford’s son, Ben, as one of the scions of famous men opening Culver City eateries lately. Down the street, in the historic Helms Bakery complex, is Beacon, an elegant Asian fusion bistro known for its chargrilled hanger steak with wasabi relish (3280 Helms Ave.; entrées from $14; 310/838-7500, beacon-la.com). For a delicious, fancified take on the burger, cross Helms Street to Father’s Office, a spin-off of the popular Santa Monica eatery (3229 Helms Ave.; 310/736-2224, fathersoffice.com).
Across from Sony Studios on Washington is the Kirk Douglas Theatre, where high-profile shows, like the latest David Mamet play, are staged (9820 Washington Blvd.; 213/628-2772, centertheatregroup.org). Inside the Ivy Substation, a renovated 1907 railroad station-cum-playhouse, Tim Robbins’s The Actors’ Gang is the resident company (9070 Venice Blvd.; 310/838-4264, theactors gang.com). And over at the cozy Jazz Bakery in the Helms Bakery building, Woody Allen has been known to pop in for a clarinet jam (3233 Helms Ave.; 310/271-9039, jazzbakery.com).
A few blocks away is the centrally located Culver Hotel, a newly restored landmark (it first opened in 1924) that’s a genteel throwback to the glory days of Screenland (9400 Culver Blvd.; from $199/night; 310/838-7963, culverhotel.com).
A museum-centric area boasts famous hot dogs and haute cuisine.
Even the casual observer wouldn’t mistake the skyscrapers of Downtown for the beach bungalows of Venice. On the other hand, some areas seem to justify LA’s reputation as a sprawl of burger joints and strip malls, with the odd Art Deco flourish and space-age sign thrown in. Mid-City West (south of West Hollywood and east of Beverly Hills) is one of these places, but don’t let the fact that it doesn’t feel like a neighborhood prevent you from exploring the incredible trove of culture here—from Pleistocene to contemporary and everything in between.
Basking in the company of the area’s star attraction and center of gravity—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA; 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; 323/857-6000, lacma.org)—are some of the city’s top art galleries, along with excellent niche museums, on a stretch of Wilshire dubbed the Miracle Mile in its 1920s heyday. Nearby on Beverly Boulevard, a small, significant design district and a gourmet’s paradise have sprouted.
Last February, LACMA unveiled a three-story, $56 million extension, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM). While critics called Renzo Piano’s design—red jungle-gym beams on a concrete box with skylights—a bit underwhelming, modern-art lovers are pleased that artists like Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman are given serious space. Make time to see the Pavilion for Japanese Art, where a stellar collection of works from the Edo period are displayed. Take a quick break from all the man-made objects at LACMA’s next-door neighbor, the La Brea Tar Pits and the accompanying Page Museum, which houses 40,000-year-old fossils (5801 Wilshire Blvd.; 323/934-7243, tarpits.org).
There are several worthwhile museums on the blocks on either side of LACMA, known as Museum Row (including Petersen Automotive Museum, which celebrates SoCal’s love affair with the car; 6060 Wilshire Blvd.; 323/930-2277, petersen.org). Before setting out, grab some lunch at a food stand in the nearby Farmers’ Market, where you can sample delicious international specialties (from a mole chicken burrito at Lotería Grill to French bistro fare at Monsieur Marcel). Farther east, in Koreatown, is a hidden treasure in an indoor mall: the Beverly Hot Springs (308 N. Oxford Ave.; 323/734-7000, beverlyhotsprings.com). Unwind with a soak or an as-painful-as-you-want massage.
Along Museum Row are blue-chip galleries like the Ace Gallery, which has shown Richard Serra and the paintings and photographs of actor Dennis Hopper since opening in the 1960s (5514 Wilshire Blvd.; 323/935-4411, acegallery.net). Many of the art spaces are hidden in large office buildings, such as 6150 Wilshire, home to a number of well-regarded galleries (including ACME; 6150 Wilshire Blvd.; 323/857-5942, acmelosangeles.com). Up La Brea toward Beverly, another cluster of galleries has gathered, including that of an area pioneer, Jack Rutberg Fine Arts (357 N. La Brea Ave.; 323/938-5222, jackrutbergfinearts.com).
For a different kind of gallery experience, drop into the home-design stores along Beverly, where it seems high-end artful living is a natural extension of the art scene. Zelen Home is known for its unique accessories (8055 Beverly Blvd.; 323/658-6756, zelenhome.com); go to Modernica for customizable Eames-style chairs (7366 Beverly Blvd.; 323/933-0383, modernica.net); Emmerson Troop (323/653-9763, emmersontroop.com) and its neighbor Orange (323/782-6898, orange.1stdibs.com), both at 8111 Beverly Boulevard, have impeccable vintage furniture; Shelter concentrates on mid-century-style basics (7920 Beverly Blvd.; 323/937-3222, shelterfurniture.com); and Twentieth (8057 Beverly Blvd.; 323/904-1200, twentieth.net) is reminiscent of the Manhattan design mecca Moss (which has just opened a smaller version on a hip stretch of Melrose; 8444 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 323/866-5260, mossonline.com). The Largo at the Coronet theater caters to hipsters of all ages with regular performances by acclaimed local musicians including Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, and Fiona Apple (366 N. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/855-0350, largo-la.com).
Hopefully you’ve made reservations at one of the city’s most celebrated dining rooms, Campanile (624 S. La Brea Ave.; entrées from $21; 323/938-1447, campanilerestaurant.com). The Italian eatery is helmed by Spago alumnus Mark Peel and occupies Charlie Chaplin’s former office. Attached to the restaurant is La Brea Bakery, stocked with artisanal cheeses and fresh-baked loaves (624 S. La Brea Ave.; from $7; 323/939-6813, labreabakery.com). Round the corner onto Beverly’s burgeoning restaurant row, and you’ll find modern chop-house Jar, which serves upscale home cooking like crab deviled eggs in cool 1950s office decor (8225 Beverly Blvd.; entrées from $20; 323/655-6566, thejar.com). Chef Neal Fraser continues to offer one of the city’s best seasonal tasting menus at his lovely Grace (7360 Beverly Blvd.; entrées from $26; 323/934-4400, gracerestaurant.com). Fraser’s more casual spin-off BLD (known for mouth-watering blueberry-ricotta pancakes) is just down the street (7450 Beverly Blvd.; entrées from $14; 323/930-9744, bldrestaurant.com). A block north on Melrose is current celeb and critic favorite Osteria Mozza (partly owned by Mario Batali), which opened last year (6602 Melrose Ave.; entrées from $26; 323/297-0100, mozza-la.com). For something completely different, go to Pink’s Hot Dogs—an LA institution since 1939—on La Brea and Melrose and wait (there’s always a line) with the locals and the occasional celebrity (709 N. La Brea Ave.; from $3; 323/931-4223, pinkshollywood.com).
A great base for exploring the area is the slick new Thompson Beverly Hills, an outpost of SoHo’s trendy 60 Thompson. Spend time at the glorious rooftop pool, where you can take in the Hollywood sign, Downtown’s skyscrapers, and even the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains all at once (9360 Wilshire Blvd.; from $495/night; 310/273-1400, thompsonhotels.com).