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Where to Eat in Downtown Los Angeles

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[Photograph: Farley Elliott]

Even to locals, the transformation of Downtown Los Angeles is hard to believe. Less than a decade ago, there were really two Downtowns: the high rises and upscale lunch spots of the Financial District and... everything else. Cheap eats ruled the day, taco carts crawled the late night streets, and the occasional ramen joint or yakitori spot could be found among the warehouses and shuttered storefronts. But for the most part Downtown was dead.

These days, revitalization is so rampant that it's hard to recognize the same boulevards that used to be near-empty ten years ago. Young, urban crowds flock to bars, restaurants, art galleries and entertainment venues nightly, and it's no longer a surprise to see someone on the streets at all hours of the night. Of course, with the influx of people and money comes competition, and Downtown is quickly becoming one of the most contested core neighborhoods for food and drink in this otherwise decentralized city.

Thankfully there are still cheap eats to be had, as well as Japanese standouts in Little Tokyo, sausage and beer halls in the Arts District, and fine dining right under peoples' noses. There's no end to the possibilities in DTLA —a far cry from just a few short years ago.

The Cool

Bestia

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[Photograph: Danny Cohen]

There's almost no other place to start when it comes to talking about dining in Downtown L.A. than Bestia, chef Ori Menashe's Italian-leaning warehouse enclave in the deep reaches of the Arts District. Tucked away near the L.A. River, it's one of the hottest reservations in town, and for good reason. Handmade pastas are pushed from the kitchen with abandon, alongside beautifully spotted margherita pizzas, copious charcuterie, and a beef tartare crostini that is at once vibrant, funky, minty, and clean.

The space is a lesson in calculated effortlessness; there's a long copper bar, hanging Edison bulbs hidden inside thick glass fixtures, lots of brick and exposed ironwork, and enough mid-90s Nas pulsing overheard to keep everyone's conversation elevated. Bestia is a personification of all that Downtown dining has become —delicious, deliberate and very, very cool.

L.A. Chapter

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[Photograph: Farley Elliott]

A recent transplant to Downtown, the Ace Hotel on Broadway helped to immediately liven up an area of the urban core that was, in many ways, still lacking. Flanked by long-shuttered movie houses and live music venues that had once held such decadence, the new Ace is a bit of revitalization right where the city needs it most. The attached United Artists Theater has been returned to its shimmering glory, and the looming hotel offers stunning views of the Eastern Columbia building. Inside, with a little slip of patio seating that clings against the building, is L.A. Chapter.

Part breakfast takeaway, part casual lounge and part sit-down meal spot, L.A. Chapter's brassy bistro details and chic look make it one of the area's true anytime destinations. There's a touch of Australian flare; the eatery is a sort of offshoot to Five Leaves in Brooklyn, which took on Aussie Heath Ledger as an early investor.

The most popular time of day might be brunch. That's when fried eggs are elevated to their true glory, avocado can be used to its fullest capabilities, and the Stumptown Coffee is in endless supply. An array of toasts, much more than the usual $4 Pullman loaf slice, come stacked with rich, creamy, often slightly spicy combinations, like the Moroccan Scramble, which marries merguez with fresh chilies, chickpeas, and a healthy tuft of cilantro.

Faith & Flower

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[Photograph: Danny Cohen]

An even more recent newcomer is Faith & Flower, a soaring, bright space that looks to reverse-engineer Downtown's gentrification-at-the-edges theory by sticking a fork right next to L.A. Live, one of the few areas in the neighborhood that has mostly been immune to the rise, fall, and resurgence of Downtown. Staples Center, Starbucks, and the Yard House all catered to Kings fans looking to dine cheaply before the puck dropped at the Staples Center arena, but there was little in the way of true destination dining.

Enter Faith & Flower, with their elaborate touches (both on the menu and on the walls), Prohibition-era cocktail list and boozy, upscale theme. Fully-coiffed owners Robert Weakley and Dave Bernahl of Coastal Luxury Management make the space feel like a Gatsby-level shindig could break out at any moment. The menu is similarly unconfined—appetizers and mains and sides all mix together on the page and come out whenever they feel like it. Each dish, be it savory waffles with funky bone marrow built into the batter or an eggs benedict pizza that's served all day long, offers something unexpected and wild; even on the plate, it's a party.

The International

Grand Central Market

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[Photograph: Farley Elliott]

Perhaps no space has come further in Downtown's revitalization process than the Grand Central Market. Long a home for fruit vendors and taco stands, the market has begun a near-complete overhaul. Many long-empty retail stalls have recently come to life with fried egg sandwiches, European espresso bars, pressed organic juices, and unstoppable sweets. There's even a demystified version of a Jewish deli on premises which offers some of the city's best pastrami and smoked fish.

But thankfully, many of the original vendors still persist. There are cheap takeaway Chinese food options and some honestly stellar carnitas at taco spots like Las Morelianas. Sarita's still pushes out the finest El Salvadorean pupusas for the area, and more recent addition Sticky Rice plates up organic, free-range takes on classics like Hainan chicken and a rotation of daily curries.

Marugame Monzo

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[Photograph: Farley Elliott]

Near the longstanding Daikokuya ramen shop on First Street in the Little Tokyo area, there are countless options for eating well. Soups and skewers are readily available, but for noodles most eaters in the area queue up at Marugame Monzo.

An udon house with an Italian backbone, Monzo has been drawing in customers for the better part of a year with the endless thumps coming from the glassed-in kitchen. Those whacks and slaps are the sound of udon being hand-pulled and pounded into submission. The results are a bit al dente, just chewy enough and entirely addictive. Laced with garlic or chile, urchin, or just lots of cream, each bowl is a hand-cut noodle adventure. And then there are the crossovers, like udon carbonara, with all the smokiness and cheese of its Italian ancestry, but meant to be eaten with chopsticks.

Bäco Mercat

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[Photograph: Paul Bartunek]

At Bäco Mercat, a food's ethnicity is a fluid thing. Middle Eastern influences muddle with Italian ingenuity and American flavors, making Josef Centeno's flagship restaurant a blindfolded trip across the world. The namesake item, the bäco bread, is itself a confluence of cultures: part pizza dough, part flatbread and thickened tortilla, the bäco bread is offered up as a base for pizza-like concoctions and half-wrapped sandwiches as well as in a warm side basket for pulling apart and dipping.

The room is as loud and eclectic as the menu, where lamb meatballs share space with za'atar and Japanese eggplant. Housemade bubble sodas come in an array of intriguing flavors, and rotating brunches might include hamachi crude one afternoon and a bowl of noodle-rich carnitas soup the next. At Bäco Mercat, all voices are equal—and they're all shouting.

The Upscale

Alma

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Young chef Flynn McGarry plating at an Alma event. [Photograph: Farley Elliott]

The word is out on Alma, even if their location is still a bit hidden. Far down Broadway, well past the resurgent glory, the prix fixe eatery is completely disguised when closed, showing nothing more than a rolled down steel door. But during business hours, chef Ari Taymor and his co-owner / front of house maestro Ashleigh Parson are putting together some of the city's best meals.

Everything is thoughtful and fresh, interesting and a little loose around the edges. Most of the greens come from an Alma-sponsored garden elsewhere in the city, and Parson's wide knowledge of eclectic wines (or optional non-alcoholic pairings) make for a captivating, yet smooth ride. Seats can be hard to come by thanks to all the positive press, and with Taymor's new tasting menu-only approach, there aren't many turns per night. That's by both design and necessity, making a reservation at Alma something to be savored.

Orsa & Winston

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[Photograph: Paul Bartunek]

Chef Josef Centeno has emerged as a clear winner in the fight for Downtown's new future. His Bäco Mercat operation still does a brisk business, though he's not helming the flames there much these days. Nor is he often behind the pots at Bar Amá around the corner, his popular Tex-Mex outpost where puffy tacos are the order of the day. Instead, Centeno is usually running the room at Orsa & Winston next door, where a nightly prix fixe menu comes in five-course, eight-course, or super-omakase sizes. The cheapest meal is $60 before tax, tip and beverages, though guests will leave surprisingly satiated, considering the delicate portions.

One-off snacks arrive with regularity, and there's always something new to discover on repeat visits. Plus, the food is less "deconstructed" as it is "rethought," thanks to heavy Japanese and Italian influences. Spanish touches are also on display here, with French techniques and appealing presentations. But despite the named chef working the stove, the hard-to-get reservations and the price tag, Orsa & Winston remains an approachable option for Downtown locals and the date night set alike.

Patina

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[Photograph: Natalie James]

And then there is Patina, a Downtown stalwart of French fine dining. Long held on Melrose, the upscale eatery moved to the ground floor of the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall more than a decade ago, long before the rest of the area caught on to what was happening in the neighborhood. Chef / restaurateur Joachim Splichal has since helped to mentor a legion of next-generation L.A. chefs, while Patina itself remains a Downtown institution.

There have been Michelin stars over the years and the proper amount of reverence from local critics, but mostly Patina continues to survive on the same crowd it always has: business diners, a steady theater crowd, and Westside rich folks who don't mind the drive. There are the occasional forays by new Downtown residents to snag a seat and find out what true European elegance is all about, but really Patina exists because it always has; though their delicate Sonoma duck breast entree and $90 Wagyu strip loin certainly help.

The Elsewhere

Just above the 101 Freeway, often considered the unofficial northern demarcation line for Downtown, is L.A.'s Chinatown. There are Sunday dim sum operations, daily market stalls, and lots of great eats to be had for cheap, assuming you're willing to head a few blocks north.

Chego

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[Photograph: Noam Bleiweiss]

Perhaps Roy Choi's best daily eating spot, the over-clocked rice bowls at Chego are a force of nature. Laced with samba, doused with creamy sauces, and usually topped with an egg, each $10 option is as tasty as the next, whether you're working through a bowl that includes pork belly or hefty chunks of chicken. Pro tip: Grab a bowl to go on your way to the Dodgers game. Security won't give you a second look as you bring it into the stadium, though the jealous baseball fans around you in the bleachers likely will.

Philippe the Original

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[Photograph: Danny Cohen]

There's iconic, and then there's Philippe's. More than a century old, this corner sandwich shop is widely believed to have invented the French dip, and shows no signs of running its course any time soon. On game days and weekends, lines inside Philippe's regularly reach to the door, as patient eaters snake between the rows of countertop seating that make up the bulk of the available eating space inside the sawdust-floored room. For satisfaction, flavor, and history, Philippe's still as important to the overall Downtown landscape as it was 103 years ago.

Mexicali Taco Co.

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[Photograph: Paul Bartunek]

With their own history in the long-standing street taco game just west of Downtown, Mexicali is a place worth making a destination. At the edges of Chinatown on Figueroa, this small taco shack can be best identified by its smell: smoky carne asada. It's the signature of the place and among the best in the city, served a variety of ways and with all sorts of possible toppings. Perhaps best of all is the Vampiro— a garlicky, cheesy quesadilla that is short on subtlety but long on taste. Seating is done picnic bench-style and the salsa bar is top notch, making Mexicali a fantastic daytime destination for Downtown eaters looking to get involved with some of L.A.'s best Mexican food.

About the author: Farley Elliott is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He writes about food, beer and entertainment at OverOverUnder.com.

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