Eating in Other Cities: Los Angeles

A traveler's tale of discovering that, contrary to popular belief, there is life in downtown Los Angeles.

Nobody walks in Los Angeles. But by a series of dumb tourist moves and poor planning, I found myself wandering the streets of downtown LA one balmy weekend in June. Lo and behold, there was life—better yet, there was food.

The trip to LA was pleasure with purpose. One of my daughters had been studying in South America for five months. Her first stop back in the States was Los Angeles. I decided to meet her and spend the weekend there.

I don’t do trip planning. I’m lucky to book a flight and a room the day before I travel. Searching online for a hotel in Los Angeles confounded me. Hollywood? West Hollywood? Beverly Hills? Santa Monica? Culver City? I settled on downtown, which seemed central and familiar. I booked a room at the Standard Hotel. I had never heard of the place.

“Why would you stay in downtown LA?” my cousin from Encino asked. “There’s nothing there.”

My drive from LAX airport to the Standard took about 40 minutes in the Friday evening traffic. I parked—for good.

The Standard is so hip the lettering on the side of the building is upside down, which made it hard to find. The lobby seemed like the entrance to a night club—and it was. By midnight, women stuffed into mini-dresses and men in tight jeans were crowding to get onto the rooftop, where there’s a pool and bar.

The room managed to be both ultramodern and comfy: firm queen beds on platforms, TV on a table a few inches from the floor, glass wall between the bedroom and the shower.

My local friend, Charlie, came to the hotel and suggested dinner at Church & State. The restaurant is in the city’s industrial section, through streets where homeless folks are camped out.

Church & State occupies the first floor of what was once the National Biscuit Company, a precursor to Nabisco. The kitchen is at one end of a cavernous room, the bar holds down the other. The wall that was the loading bay is now floor-to-ceiling windows. The place had the raucous, joyous feel of a Paris bistro, and the cuisine is French.

Charlie ordered. I would’ve gone for the huîtres glacées (iced Kumamoto oysters) or a salad of smoked mackerel, pickled carrots, fingerling potatoes, and remoulade. But Charlie ordered assiette de charcuterie—an assortment of pâtés and terrines—and the roasted octopus. The octopus was crispy on the outside, firm and tasty on the inside. The pâté was okay, but the vegetable terrine was wonderful.

Yassmin Sarmadi, the owner, stopped by our table. She said she fell in love with the space in September 2008, and opened the restaurant with a partner, whom she bought out in 2009.

“I found the building architecturally beautiful and somewhat unusual for LA,” she tells us. “This part of town has a little bit of grittiness that I really like.”

Charlie ordered a bottle of Syrah.

We nibbled rather than hunkered down for a main course. I ordered a tarte topped with rabbit sausage, morels, tarragon, and crème fraîche. I expected a dish like a small pie. This was more like a crispy flatbread, and the tarragon brought out the rabbit sausage’s best.

We finished with cheeses on a wooden cutting board: one goat, one sheep, one cow. Then we had a Scotch across the street at Royal Clayton English Pub.

The next morning I skipped the lemon-yellow plastic furniture in the Standard’s dining room and ventured into downtown Los Angeles. Picture Saturday morning in downtown DC around Connecticut and K streets, but with glass and steel skyscrapers rather than boxy office buildings. There were signs of life, but mostly on wheels.

I wandered past closed storefronts, got a paper at a drug store, and asked the clerk for a breakfast joint. “IHOP up the street,” he advised.

Back outside I caught sight of people sipping coffee from china cups in the window of a building on the corner. I got closer and saw the sign—Bottega Louie. I had stumbled onto one of the premier joints in the city to have breakfast, brunch, or lunch.

In the storefront, glass cases are jammed with eclairs, frosted cupcakes, croissants, and thick-crusted breads. You have the choice of sitting alone at a small round cafe table or walking into the cavernous main room that must have been a bank lobby in a former life.

It was a great weekend breakfast menu: Would it be the eggs arrabiata for $9 or the lemon/ricotta pancakes for $11? Or the breakfast flatbread with prosciutto, mozzarella, and a baked egg? None of the above. I decided to go light with the egg-white scramble with tofu, black beans, tomato, and avocado. It sounded more California. The tomatoes were fresh cherries, and the avocado was firm and rich. I would’ve liked more black beans, but it wasn’t huevos rancheros. Great coffee. I left wanting to return.

Claire flew in that night from Lima. At 10 PM, the Standard was beginning to rock out. We were hungry—Claire craved Japanese. The concierge suggested Takami, right around the corner. Inside the lobby of an office building, a host directed us to the elevators—Takami is 31 floors up.

If Bottega Louie had the unexpected old-world charm you might find in Madrid, Takami was all hard edges, glass, and LA glitz. We sat at the robata bar and sampled skewers of Chilean sea bass, perfectly seared and sumptuous in the middle. I watched chefs cut asparagus and send wooden skewers through the stems. They turned out to be very tasty. Takami’s sushi was good and fresh, but the rolls were more interesting. Claire ordered the Rainbow Roll, a California roll covered with salmon, tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, and halibut. I gobbled up more than half. Back at the Standard we played a Ping Pong match in the lobby. Claire let me win.

On our last morning there, I returned to Bottega Louie. Claire had missed bagels and lox, so she went for a plate of wild salmon with capers. The portion was generous, but the bagel was a tad on the doughy side, and the crust had no crunch. Every waiter passed with a dish I craved. I settled on the breakfast flatbread I had wanted the first time, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Back home in Washington, I called Church & State’s Sarmadi and asked about some of her favorite downtown restaurants. She suggested the Latin-American Rivera (1050 Flower St.), Nickel Diner (525 S. Main St.) for haute American fare, and Wood Spoon (107 W. Ninth St.)—the chicken pot pie gets great reviews.

“Downtown has been neglected for decades,” says Sarmadi. “There’s so much that can be unearthed.”

Or consumed.

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