The restaurant scene is really Jay’s area of expertise having opened and/or managed several restaurants in his younger, and dare I say, adventurous, days–and, as anyone who’s ever been in the restaurant business knows, the reality of running a restaurant is most aptly stated in a soundbite made famous by a man who all sports-minded L.A. boomers would recognize– the late great Jim Healy, who played this Tommy Lasorda quote repeatedly on his radio show:
So with this valuable insight on the restaurant business, you know that Jay has the ability to be empathetic to the challenges restaurants face while also holding them to high expectations. So for Jay to put any restaurant on this list, they have to show they can make everything come together–food, service and the vibe. Several of the restaurants on this list have been around for a few years. One, Starry Kitchen, has moved from a pop up to (we hope) a permanent home–but we haven’t been to the new location yet. This is our go-to list at the moment but we’ll update every time we have something to add and the time to write it. With the variety of restaurants we’ve discovered downtown, including Factory Kitchen; one of our new favorites in the Arts District; we ‘ll be giving you lots of delicious reasons to come back for updates to the list. For the first go-around most of these restaurants are walk-able from what we consider the epicenter of the downtown renaissance: 9th & Broadway.
- Mexican – Mas Malo Good margaritas along with classic as well as unique Mexican food. Ingredients are locally sourced and support the description on the website of “East L.A. style Chicano food.” You’ll find Mas Malo right in the center of downtown’s restaurant row at 7th and Grand. It’s a party atmosphere and the price of the margaritas is the rent you pay to hang out in this circa 1923 jewelry store turned restaurant with its baroque ceiling, art deco bar, contemporary furnishings and soundtrack with a pulsing beat, you’ll definitely want more than one maggie.
- Peruvian – Mo-Chica Right across the street from Mas Malo. This restaurant used to be just a takeout counter in a warehouse-style food court near USC. Unless you’ve been to Peru, you won’t be familiar with much on the menu but go with what your server tells you are the most popular dishes and you won’t be disappointed. It’s most fun if you go with people who like the shared-plate way of dining so you can try a variety of the small plate offerings. If something piques your interest, be adventurous. Mary doesn’t like spicy and there were lots of choices on either side of the heat scale. Lots of good seafood options, too. There’s nothing fancy about this place with its cement floors and simple furniture but the staff does a great job of making sure you’re well taken care of. Cocktails with names like “The Dogfather,” “Addictive to You” and “Oaxcacalifornia Love” have ingredients as interesting as their names.
- It all Started Here Bottega Louie is what opened the doors to proving that something very different from The Original Pantry could thrive through breakfast, lunch and dinner in Downtown L.A. On the other end of the spectrum from The Original Pantry that puts out good grub, Bottega Louie is the crown jewel of So Cal for all-day dining elegance. It’s a fantasy world of jewel tone macaroons sparkling behind pristine glass cases. Servers in white shirts, black ties and bistro aprons float trays of all varieties of artistically plated comfort food above their heads before gently landing the plates on marble table tops occupied by urban dwellers, workers and voyagers who can’t get enough of the ambiance, the food, the charm and the grandeur of the social and epicurean experience taking place in what was once a very large Brooks Brothers clothing store long before there was such a thing as casual Fridays. Whether it’s a perfectly soft-boiled organic egg in-shell served with house made pain de mie toast points, a BLT made with the best bacon you’ve ever tasted and the most delicate and flavorful bibb lettuce, heirloom tomatoes and avocado; or a perfectly arranged swirled mound of tagliatelle topped with just the right proportion of meaty Bolognese; you get exactly what you had hoped for and more when the selection you made first caught your eye on the menu. No, they don’t take reservations and yes, that big Louie-the-whatever-roman-numeral-it-is hostess table with the dazzling attendants guarding the gates to one of those coveted tables can be a bit intimidating–but don’t be deterred. The tables turn, the people come and go, the pastries look like museum curios and the bartenders make great drinks.
- Pizza/Pasta – Terroni is our favorite neighborhood place to walk to at 8th and Main. We used to be able to always get a table but now they seem to be bustling every night. The 6,000 sq. foot space was built in 1924 as the City National Bank and much of the grandeur has been preserved . The bar is expansive and a great option when tables are full. The main dining room gives you a view of the open kitchen. The owners, Italians from Canada, first launched the more casual Beverly location a few years ago while Terroni downtown is a unique blend of luxe meets industrial. Warning: your pizza will not come sliced in wedges–part of the Terroni experience is to tear or cut your pizza as you creatively choose in whatever portions you prefer. A glass-enclosed room showcases house-cured meats. The entire Terroni experience is Italian immersion from the choices of Apristomaco (named for what they are intended to do) to the Italian phrases you’ll pick up if you visit il bagno.
- Chinese Dumplings – Peking Tavern When we want something cheap, fast and fun this is our other close-by walking option as it’s located in the basement under Terroni–enter door to the right of Terroni’s and walk down a flight of stairs. Don’t let the dying vine that never quite made it up the wire fool you (if they haven’t already uprooted it). They may not be able to grow plants in a basement but they damn sure know how to make dumplings. In fact, most of the time you’ll see one or two women; through the side window when you walk in; deftly patting dough into perfectly round dumpling skins ready to be filled as fast as they can make them. They have a great selection of beers on tap. The space is designed for optimal mingling with a long bar and high communal tables. Seems that most of the crowd would rather mingle than sit, so for us 20+ years- of- marriage boomers, tables for two have, so far, been easy to come by. The website describes the concept as Hollywood style Chinatown of yesteryear crossed with the old “hutongs” of Beijing. I wouldn’t know what an old “hutong” is but I know some great dumplings and a beer can be the perfect comfort food at the end of a long day! Six dumplings are about $6-$8. And if you want to make it a late night, There’s a really cool bar in the same basement as Peking Tavern built in what was once the vault of the former City National Bank.
- Indian Gastro-pub – Badmaash is one of our absolute favorites. and one we have to Uber to–just a little further on the north end of town than we’d care to walk to at 2nd Street between Spring and Main. The heat scale runs the gamut with plenty of options in Mary’s mild and Jay’s spicy comfort zones. The choices center around Indian street food along with some traditional Indian dishes. Beer comes in cans and there’s a limited wine selection. Downstairs, the dining area is small but there’s also an upstairs mezzanine. Indian movies play on the curved two-story white wall that accentuates the high ceiling making this small restaurant feel spacious. Don’t miss the lentil soup (ask for a side of basmati pilaf to add to it) and the Bad Ass Chicken Tikka Masala! Get into the Badmaash irreverence and be sure to order a few items from the “#FoodPorn @BadmaashLA” column of the menu and if you’re social media-ly inclined, follow their suggestion printed on the menu and “Instagram that shit!”
- Something totally different–Starry Kitchen The best –and maybe the only–Singaporean food you’ll ever have. Owned by this wild Vietnamese immigrant, Thi Tran, and his adorable wife/ chef extraordinaire, Nguyen. We discovered Starry when they had a pop-up location a block away from us but now they’re in the Grand Star Jazz Club (as Tran writes on the website) in CHINATOOOOOWN @ 943 N. Broadway. Tran will pepper all conversations with endearing F-bombs. And with crab season upon us, if you want the Spicy Crab you have to order it a day ahead. Be prepared for a dinner like none you’ve ever had. There are mild options but go with the mindset that this is going to be a rather spicy night in more ways than one!
- Total Hipster – LA Chapter at Ace Hotel. Every boomer parent should have one of their 20-something kids employed by the hippest place in town. Thanks to Nick working “Upstairs,” the designation for the rooftop bar at Ace Hotel, they let us up the elevator as long as it’s not dark yet. And since Jay’s beard has grown in and as long as Mary keeps up with her colorist, we’ve been given excellent service in the restaurant. All kidding aside, Ace Hotel is the single most significant contributor to the transformation happening on Broadway between Olympic and 9th Street. And while the crowd is definitely hip–it spans all ages and demographics–OK, it’s mostly 25-35–but one night Mary took Jay’s 84 year-old mom there for dinner, and although there were no tables, they sat on the mezzanine, had a bunch of great small plate dishes and a couple of glasses of wine and got a big hug from their waiter when they left. The food at LA Chapter is outstanding, the service is exceptional, the space transports you to another era in keeping with the history of the building which was the original offices and theater of United Artists’ –the group formed by D.W. Griffiths, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks when they wanted to get out from under the control of the big studios. With natural light streaming in by day and the black cars pulling up to the curb at night, there’s a special energy in L.A. Chapter. For breakfast, if you’re a waffle fan, the Buckwheat waffle is ethereal and if you like your toast with a kick–wait till you try this fresh-baked 7-grain bread version with a big thick schmear of avocado laced with aleppo pepper. And staying on the spicy side of things, the Bloody Mary is de rigueur –even if you make it a virgin. And for mild Mary, who prefers to get her blood from her oranges–the Carnation, made with blood orange juice and sparkling rose’ served in an old-style champagne glass with a sugar-infused hibiscus flower– is the perfect Saturday brunch antidote to coming home after a long busy week on the road. Our easy commute home is just a walk past Tacos Mexico, the world’s busiest 24-hour taco stand, and then across the street to the Eastern Columbia Building which makes it tempting to just head Upstairs and lounge on Ace’s rooftop chaises or claim a comfortable corner with cushions and pillows and continue the day-drinking until Nick shows up for his evening shift and tells us it’s time to go home.