When chef Mei Lin decided to open her first restaurant in 2018, she had both industry experience and a high profile, thanks to her stint on TV show Top Chef. What she needed was an address that would help draw diners. To Lin and her business partner, Cyrus Batchan, the choice was obvious: a building in Downtown LA's up-and-coming neighbourhood, the Arts District.
"I wanted to be involved in the great community that exists there," says Lin. Batchan was equally enthusiastic. "Art encompasses a wide range of disciplines and experiences including food, so we thought the Arts District would make a great home for our restaurant," he says.
Nightshade was an instant hit, with diners flocking to the airy space to enjoy Lin's fusion food which includes everything from one of the best prawn toasts you will ever eat to a Szechuan hot quail atop a thick slab of Japanese milk bread, with a hearty helping of Szechuan pepper that sends a wake-up call to your taste buds.
Lin is a big fan of the neighbourhood. "This is a walkable neighbourhood that you can spend the whole day in," she says. "You can spend the day at a brewery or wine bar and even walk over to Little Tokyo for some of the best sushi in LA. The area has a lot of different things to offer and they are all easily available."
The Arts District is the latest chapter in the reinvigoration of Downtown LA, an area that not so long ago was a no-go zone, is still home to a substantial skid row and yet is one of the city's most in-demand addresses.
It encompasses a range of distinct sub-regions, from the repurposed Beaux-Arts banks and offices of the Historic Core to the Fashion District and Bunker Hill, now a cultural hub that is home to institutions such as the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and the five-year-old Broad Museum, where the contemporary art collection includes work by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Cindy Sherman, as well as one of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Rooms.
For years, the Arts District seemed immune from the sense of renewal washing over Downtown; however, there's now a palpable sense of revival in the air with the area's first boutique hotels opening within a few blocks of each other on Santa Fe Avenue.
Strictly speaking, Soho Warehouse isn't a hotel; it is a members' club built into a 100-year-old warehouse, although this Soho House outpost also offers a number of stylish guestrooms. The Soho House group already has two outlets in Los Angeles, in the upmarket areas of West Hollywood and Malibu. The Arts District may seem an unusual choice for the city's third outpost, but the brand's US Design Director, Candace Campos, says it was a good fit.
"Soho House is all about creative communities, and there was already a thriving creative community of artists, designers and writers here," she says. "We wanted to join them on their journey. The fact that this building was a recording studio in the 1960s and 1970s fits nicely with the vibe."
Art of all kinds dominates the building, including graffiti leftover from the building's years of dereliction. There is a Shepherd Fairey mural at the entrance, an eye-catching wallpaper installation from LA artist Genevieve Gaignard and custom prints from LA illustrators cover much of the furniture, including the lounge chairs on the rooftop.
A very different vibe prevails at the Firehouse Hotel just a few blocks down. Like the abandoned warehouse restored by Soho Warehouse, this 1920s firehouse was in a derelict state before its reinvention.
"There were barely any walls or floors when we took the building over," says Sarah Dietz of Eastside Establishment, which operates the Firehouse Hotel. The LA-based company is known for creating bars and restaurants in up-and-coming areas. Ten years ago it opened Bar Covell in Los Feliz (followed by the five-room Hotel Covell), just as the neighbourhood's cool factor began to rise. Its arrival in the Arts District is yet another sign that the area is on the up.
"This is a designated historic structure so we had to follow a detailed process for the outer structure, but the interiors were a blank canvas," says Dietz. The company's favourite design collaborator, Sally Breer, brought her trademark funk and flair to the space. Each of the individually-furnished rooms is done in a different colour scheme, and heritage details such as pressed-tin panels sit alongside quirky features such as a velvet bedhead or a rainbow painted on the wall.
"The feeling of discovery is integral to our properties," Dietz says. "When you stay in a new room, it feels like a whole different experience."
The heart of Firehouse Hotel is the ground floor, which include a sprawling foyer-lounge area decked out with vintage armchairs, sofas and a laid-back restaurant where you can wash down your breakfast burrito with one of a selection of orange wines. "We wanted a restaurant that would cater to a local crowd. There are enough destination restaurants around here – Bestia is just around the corner," Dietz says.
Bestia is the Arts District's flagship restaurant and one of the most acclaimed eateries in LA, regularly scooping up awards and topping best-of lists since it opened in 2013. Owners Genevieve Gergis and Ori Menashe have since opened a second restaurant nearby. Bavel is just as acclaimed as its predecessor, with a menu that caters to your mood. You might opt for something light yet sophisticated – say, a scallop crudo in a pomegranate reduction with blueberry mint and black sesame – or stick with classic comfort food, such as the irresistibly more-ish layered malawach flatbread.
The couple says that the Arts District has changed considerably during their time here and that an area once remarkable for empty buildings and petty crime has grown up.
"It is a lot more crowded, but there is also a lot more to do. Before, when we needed to take a break to clear our heads there was nothing. Now, there are at least five different options for coffee, bars, restaurants, galleries in the area. We used to have to worry about having our car broken into, now we have to worry about where to park."
MORE DOWNTOWN HOT SPOTS
DOWNTOWN LA PROPER
You would expect a Fashion District hotel to be stylish and LA's second Proper hotel, set to open in March, won't disappoint. It features interiors by Kelly Wearstler, an expansive suite built into what was a vintage basketball court and another suite that has its own indoor pool as well as a mural by local artist Ben Medansky See properhotel.com
Another Fashion District newcomer, this hotel – like others in the Hoxton portfolio – draws guests in with its styled-up interiors and its happening public spaces. Sustainability is a key theme, with refillable bathroom amenities and locally-sourced vintage furniture. See thehoxton.com
The NoMad's 2018 opening marked a turning point for Downtown, and it remains the area's most elegant hotel, thanks to the sumptuous Jacques Garcia design that matches the grand interiors of this former bank. Their restaurant is also one of the area's best. See thenomadhotel.com/los-angeles
The freshly-opened Wayfarer DTLA has an enviable location in the Historic Core and a mix of private and shared rooms that caters to every budget. Highlights include the Tap Wall, which features a self-pour selection of local beers, wines and kombucha. See wayfarerdtla.com
W LOS ANGELES DOWNTOWN
Opening this year as part of a new downtown development, the W will offer guests an enviable range of facilities including a 460 square metre spa and a massive outdoor pool area. See marriott.com.au/hotels/travel/laxwb-w-los-angeles-west-beverly-hills/
Ute Junker was a guest of Los Angeles Tourism.
A number of airlines offer direct flights to LA from Sydney and Melbourne, including Qantas, Virgin, American and United.
The nine-room Firehouse Hotel has a colourful design, a friendly atmosphere and rooms from $US295 a night. See firehousela.com
Its seductive interiors, top-notch restaurant and location make the NoMad one of LA's most inviting hotels. Roomsrom $US250 a night. See thenomadhotel.com
Bavel offers a mix of Middle Eastern-influenced small plates and shared plates. baveldtla.com
Bestia opened n 2012 and is still constantly booked, thanks to its house-cured charcuterie and handmade pasta. bestiala.com
Nightshade is known for its fun and flavour-packed Asian fusion food and its superior cocktails. nightshadela.com