"We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares and go downtown ... everything's waiting for you!" When Petula Clark sang this line in 1964 -- albeit about New York -- who could have known she was she forecasting the future of downtown Los Angeles as a culinary destination? Numerous chefs have claimed downtown spots over the past several years, bringing an array of styles and cuisines. Five of them -- Ilan Hall (The Gorbals), Judy Han (Mendocino Farms, Blue Cow), John Sedlar (Playa, Rivera), Ricardo Zarate (Picca, Mo-chica) and Patricia Zarate (Homegirl Café -- no relation to Ricardo) -- gathered at the L.A. Central Library downtown two days ago, on July 17, to discuss their cooking, influences, and thoughts on the neighborhood in a panel hosted by the ALOUD lecture series. KCRW "Good Food" host Evan Kleiman moderated, and a podcast of the event is available online.
Why the attention on downtown? Over the past decade, an influx of residents, retail shops, galleries, bars and yes, restaurants have driven downtown into a radical transformation. Downtown experienced a Golden Age in the early 1900s, but fell into decline after World War II. Residents left, stores closed, offices moved, theaters turned out their lights, and eventually developers razed the Victorian homes on Bunker Hill to make way for office buildings and parking lots. When L.A. passed an adaptive reuse ordinance in 1999, developers seized the chance to draw residents with historic buildings converted into stylish residences. Staples Center opened the same year, Walt Disney Concert Hall followed in 2003, and L.A. Live debuted in 2007, also attracting residents.
Between 2000 and 2010, the residential population increased 50% -- from 26,000 to almost 39,000. Restaurateurs also noticed the neighborhood's appeal. According to ALOUD, "New culinary projects are stirring up a neighborhood renaissance" as some of "the city's best chefs are blending ... ethnic and cultural traditions with the contemporary taste of eclectic Los Angeles."
Ricardo Zarate said that the area is "growing big time," which he began witnessing as chef at Sai Sai in The Biltmore Hotel almost ten years ago. His new Mo-chica has brought upscale Peruvian cuisine to the neighborhood.
Hall initially envisioned a beachside locale for his first L.A. restaurant. He instead chose to open The Gorbals, with its Scottish-Jewish food, inside the Alexandria Hotel, built in 1906. The spot "made me feel part of something fresh, but in an old place," he said.
History is meaningful to Sedlar, and often influences his food. At Rivera, his pan-Latin restaurant near L.A. Live, you can even dial a number to learn the story behind each dish. Sedlar pointed out that L.A.'s history began downtown, at the Olvera St. plaza where Spaniards founded the city.
Han, whose cooking reflects her Korean heritage and other Asian influences, appreciates that downtown's "culturalization" spans many creative fields. Mendocino Farms and Blue Cow at California Plaza are a stone's throw from Disney Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the upcoming Broad Museum. California Plaza with its majestic Water Court frequently hosts music, theater and dance shows, such as the Grand Performances series.
At the Mexican-influenced Homegirl Café on the edge of downtown and Chinatown, Patricia Zarate trains former gang members for food and service industry jobs. Homegirl's location must serve local communities and also attract diners. The program has been a success, Zarate said. She's trained hundreds of students, and one is slated to work with Thomas Keller.
Meanwhile, downtown's residential population is expected to grow. Restaurants seem to roll in each week, continuing to bring a diversity of styles. Last week: Towne. This week: Soleto Trattoria and Pizza Bar. Very soon: Parish from Tasting Kitchen chef Casey Lane. Josef Centeno's Bar Amá with Tex-Mex cuisine is slated to open this fall. Many more eateries are planned, including the relaunch of Clifton's Cafeteria, a project from restaurateur Bill Chait and a café-cum-fancy grocery store called Urban Radish. What's next on the local food horizon? If downtown's revitalization keeps up its speed, we won't need to wait long to find out.