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Exploring downtown Los Angeles in 11 mini-itineraries

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The tourists think big. Arriving in Southern California, they expect to conquer Disneyland and Hollywood, perhaps on the same day, in between the surfing and snowboarding. Then they get stuck in traffic. Then come the recriminations, the tears, the vows to visit an island next time.

The locals think small. Tracing tight little loops between home and work, they dodge freeways and alien neighborhoods. There are Los Feliz people who haven't set foot in Venice since the latter Bush administration (I'm one), and there are Santa Monica people who have never stood at Griffith Observatory, watching the glittering grid of the city spread before them at dusk. (It's free, people.) Downtown sits in the middle of all of this, but to thousands of Angelenos, it's more remote than Manhattan, never mind Manhattan Beach.

What we have here, whether you're a tourist or a local, is a failure to fully appreciate the wonders and weirdness of Southern California. So we've come up with a monthly series of close-ups, beginning with downtown Los Angeles.

They're brisk, because you've got ground to cover. They cover kid stuff, adult stuff, food, lodging, roller derby, historic architecture and what to sniff when you're in the Central Library. They may be a tad more opinionated and intimate than your average guidebook, because this is our backyard and because you want to make human connections, not just check off a bucket list. We'll count on you to suggest your own favorite places, beginning with Los Angeles and Orange counties, by responding to us at travel@latimes.com.

Now, your 11 downtown close-ups. Most are micro-itineraries, bringing together two or three neighboring destinations to make a single adventure. Others stand alone, like those odd, irresistible Joshua Trees out in the desert. Try a few, and maybe you'll see L.A. anew.


1. Where T-rex roars Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

You can spend hours meandering Exposition Park near USC — the California Science Center, the California African American Museum, the Rose Garden. But not today. Today, you and your child are heading straight to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and you'll start by browsing the long hallways filled with old-school dioramas and a newfangled Age of Mammals exhibit that opened last year. Then you head upstairs to the second North American Mammal area, where, since 2008, museum performance artists have been staging Dinosaur Encounters and Ice Age Encounters. It's only a 15- or 20-minute show, but the star is a living, breathing, life-sized animal puppet — a 15-foot baby Tyrannosaurus rex. "Who thinks he eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?" asks Carissa Barnett, as the dinosaur (inhabited by another performer) snarls and snaps. Half-smitten and half-scared, the children hang on Barnett's every word about the food chain and extinction. Shows are offered two or three times daily (check http://www.nhm.org for times), and the museum's Ice Age Encounters (with a sabre-toothed cat mother and child) are comparable. Don't be surprised if other parts of the museum are closed for renovation; a new Dinosaur Hall is due in July.


2. Quiet and cool smells, then din and dining Los Angeles Public Library (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Shhh. You're going to the library. The big one on 5th Street, with the strange pyramid on top that deserves a role in the next overwrought Nicolas Cage conspiracy movie. Don't be put off by the street people at the entrance or the low ceilings on the ground floor. Climb one level and behold the soaring rotunda, full of spectacular murals painted in 1933 — conquistadors, friars, Native Americans and European settlers, not to mention the globe chandelier that throws light on them. Then step into the Children's Literature room next door, where (above the low-hanging fluorescent lights) you'll find another set of California historic scenes. Now follow the advice of Monica May, chef at the Nickel Diner and a downtown veteran, who takes visiting friends here and orders them to sniff the books. Why? "You're smelling your childhood," she says. After those acres of quiet, expect a blow to the head when you step through the glass doors of Bottega Louie Restaurant and Gourmet Market at Grand Avenue and 7th Street. That's how it feels the first time you confront the restaurant's signature din, the roar of a few hundred diners and a revved-up sound system, all bouncing off marble floors and empty whitewashed walls, echoing under 40-foot-high ceilings. But give it a minute, and notice the gleaming green éclairs for $3, the gluten-free macarons for $1.75, the legions of chefs in the wide-open kitchen. Since opening in 2009, this eatery has won a reputation for genial service, good Italian food and reasonable prices. It's so noisy that no one will notice a garrulous child. And if you don't want a meal, there's always the bar in front or the desserts in the bakery. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early or expect to wait.


3. The Tarzan factor L.A. Live (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

You're all about sports, and you've scored tickets to see the Clippers or Kings or Lakers at Staples Center, next to the L.A. Live entertainment complex near the southern end of downtown. Congratulations, especially if those are Laker seats. Now, there are more than a dozen restaurants and bars in L.A. Live, not to mention the Grammy Museum, a JW Marriott Hotel and a Ritz-Carlton, both of which opened in 2010. But that's not where you're sleeping. You're heading eight blocks northeast to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which has 72 hotel rooms that many people have never heard about. From the outside, the LAAC is a humdrum hulk among the gem merchants that make up downtown's Jewelry District, but inside, it's a piece of sweat-soaked L.A. history, with two restaurants and bars, pools, weights, squash courts, basketball courts and walls crowded with fascinating old artworks and photos. Book a room and you get the same access that the club's members do. (Yes, male and female, adults and children.) The hotel rooms, upgraded from 2007-2009, are dark, woodsy and clubby. For less than the cost of a room at the Marriott or Ritz, you can walk and run in the footsteps of Esther Williams, and Johnny Weissmuller and dozens of less-celebrated Olympic medalists. ( Charlie Chaplin spent a lot of time here too.) Alas, the indoor pool's high dive is no more, but you can still peek through the underwater window that diving coaches used to watch their protégés splash down.


4. Astroturf, movie memories and vistas Gallery Bar (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Next stop: the top of the Standard Hotel on Flower Street, where you'll find a pool (guests only), fireplace, Astroturf deck, goofy topiary and a trendy open-air bar with skyscraper views on all sides. Scan the horizon, quaff a beer ($8) or cocktail, then descend and head two blocks west to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on Grand. Stroll down the broad corridors of this grand old pile (where many early Oscar ceremonies were staged, beginning in the '30s) and imagine the whole place upside-down and wet. Yes, parts of "The Poseidon Adventure" (the 1972 movie) were shot in this lobby. Down the hall you'll find the hotel's stately Gallery Bar, where most nights, 26-year-veteran bartender Greg Guzelian will be pleased to assess your demeanor and pour you, as seems appropriate, a French Kiss or a Black Dahlia. These $16 drinks are his own creations. If '70s nostalgia takes hold, somebody may suggest an elevator ride to the revolving Bona Vista cocktail lounge on the 34th floor of the tired but striking Westin Bonaventure Hotel (built in 1976) at 4th and Figueroa. Choose the future instead: the WP24 Lounge on the 24th floor of the Ritz-Carlton at L.A. Live. (But bear in mind that it closes early — 10 p.m. most nights, 11 on Fridays and Saturdays.)


5. Street food and"Blade Runner" Grand Central Market (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

"Are you Jose?" somebody asks the Asian man behind the counter of Jose's Ice Cream Shop in Grand Central Market on Broadway near 3rd Street. "Yes," he says, handing over a scoop of pistachio for $1.50. Hey, this market is all about mixing it up. Carpeted with sawdust and illuminated by a jumble of neon signs, the open-air market dates to 1917. It offers produce, meats and street food of many countries (especially Mexico). Head to Tacos Tumbras a Tomas (Stall A5, on the left, halfway back) and order a $2.50 taco or a $5.50 burrito. Massive servings, tasty too. Then wander to the market's rear entrance on Hill, where you can check out the twin orange cars of the Angels Flight Railway, a rebuilt funicular that, for a quarter, will take you 298 feet up Bunker Hill to the splashing fountains and gleaming skyscrapers of the California Plaza Watercourt. (The railway opened in 1901, about a block from its current location, and was later closed, rehabbed, closed and rehabbed again, reopening in 2010.) Now, head back to the market's front entrance, cross Broadway and step into the Bradbury Building, a five-story, glazed-brick-and-cast-iron marvel that went up in 1893. Architect George Wyman was inspired by an imaginary building in a science-fiction story. Then, decades later, director Ridley Scott seized on the Bradbury as a set for his futuristic 1982 film "Blade Runner." It's free to stroll the ground level of the Bradbury, whose tenants include the LAPD Internal Affairs unit and Ross Cutlery, where you can use the old-fashioned scale for a dime.


6. Noodles in Chinatown Chinatown (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

L.A.'s Chinatown can't match San Francisco's or New York's for pedestrian friendliness or retail and restaurant variety. But this Chinatown has its own story. The original neighborhood was leveled to make way for Union Station in the 1930s, so the community rebuilt itself a few blocks to the northwest. You can get ginseng by the barrel or dried shiitake mushrooms by the pound or inspect a vast selection of teas and traditional cures at Wing Hop Fung in Far East Plaza (727 N. Broadway, No. 102). Then, for a modern spin, head a few blocks up to Realm (425 Gin Ling Way), a retail haven of stylish home items. Under the lanterns in the courtyard outside, you can find colorful toys and tourist gimcracks along with a few fledgling art galleries, quality variable. Among restaurants here, Yang Chow has the greatest wall of fame and a pleasant atmosphere (819 N. Broadway), and Phoenix Bakery has tempting sweets (969 N. Broadway). But you're going to double back to Far East Plaza for a cheap, healthful lunch and a reminder that Chinatown isn't just Chinese anymore. Hoan Kiem, the square little Vietnamese restaurant space at 727 N. Broadway, No. 130, offers just three dishes: pho (chicken noodle soup), rice crepes and rice with chicken, nothing pricier than $6.75. "We want quality, not quantity," says hostess and co-owner Lien Ha. "That's the mentality in our family."


7. Union Station and Olvera Street Olvera Street (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Angelenos sometimes avoid Olvera Street, maybe because its genuinely historic buildings are crowded by vendors and carts peddling cheap trinkets, maybe because parking can cost a fortune, maybe because the neighboring buildings seem to have been under renovation for longer than most of Los Angeles has been standing. But this is where settlers from Mexico founded Los Angeles in the late 18th century, and it's where the 1818 Avila Adobe, oldest home in Los Angeles, still stands. And it's an excuse to see Union Station. To visit, leave your car behind and take a Metro train to Union Station, and linger. This 1939 building is the last grand train station built in the U.S., and its entwined Art Deco and Spanish Colonial styles suggest the mansion Hernando Cortés might have built had he married a flapper. Traxx, an upscale bar-restaurant, is tucked just inside the main entrance. Now, head across the Alameda Street and walk the crowded alley that is Olvera Street. Unless you need a plastic guitar or wrestler's mask, stroll briskly past the stalls on your way to browse the more varied goods at Olverita's Village (No. 24). Then take a patio seat at La Golondrina (No. 17, main dishes $10-$24), one of several restaurants on the alley. It's not awesome food, but it's hearty. And if it's Friday night between 6:30 and 9, you'll have a five- or six-man mariachi playing for free. If it's not a Friday, think twice before you hire those strolling singer-guitarists. They've been known to ask as much as $4 per guy per song.


8. Disney Hall, inside, outside, across the street

Walt Disney Concert Hall (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Don't you want to lay hands on Disney Hall? Frank Gehry's rippling metallic beauty is nearly irresistible, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic keeps it busy. Acclaimed young conductor Gustavo Dudamel is scheduled to conduct about 45 performances in the 2010-11 season, and the hall books jazz and world music too. But tickets are dear, so you might just take the free 60-minute building tour, which doesn't cover the auditorium but does let you creep up and around the exterior. Most days, they hand out headphones between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and sometimes there are live guides. Now, notice the Colburn School, music and performing arts conservatory just across Grand Avenue. It plays Juilliard to Disney's Carnegie Hall. And on Friday and Saturday nights there are often concerts by students, faculty and visiting artists in the Colburn's 415-seat Zipper Hall, at notably sub-Disney prices. And there's the Colburn Café, a breakfast and lunch stop that's nestled just so, often used by music students and their families. From there it's an easy walk to Disney Hall, the Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the outdoor fountains of California Plaza.

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9. The walk and the Stay Downtown Art Walk (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Downtown's boosters dream of a 24-hour district teeming with loft dwellers who nightly browse restaurants, bars, galleries and one-of-a-kind shops. We're not all the way there yet, but if you show up on Spring or Main streets, between 2nd and 9th streets, on the second Thursday evening of any month, you'll see something like that vision. That's the night of the Downtown Art Walk, a loosely organized ritual, born in 2004, in which galleries such as the Hive (729 S. Spring St.) and shops such as Metropolis Books (440 S. Main St.) stay open late, DJs pop up everywhere, dozens of food trucks roll down Spring and Main streets like Conestoga wagons seizing prime prairie real estate, and hundreds of young artsy urbanites — some of them loft dwellers, many of them adventurers from elsewhere — roam the streets under the gaze of police and private security guards. There is a lot of amateurish art. Some people drink too much, and some say the food trucks undercut the area's restaurants. But there's a big buzz, and it's mostly fun. Near the center of the action, you'll find the Stay, a clean budget lodging that offers bunk beds for as little as $35, private rooms with bath for $75. You'll also find the Nickel Diner, serving American comfort food (including maple bacon donuts) near the gritty corner of Main and 5th.


10. The writing on the wall Wurstküche (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The color, the texture, the invention — you can hate most graffiti and still admire the lavishly colored walls, urban grit and exposed brick of downtown's Arts District. The "Mona Lisa" on the shed at Rose Street and Traction Avenue, for instance, and the long wall of crazy critters along Garey Street between 2nd and 3rd streets. Much of the outdoor artwork was done at the invitation of property owners in this Bohemian, post-industrial 'hood. You also find many artists' lofts, a few galleries and eateries and the skinniest college ever (the Southern California Institute of Architecture, which occupies a former freight train depot at 3rd Street and Santa Fe Avenue). Hungry? Stop for salad at Café Metropol (923 E. 3rd St.), sushi at R23 (923 E. 2nd St.) or a gourmet hot dog at Wurstküche (800 E. 3rd St.)


11. Two words: roller derby L.A. Derby Dolls (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. doesn't have an NFL team — yet. Till then, Angelenos have something almost as bruising, a banked-track, all-female roller derby league known as the L.A. Derby Dolls. Once, sometimes twice a month, about 2,000 people turn out at the rink on West Temple Street (near Alvarado Street) to watch these tough puppies in unstaged athletic competitions. What happened to all the shtick? Beginning in 2001, the sport's organizers contend, roller derby abandoned most of its canned-ham stunts in exchange for actual athletic competition in which one woman, known as the jammer, tries to whipsaw-fly-bounce-jounce-cuss her way through the opposing team, gaining a point for every player she passes. It is a decidedly unglamorous but endearing sport that packs the plywood bleachers with folks in search of something different on a Saturday night. The "bouts" are broken into four 15-minute quarters. Before the game, there are craft booths to browse and a live band to enjoy. At halftime, more music, pizza and Tecate beer. This is minimalist sports, a crazy roadhouse atmosphere with mostly 25- to 35-year-olds, but many spectators twice as old. It's sort of the anti-L.A. scene, the polar opposite of blingy Staples. "There's not one type of people here," says fan Joel Mandelkorn, who likes to bring out-of-town guests. "It's one of those things that, once you know about it, you're always telling people." Consider yourself told.

Staff writer Chris Erskine contributed his roller derby expertise to this report.

christopher.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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