Downtown at Big Bang

Times Staff Writer

Coco, 5, runs holding an open bright blue umbrella in and out of the clothes racks, in the kitchen and around the counter telling people that she's selling a small handful of well-worn pencils for $10. "Want to buy some?" she asks a customer noisily sucking the last drop of chocolate hazelnut milkshake from a straw. The answer was "NO."

Cleo, 21, is Coco's eldest sister and she is running about, too, adjusting Hawaiian shirts on a rack and the papier-mache jewelry on the counter on the other side of the huge ground floor of the newly renovated clothing store-cafe in the heart of downtown Los Angeles' hard-core industrial section. She is answering a question about the paint used on the walls. "It's not paint, it's plaahstah ," she tells the inquiring customer. The accent is decidedly British. "What?" puzzles the customer. "Plaaaast-er," says Cleo, emphasizing a nasal New York "a." The brightly colored plaster walls at the Big Bang are architectural abstractions unifying a large space, a stamp typical of the art movement that seems to have given many downtown renovations great charm.

Then there is Alice Wolf, the girls' mother, with geranium-pink eye shadow and copper-colored hair, accepting a delivery of sunglasses. "Can I have this dollar?" asks little Coco, grasping a tip left for the waiter. "No," says her mother, snatching the dollar and dropping it in the waiter's tip box.

The nice thing about the cafes downtown (remember Gorky's?) is that they have heart. They are not just a pile of "brick and mortar," as Wolf puts it.

Wolf, a former beatnik/flower-power follower who owned several clothing stores in London before moving to Los Angeles in 1978, says all of her businesses have been tailored to her family. Similarly, she has wanted to create an oasis for people in need of a second home, a surrogate family.

The waiter and cook are former customers, now part of the family. Wolf explained her philosophy: "It's a place one can come to let the mind travel, to get ideas. No one rushes you out." You can sit and read from the stack of magazines left for customers, linger over a cup of coffee all afternoon or browse through the multitude of merchandise, including old and new clothes (some from designers), jewelry, tuxedo shirts for men, vintage clothes for children. A little of this and that, and food, too.

The food is ready-made and assembled on the spot in a showroom environment without kitchen. Nice-looking salads, and tasty, too. I tried artichoke hearts with green and red pepper, celery and mushrooms and a tuna made with Pommery mustard and dill. An avocado sandwich with alfalfa sprouts and tomato on grainy bread was good, too, a surprise when you are expecting nothing extraordinary.

You may find a few nice-sounding things, even though the kitchen is usually out of most of the stuff listed on the menu. There wasn't any tabbouleh, brown rice salad, dolmas, pasta salad or Portuguese sardine salad on either of my two visits. And they had just run out of the ravioli special.

But that seems not to matter much. You go for the relaxation, if you work or live in the neighborhood, happen to stumble upon it, try it for a snack after a visit to the nearby downtown museums (the Museum of Neon Art and Temporary Contemporary), or are in need of something cold from the soda fountain. You go for one of the very good desserts, the homemade gelati, ice cream sundaes, splits and floats, espresso and cappuccino and fruit cocktails.

The Big Bang, 800 Traction Ave. (between 2nd and 3rd streets, off Alameda, opposite Little Tokyo), (213) 687-4723. Open Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Accepts major credit cards, checks with identification. Reservations accepted for large parties. Parking a problem during daytime. Average entree $3.50.

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