If New York is the city that never sleeps and Las Vegas is Sin City, then what's Los Angeles? A nightlife paradox of fractured party zones, ethnic enclaves and faraway adventures.
Club-hopping can mean 30-minute car rides down lonely freeways and shady boulevards. But these days, Koreatown after dark is as bright as Manhattan, and the scene happens block by block, making it a de facto nightlife center of L.A.
Don Won, columnist for Korean American youth culture Web site www.kx-gen.com, is gunning east down Wilshire Boulevard on a recent Thursday night in his silver Carrera when the driver of a new Subaru WRX rolls up and matches the Porsche red light to red light.
"My first gear is slow," shrugs the 33-year-old banker as he sits down for a 22-ounce bottle of Korean beer at his destination, Greenbelt Cafe.
"This is like the dark secret of Los Angeles," says 32-year-old kx-gen contributor Rice Cube as he and Won survey the bustling cafe. "Here's this ... section of town most people just drive through. We're trying to expose Koreatown. We have K-town pride."
A decade has passed since the 1992 riots left many storefronts and shops charred in this community bounded roughly by Beverly and Olympic boulevards on the north and south and Vermont and Arlington avenues on the east and west. Many of those locations have been resurrected as bars and have rolled out the welcome mat to the rest of the city. "We really think there's a tremendous cosmopolitan atmosphere to this area," says architect Christopher Pak, celebrated designer of many a nightspot. "You have an area that is as dense as parts of New York."
K-town bars long catered to foreign exchange students from South Korea and other Asian countries, but after the Asian economic fall of the late '90s, proprietors have introduced changes to make their businesses more appealing to all comers. Dozens of the cafes feature "stand-up" bars, sports events on their big-screen monitors and foods such as French fries and chips and salsa.
Many, such as Pointe at Wilshire and South Serrano Avenue, employ model-esque bartenders. "Because of our girls -- that's why we attract so many people," says manager Tom Shin.
Rosen Brewery Restaurant at South Western Avenue and West 4th Street opened three years ago and offers microbrews such as Koreatown Ale and Hollywood Dark Stout along with bar combos that include a pitcher of beer, a chicken quesadilla, a California roll and chicken skewers.
Cindy Club on Beverly Boulevard is one of a handful of "hostess bars" in Koreatown that cater to men who pay an hourly rate to sit in private booths with female employees. There are also at least two "host bars," where older women patrons come to spend time with well-dressed male employees.
Koreatown immigration attorney John Y. Song entertains clients at Cindy and other nightspots.
"A lot of business within the community is generated by [such personal] contact," he says. Still, he doesn't mind the fresh faces elbowing in at the bars while he's networking with clients. "A lot of Koreans are eager for this change," he says. "They don't want to look at themselves as being insular. They want to mingle."
Cafe Bleu opened a year ago at 6th and Alexandria and has mahogany trim, a grand piano and a young, professional crowd that comes to see jazz and comedians on Thursdays and hip-hop and pop DJs on Saturdays. Nancy Cho, a 25-year-old accountant, says club-hopping in K-town is "more convenient." But she still prefers wheels to feet: "We don't like to walk too far in our high heels."
(Most are for ages 18 and up with no cover charge and offer full menus with full bars)
Bleu: 3470 W. 6th St. Live entertainment Thursdays, DJs on Saturdays. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. Info: (213) 383-0180; www.cafe-bleu.net
Bliss: 3465 W. 6th St., #200. Six karaoke rooms. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. 21 and older. Info: (213) 365-1222.
Cindy Club: 4273 Beverly Blvd. Hostess rooms and beer and wine only. 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday. 21 and older. (323) 906-1640.
Greenbelt: 3250 Wilshire Blvd. 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Info: (213) 380-0908.
Intercrew: 3465 W. 6th St., #C. 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Info: (213) 365-8111.
Le Prive: 721 S. Western Ave. Karaoke, dancing. 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 21 and older. (213) 381-7007.
Pointe: Aroma Center basement, 3680 Wilshire Blvd. 12 karaoke rooms. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. 21 and older. Info: (213) 383-8686.
Rosen Brewery: 400 S. Western Ave. 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday; 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday through Sunday. 21 and older. Info: (213) 388-0061.
Zzyzx: 601 S. Western Ave. Dancing, hostesses and karaoke. 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily. 21 and older. Info: (213) 381-3835.