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It’s not just for work

Times Staff Writer

IT’S happy hour at funky Bar 107 in downtown Los Angeles. “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” by the iconic punk band X plays on the stereo as bartender Felicia Cox, her chest and arms covered in intricate tattoos, pours stiff vodka tonics for several members of the burgeoning inner-city hip set. A homeless man shambles in, sits at the end of the long wooden bar and carefully lays down three crumpled dollar bills. The regulars watch with interest as Cox sets a Schlitz tall boy in front of the man, who nods thankfully and takes a big swig. Despite its loft-inspired leaps toward gentrification, downtown remains an area of glorious contrast.

Known not long ago as a nighttime no-man’s-land, the concrete landscape bordered by the Los Angeles River and the 101, 10 and 110 freeways finds itself at the center of an extraordinary bar and nightclub explosion fueled by a who’s-who of L.A.'s thriving after-dark empire.

By the middle of next year, some 20 venues -- including bars, boutique drinking establishments and live music houses -- will have opened (or undergone makeovers) in roughly a two-year span. The phenomenon owes much to the success of the area’s residential market. But as its entertainment options multiply and the sight of dog-walking locals allays concerns about safety, downtown is increasingly becoming a nightlife destination.

“Until the Standard opened downtown, there was nothing much to do,” says Jason71, a 35-year-old musician and visual artist who has lived downtown for six years. “Now there are more boutique-y bars and other places that have opened up and are attracting people to come on down.”

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Indeed, entrepreneurs are using downtown’s growing residential base as a foundation for their ventures. The number of market-rate residential units has more than doubled since 1998 and stands at nearly 7,500, according to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. Eight thousand more units are under construction. Officials project that by 2013, downtown’s current population of roughly 30,000 will have doubled.

And in a twist on the cheesy “Field of Dreams” catchphrase, it might be said that if they come, someone will build a bar.

Getting started

Three or four years ago, downtown nightlife lacked cohesion and most folks left before it got too late. What little scene existed was kept afloat by pockets of activity in distinctly separate areas serving disparate clienteles. There were devotees of the sushi and sake bars of Little Tokyo, as well as the low-key lounges and galleries of Chinatown. There were partyers at the often-illicit warehouse raves. There were the white-collar happy-hour crowd at restaurant bars, the out-of-towners cloistered at hotel bars, the sports hordes that came to Staples Center and its Fox Sports Sky Box, and the patrons of the fine art venues who suspected downtown began and ended with the Patina Group and its upscale eateries. Then there were the regulars, who tippled at legendary places such as Cole’s, Hank’s and Little Pedro’s, or divey options like Crabby Joe’s and King Edward’s.

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The Standard’s L.A.-noir rooftop lounge, which opened in 2002, turned the heads of a few Hollywood players. “The last couple of years we’re always packed,” says the bar’s manager, Steven Sue. “It’s a destination bar, for sure.”

Dotting downtown are other venues revealing a changing scene.

Bar 107 was a gay dive before L.A. (roller) Derby Girl Vianey Delgadillo and her manager, a onetime king of low-brow Hollywood after-hour parties, Brian Traynam, turned it into a raucous neighborhood spot where a little person named O-Dawg could occasionally be spotted doing back flips and inverted push-ups on the bar.

The saloon has the good fortune of being located near the 6-year-old lofts above Pete’s Cafe & Bar at 4th and Main, a corner widely considered the birthplace of the downtown “renaissance.” The lofts and their in-house restaurant were developed by charismatic New York expat Tom Gilmore, who says that his decision to be the first to convert downtown office space into residences -- shortly after the 1999 adaptive reuse ordinance proposed by the Central City Assn. made the endeavor possible -- was “a no-brainer.”

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“It shocked me that the second-largest city in America didn’t have a workable downtown,” Gilmore says. “I wanted to reintroduce urbanism.”

“Tom Gilmore did a really smart thing,” Jason71 says. “He got three buildings in the same neighborhood. Instant community.”

Says Gilmore: “Pete’s came about because we needed Pete’s. My residents were like, ‘This is a really good loft, but where are we going to eat and drink?’ ”

Moving it forward

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If Gilmore gave the loft and restaurant movement wings, then downtown prodigy Cedd Moses is the granddaddy of the nascent bar scene.

Tall, slender, with an air of unstudied distraction and a droning voice, Moses, the son of abstract artist Ed Moses, is the source of inspiration most frequently cited by new bar owners. After all, it was Moses who in 2004 opened the hugely successful Golden Gopher on 8th Street between Olive and Hill in a space once known for being one of the most dangerous bars downtown. A year later, he cut the ribbon for the Broadway Bar next to the Orpheum Theatre. Now he is poised to unveil a plush whiskey bar named Seven Grand in the old Clifton’s Silver Spoon Cafeteria on 7th Street. Seven Grand highlights will include a pool table, a smoking deck, more than a dozen draft beers, live music and whiskey-friendly, extra-slow-melting ice cubes.

“In 24 hours a half million people work down here,” Moses says, leaning over a color-coded map of downtown in his 213 Inc. offices above Seven Grand. “We want to create neighborhood bars out of beautiful buildings. Once there’s critical mass in terms of bars down here, we’ll create a destination.”

In fact, Moses and his partner, design guru Ricki Kline, seem to be willing to create critical mass all by themselves. Moses just bought the classic 1908 Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet on 6th Street. “Cole’s is brilliant already,” Moses says. “It just needs cleaning and a little paint and a big improvement in the food department.” He is also working on a lavish private club specializing in mixology called Petroleum in the old Petroleum building at Olympic and Flower. And he is partnering with Spaceland Productions’ Mitchell Frank to acquire a historic downtown theater with designs on making it a live music venue. The undisclosed space is in escrow.

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“I tried to get investors five or six years ago and nobody would listen,” Frank says. “Now they all listen.”

Future plans

Other entrepreneurs have felt downtown’s siren call too. Take the folks behind the new Library Bar, cater-cornered from the Standard on Hope Street. Co-owner Michael Leko, the mastermind behind L.A.'s Eat Well restaurant chain (he sold the last one in his arsenal to open the Library Bar), says that tourists’ reactions to downtown provide a litmus test for the health of the area.

“People have been saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been doing business here for years and I usually go to the Westside at night.’ But now they’re saying, ‘I stayed downtown all week,’ ” Leko says.

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Leko and his partner, Will Shamlian, who has a stake in Eagle Rock’s Chalet and Silver Lake’s 4100 bar, have created a classy neighborhood hangout with the Library Bar. Brick walls, wooden shutters, herringbone wood floors, dim candles in brown glass holders, club chairs and wall-to-wall bookcases put the bar in the same class as Moses’ ventures. Although Moses creates faithful retro renderings of interiors based on the historical context of the buildings his bars occupy, Leko and Shamlian have added modern twists to theirs, like nailing sheets of shiny zinc to the tops of wooden tables.

That almost artistic attention to detail sets this generation of entrepreneurs apart from the cavalier L.A. development pack. Many work within the delicate framework of buildings that are close to a century old; they see it as their duty to reinvigorate them. Kline points out that because parts of downtown had fallen so tragically down on their luck, they were largely ignored during the ravenous demolition derby that laid much of L.A.'s architectural heritage to waste beginning in the late 1950s.

Cindy Olnick, the communications manager at the Los Angeles Conservancy agrees: “You’ve heard of demolition by neglect? Well, this is preservation by neglect.”

The conservancy is particularly excited about the future of the 1876, baroque-inspired St. Vibiana’s Cathedral at 2nd and Main streets, which it fought desperately to save. With help from the conservancy and state politicians, Gilmore has rejuvenated the structure and began using it as a special-events venue last year.

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Gilmore has also taken out a 20-year lease on the Regent Theater on Main Street, which he will open as a 450-seat rock ‘n’ roll venue next year. Additional blueprints reveal plans for a tapas restaurant called La Puerta at 4th and Spring streets, and next door another restaurant: Sushi on Spring.

More to come

Far from being worried about competition from other corners, Gilmore and his fellow downtown bar owners welcome it. “We all frequent each other’s bars,” Moses says.

Gilmore praises a number of his competitors, including Elizabeth Peterson, the brains behind Industrial Street’s new watering hole the Royal Claytons pub. In addition to partnering with former Derby co-owner Tony Gower and others to remake Little Pedro’s as the lush Bordello, Peterson will unveil an English beer garden named Bridge Tavern (in the old Studio Cafe) in February. The mostly outdoor venue will have “serious food and a boutique beer list,” Peterson says.

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Finally, Peterson plans to open a “speak-easy-style jazz club” named Dietrich’s (after one of the original downtown party girls, Marlene) in the basement of the Hellman Building, directly below another Gilmore favorite, Lost Souls Cafe.

Still, the endeavor Gilmore effuses about the most isn’t his own. It’s the Edison, the dreamlike creation of Marc Smith and Andrew Meieran. “It’ll rip your head off, it’s so cool,” Gilmore says.

The Edison is in the basement of the historic Higgins Building, with an entrance off the Harlem Place alley on 2nd Street between Main and Spring. “There was this incredible, almost surreal Jules Verne-esque space -- it was under water and abandoned for 20-some years and my imagination went wild,” Meieran says. He preserved a giant boiler -- now home to a cozy wine bar -- and four ancient generators, displayed behind low-slung chains.

The duo is also pairing up on another venture called Mercury Liquors, which will be located in the vaults of an old bank near 6th and Spring. The centerpiece will be the bank’s 38-ton solid-steel vault door, which Smith (whose other interests include Hollywood’s Three Clubs) says you can still swing open with your pinkie.

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DCBID and CCA President Carol Schatz considers adaptive re-use essential to the future of downtown. She speaks in terms of “pillars of revitalization” and cites Staples Center and Walt Disney Concert Hall as the catalysts for a boom that eventually will include L.A. Live near Staples and the Grand Avenue Project near the performing arts centers. “Suddenly people had a reason to come downtown that had no reason before,” she says.

“It’s almost as if the city fled its center as far as possible, but like ripples in a pond spreading outwards, eventually those ripples are going to hit the bank and head back to the center,” Meieran says. “Malls like the Grand Avenue Project and L.A. Live will create hubs to pull people into the area. It’s starting on polar sides and filling in block by block.”

Community feeling

Nobody has felt the filling-in phenomenon more acutely than Bert Green, the owner of Bert Green Fine Art on 5th near Main and the organizer of the Downtown Art Walk. In two years, the number of participating galleries has grown from eight to 28, and on the second Thursday of every month, the event draws between 1,000 and 2,000 browsers. “People discover the area and come back,” he says. “Restaurants within walking distance have told me that’s it’s their busiest day of the month.”

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Artists worry that those most vital to the authentic inner-city workings of the district will be priced out. Others point out in a c’est la vie manner that revitalization gives as much as it takes away.

“It’s pretty much gentrified now,” says sculptor and musician Liz McGrath, who has lived downtown for a decade, since the days starving artists could actually barter for their rent. “It’s nice to go to a restaurant or coffee shop and have a conversation with people who aren’t asking you for money.”

As Leko from the Library Bar points out, downtown’s multicultural, multi-economic nature -- including Broadway’s Latino swap meets and storefront churches, Little Tokyo and skid row’s homeless population -- guarantees that, for the time being at least, downtown will remain diversified. “Try as much as you want, swing for the fence, but you won’t lose that gritty sex appeal,” Leko says.

Old will continue to commingle with new. Take La Cita, the Hill Street bar adjacent to Grand Central Market that long has been a destination for downtown’s working-class Latino population. When new investors took over the bar this summer, they retained the popular norteno, cumbia and tejano entertainment on weekends; on weeknights, La Cita draws a decidedly different crowd, with street artist Shepard Fairey DJing on Thursdays and hipster kids Part Time Punks throwing a party on Fridays. But La Cita still retains its old look.

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“We refurbished the original furnishings, lowered the lights, cleaned it up a bit, and that’s it,” one of the new owners, Carl Lofgren, says of the bar’s classic plush-red interior and cozy open-air patio.

Just around the corner on 2nd Street, the new owners of the Redwood Bar & Grill, Dev Dugal and Christian Frizzell (ex-GM of the Golden Gopher), have taken a different tack. For years the Redwood was the dive bar of choice for Los Angeles Times staffers. A red phone legendarily connected the bar to the news desk. When Dugal and Frizzell bought the space in May, they remade it with a nautical theme and a menu of gastro-pub fare.

Dugal believes so much in downtown that he bought a 25-passenger shuttle bus for the Redwood. He plans to recruit other bar owners to start a free shuttle service through a new venture, Downtown Bar Hopper.

Bar-hopping corridor or not, most entrepreneurs are aiming for a neighborhood feel that is distinctly anti-Hollywood. “If Lindsay Lohan doesn’t ever pay a visit to this place, it’ll be fine by me,” the Library Bar’s Leko jokes.

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That’s not to say glitz and glamour are absent.

Ralph Verdugo’s Club 740, with its multiple levels, glass walls, light shows, go-go dancers and VIP rooms, is a Hollywood-worthy mega-club that brings the kind of glitter often delivered by promoters at the nearby Mayan Theatre. After the New Year, Verdugo plans a mellower lounge on the street level of his Broadway club called Heaven 4rty.

And closer to Staples, Sergio Dovarro’s J Restaurant & Lounge takes a similar approach with a more elegant sensibility. Boasting 25,000 square feet of space over two levels, J’s includes a cigar patio, dance floor, restaurant, three full bars (with wine hand-picked by former L’Orangerie sommelier Frederic Hemon), VIP rooms and a patio with cabanas and fire pits.

Standing on the patio, Dovarro looks out over the changing downtown skyline. “Look around at all the cranes,” he exclaims. “How can you not get excited?” Despite the fact that Dovarro hosts celebrity bashes, such as one for the Black Eyed Peas earlier this month, he still feels a kinship with his live-in neighbors, allowing some to leave through the emergency exits and go straight to their units.

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“I used to see a dog a month, now it’s dog row,” he says. “It’s become a community.”

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Staff writer Kevin Bronson contributed to this report.

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*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Look who’s moved in

Currently open

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* 1. Vertigos, 801 W. Temple St., (213) 977-0888. www.vertigos.com. A bar for party people. Goth nights mix with cover band nights, guest DJs and go-go dancers.

* 2. Bordello, 901 E. 1st St., (213) 687-3766. Formerly Little Pedro’s, which claims to be the oldest bar in L.A. Once edgy, cavernous and concrete; poised to reopen with more postured style.

* 3. The Redwood Bar & Grill, 316 W. 2nd St., (213) 680-2600, www.theredwoodbar.com. A nautically themed bar with gastro-pub fare.

* 4. The Edison, 108 W. 2nd St., No. 101 (in Harlem Place alley), (213) 613-0000. www.edisondowntown.com. Surreal study in adaptive reuse. Could be the set for a Dario Argento horror film, except it’s too up-and-coming to be scary.

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* 5. Vibiana Place, 210 S. Main St., (213) 622-4949. www.vibianala.com. Formerly St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. A priceless piece of L.A. history fully restored, with promoters booking the likes of Snoop Dogg. You’ve gotta see it to believe it. Special events and performing arts shows are also staged.

* 6. La Cita, 336 S. Hill St., (213) 687-7111. www.lacitabar.com. South of the border spice without the drive. Hip DJs and lively Mexican dance music complete the scene.

* 7. Bar 107, 107 W. 4th St., (213) 625-7382. www.myspace.com/bar107. Doesn’t everybody dig a Christmas tree decorated with tall-boy cans?

* 8. Lost Souls Cafe, 124 W. 4th St., (213) 617-7006. www.lostsouls.com. An ambient cafe featuring local art, music and poetry, as well as panini sandwiches.

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* 9. Pete’s Cafe & Bar, 400 S. Main St., (213) 617-1000. www.petescafe.com. On the bustling, swiftly changing corner of 4th and Main, this East Coast style bistro packs ‘em in at all hours.

* 10. King Edward Saloon, 131 E. 5th St., (213) 629-2023. Old-school downtown dive in all its hard-luck glory. Working stiffs mingle with the down and out and those just looking for fun.

* 11. Casey’s Irish Bar & Grille, 613. S. Grand Ave., (213) 629-2353. www.bigcaseys.com. A subterranean after-work hangout with a 35-year history in downtown.

* 12. Rooftop Bar at the Standard, 550 S. Flower St., (213) 892-8080. www.standardhotel.com. With a pool, stunning views of downtown and waterbed pods, this is the rooftop bar in L.A. Hollywood waits in line here.

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* 13. Library Bar, 630 W. 6th St. (at Hope), (213) 614-0053. www.librarybarla.com. Low-key class, quality selection of drinks and friendly ambience make this a neighborhood bar to visit.

* 14. Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, 118 E. 6th St., (213) 622-4090. www.colespebuffet.com. One of downtown’s oldest, most revered hangouts. Due for a mini-Moses makeover in 2007.

* 15. 626 Reserve, 626 S. Spring St., (213) 627-9800. www.626reserve.com. A quaint fine wine and small plates bar with ties to the gallery scene.

* 16. Royal Claytons, 1855 Industrial St., (213) 622-0512. www.royalclaytonspub.com. A destination day and night. Large, airy environment; affordable food and drink.

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* 17. Golden Gopher, 417 W. 8th St., (213) 614-8001. www.goldengopherbar.com. One of L.A.'s oldest liquor licenses allows you to buy liquor to go.

* 18. Broadway Bar, 830 S. Broadway, (213) 614-9909. www.thebroadwaybar.net. The bar’s designer Ricki Kline says, “The theme is glam -- as in New York Dolls rock ‘n’ roll glam.” Say no more.

* 19. Club 740 and Heaven 4rty, 740 S. Broadway, (213) 627-6277. www.740la.com. Mega-nightclub with go-go dancers and a Vegas-style laser light show. Mellower Heaven 4rty opens after the New Year.

* 20. J Restaurant & Lounge, 1119 S. Olive St., (213) 746-7746. www.jloungela.com. Mediterranean-inspired food, three bars, and a patio with fire pits and cabanas.

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On the way

Seven Grand, 515 W. 7th St., www.twoonethree.com. Cozy whiskey bar with a pool table, live music and a smoking patio.

Petroleum, 714 W. Olympic Blvd., www.twoonethree.com. Lavish private club specializing in mixology.

Regent Theater, 448 S. Main St. Live music venue focusing on rock, with a restaurant downstairs and a bar and club upstairs.

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Mercury Liquors, 215 W. 6th St. In an old bank vault with a blown-out wall housing “the Thieves Bar.”

Dietrich’s, 116 W. 4th St. A 500-seat jazz club in planned for the basement of the Hellman Building.

Bridge Tavern, 1356 Palmetto. Former Studio Cafe morphs into an English beer garden in February.

-- J.G.

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