J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton liven downtown L.A.

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Maybe the recession is really and truly over now. After all, a thousand and one hotel rooms have just bloomed in downtown Los Angeles amid the Kings and conventioneers.

I’m talking about the once-desolate territory just north of interstate 10 and east of California 110, where the Los Angeles Convention Center is neighbored by Staples Center (opened 1999), the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre (opened 2007) and the rest of the L.A. Live “sports and entertainment district.” Officially, the area is called South Park, and the entertainment company AEG has spent about $2.5 billion building the L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex here.

Besides the Staples and Nokia venues, AEG has peopled L.A. Live with more than a dozen restaurants, bars and nightclubs. In 2008 came the Grammy Museum. In October 2009 came the 14 movie screens of Regal Cinemas. Then in mid-February came a J.W. Marriott Hotel (878 rooms). And finally in early April came the last big piece of the puzzle—a Ritz-Carlton (123 rooms).

That’s a lot of new glitter in a precinct previously known best for grit and a greasy spoon that’s always open. (That would be the Original Pantry restaurant, serving diners in the wee hours since 1924.) Now, whether it’s to see athletes in motion, performers on stage or your regional marketing director at a trade show, you’re likely to land in this neighborhood before long.

So you’re entitled to wonder: Is this end of downtown ready for a weekend sleepover? At what cost? And if you come, do you ditch the kids or bring them?

To take measure, I spent a couple of weekends on fun patrol with my wife, Mary Frances, and 5-year-old daughter, Grace. We ate around, slept in the two new hotels, bowled an afternoon away and pounded on an electronic drum set. I can report that even though this remains mostly grown-up territory, there is enough at L.A. Live to fuel a full family weekend.

But mind your timing.

That bowling alley is a non-starter for kids after dark. Lodging prices are sure to depend heavily on who is booked at Staples, Nokia and the convention center. And even if you have great gobs of money, I’m not sure why you’d book a room at this Ritz-Carlton.

But before we get back to that, let’s start where my family did, at the J.W. Marriott, near 8th Street and Olympic Boulevard. (Don’t confuse it with the older Marriott at 333 S. Figueroa St.) You can’t miss the building: It’s that 54-story fella that towers near the 110, its contours curvy, its skin sheathed in hues of blue, all under a big round hood ornament that turns out to be a heliport.

Looking more closely, you find that those 878 Marriott rooms are on floors four through 21. The Ritz-Carlton (Marriott’s fancier corporate cousin) has a separate little lobby on the ground level and takes up the 22nd through 26th floors. The top half of the building is devoted to 224 Ritz-Carlton Residences condos. The price on those? Well, if you have to ask…

The Marriott’s introductory rates, however, aren’t as intimidating. Booking anonymously for a mid-March stay, we paid $170 for a standard room. (By mid-April, the low-end prices had crept up to $199.) And with a convention-center hotel like this, you always have to figure in some extra nickels and dimes. For Wi-Fi, $12.95 a night. For overnight parking, $38.

Yes, that’s a lot. Still, I have to say, the valet who took control of our car was so polished and in control, he could have been a bank president.

“Maybe he was,” said Mary Frances, thinking recessional thoughts.

Inside, the Marriott had a big, bright lobby, with shiny stone and concrete floors, red couches, orange pillows and ultra-mod white stringy chandeliers that hung as straight as spaghetti before boiling. It’s Vegas meets Asia. Many a meeting will flourish and many a conventioneer will wish she’d left a trail of bread crumbs, in the hotel’s more than 75,000 square feet of meeting space.

Our 15th-floor room, among the hotel’s smallest, measured 375 square feet, with lots of orange and brown and a pair of groovy turquoise chairs under the window. The flat-screen TV: 42 inches. In the bathroom, one sink. When we realized we had forgotten a toothbrush, I called to see if a sundries shop was open, and the front desk parried expertly: No, that shop wasn’t open,, but they’d send a free toothbrush and toothpaste right up. Well played, Marriott.

We slept well, and our 5-year-old especially enjoyed hopping back and forth between the hotel pool and the 12-person whirlpool. Be warned, however, that the pool and whirlpool are positioned on a big fourth-floor terrace that catches a near-blinding amount of reflected light on sunny days. While Grace frolicked, I began to feel like a bug under some kid’s magnifying glass. Down on the ground floor, parts of the L.A. Market restaurant also gets showered with reflected light in the morning. Bring shades to breakfast.

As you wander Nokia Plaza, the open area in the middle of the L.A. Live campus, you sense the architects and developers straining to conjure a great civic commons, a gathering place that buzzes 24/7 while the ads roll endlessly on the big screens above. But we’re not there yet. Too many parking lots and dead zones linger between L.A. Live and the other nodes of energy downtown. And as a crank from way back in the 20th century, I’m still wistful for the days when an entertainment district needed a bookshop and music store.

But you can only complain so much about a neighborhood that’s within a few miles of Disney Hall, the Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, USC, the museums of Exposition Park, Olvera Street and Union Station; within 10 miles of Beverly Hills; within 14 miles of Santa Monica. He who is tired of Los Angeles, to paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, is tired of making believe.

Here’s what we did with the kid:

The Grammy Museum (adults $12.95), which opened in 2008 among the clubs and eateries of L.A. Live, claimed more than an hour of our time, and we could have spent much more. You begin at the top of the four-level museum, amid listening stations that offer a staggering range of genres and eras, with headphones seemingly everywhere to help listeners understand who influenced whom. You also see artifacts, from old instruments to one of Michael Jackson’s stage costumes from 1972 (green daisies, yellow fringe).

On the third level, Grace listened at length to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, then took a turn making her own music on electronic keyboards and drum kits.

“I could play with this all day,” one boy, about 13, said as he sat at the drums. “All day and all night.”

(Since our visit, the museum has unveiled “Strange Kosmic Experience,” an exploration of the Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix that will stay up through Feb. 13.)

Lucky Strike Lanes, on the second level of L.A. Live, seems to devote more of its space to eating and drinking than it does to actual bowling. Also, Lucky Strike bans children after 7 p.m. And despite its location in the middle of a sports and entertainment district, it forbids “athletic wear or sports jerseys” after 7. Clearly, there are complicated social factors at play here.

On the Saturday afternoon we dropped in, I counted at least seven children on the 18 lanes. And the rest of the place was mostly empty. We paid $4.95 per pair of shoes and $6.95 per person per game. (Yes, that’s high, even for Los Angeles, even if you don’t fill in the “gratuities” line on the shoe-rental-and-bowling bill.) But it was free to arrange a gutter guard to keep Grace’s tosses in play—a crucial element, because this was her first trip to a bowling alley. And it was nice to settle onto on a comfortable couch instead of the usual bowling-alley molded seating unit. While a waitress brought tasty, unhealthy food (Exhibit A: golden brown nuggets of fried macaroni and cheese), we had a blast.

“I’ve never had a nice Pino Grigio in a bowling alley before,” Mary Frances said.

And I’d never seen a grown man bowl an entire frame while holding a cell phone to his left ear. But now I know it can be done. And I suspect that if he’d tried that stunt after 7 p.m., the Lucky Strike dress-code enforcement officers would have tossed him to curb for unauthorized headgear.

ESPN Zone aims to be the ultimate sports bar and grill, with more than 150 TVs and lots of team T-shirts and hats that you’d better not wear to the bowling alley across the way. But ESPN wants to be family-friendly too. Hence its Sports Arena arcade upstairs. Among the bright lights, bells, buzzers and weaponry of its 45 games, there are a few contests a 5-year-old can handle. So we tiptoed into the din, bought the required card and swiped it to get a few games going. Of course, the ESPN people charge fairly stiff prices, and they’ve made it a hassle to collect the unspent credit on your card. But really, who goes looking for conscientious capitalism in an arcade? We spent about $10, got about 20 minutes’ amusement, and introduced Grace to her second new major sport of the day: air hockey. It was an OK deal.

We ate well, too, including two good breakfasts at L.A. Market, off the Marriott lobby; and a hearty lunch at the Farm of Beverly Hills, which is in the L.A. Live complex.

But the best meal, by a country mile, came at Wolfgang Puck‘s WP24, a new Asian eatery and lounge on the 24th floor of the Marriott/Ritz-Carlton tower.

Entering, you first pass the lounge, which is full of curving enclosures made of sticks and ropes. (Vegas meets Asia meets Noah’s Ark.) Then you reach the more subdued dining room. As night falls and the lights from neighboring buildings begin to glitter outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, you realize that the room’s rectangular ceiling lights have been conceived to look like inverted little skyscrapers. You’re suspended, 24 floors up, with a full-sized skyline beneath you and a miniature above. Meanwhile, swarms of servers are assiduously delivering and removing plates of snapper, pork dumplings, fried rice with lobster and baby peas with mushrooms.

We had arrived early on just the restaurant’s sixth night of business, which may help explain why the staff had lost the reservation we’d made seven hours before. But once we were seated, the meal was tremendous, the servers adept, well-informed and kid-friendly too. The experience cost plenty—most main dishes are $34-$44— but for us, the value was there.

I can’t say that about our night at the Ritz-Carlton. Though rates are said to begin as low as $369, the best we could do on a Saturday night was $459. Then, once we had arrived and been assessed $50 for overnight parking (the most I‘ve ever paid at a Southern California hotel), we learned that hotel’s spa wasn’t open yet. Also, though WP24 has been billed in some places as a three-meal restaurant, it was serving only dinners, and hotel staffers weren’t sure when that would change.

From its tiny but distinguished lobby to our 24th-floor room (a generous 450 square feet), the Ritz’s look is more Asian, less Vegas, with lots of flowing-water imagery, abstract photography on the walls, art glass along the hallways. As we entered, the well-drilled doormen welcomed us in unison. Upstairs, we found the beds had handy adjustable reading lamps and a sliding bathroom door, just like our Marriott room. The flat-screen TV: 48 inches. In the bathroom, one sink –and a 5-inch strip of leftover blue painter’s tape still clinging to the wall over the toilet.

We didn’t snack or hang out in the Ritz-Carlton Club Lounge on the 23rd floor (that would have added $70 per day more to our tab), but we made a couple of visits to the warm waters of the 26th-floor pool (where the poolside shade pods looked just like the ones at the Marriott pool down below). Alas, the Ritz pool-area snack bar was closed at 5 p.m. on a Friday and at 11 a.m. on a Saturday.

Also, the clock on our desk was broken and went unreplaced despite a call to the front desk. Not so well played, Ritz-Carlton.

I’m not saying you’ll suffer at the Ritz. It’s comfortable. The staffers are eager to please. The amenity gremlins have done some cool things—especially the TV screen inset behind the mirror in the bathroom. (Turn it on and you won’t miss a moment, and you can watch the news while you’re shaving.) And the Ritz team aced the toothbrush test too. A free brush and toothpaste appeared at our door within 10 minutes.

But I wouldn’t make an overnight visit to this Ritz-Carlton until the staff can offer assurances that all offerings are up and running. And even after that, whether you’re a lone grown-up or a traveling family, I don’t think the Ritz-Carlton people have given us enough reason to pay Ritz-Carlton prices. After all, it’s so much cheaper to sleep downstairs with their corporate cousins, and it’s just about as much fun.