For too long, the eastern-most, industrial side of Downtown was dubbed “up-and-coming,” but these days as new restaurants and shops pop up faster than the cylinders on a vintage cafe racer, the neighborhood appears to have finally reached critical mass. While million dollar lofts and rumors brewing of ultra-exclusive social clubs abound, LA’s Arts District is poised to become the heart of city that many long claimed not to have one, with Santa Fe Avenue as its main artery.
The avenue runs through the neighborhood like a venerable tree trunk, each offshoot street a branch, each new restaurant or storefront a leafy green new bud (sometimes more literally than others). Winding from Union Station through the center of the Arts District, a trip down this increasingly infamous avenue, by foot or fixie, is to take a tour that needs no guide, as gems of trend-worthy outposts gleam from the facades of repurposed warehouses that populate the borough’s typography. Take a walk, throw a stone, see if it doesn’t land it in a hand-thrown vase or a steaming bowl of noodles doused in pig-belly and Sriracha.
That said, there’s something for everyone.
The two-year-old, Handsome Coffee Roasters on Mateo Avenue is the perfect way to kick off any day in the AD. And while coffee is a language everyone speaks, come prepared for a grammar lesson. Handsome’s claim to coffee fame is their sparse selection of modifiers, aka no sugar, soy, Splenda, syrups, or bullshit. They don’t serve it. While some people might be missing grandma’s spare sugar packet pocket, the bold commitment to quality is commendable and in this case, justified. Roasted in-house daily, these beans are the best of the best. Pro tip: Even if it’s before noon, instead of sugar, take your coffee with a side of Wes Avila’s ultra-innovative gastro-tacos fresh out his big blue Guerilla Tacos truck, which posts up outside of Handsome on the weekends.
To note: Handsome was just purchased by Blue Bottle, so it’s yet to be seen how the specialty roaster will change things up.
582 Mateo St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
Put Your Money Down
Gastronomic wonders aside, not everything in the Arts District is so serious. Apart from the numerous galleries, there is an ever-expanding collection of shopping opportunities, the youthful grandfather of which being Poketo. Just off Santa Fe and located on the now populous 3rd Street, Poketo offers a wide selection of well-designed products, from apparel to literature, with everything from housewares to children’s toys in between. A reasonable range of prices make it ideal for bespoke, handcrafted, eclectic gifts and souvenirs for any relatives in the Midwest with a Kinfolk magazine subscription.
820 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
For those who desire a seedier sense of adventure in this sapling forest of acculturation, there remains one avenue untouched—save the occasional Hollywood chase scene: The 6th St. Bridge tunnel. Dare the darkness of this concrete esophagus around sunset and you’ll find a true reward in the brutalist landscape of the LA aqueduct awash with the city’s signature orange tinted twilight. Depending on the time of year, it may be more or less full of water (and the smell may be more or less to your liking), but nothing beats a photo opp in the river. No filter needed.
Feed the Beast
Bestia is arguably the biggest fish in the still relatively small pond east of Alameda. Translating to “Beast” in Italian, Bestia has lured even the most bourgeois of LA residents out of their Bel Air estates and into the gritty streets the Arts District. Executive chef and co-owner Ori Menashe (of former Angelini Osteria fame) serves up pizzas, pastas, and the best mussel dish in the city to everyone from former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to serious studio big wigs whose assistants scramble to produce reservations. But contrary to some of its Hollywood contemporaries, Bestia is worth the hype. Just bring $6 for the valet, or some pepper spray and your Nikes (oh, it’s not that bad, but parking is impossible). If a reservation is too difficult to score, walk around the corner to Pizza Nista, a neighborhood staple, where even Menashe can be found enjoying a slice or two.
2121 E 7th Pl, Los Angeles, CA 90021
If They Build It
If looking at the industrial wonders and warehouses of the Arts District gets buildings on your brain, look no further than the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), which inhabits the 110 year old, former Santa Fe freight depot that stretches along Santa Fe between 3rd and 4th Streets. Founded by famed architect Ray Kappe (whose own home has been dubbed “the apotheosis of the California house”) in 1972, the school has played a monumental role in making California a frontrunner of the architecture scene. It’s not uncommon to see architecture students working into the wee hours of the morning, but the school also hosts guest lecturers and an installation gallery, both open to the public.
255 S Santa Fe Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Get Down Underground
Although Santa Fe’s newest addition, FiftySeven, houses a kitchen that’s anticipated as one of the neighborhood’s most competitive, the restaurant’s basement music venue has so far been sending out the real Siren’s call. Located on a private cobblestone alley shared with a retired firehouse, Downstairs at FiftySeven is accessed through the gorgeously renovated dining room decked out in white ash accents and copper everything. The contrasting darkness of the subterranean stage does little to compromise on class while lending itself to the true atmosphere of a jazz club speakeasy. Between the remarkable lineup of billings and the well-stocked bar in the back of the cavernous room, it’s a place to get lost in, in the best way possible.
712 S Santa Fe Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90021
Artwork by Max Wittert.