The Evolution of the LA Arts District into a Culinary Mecca

By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor

shutterstock_246558673.jpg

Los Angeles is a city that does not want for great dining options. It's a city rich in both established culinary traditions (taco shops, the French Dip, San Gabriel Valley Chinese) and cutting-edge food trends. And, as a sprawling metropolis, Los Angeles also boosts a large and diverse list of culinary epicenters. The Hollywood to Beverly Hills corridor has long been a hotbed of haute cuisine, catering to the city's entertainment crowd. The aforementioned San Gabriel Valley boasts a seemingly endless array of authentic Asian restaurants. And the influx of wealth and affluence to the city's westside has turned once-sleepy Venice and Santa Monica into dining destinations as well.

It could be argued, however, than when it comes to food, these spots are all looking up at a relative newcomer to the city's dining scene, Downtown LA's Arts District. A former industrial area east of Los Angeles' Historic Core, the Arts District has long been a hub for the city's creative residents. While art and film work have been prevalent in the neighborhood since the late 1970s, the area's dining scene has exploded in the last few years. Today, the Arts District provides a snapshot of the contemporary dining world, on both a local and national level.

Neighborhood History

The area that now represents the Arts District neighborhood traces its modern roots to agriculture, portending the neighborhood's current culinary reputation. In the mid 1830s, the explorer Jean-Louis Vignes planted Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc grapes in the area west of the seasonal LA river. By 1849, the El Aliso Vineyard was the largest wine producer in all of California. By the end of the 19th Century, the grape vines that had populated the area were replaced by the city's then-ubiquitous citrus groves. Soon, railroads were installed to meet the city's growing shipping demand, and the industrial personality of the neighborhood that remains to this day was established.

In the 1970s, many of the area's factories had been abandoned, creating large, open living and working spaces that were ideal for artists who began to flock to the area. Galleries and performance spaces were soon established, and in 1981 the city passed an “Artist in Residence” ordinance, which allowed for artists to live and work in industrial spaces. The area's reputation as a cultural hub has grown since then, and has fostered the recent influx of restaurants, high-end cafes, and breweries that populate the area.

Coffee Culture

Typical of an area associated with a young, creative population, the Arts District is a hotbed of LA coffee culture. Residents of Silverlake may disagree, but it could be argued that there's no better neighborhood in Los Angeles to get a cup of quality coffee. Several big-name coffee outfits have opened cafes and roasteries, including Portland-based Stumptown and Oakland-based Blue Bottle, who took over the space and operational team of Handsome Coffee Roasters, a cafe and roaster that opened in the area in early 2012. Local roaster Groundworks also operates a location in the area.

Craft Beer

In addition to its phenomenal coffee culture, the Arts District may soon be known as the center of Los Angeles' craft brewing movement. Though the Los Angeles beer scene may not yet be able to compete with San Diego to the south or San Francisco to the north, it is quickly emerging, and more and more breweries are choosing to open locations in the Arts District. Angel City is the area's longest established tenant, having opened their Alameda Street brewpub in February 2013. Several more breweries have opened in the past year, including Mumford Brewery, which has named several of their beers after famous Lakers, and Boomtown Brewery, whose name pays homage to the area's past. Several more breweries are slated to open in the next few months, including Iron Triangle, which will open in a huge 40,000-square-foot space this winter, and Arts District Brewing Company, which will be able to lay claim to LA's second female head brewer (former Pizza Port wunderkind, Devon Randall).

Bestia Restaurant | Yelp, Kent D.

Bestia Restaurant | Yelp, Kent D.

Critical Darlings

Perhaps the biggest name in Arts District dining is Bestia, the much lauded modern Italian concept launched in 2012 by Ori Menashe and his wife, Pastry Chef Genevieve Gergis. Housed in a large industrial space with exposed brick and piping, Bestia has made a name for itself with thoughtfully crafted dishes that elevate the idea of Italian restaurant dining far beyond spaghetti and meatballs and garlic bread. There's an impressive list of geeky wines and craft beers, as well as cocktails designed by LA mixology master Julian Cox. After nearly two years, Bestia remains one of the city's toughest reservations to snag, though bar seating is usually accessible if you're not opposed to waiting a bit.

Another adored local spot is Church & State, an industrial styled, high-end concept, this time with a French slant. Don't worry about too much pomp and circumstance, though — the lively, jovial feel of the restaurant makes the place seem more like a party than a formal ceremony. Like Bestia, Church & State takes classic French bistro fare and elevates it with flourishes of modern cooking ingenuity, resulting in a restaurant that feels sophisticated and fun in equal measure.

Endless Options

The Arts District's main strength may be the variety of high-quality options available across the culinary spectrum. Those interested in fresh vegan fare will find a home in The Springs, a space that operates as part cafe, part juice bar, and part yoga studio, serving fresh salads, vegan takes on classic sandwiches, and LA's favorite liquid lunch, cold-pressed juice.

If you're a taco lover, head to the newest iteration of Petty Cash Taqueria. The original Beverly Boulevard location was lauded for its inventive taco menu and casual vibe, and the new location has maintained the charm within a new, beautiful space, while adding a raw bar to the already fantastic equation. Another out-of-towner bound to be welcomed with open arms is San Francisco's beloved Tartine Bakery, which will bring fresh bread, pastries, and sandwiches to the Arts District sometime in mid-2016. With so many quality options and no sign of slowing down, the Arts District has become a clear player in the LA dining scene. A neighborhood with a history of evolution seems to have hit another fantastic stride.