Ever-Evolving Grand Central Market Showcases the Best of LA’s Vibrant Culinary Scene, But at What Cost?

With nearly a 100 year history in Downtown Los Angeles, the Grand Central Market is a culinary icon in its own right. Yet rather than resting on its laurels, or fading into obscurity, the Grand Central Market has continued to remain relevant in the LA culinary scene, welcoming a growing number of new and exciting concepts alongside a list of iconic veteran restaurants.

What makes this particular market so special is the number of diverse concepts that exist within the space. Ranging from traditional, handmade Salvadoran pupusas to hipster adored breakfast sandwiches, the Grand Central Market has somehow managed to maintain a delicate balance between traditional and trend-driven concepts, encapsulating all that is great in the always evolving Los Angeles culinary scene.

Yet with the ever growing efforts to “revitalize,” or rather gentrify, Downtown Los Angeles, can this fragile balance be sustained?

A 100 Year History

The Grand Central Market first opened in 1917 and has remained in operation ever since. Visitors to the market today may not have recognized the original space that was once a bustling market filled with grocers, fishmongers, butchers, and Jewish delis. Yet as Downtown Los Angeles changed, the market changed along with it and over the last 100 years, the Grand Central Market has welcomed in a number of new vendors catering to the ever evolving culinary demands of Angelenos.

Despite often being overlooked for these newer, ‘shinier’ vendors, a number of veteran restaurants still continue to operate in the market, offering up authentic and affordable meals to hungry visitors.

China Grill and Roast to Go both first opened in the market in the 1950’s and have remained market mainstays to this day. Roast to Go is also where fellow market veteran Tomas Martinez got his start at the young age of 14. Martinez went on to open Tacos Tumbras a Tomas in the market in 1995 followed by Ana Maria’s, another taco joint perhaps best known for its famous gorditas. Another market favorite, Sarita’s Pupuseria has been serving up pupusas and other Salvadoran fare since the early 1980’s, garnering it the local reputation of serving some of the best pupusas in the city. And then there is Valeria’s (not to be confused with neighboring market vendor Valerie’s) that sells some of the city’s best mole.

These “old-timers” may not be as exciting or newsworthy to this new generation of “foodie bloggers” seeking a meal that can be summed up in one Instagram snapshot, but to locals who have grown up enjoying their honest, no frills style of cooking, they are amongst LA’s finest culinary treasures.

The Next Generation

Grand Central Market's Eggslut | Courtney Walsh for FoodableTV

Grand Central Market's Eggslut | Courtney Walsh for FoodableTV

While the Grand Central Market is no stranger to new concepts opening within the space, over the last five years the market has witnessed an incredible surge of new businesses with numerous concepts pouring in at an unprecedented rate. Some of the early newcomers include the G&B Coffee shop, Horse Thief BBQ and Sticky Rice Thai, followed closely by organic butcher and chophouse Bel Campo, the DTLA Cheese specialty shop, and Valerie’s coffee shop and bakery. More recently came concepts such as Bombo, Knead and Ramen Hood, the more casual style eateries of well known LA chefs. 

Press accolades have followed in the wake of the market’s revitalization that, along with the recent extension of the market’s hours and expansion of liquor licenses, has worked to make the market a destination attracting a new influx of customers

Yet along with these additions came a pouring of attention into the market that has attracted a still growing number of new concepts, with even more slated to open in the coming months. While many locals will argue that the majority of these new concepts are welcomed additions to the market, there exists an inherent risk with such rapid development that tends to favor “trendy” over “tried and true.” Yes, the market has benefited from these recent arrivals, but at what cost?

Price points for individual dishes are continuing to rise, pricing out a large sector of Downtown residents from enjoying the market as they once did. The market, which was once dominated by Latino and Asian owned businesses, has now morphed into a culinary incubator of sorts for trend-driven chefs looking to discover the next big food trend. Fried egg sandwiches from the somewhat provocatively named Eggslut? Done. Vegan ramen from a Top Chef alum? This is LA after all.

The Grand Central Market is not the only space to see such “revitalization” in Downtown Los Angeles. From the newly developed Arts District that has evicted local artists from their studios to make space for new development, to the construction of luxury lofts right in the center of Skid Row, culminating with the recent addition of the 41,000 square foot Whole Foods (complete with a full service restaurant and bar, a juice bar, and even a record listening room) Downtown Los Angeles is quickly becoming unrecognizable from the city it once was.

The new developments can be seen as largely beneficial to the once nearly abandoned Downtown, bringing new life to a city often overlooked, even by Angelenos themselves. Yet when diners would prefer to pay $12 for an Asian rice bowl served to them inside of a Whole Foods Market located less than two miles from Chinatown, developers are quickly realizing that history and authenticity may not be as important to local diners after all.

Will the Grand Central Market be able to maintain its current fragile balance of tradition and innovation? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain—the market will continue to reflect the ongoing changes to the social landscape of Los Angeles, for better or worse.