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Reviving on food and drink

Eat, drink, sleep it off, walk

(Patricia Borns)
By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2011

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Caña is a members-only rum bar on a quiet stretch of Flower Boulevard, within sight of the Staples Center, where the Lakers and the Clippers play basketball. Walk up to the neon sign (it says Caña, Caribbean slang for sugar cane, with a big arrow) and turn into a parking garage. In the back corner there is a tent and a gatekeeper. Pay the $20 annual membership fee and walk inside.

You’re in the Petroleum Building, built in 1924 by Edward L. Doheny. Doheny was an oil tycoon and the inspiration for the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie “There Will Be Blood.’’ Specifically you are in a leather- and wood-lined concrete bunker of a room attached to a glass greenhouse where Doheny’s wife grew orchids. According to the bartenders, the room is haunted by her gardeners.

Walk past the DJ (probably spinning Panamanian jazz or Latin punk) and take a seat at the bar. Check out the drink menu. Everything is a twist on a twist: the Cat Juggler, made with jerk-spiced bitters; a rum variation of the Sazerac with “almost rotten’’ mango-infused absinthe; and an almost classic Dark ’n’ Stormy with fresh ginger and Peychaud’s Bitters.

Order something. The bartenders are geeky with meta knowledge of everything, especially everything to do with rum. Take your drink into the glass-roofed greenhouse to smoke a cigar and sip your rum.

Caña is just one of many new, high-concept eating and drinking places in what was a blighted downtown. Los Angeles is a city of neighborhoods. Each has its own particular feeling, but one blends into another. Heading east from the ocean, gritty and beachy Venice becomes beachy and suburban Santa Monica, which becomes suburban and hilly Brentwood, which becomes hilly and kooky Hollywood, which becomes hilly and hipster Silverlake . . .

But downtown is different. In the movies it is often a stand-in for Manhattan. With its dense grid of modern skyscrapers and historic brick and mortar, it is easy to see why. But compared with Manhattan, downtown Los Angles is a ghost town. It was not always this way.

By the 1920s more than 1,100 miles of train track connected downtown to the rest of Los Angeles. It was the business and shopping center of the growing city, strategically located with the mountains to the north and east, and the ocean to the west.

But then came World War II and suburbanization. Urban centers declined around the country. Downtown LA was basically emptied. Freeways and cars replaced trains. Historic buildings were torn down to make room for parking lots.

Over the past 20 years there has been a significant effort to remake the downtown. It still feels faded and pruned too hard, but it is, after all, the geographical and transportation center of a metropolitan area with over 14 million people. Now the sports teams play here, as do the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Office buildings have been converted into loft apartments, and Metro Rail turns 21 next month. People who could be anywhere are choosing to be downtown. Night life and food are at the heart of this reversal. The best places are set in reimagined and repurposed spaces in neighborhoods that had been dead for decades.

I spent a few days eating and drinking my way around the area. It was not enough time. The breadth of downtown dining is wide, of drinking wider still.

I started in the historic core. Not far from the rum greenhouse of Caña there is a whole cluster of perfect watering holes: Seven Grand, a whisky bar clad in taxidermy, leather, and plaid; The Golden Gopher, a fantasy dive bar with a good jukebox; Casey’s, a classic Irish pub; Cole’s, a saloon that has been serving French dip sandwiches and beer since 1908, with The Varnish, a neo-speakeasy serving prohibition-era cocktails through an unmarked door in the back; and Las Perlas, mescal and beer with a big patio. They are all great, but playing pool and drinking perfect Manhattans at Seven Grand, or tearing into a puro — a smoky mezcal-based old-fashioned with sugar, mole bitters, and a twist of grapefruit — at Las Perlas is particularly thrilling.

There are restaurants all over the civic center neighborhood and the core. Rivera is chef John Rivera Sedlar’s master class on modern Latin cuisine. There are dishes influenced by Mexico: chile pasilla relleno with braised goat, chayote, and cinnamon; by South America: Venezuelan arepas with soft-shell crab; and by Spain: Muscovy duck with Seville oranges and green olives.

Bottega Louie, a crowd pleaser, serves everything from brick oven pizza (it has a burrata pie with rapini and prosciutto) to pedigreed cheeseburgers (kobe beef, Bibb lettuce, Brandywine tomatoes, aioli, sharp cheddar, Kennebec fries) to those fancy French soft-colored macarons. The space is the size of a train station, clad in brass and white marble, and open all day long.

From the city center it is about a mile east to the arts district and developing industrial districts on the outskirts of Little Tokyo. On foot, there are two ways to get here — either straight ahead or down and around. Down and around means a tame stroll past bank buildings and through the spotless streets of Little Tokyo. Straight ahead means a shorter walk but through the depths of skid row, a stretch of downtown that still feels like night of the living dead. Tents are staked down in the middle of the street, campfires burn. The empty wander but they keep to themselves and are soon replaced with yoga people buying Vinho Verde at wine shops, eating oysters on outdoor patios, and parking their electric cars outside luxury lofts.

Church & State Bistro was one of the early pioneers here. Sit on the outdoor patio and feast on artichoke tarts and steak frites with hand-cut fries and béarnaise sauce.

A few blocks away, Little Tokyo is packed with treasures. Go for traditional ramen miso with a soft boiled egg at Orochon Ramen. For farmers’ market tapas and craft beers head over to The Lazy Ox Canteen. Chef Josef Centeno does amazing things with vegetables and odd bits: He pairs okra with hazelnuts, lebni, and chile; crispy rabbit livers with radicchio, apples, hearts of palm, and anchovy vinaigrette; and Monterey Bay abalone with English peas and artichoke barigoule.

A little farther east is Villains Tavern, a gothic steampunk hideout of a bar near the Los Angeles River. Bands play late into the night and cocktails are served alongside fire-roasted corn and cheddar and bacon devil dogs.

North and west of Villains Tavern you can end the night at Wurstküche with a hot Italian sausage, a side of Belgian fries, and a nightcap from the long list of beers.

To sleep it off, there are plenty of worthy hotels.

The Standard is stylish and relatively inexpensive with a 24-hour diner, and a rooftop pool with a bar and lounges looking out at the city.

The 125-year-old Los Angeles Athletic Club is also surprisingly affordable and has a sixth-floor sunlit swimming pool.

The Figueroa is a former YWCA building with Moroccan-themed rooms just a few steps from the Staples Center and LA Live, the new $2.5-billion giant entertainment complex that includes a Ritz-Carlton, the 7,000-seat Nokia Theatre, and an ESPN broadcast studio.

It is nice to see downtown reimagined and repurposed as the center of Los Angeles.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.

If You Go

Where to eat and drink
Bottega Louie
700 South Grand Ave.
866-418-9162
www.bottegalouie.com
Entrees $12-$20.
Caña Rum Bar
714 West Olympic Blvd.
213-745-7090
www.canarumbar.com
Most cocktails $12-$16. Membership $20.
Church & State
1850 Industrial St. No. 100
213-405-1434
www.churchandstatebistro.com
Entrees $15-$29.
Las Perlas
107 East 6th St.
213-988-8355
www.lasperlas.la
Most cocktails under $14.
Lazy Ox Canteen
213-626-5299
241 South San Pedro St.
213-626-5299
www.lazyoxcanteen.com
Most chalkboard specials $7-$18.
Orochon Ramen
123 South Onizuka St.
213-617-1766
Most menu items under $15.
Rivera
1050 South Flower St. No. 102
213-749-1460
www.riverarestaurant.com
Entrees $24-$29.
Seven Grand
515 West 7th St.
213-614-0737
www.sevengrand.la
Most cocktails under $14.
Villains Tavern
1356 Palmetto
213-613-0766
www.villainstavern.com
Bar food up to $14.
Wurstküche Restaurant
800 East 3d St.
213-687-4444
www.wurstkucherestaurant.com
A sausage with two toppings and a side of fries $10.
Where to stay
Hotel Figueroa
939 South Figueroa St.
213-627-8971
www.figueroahotel.com
Single room $150.
Los Angeles Athletic Club
31 West 7th St.
213-625-2211
www.laac.com
Single room $170.
The Standard
550 South Flower St.
213-892-8080
www.standardhotels.com
Double room $285.