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July 06, 2011

Los Angeles's Cultural Hot Spots

Ron Starr

An ever-expanding museum mile, a hyperactive restaurant scene and a wave of hotel openings have made Los Angeles a cultural capital.

In the 1920s, D. H. Lawrence didn’t mince his words in a letter to a friend: “Los A. is silly.” And though it was not his most inspired turn of phrase, the city seems never to have recovered. Endless sun, ribbons of concrete, mountains and sea obscured by an all-enveloping smog, air kisses, tans—Los Angeles sometimes gets a bad rap, especially among those who have no idea what they’re talking about!

Today L.A. is cool, fun, heady…and silly? Not really. These days, art blossoms everywhere, from the independent galleries in the Culver City Art District to the Museum of Contemporary Art, now directed by iconoclastic gallerist Jeffrey Deitch. Food is playful and plentiful, much of it feeding off the city’s patchwork of ethnic enclaves. Hotels, once set pieces of stucco and palm trees, are as sophisticated and exciting as the Los Angelenos who crowd their terraces and restaurants at night. “As the city continues to grow, it’s evolving its identity,” says L.A.-based architect Michael Maltzan, who recently designed Michael Ovitz’s massive mansion–turned–art museum of Dubuffets and Picassos. From caricature to cultural mecca, Los Angeles is more than ready to be taken seriously.

Eat Meets West

Traditionally, restaurant culture here has focused less on discovering the newest place than on uncovering the overlooked. A crop of new spots harness the past while reconfiguring the future. Nowhere is this more true than with Asian food. L.A.’s thriving Asian communities have mostly been concentrated in Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo and Thai Town. But the bright flavors and ingredient-driven philosophy of Asian food is being translated across the city.

At the highest level, literally and figuratively, is Wolfgang Puck’s 24th-floor WP24 (900 W. Olympic Blvd.; 213-743-8824; wolfgangpuck.com) at the Ritz-Carlton (see “Night Creatures,” next page). Another is Red Medicine (8400 Wilshire Blvd.; 323-651-5500; redmedicinela.com), which does Vietnamese fusion in Beverly Hills. Two friends who had worked under legendary California chef Michael Mina came up with the idea over late-night bowls of pho, and now they turn out smartly conceived dishes like sugarcane-cured ocean trout served with grapefruit and burnt chile, as well as cocktails like the #49 (Leblon Cachaça, rhubarb grenadine, lime and ginger ale served in a tall glass and garnished with orange peel and lavender).

In February, as a passing of the culinary trend torch, 42-year-old restaurateur Sang Yoon, of burger bar Father’s Office fame, opened Lukshon (3239 Helms Ave.; 310-202-6808; lukshon.com), a sleek 2,500-square-foot hot spot with pan-Asian cuisine like crispy coconut rice cakes with shallot chile jam, and Kurobuta pork ribs made with a spicy chicory-coffee barbecue sauce. Further proof of Asia’s ascendancy, and one of the most promising of L.A.’s new restaurant culture, is A-Frame (12565 Washington Blvd.; 310-398-770; aframela.com), the bricks-and-mortar spawn of Roy Choi, who first found fame with his Kogi Korean barbecue truck. (Take heart: The Kogi truck still rolls on. Check Twitter @KogiBBQ for its stops.) The casual setting—it’s a former IHOP!—belies Choi’s culinary ambitions. Fried chicken is served with radish kimchi. A delicious clam chowder is made with green curry, lemongrass, pancetta and coconut milk.

Even Michael Cardenas, who opened the popular Lazy Ox Canteen (241 S. San Pedro St.; 213-626-5299; lazyoxcanteen.com) in late 2009, is trying his hand at Japanese cuisine. Aburiya Toranoko (243 S. San Pedro St.; 213-621-9500; toranokola.com), opened next door to Lazy Ox in January, and Cardenas calls the space “Roppongi meets TriBeCa.” The exceptionally fresh sashimi is by Nobu Matsuhisa protégé Hisaharu Kawabe.

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Of course, the carnivore craze hasn’t completely bypassed Los Angeles. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who shot to name-brand recognition via Food Network’s Two Dudes Catering, opened Son of a Gun (8370 W. 3rd St.; 323-782-9033; sonofagunrestaurant.com) five months ago. The 50-seat joint is sort of a souped-up L.A. version of your classic New England fishing shack. Antlers and vintage life savers crowd the walls, and catfish with gold rice succotash and king crab cover the plate. Better lobster rolls would be hard to find up Kennebunkport way. And tucked among the fried chicken sandwiches and the alligator schnitzel, you’ll find an albacore tataki and a geoduck sashimi.

Night Creatures

The best nightlife happens behind the closed doors, or neatly trimmed hedges, of L.A.’s luxury hotels. From Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, the L.A. hotel is as much a cultural institution as it is a place to lay one’s head. Many of the oldies still shimmer, like that five-year-old “instant” classic Sunset Tower Hotel (rooms, from $325; 8358 Sunset Blvd.; 323-654-7100; sunsettowerhotel.com), but the city has seen a swell of trendy properties.

Last September, Sam Nazarian, L.A.’s nightlife king, opened The Redbury (rooms, from $240; 1717 Vine St.; 877-962-1717; theredbury.com) and populated its 57 spacious rooms with Persian rugs, vintage-style record players and brown leather sofas selected by photographer and music video director Matthew Rolston (Madonna, Beyoncé, David Bowie). The real scene, however, is on the ground floor at Cleo, a Mediterranean restaurant that serves terrific meze platters to a young Hollywood who barely touch the food. An even more exclusive upstairs lounge opened this summer, with an intimate bookshelf-lined parlor (although the books aren’t real) and a private outdoor terrace; entrance is reserved for hotel guests and friends only.

Down the street, the classic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (rooms, from $300; 7000 Hollywood Blvd.; 323-466-7000; thompsonhotels.com) has been refreshed with 60 redone poolside Cabana rooms, and the Public Kitchen and Bar serves classic American food like roasted chicken and split pea soup. But it’s the Spare Room, a cocktail lounge–cum–gaming parlor, that makes the Roosevelt a real new deal. With custom-built backgammon tables and two functional reclaimed-antique bowling lanes, the Spare Room fills with Big Lebowski–type hipsters and modern croupiers. But it pales in comparison to the Beacher’s Madhouse, an underground theater here, where a Vegas-like vaudeville show began a five-year residency in March. Reached through a “secret” passageway behind the library bookcase, the theater has burlesque dancers, acrobats, contortionists and fire-eaters multiple nights a week.

If you prefer Kobe Bryant to burlesque dancers, the year-old Ritz-Carlton (rooms, from $300; 900 W. Olympic Blvd.; 213-743-8800; ritzcarlton.com) is a game changer. The undulating, 54-story glass-and-steel tower abuts L.A. Live, the $2.4 billion sports and entertainment complex built around the Staples Center. This is the nexus of L.A. glam. Its lobby is often filled with NBA all-stars. Upstairs is a gas, too. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck shot to fame with his quintessential L.A. hot spot Spago. Now he does it again with WP24, a modern Asian brasserie on the 24th floor that serves crispy suckling pig and Peking duck to a handsome crowd as the city, seen at dusk, stretches like a web of ruby and diamond necklaces into the hills. The traffic, viewed from above, doesn’t seem so bad.

Across the I-10 freeway, Beverly Hills’ grandes dames outdo each other with facelifts. The iconic Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows (rooms, from $500; 9641 Sunset Blvd.; 310-276-2251; beverlyhillshotel.com) just opened two spacious three-bedroom bungalows whose private pools and Claes Oldenburg paintings are discreetly tucked behind banana leaves and palm fronds. After closing its doors for two years for extensive renovations, the 65-year-old Hotel Bel-Air (rooms, from $565; 701 Stone Canyon Rd.; 310-472-1211; hotelbelair.com) reopens in October with a brand-new lobby, 91 revamped guest rooms, 12 new hillside rooms and suites and a 12,000-square-foot La Prairie spa complex, all designed by Alexandra Champalimaud, as well as David Rockwell–designed restaurants and bars. The classic cocktails and clubby atmosphere of the famous lobby bar, happily, will remain the same. And the three-year-old Montage Beverly Hills (rooms, from $525; 225 N. Canon Dr.; 310-860-7800; montage beverlyhills.com) recruited Scott Conant to open Scarpetta Beverly Hills, the West Coast outpost of his haute-Italian osteria, and a casual nighttime sushi lounge opened in April. But with competition like the new Mr. C Beverly Hills (rooms, from $430; 1224 Beverwil Dr.; 877-334-5623; mrchotels.com), which opened in June by the Cipriani family, laying down the high-thread-count gauntlet, there’s no rest for the weary. But again, sleep was never the point of Los Angeles’s luxury hotels.

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Shopping in Los Angeles: Independent Designers

Newly opened superstores by Tom Ford and Vivienne Westwood bring big-name glamour, but it’s the small independent designers who are the stars of the future.

Jewelry: Mannin’s founder, Suzanne Donegan, makes simple gold statement jewelry, like this Quarter Hinge bracelet. $7,260; manninstudio.com.

Graphic: Thirty-one-year-old artist Brad Lamers’s Pop art images (from $500) look good on gallery walls for sure, but why not on t-shirts ($25) and stickers? bradlamers.com.

Furniture: Bend Seating designer Gaurav Nanda features modern takes on midcentury classics, like this riff on an Eames chair. Farmhouse chair, $450; bendseating.com.

Footwear: Dragan Mrdja, a Yugoslavia-born, West Hollywood–based cobbler, designs colorful wing tips, oxfords and ankle boots. From $450; draganmrdja.com.

Books: Like the old Penguin paperbacks, BükAmerica’s slim volumes combine smart design and smarter writing on a vast range of topics. bukamerica.com.

Menswear: Feal Mor designer J. P. Plunier, known for his modern take on the Breton stripe, just opened a flagship boutique on La Brea Avenue. From $30; fealmor.com. —Erin Weinger

The Los Angeles Art Scene

Much of L.A.’s art renaissance has been fueled by a few well-heeled patrons. But the arts live in the streets as well as in estates. Here, a sliding scale.

On the second Thursday of each month, thousands of art lovers head to the Downtown Art Walk, a free gallery tour by day and a party by night. downtownartwalk.org.

MOCA’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch, known in New York for his Art Parade, inaugurates his tenure with “Art in the Streets,” celebrating graffiti’s controversial and talented artists. Through August 8; moca.org.

If the Islamic art at LACMA is too obscure (it isn’t), its new Renzo Piano–designed Mediterranean restaurant, Ray’s, has approachable cuisine. lacma.org.

Eli Broad, arguably the man who has done the most to put L.A. on the art map (he bailed out MOCA in 2008 and sits on the LACMA board), plans to open his own museum, The Broad Collection, in 2013, across the street from MOCA. broadartfoundation.org.

Former superagent Michael Ovitz just built a sprawling 28,000-square-foot mansion/museum for his de Koonings, Picassos and Jasper Johns. It’s open for exclusive, invite-only tours.