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WEEKEND ESCAPE: LOS ANGELES

Downtown Fun--a Slam Dunk

Pro basketball, family-friendly restaurants and a hidden treasure of a hotel score points with the kids

February 11, 2001|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Mitchell Landsberg writes for the Metro section of The Times

LOS ANGELES — I was late. Of course I was late. The plan had been for my wife, Mary, and our two young sons to leave for our weekend getaway as soon as school got out on Friday. I would meet them for dinner at 6:30 p.m. Here it was 6:20, and I was still stuck in my office in downtown Los Angeles.

This was not good.

But minutes later, after a dash out the door and a short cab ride, I was sitting in the retro, pop-art coolness of Ciudad, one of downtown's liveliest restaurants, ordering a mojito (a Cuban rum drink) and listening to my kids enthuse about the gargantuan Shirley Temples set before them, the kind with little pink plastic swords spearing the maraschino cherries.

This was excellent.

My family lives in mid-city Los Angeles, 15 to 20 minutes from downtown. On the face of it, it would seem an exercise in stupidity to go downtown for a weekend getaway, especially considering that both Mary and I work there. And downtown is not for everybody. It's urban, with all that that implies: dirt and homelessness, dark shadows and rough edges.

But as we were reminded during last month's visit, downtown also just might be the most interesting, most civilized place in Southern California--the true cultural center of the region. Our main problem turned out to be choosing what to do. There were too many options.

As it was, we turned our backs on some of our favorite places--Grand Central Market, the Central Library, the Music Center--and went for a weekend built around my sons' first pro basketball game, a stay at the surprisingly stylish Figueroa Hotel across the street from Staples Center and meals that pleased the kids as well as their parents.

Dinner Friday night was splendid. Ciudad, the downtown outpost of chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, offers sophisticated food from the Spanish-speaking world in a convivial atmosphere (another way of saying it's loud, which we consider a plus when dining with children). Another advantage: a nice children's menu, from which our 7-year-old, Sam, ordered chicken fingers with a guava barbecue sauce and salad. His brother, 5-year-old Galen, went with side orders of cumin-seasoned French fries and black beans. The adult dishes: moqueca, a Brazilian seafood soup, for Mary, and grilled lamb for me.

Afterward, we walked the five blocks down Figueroa Street to the Figueroa Hotel. Visitors to downtown probably have noticed the Figueroa, although they might not be aware of it. The 12-story building faces Staples Center on Olympic Boulevard, and since slightly before last summer's Democratic National Convention, one of its exterior walls has been covered with portraits of Democratic icons: Cesar Chavez, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It's also one of downtown's hidden treasures. The hotel, a former YWCA dating to 1925, has one of the city's most atmospheric lobbies, imaginatively decorated in an eclectic style with furnishings from Mexico and Morocco.

The rooms have been refurbished cleverly, if not all lavishly. Ours featured two double beds; a textured, earth-tone paint job; a comfortable couch and large coffee table; a gorgeous tile sink; and a vintage television that prevented the 500-channels-and-nothing's-on syndrome by having about 10 stations available. Rates are reasonable; we paid $128 a night (plus parking and tax), but rooms go as low as $84.

Saturday morning, we took a cab eight blocks to Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria on Broadway between 6th and 7th streets. Clifton's is a throwback to another era, when California sprouted restaurants disguised as giant oranges and hot dogs, and Clifton's began serving affordable food in the same loopy atmosphere that customers see today.

Our kids gasped as they walked in and found themselves in a faux forest, complete with fake redwood trees, a waterfall and stuffed bears with fishing poles. Our food--fruit, an omelet, pancakes and chilaquiles, a Mexican tortilla-and-egg dish--was decent and affordable. The four of us ate well for less than $20.

From there, we walked a few blocks to the California Mart, where the Fashion District offers free trolley tours every Saturday morning at 10, 11 and noon. For the next 20 minutes (the tours can be longer, depending on traffic), we were offered a snapshot of the second-largest wholesale garment district in the nation after New York's.

The district has become a bargain hunter's mecca. After the tour, we browsed a bit and, in the space of two blocks, saw knockoff Kate Spade handbags, assorted auto accessories, Fruit of the Loom underwear, pet turtles, evening gowns, clogs, feather boas and compact discs, all at low prices.

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