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Southern California Close-Ups: Downtown Los Angeles

From Chinatown to Olvera Street to the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, downtown has a lot to offer.

March 30, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

First published on Jan. 30, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.

The tourists think big. Arriving in Southern California, they expect to conquer Disneyland and Hollywood, perhaps on the same day, in between the surfing and snowboarding. Then they get stuck in traffic. Then come the recriminations, the tears, the vows to visit an island next time.

The locals think small. Tracing tight little loops between home and work, they dodge freeways and alien neighborhoods. There are Los Feliz people who haven't set foot in Venice since the latter Bush administration (until this project, I was one), and there are Santa Monica people who have never stood at Griffith Observatory, watching the glittering grid of the city spread before them at dusk. (It's free, people.) Downtown sits in the middle of all of this, but to thousands of Angelenos, it's more remote than Manhattan, never mind Manhattan Beach.

What we have here, whether you're a tourist or a local, is a failure to fully appreciate the wonders and weirdness of Southern California. So I offer these 12 chapters of close-ups, beginning with downtown Los Angeles.

They cover kid stuff, adult stuff, food, lodging, roller derby, historic architecture and what to sniff when you're in the Central Library. They may be a tad more opinionated and intimate than your average guidebook, because I think you want to make human connections, not just check off a bucket list.

These micro-itineraries bring together two or three neighboring destinations to make a single adventure. Others stand alone, like those odd, irresistible Joshua Trees out in the desert. Try a few, and maybe you'll see L.A. anew.

1. Where T-rex roars

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

You can spend hours meandering Exposition Park near USC -- the California Science Center, the California African American Museum, the Rose Garden. But not today. Today, you and your child are heading straight to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (900 Exposition Blvd., www.nhm.org), and you'll start by browsing the long hallways filled with old-school dioramas, an Age of Mammals exhibit that opened in 2010, and a Dinosaur Hall that opened in 2011. Then you head upstairs to the second-floor North American Mammal area, where, since 2008, museum performance artists have been staging Dinosaur Encounters and Ice Age Encounters several days a week. It's only a 15- or 20-minute show, but the star is a living, breathing, life-sized animal puppet -- a 15-foot baby Tyrannosaurus rex. "Who thinks he eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?" asks Carissa Barnett, as the dinosaur (inhabited by another performer) snarls and snaps. Half-smitten and half-scared, the children hang on Barnett's every word about the food chain and extinction. Shows are offered two or three times daily (check www.nhm.org for days and times), and the museum's Ice Age Encounters (with a sabre-toothed cat mother and child) are comparable.

2. Quiet and cool smells, then din and dining

Los Angeles Public Library (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Shhh. You're going to the library. The big one on 5th Street (630 W. 5th St., www.lapl.org/central), with the strange pyramid on top that deserves a role in the next overwrought Nicolas Cage conspiracy movie. Don't be put off by the street people at the entrance or the low ceilings on the ground floor. Climb one level and behold the soaring rotunda, full of spectacular murals painted in 1933 -- conquistadors, friars, Native Americans and European settlers, not to mention the globe chandelier that throws light on them. Then step into the Children's Literature room next door, where (above the low-hanging fluorescent lights) you'll find another set of California historic scenes. Now follow the advice of Monica May, chef at the Nickel Diner and a downtown veteran, who brings visiting friends here and orders them to sniff the books. Why? "You're smelling your childhood," she says. After those acres of quiet, expect a blow to the head when you step through the glass doors of Bottega Louie Restaurant & Gourmet Market (700 S. Grand Ave., www.bottegalouie.com). That's how it feels the first time you confront the restaurant's signature din, the roar of a few hundred diners and a revved-up sound system, all bouncing off marble floors and empty whitewashed walls, echoing under 40-foot-high ceilings. But give it a minute, and notice the gleaming green ├ęclairs, the gluten-free macarons, the legions of chefs in the wide-open kitchen. Since opening in 2009, this eatery has won a reputation for genial service, good Italian food and reasonable prices. It's so noisy that no one will notice a garrulous child. And if you don't want a meal, there's always the bar in front or the desserts in the bakery. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early or expect to wait.

3. The Tarzan factor

L.A. Live (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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