It’s one thing to dine aloft in a skyscraper high above the glittering canyons of New York or Chicago, the snow swirling outside, but Los Angeles? Isn’t it a bit, er, flat?
Well, in Restaurant 71 Above, (guess how many floors up), the vertical traveller can now view fellow citizens as ants while dining on yellowfin tuna, roasted beets, and steak tartare; sides include smoked eggplant, Bagna Cauda, and a 360* panorama of suburban sprawl from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills, from Inglewood to Compton.
This is the Financial District, thrusting upwards with skyscraping, earthquake-proof towers of Mammon
While it’s fascinating to be this high up in L.A., the excitement stalled when an LAPD helicopter stopped to hover outside my window, briefly blocking a smoggy pink sunset over Santa Monica. It was a Die Hard moment, being eyeballed by two cops just feet from my table (movies are never far away in this city). So even though we’re not in Hollywood but Downtown, I gave them my best John McClane stare: Yippie-Ki-Yay, motherf*ckers.
This is the Financial District, thrusting upwards with skyscraping, earthquake-proof towers of Mammon not, as we once thought, creating a trickle-down economy but exacerbating inequality: the street beneath is as darkly impoverished at night as ever. When I worked here not that long ago everyone I knew stayed out west (me included). But for several years Downtown has been on the move: nearby South Park, the Arts District, even Skid Row, the more “colourful” neighbourhoods once unsavoury and dangerous at night, had become a foreign land to most Angelenos. Now under the umbrella acronym DTLA, (Skid Row has become SKIDZ, but is still, y’know, real), the broken glass is being swept away, banks have become loft apartments, the warehouses restaurants. You can stay at the Standard, NoMad, the Ace.
There are coffee shops. Lots and lots of coffee shops. Demitasse do 24 hour Kyoto cold press drip, others ask which Nicaraguan estate you prefer. Sugar is liquid and comes in small bottles. (I don’t know. I didn’t ask). Little Tokyo is just that, the largest community of Japanese outside Japan and a stage for cosplay: it houses Village Plaza, a whole block of J-Pop stores and restaurants. Sushi Gen, in a nearby strip mall, continues to do its astonishing sashimi platter for $17. Get in line by 12 noon.
Not that long ago, all this would have been the stuff of fantasy, the area’s origins lost and gone, strangled by squalor. Grand Central Market, a bustling cacophany of Guatemalan, Mexican and Chinese foodstalls, may retain a valid link to the past, starting as a grocery market in 1917, but it’s just picked up a Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant award. Nearby, the ominously named Last Bookstore soldiers on along half a block of West 5th in defiance of the death of print. A vast cavern of literature that has sculptures and tunnels made from redundant books, I had to delicately sidestep a gentleman of the street to gain entry. Not all the residents are up to speed yet on gentrification.
Urban modernisation on this scale shuffles forward in fits and starts, and while there has been an infrastructure spend of $24 billion over the years on rezoning, restaurants and the like, a key driver has been investment in the arts. You can feel the creative juices flowing down 2nd, 3rd and 4th Streets from the cultural quarter a few blocks north on Bunker Hill, where Big Ticket Art (the Broad, MOCA) meets the daddy: Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, a cultural starship far and away California’s most celebrated architectural fantasy.
Fifteen years after opening, it’s still a contemporary masterpiece, a shimmering stainless steel flagship for music, sibling to Gehry’s titanium Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Originally designed to be clad in stone it took so long to complete – finance, planning, endless tussles – that the Guggenheim was finished first and everyone thought “ooh, that’s nice, let’s do that”. It’s going to be joined soon by another Gehry complex across the street.
The effect locally has been phenomenal. WDCH replaced the august Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a classic sixties performing arts centre (former home to the Oscars) where sleek black town cars would drop off the gentry of Beverly Hills before curtain up, wait until the last encore, then whisk them back to Spago in time for a late supper. The WDCH was designed to be more egalitarian, the doors and sidewalk piazza open and welcoming to those who have lofts in the Arts and Fashion Districts, who get an Uber Express ($5) or cycle (I’ve never seen so many electric bikes/scooters). The dress code is cool and elegant, the house band (the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra) even has its own beer, LA Phil 100, brewed locally to celebrate the orchestra’s centenary.
It is no exaggeration to say this enterprise was partly responsible for shifting the cultural axis of the city, although LA Phil has a foot in two camps, their summer residence is out at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.
The acoustics of the hall are almost beyond compare, every instrument, every note, can be heard with complete clarity
For those of you who think the California Sound is The Beach Boys, LA Phil is 100 years old this year (putting it marginally ahead, agewise), and has sold millions of tickets for live performance to go with the dozens of albums made available since recorded music began. Furthermore a recent week of collaborative concerts with diverse acts such as Moby, Herbie Hancock, and Andrew Bird, who whistles, is indicative of the free spirit at work here.
I wandered in to the building off the wide open sidewalk one evening and drifted upwards through a variety of spaces, bars and chic gatherings to find a garden (on the third floor) in which a choir was in gentle flow, an all but unadvertised sound/art installation Oscillations by Ellen Reid with imagery projected onto the singers of Los Angeles archive, of street maps, a kind of “live” audio visual loop. It was enchanting.
The main event that night was orchestral symphony. The acoustics of the hall are almost beyond compare, every instrument, every note, can be heard with complete clarity so it was with trepidation that I watched Andrew Bird join the 110 piece orchestra on stage and plug in his electric violin. However, his angst-ridden ballads are captivating, his melodies swoop and weave. When he started to whistle (with the 110 piece symphony ensemble as backing band) the audience initially laughed nervously, but only for a moment. He’s that good.
On another evening, when most concert halls around the world might have been beguiling their audience with Mahler’s 5th, the WDCH was resonating to the vibrant street sounds of La Santa Cecilia, a colourful collective of troubadors who’ve found success, won a Grammy, and collaborated with Elvis Costello. They used to entertain passersby down on Olvera Street by Union Station, a few blocks away, with a loud mix of Mexican, Latin and American, switching effortlessly, and continuously that night, from one to the other. Now they infuse reggae, tango and soul with their own L.A. Spice, producing political anthems adopted by the immigrant community and authentic soundtracks for the likes of Guillermo del Toro. The audience, far from being politely reverential, were on their feet dancing, whooping, stomping and cheering.
If you know London well, try to imagine the Tube’s best buskers suddenly performing at the Royal Festival Hall, singing tracks from their latest album and being joined on stage by superstars to rapturous applause, and you’ll be halfway there. C
The writer flew to Los Angeles with Virgin Atlantic Airways