First came the bars. Now the restaurants have arrived. Several years after downtown Los Angeles was the crucible of the city's acclaimed mixology movement, the neighborhood has become a certifiable food destination as well. During the past year, four newcomers put the area at the center of the city's culinary conversation: Peruvian charmer Mo-Chica, mod-farmhouse haven Blue Cow Kitchen, the unkosher Umamicatessen and nouveau sandwich joint Baco Mercat. Now another wave, all opened during the past 10 weeks, is pushing things over the top.
Soleto | 801 S. Figeruoa St.
The partners behind Westside industry hangs Sushi Roku and Boa take on Southern Italian peasant cooking at this boisterous trattoria. The high-ceilinged space is all on-trend whitewashed brick walls, reclaimed wood floors and exposed beams, and the friendly menu runs through the paces of the genre, from pumpkin ravioli with beech mushrooms and branzino Milanese to thin-crusted pies (fig and prosciutto, potato and bacon, spicy smoked speck).
Towne | 705 W. 9th St.
A kitchen team boasting stints at Scarpetta, Aquavit and The Oak Room at The Plaza brings a relentlessly playful punch to New American standards. The vegetable medley is served vertically in a repurposed toothbrush holder. A dish of chicken liver materializes as "popcorn," to be buttered with yogurt. Pigs in a blanket are reconceived with lobster. Desserts are exuberantly childish and retro: Twinkies, ice cream sandwiches, even push pops.
Alma | 952 S. Broadway
Chef Ari Taymor, who helped launch the acclaimed Flour + Water in San Francisco, has gone solo in the spirit of similarly up-and-coming bistronomy chefs in Paris who eschew high-priced design and the overhead of a deep-benched staff in hope of bringing haute cuisine to patrons in still-grungy neighborhoods at a radically reduced cost. His superseasonal, admittedly esoteric menu is served at this modest BYOB mecca between a pot shop and a hostess-dancing club. (Think corn-and-bacon beignets with beer gel and burnt citrus.)
The Parish | 840 S. Spring St.
Casey Lane, the talked-about young chef behind The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, has added a second outpost in the Fashion District, where he's melding the French brasserie and the British gastropub -- genres that have been worked over extensively in recent years across town -- into a concept all his own. The narrow, triangular two-story wedge of a property is home to fried frog legs with jalapeno slaw, poutine pigs feet and a slew of local brews.
Starry (Kitchen) Nights | 127 E. 9th St.
The underground dinner party-turned-blogosphere phenomenon has set up permanent evening-only service inside the whimsically effervescent Tiara Cafe. Husband-and-wife team Nguyen and Thi Tran specialize in flavor-bomb Southeast Asian plates such as Singaporean chili crab, Malaysian chicken curry and Vietnamese clay-pot braised fish.
THOSE WHO LIVE AND WORK IN THE 'HOOD RECOMMEND …
Jamie Kennedy: "I like to get a few cool sausages and some great beer at WURSTKUCHE (800 E. 3rd St.), and I love grab- bing a seat at my buddy Craig Thornton's secret WOLVESMOUTH dinners (wolvesmouth.com)."
Freyr Thor, CEO of Vanguard Cinema: "Go to YXTA COCINA MEXICANA (601 S. Central Ave.). It's this very rugged, concrete bunker-looking space with great fish tacos."
Filip Jan Rymsza, director of the upcoming Terrence Howard film A Girl With a Gun: "WOOD SPOON (107 W. 9th St.) remains my go-to for delicious, understated home-style Brazilian comfort food. The tilapia grill plate, carne de panela and chicken pot pie are my favorite entrees, washed down with sangria."
Joe Jenckes, producer (Margin Call, Kill Your Darlings): "I crave the bento boxes at the downtown CHAYA BRASSERIE (525 S. Flower St.). They're not typical -- the chef is very conscious of what's seasonal. He'll throw in non-Japanese-style vegetables like ramp."