Industry Players Reveal Their Favorite Finds in L.A.'s Koreatown
From Seth MacFarlane's karaoke spot to Demi Lovato's spa refuge, the area west of downtown is suddenly a hot scene for food, nightlife and those chauffeurs who drive you home (seriously).
Up-all-night, anything-goes Koreatown, where Los Angeles laws always seem a little looser, is ready for its zeitgeist-tapping close-up. On July 11, Electus chairman Ben Silverman’s just-launched YouTube channel Loud debuted K-Town, a Jersey Shore-inspired series that follows a party-hardy group of eight Korean-Americans (yes, there’s drink-throwing) in the glitzy, sometimes-gritty neighborhood between Hancock Park and downtown. The show’s producers include former MTV executives Liz Gateley and Tony DiSanto, as well as Tyrese Gibson. “It’s a really cool subculture that we haven’t seen in mainstream media,” says Silverman. Adds Gateley of the program, “Now you get to be a fly on the wall.”
The 24/7 sensory overload of today’s Koreatown -- from spas to clubs, barbecue to bibimbap -- has ramped up steadily during the past two decades, since the L.A. riots of 1992. But it began when South Koreans immigrated to the area in the 1970s during the reign of military strongman Park Chung-hee. The district, which now boasts the largest number of South Koreans outside of Seoul, originally was developed as a tony enclave for industrialists and entrepreneurs during the Roaring Twenties. Joseph Schenck, then-president of United Artists, lived in an Upper East Side-worthy 11-story apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard that he named The Talmadge after his actress wife, Norma Talmadge. Nearby Hollywood hangouts The Brown Derby and The Cocoanut Grove drew everyone from Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino to Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe.
These days, the industry is back, too, as The Hollywood Reporter learned when polling players -- including Fast Five director Justin Lin, Top Chef's Gail Simmons and Legendary Pictures’ Alex Garcia -- for their favorite Koreatown finds, which go far beyond go-to restaurants like ChoSun Galbee and Park’s. Since shooting his new show, that’s no surprise to Gibson: “Nobody watches Jersey Shore and says, ‘I want to go there.’ As soon as people see this, they’re going to say, ‘I have to check this out!’ ”
3881 Wilshire Blvd.
Partisans of this Korean franchise import know to ask for their pies “gold” — that is, made with Yukon Gold sweet potatoes stuffed into the crust. “I find myself craving it,” says Alex Garcia, senior vp creative affairs at Legendary Pictures.
3901 W. Olympic Blvd.
This Korean investigation into Northern Chinese cooking is famous for its spice rubs and meat skewered over charcoal. “They do bull penis and pig heart, but you can stick with chicken wings and quail and lamb,” says The Simpsons writer Matt Selman.
721 S. Western Ave.
Formerly Le Prive, where Nicolas Cage famously met his wife, Alice Kim. Still one of the top neighborhood “booking clubs,” popular in Korean culture, in which staffers act as aggressive wingmen by corralling patrons to talk to one another at tables they’ve purchased for the evening. “Always completely surreal,” says John Orlando, director of digital development at Crackle and Sony Pictures Television. “Expect to drop hundreds of dollars on bottles of Crown Royal and fruit plates.” Marvels Gibson, “I’ve never been exposed to this stuff before.”
3500 W. 6th St.
You’ll find Silverman belting out songs with friends in one of the many private rooms equipped with frenetic LED light displays.
3826 W. 6th St.
The cafe specializes in serious coffee (both Chemex and Syphon are available) as well as manifold iterations of shakes, juices and teas. “It’s somewhere you can take someone to have a long conversation in peace,” says Twilight saga actor Justin Chon.
621 S. Western Ave.
The ArcLight of Koreatown, it shows tentpoles like Prometheus in uncrowded opening-weekend luxury. “I think it’s one of the best theaters in L.A. — if you’re willing to put up with Korean subtitles,” says Langley Park Pictures creative executive Aaron Schmidt.
CAFÉ BRASS MONKEY
3440 Wilshire Blvd.
Famed for the unofficial residency of Seth MacFarlane, who has made it a second home for his standards-singing career, the karaoke spot also has drawn Ben Stiller, Courteney Cox and Gersh agent Steve Gersh.
SOOT BULL JEEP
3136 W. 8th St.
This cult-favorite Korean BBQ hole-in-the-wall is popular with everyone from Dylan McDermott to Gail Simmons, who says, “It was introduced to me by James Oseland, my co-judge on Top Chef Masters, while shooting the second season of the show.” Advises Fast Five director Justin Lin, “Get ready to have your clothes soak in all the flavor because you will smell like your meal for the rest of the day.”
928 S. Western Ave.
Lin loves to hang out at the food court on the lower level of this mall because it has “the best steam buns and spicy shrimp dumplings.”
1001 S. Vermont Ave.
In the same strip mall as Hodori, this family-owned spot is venerated for its bibimbap, a Korean rice dish featuring a melange of sauteed vegetables, egg, meat and chili pepper paste. “Their version is their grandmother’s recipe, and it’s super-tasty,” says JoAnn Cianciulli, a producer on Top Chef Masters and MasterChef.
1001 S. Vermont Ave.
“It’s the place you go after the club to sober up before you go home,” says James “Prohgress” Roh, a member of hip-hop act Far East Movement, of this Korean greasy spoon.
3198 ½ W. 7th St.
Opened in the ’20s as The Windsor and still featuring the original red leather booths and gilt-framed paintings, this restaurant/bar has appeared in everything from Chinatown to Mad Men. Now it serves Korean fare with a rap soundtrack. Hipsters love the incongruity. “The staff can be legitimately rude to non-Koreans,” says The Office writer Daniel Chun. “But for some, that makes it even cooler.”
3240 Wilshire Blvd.
It boasts the standard array of massages and saunas, but Natura’s known for its notoriously hardcore skin-sloughing body scrub. Says Barnstorm Pictures president of production Elaine Chin, “They wouldn’t dare attack you that way in a Western spa!”
DAN SUNG SA
3317 W. 6th St.
Anthony Bourdain exposed this gem in the L.A. episode of his series The Layover that aired in January. “If you want to be adventuresome, Dan Sung Sa serves everything from chicken feet to beef intestines,” says CAA agent Lisa Shotland. It’s locally known for a unique art installation of locks hanging in front of a mural of James Dean and other icons.
3303 W. 6th St.
The centerpiece galbijjim, or steamed short-rib soup, draws serious devotees to this tiny home-style cooking haven. “The meat falls off the bone here,” says producer Dan Lin (Sherlock Holmes, Gangster Squad). Adds producer Roy Lee (The Departed, The Ring): “It’s my favorite. Anyone who eats meat, I challenge them not to like it.”
2700 Wilshire Blvd.
Demi Lovato and Vanessa Hudgens -- as well as Johnny Depp and, yes, John Travolta -- elude the paparazzi and English-speaking fans alike at this highly under-the-radar spa complex at the far eastern edge of Koreatown.
PICKUP SERVICE: Feel free to drink and not worry about driving. The area is prized for its unique take on taxi service. The offer is just the driver: He meets you where you parked and shuttles you home in your own ride. (Someone then picks him up.) “I live on the Westside, and I use the service frequently,” says Ted Kim, president and CEO of Asian-American multimedia company Mnet. “Just ask the staff at most bars and karaoke places, and they’ll hook you up.”
PARTY MUSIC: K-pop music -- South Korea’s Internet-driven, hook-fueled melding of hip-hop, R&B, dance, techno and pop -- reached its U.S. crossover tipping point when one of the genre’s top acts, Girls’ Generation, performed its catchy English-language hit “The Boys” on Late Show With David Letterman in January. Koreatown’s of-the-moment party soundtrack also includes K-pop singles by Super Junior (“Sexy, Free & Single’), 2NE1 (“I Love You”), Miss A (“Touch”) and Wonder Girls (“Like Money”).