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Foodie's Paradise: The Old Bank District, Where History Repeats

 

On any given L.A. night, an after-dinner stroll along the streets of the Old Bank District in downtown's Historic Core is an enchanted affair. Acclaimed chef Josef Centeno, owner of neighborhood cornerstones Baco Mercat, Bar Ama, and Orsa & Winston and chef at Pete's, sums it up nicely. "Our corner at 4th and Main is a special block," he says. "It always looks like Christmas around here."

In the past decade, the arrival of some of L.A.'s most innovative restaurants, hip bars, and progressive art galleries have transformed the long-depressed area. This transformation is the result of multiple city initiatives and the work of developers like Gilmore Associates. But this is not the first time this neighborhood has been a hub of culture and good food. "By the mid-1890s, 4th & Main was the center of Los Angeles commercial life," says social historian Richard Schave of Esotouric. "Main was a 24-hour street: banks, bars, restaurants, theaters -- the world in a street, a street which never slept."

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The Hellman residence. Image courtesy LAPL Image Collection.

 
 

The area's first round of development began in the boom time of the late 19th century, as the city's original commercial district around what is now City Hall began to fill up. According to Schave, development really took off when "Mr. Isaias Hellman tore down his family's mansion on the southwest corner of 4th & Main, breaking his wife's heart, and put up a bank."

Other banks and businesses soon followed, as did several large hotels. The Van Nuys (now Barclay) Hotel opened in January 1897, and boasted guest rooms with telephones, richly decorated carpets, oak and maple furniture, and a "neat device for the electrical heating of curling irons" that was thought to be of special interest to the ladies. But the real life of the hotel was in the public rooms, especially the dining room, which would become famous under the management of Baron Long. As the L.A. Times reported:

"The dining hall fronts Main Street... One side of the dining room will be a European-plan café and the other side a dining room on the American plan. There are 34 tables in the room. The silver to be used in this department is especially fine. Solid oak is the wood used in the chairs and tables, the latter being upholstered in Russian leather. In the kitchen, car tracks are used to carry eatables to and from, and in the cooking department, stoves, ranges, etc. are the latest improvements in those lines. The grill room and bar are not yet finished and will be opened later. Romandy's Orchestra has been engaged to play at the hotel during meal hours."

The bankers, businessmen, and government officials who flooded the neighborhood during the first decades of the 20th century were eager for entertainment, hearty food, and strong drinks. Nearby department stores like Coulter Dry Goods Co., Desmond's, and Hales brought in daytime shoppers, while theaters like the Hippodrome (built in 1916), the Belasco, the Orpheum, and the Follies (next to the Barclay) made the area the center of L.A. nightlife.

The Follies was run by the fascinating Lillian Hunt, a "human dynamo," who, Schave says, "staged all new shows with completely new costumes every week." There were eclectic restaurants for every taste and budget: Al Levy's, Fred Harlow's, the uber-expensive Victor Hugo's and the five cent hot dog stand next door to it. But no downtown eatery was more storied than the Good Fellows Grotto, which Schave calls the "greatest eatery the city will ever know."

Good Fellows Grotto was opened in July, 1905, by Matteo C. Dujmovich, a former gambling and variety show manager originally from Yugoslavia. As early as 1909, it was reported to be "well known as a resort for actors and men about town."

"Nestled between the Barclay Hotel and the Follies Burlesque Theater, its intimate and richly-upholstered interiors -- with their curtained "family" booths on the south side -- were the living room for the city's politicians, business leaders, creative artists, and arbiters of taste," Schave says. "Governors and presidents dined there. Diners could take advantage of a secret entrance into the Follies burlesque theater." Everyone from Sarah Bernhardt to Jack Dempsey ate at the steak, chop, and seafood house during its almost 50-year run. According to the L.A. Times:

The elder Dujmovich proved a successful restaurateur from the start. All his steaks were charcoal broiled. His bouillabaisse, lobster thermador and boiled crab were quick favorites. For luncheon, his filet of sole and cracked crab remained popular to the end. Joseph Scott and the criminal trial wizard Earl Rogers led parades of lawyers from courtrooms to the restaurant.

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The Follies and Barclay after the heyday. Image courtesy LAPL Photo Collection.

 

But by the time Good Fellows closed in 1953, the neighborhood was a very different place. Post-World War II sprawl pulled the banks and businesses up the hill and out to the suburbs, leaving the grand old turn-of-the-century buildings to become pawnshops, strip joints and low-income stores. Decades were spent trying to figure out what to do with the neighborhood, which became ridden with crime and acute homelessness and poverty. But in the late 1990s, the "Old Bank District" (a title bestowed on it by Tom Gilmore of Gilmore Associates) began its second life. Schave explained how this came about:

"After much study, the Community Redevelopment Agency determined that the best way to save whole city blocks of blighted and nearly abandoned 19th and early 20th century downtown buildings was to finance developers in the purchase of entire blocks that could then be rehabilitated as a 'unit.' Around 1997, Gilmore Associates approached the CRA about financing a large-scale redevelopment project of the sort that the CRA had already determined would be beneficial to downtown development. The agency was game to invest. The city passed the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance for downtown in 1999, smoothing the way for commercial buildings to be converted to residential. The CRA did some heavy lifting with financing, and by 2001, the intersection around 4th and Main had been converted to residential, and creative businesses were moving in and enjoying deeply discounted rent. This was the model developed by and enabled by the CRA, and it proved a success."

The beautifully restored buildings (75% of the original turn-of-the-century structures still stand) became high priced apartment houses and retail space. The art scene, bolstered by the monthly downtown art walk, flourished. Many younger, upwardly mobile residents moved into buildings such as the historic San Fernando Building. Chef Josef Centeno --who opened his restaurant Baco Mercat on Main Street in 2011 -- was one such resident. He explains, "I already was living and working downtown and loved it. So opening downtown made sense... This neighborhood is my home, and it's the place where I started Baco Mercat. When I opened the second restaurant, Bar Ama, I didn't want to be far from the first restaurant, and then when I opened the third restaurant, Orsa & Winston, I didn't want to be far from the first and second...The neighborhood attracts an eclectic crowd from all over the city and neighborhood locals, too -- lots of artists and professionals both."

As more and more restaurants open, and more and more people flood the area each night, you can almost see the ghosts pouring out of Good Fellows and into the streets, excited to be in the middle of it all. Once more, in the words of Centeno, "the Old Bank District/Historic Core has become a destination."

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