Los Angeles is a place of perpetual self-reinvention; so it should come as no surprise that the city’s largest and oldest public market, the iconic Grand Central Market, has continually evolved since opening in 1917. Over the decades, the open air market has reflected the ever-changing population and landscape of downtown L.A. with a rotating roster of vendors selling prepared foods and groceries.
Most recently, the market has seen a large new wave of eateries and some grocers, along with a dramatic influx of new customers — so much so that the whole market was named one of the best new restaurants in the U.S. by Bon Appétit in 2014. Like any notable reinvention, the changes have brought both critics and fans alike. So as the market celebrates its centennial this year, we look back at how it has evolved and how those changes reflect the landscape of downtown Los Angeles.
The building that houses Grand Central Market on the ground floors was originally built by retired entrepreneur Homer Laughlin and designed in the Beaux-Arts style by architect John B. Parkinson in 1896. It was the first fireproofed, reinforced concrete building in L.A. and the first west of Chicago to have concrete floors. The building’s first tenant was the Ville de Paris Department Store with an entrance on Broadway between 3rd and 4th streets. It later expanded to Hill St. in 1905, following the 1901 opening of Angels Flight, the beloved funicular that brought wealthy patrons down from the Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill to shop, dine and attend the theaters of Broadway.
When Grand Central Market opened in 1917, it offered residents of Bunker Hill and the surrounding downtown neighborhood a single location to buy their groceries or stop for lunch. According to the Herald Examiner in 1946, Grand Central Market at the time, “Catered to the well-to-do Angelinos that rode the Angels Flight Railway, allowing for easy access to the best open-air shopping in town.” An early promotional booklet for L.A.’s “Wonder Market” boasted of 250-foot display cases, featuring everything from fish, oysters and meat to the finest produce from farmers across the Southland. Shoppers could also find stalls with eggs and butter, bakeries, delicatessens, candy shops, florists, specialty goods and lunch counters.
As the years passed, the market evolved to reflect changing population of downtown L.A. and the fashions of the times. Early photos from the market’s opening show shoppers in stylish fedoras perusing elaborately towered fruit sold by bowtied vendors. This was downtown L.A.’s so-called “golden age” when rail lines brought shoppers in from across the region, hotels, movie palaces and department stores sprang up steadily, and Spring St. — known as the “Wall St. of the West” — was lined with the headquarters of major financial institutions. Even famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright had offices in the upper floors of Grand Central Market.
Signs in the market from the 1930s and 40s boasted 5¢ frozen malted milks served at a gleaming counter and cases filled with beautifully arranged hams that would rival a modern-day Whole Foods, while crowds flooded the aisles and streets outside. But following World War II, as many affluent downtown residents headed towards new suburbs on expanding freeways, downtown shine began to wane. The Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill became home to low-income renters — to be later demolished for skyscrapers — and Angel’s Flight was shuttered in 1969. But Grand Central Market endured, adapting to a changing downtown by featuring stalls of discounted produce and inexpensive lunches.
Today, one of the market’s oldest legacy vendors is Tomas Martinez, who owns the perpetually busy stalls Tacos Tumbras and Ana Maria's. “When I first came to the market was 1972, and it was very different, we've seen many changes,” says Martinez. “Before we had a lot of produce and places where people would buy their groceries. And now people come for all of the different vendors who have food from all over.” Martinez adds that there’s also been a shift in demographics in recent years at the market since he opened. “Before we had maybe 80 percent Hispanic people, and now, it's maybe 20 to 25 percent. We see a lot more people from all over. I think it's the most important place in Los Angeles.”
While much of the focus on changes to the market has been on what’s happened in recent years, a notable shift in its direction began in 1984. That’s when developer Ira Yellin purchased the market along with investors and a $44 million bond package backed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency — a unique public and private partnership. Some of the changes to the market included an added parking structure and, in the 1990s, the removal of a 1960s-era tile facade to reveal the original exterior.
Yellin’s wife Adele — who is now leading the charge for recent developments in the market -- recalls her late husband’s enthusiasm for buying and restoring the market. “It was kind of a radical thing to do — everybody was fleeing downtown, and it was kind of desolate and really difficult,” she explains. “Ira loved the market, and he also had done a lot of work studying urban planning, and knew that old cities needed to reinvent themselves. And here [at the market] in the Historic Core, he just felt that this was the place to start. It was already a gathering place, and he just felt that there aren't many of those in Los Angeles and he loved it and wanted to work on that.”
Ira Yellin also focused his energies elsewhere in historic downtown, purchasing and restoring the Million Dollar Theatre next door to the market, the Bradbury Building across the street, a nearby complex of apartments, and he helped lead the restoration of Union Station. He was also a key player in opening up the long-vacant commercial buildings of downtown to be rezoned for residential lofts, which would help pave the way for changes that would later come. But the recession of the early 1990s stalled Yellin’s vision of helping to revitalize downtown L.A., and he passed away in 2002 before it could be fully realized.
In the years to follow, the market continued to be a destination for some — particularly for workers in the area and a large Latino population — but was not the thriving hub it once was. Adele explains, “It was getting even harder for the market to survive, because there was a lot more ethnic food available throughout the city — you didn't have to come downtown to buy it. In 2007 and 2008, there was the recession and a lot of our older tenants literally just closed up. We didn't have the resources at that time to give them tenant improvements, so we ended up being close to 40 percent vacancy.”
Initially, Adele Yellin left the responsibilities of running the market to those already in charge of it, but when some of them retired, Adele felt compelled to get involved, beginning in 2011. Yellin notes that while more people were beginning to move back to downtown L.A. and restaurants and bars were springing up, many of the newer and often younger populations, weren’t shopping or eating at Grand Central Market. The vacancy rate at the time was at a low of 45 percent, even some of the legacy vendors were struggling to stay open.
Yellin explains her vision for reviving the market, “I wanted foodies. I'm a foodie. I wanted young, entrepreneurial chefs. That's what you were seeing. Downtown was sort of swarming a lot with these people. I knew that that kind of edgy group of entrepreneurs would be... I just felt would be right. I reached out to some people that my daughter-in-law put me in touch with — Kevin West and Joseph Shuldiner — and they know all the people in the food world.”
Yellin, West and Shuldiner set about the task of interviewing prospective new vendors, focusing on a diverse array of creative culinary entrepreneurs. The goal was also to maintain a mix of the legacy vendors that had been there for years with newer concepts to fill stalls that were long empty. While some critics have suggested that older tenants were kicked out, several of the stalls were years late in rent, and some closed on their own accord.
The first tenant selected by the trio was David Tewasart, who opened Sticky Rice, which offers Thai street food specialties using organic and seasonal ingredients. Tewasart, who also operated Soi 7 (recently changed to So Long, Hi) in downtown L.A., says it was a no-brainer when he was asked to open in the market. “I used to drive by Grand Central Market and wonder what was going on in there, and said, 'This is not right. Eventually, that's going to become something super special,' and it never occurred to me that I would be a part of it.”
Tewasart adds that it wasn’t a boon in the market right away. “It was a ghost town during the weekends, there was hardly anyone there,” he says. “You'd have busy lunches, and we were busy at the beginning just because we were a different option.” He also says that many of the older, existing vendors doubted that Sticky Rice would endure, having seen others come and go over the lean years. Many prospective tenants were also wary of signing on to the market, Tewasart says, not convinced of the vision or that enough people would come.
Following Sticky Rice, a string of new vendors opened in relatively quick succession, including G&B Coffee, Valerie Confections, DTLA Cheese, Horse Thief BBQ, Oyster Gourmet, Belcampo Meat Co. and Olio Pizzeria. Tewasart explains there was a sense of camaraderie amongst the aspiring new vendors, many of whom would congregate at his stall. “We used to all hang out at the counter,” he says. “I think that was really important in the beginning because there was a synergy and everybody fed off of it. We just kept on trying to push and push to see how far we could take it.”
Tewasart notes that the major shift in momentum for Grand Central Market that began bringing huge crowds of new customers was the opening of chef Alvin Cailan’s breakfast concept, Eggslut. “Eggslut was the tipping point because they had the massive lines,” he explains. “And everyone would come for them, but they'd come back for everything else, so the exposure was big.” Yellin adds that the busy stall changed the whole dynamic of the market. Suddenly, the century-old marketplace became a buzzy new hotspot, bringing crowds from the neighborhood and much farther afield. The stall that the bustling Eggslut occupies had previously been vacant for ten years.
Increasingly, the new vendors featured prepared foods, instead of the grocers and raw ingredients that had populated the market in decades past. Yellin explains the shift, “It used to be that everybody cooked, but nowadays, the people who are living downtown, a lot of them are younger. Or they're older and they don't have kids. A lot of those people don't really spend a lot of time cooking. Their need is for prepared food. I think that the food that we have is not too expensive and their here is a variety of price points. I think that it just caters to that whole community of people.”
That’s not to say that people still aren’t coming to the market to buy their groceries. Instead, more customers seem to be in search of specialized foods from artisanal producers, rather than generic staple items. You’ll find organic, grass-fed beef at Belcampo, freshly-baked loaves at Clark Street Bread, small batch cheeses from DTLA cheese, and handmade pastas from Knead & Co. Though in many cases those stalls also offer customers meal options as well for those looking for a quick bite.
Chiles Secos is one of the legacy vendors at the market that still offers Latino-focused grocery items, including spices, grains and legumes, as well as their legendary housemade moles. Originally opened in 1975 by the late Celestino Lopez, the stall is now run by his widow Antonia Lopez and granddaughter Claudia Armendariz — though at various points in time Lopez’s 15 children and 30+ grandchildren all lent a hand. “I've seen the market from 1996 up until now and how it's changed, and it's remarkable and it reflects how I've grown up as well,” says Armendariz. “I hold the market very close to my heart; it's a second home.”
Armendariz notes while many of the Chiles Secos regulars that knew her grandfather still come, there’s also a new wave of customers that have come about from the recent changes to the market. “It's a large spectrum of different ages and cultures that come to shop,” she says. “When I started working here in 1996, it was very much a place to come and shop for goods to take home and cook. And the eateries were there so you could shop and have lunch. And now it's like, 'Come and eat here, and then explore and see what you can find to take home and experiment with.”
Armendariz says that the trend of newer and younger customers shopping at the stall reflects a rise in food culture in L.A. and the rest of the country. While many do enjoy the ease and convenience of prepared foods, there are still plenty excited by the prospect of discovering a new ingredient at the market and bringing it home. So even if she has to educate some customers on what mole is — some confuse it for fudge or gelato — and how to use it, Armendariz says it brings her joy to spread the knowledge and continue the traditions of her grandfather. “I'd love to have a place where I could sell prepared foods with our moles sometime in the future,” she adds. “I think it would be a great addition to the market.”
Just next door to Chiles Secos, Lydia Clarke of DTLA Cheese also suggests that offering groceries that people can take home is key to the successful dynamic of the market. “The market has turned more into a food hall and that's part of adapting,” Clarke says. “But having a cheese shop in the market also means that people live here and they're buying cheese, and they're part of the community. I think an integral part of having a working market is having things that people can take to prepare a meal.”
Clarke, whose grandfather started the Alta Dena Dairy (“dairy is in my blood and bones,” she admits), also explains that having access to market goods like cheese offers an important connection to food production and life beyond downtown. “You're in the city and there's all this traffic and everything, but when you eat cheese, it reminds you of how grateful we are to have access to so many beautiful things,” she says. “When people share the story behind their cheese, it makes it a more special experience, so that their overall experience with coming to downtown doesn't feel as sterile or as cold, it has a connection to people who are making great things.”
Another one of Grand Central Market’s newer vendors is Wexler’s Deli, opened by Micah Wexler and Michael Kassar. Specializing in house-smoked fish and pastrami, house pickles, bagels, sandwiches and other Jewish deli classics, the duo also holds traditional food craftsmanship in high regard while adding a more modern cultural sensibility. In a way, bridging the divide between stalls you might have seen in the early years of Grand Central Market, selling pickles, horseradish and cured meats, to the contemporary energy of the space today.
While Wexler and Kassar, both industry vets, were initially uncertain that opening in the market was the right move, once they spent time there and saw the new energy in the richly historic space, they were hooked. “When we were raising money with our investors, we said, ' In order to believe in this concept, you can't just like the concept of Wexler's Deli, you need to believe in Grand Central Market,’ Wexler says. “There are only a few places in L.A. where you can restore something that's this great and this old. And I think people have had it with the standard food court of a mall. And Grand Central Market has renovated in a pretty organic way.”
As newer vendors with often higher-concept food have been added to the market, many have observed that the demographics have shifted from a predominantly working-class Latino customer base to now include a more diverse, and in some cases well-heeled crowd. But while some critics suggest the market is being gentrified, Wexler disagrees, ‘I feel pretty strongly that it's not gentrification.” He explains, “This market had fallen on pretty rough times and was in disrepair. It was largely a Latino market with things at very low prices, which is a very important service to provide for people who are low-income to afford their food and groceries. What it now is, is a subsection of all of Los Angeles, and it had been that for a very long time. And I think there's been a great effort in bringing that back and restoring this place to be ground zero and the center of the conversation that's going on all over the city now, which is, 'What do we want this city to be? What do we want it to look like? What are our communal spaces? How do we relate to each other and what kind of society do we have?' And that's going on here every single day — there are all walks of life here, the place is vibrant, and it's come back.”
He adds, “Gentrification is, when something is taken away, and people say, 'Now it's for white people.' This isn't a place just for white people — there are white people here — but everyone else is here, too. And I think that's really important to become a place of community where all of Los Angeles can come and celebrate its patchwork of culinary makeup together.”
Yellin adds that many of the changes that have been made — bringing in new, creative vendors — were a matter of survival to reinvigorate the market and bring in customers to keep the doors open. “Everybody thinks about the past with longing. But, I think the reality of it is that we would never have been able to stay open if I had just left it the way it was,” she says. “You have to make changes and you have to also accommodate a community that is around you that wasn't coming. That's what I started to do. I didn't want to lose the community that was coming to us for the very successful vendors. I think that’s part of the energy of the place. That there is such a mix.”
While over two dozen new vendors have opened since Yellin took the reins, the market has also retained fourteen of the long-standing legacy vendors with fiercely loyal customers. The oldest among them is China Cafe, opened in 1959, and known for inexpensive, old school Chinese-American classics like chow mein, chop suey and wonton soup — here served with limes and Tapatío. The venerable lunch counter has been serving generations of market-goers, and is now owned by Rinco Cheung, his wife Susie, and Jie Li, who took over five years ago. When offered to renew their lease for another five years, Cheung says it was time for a remodel — but the signature menu items and the original sign remained. “A museum wanted it, but the market said it had to stay,” says Cheung. The neon signs above Grand Central Market stalls — both old and new — are part of the charm of the place. Though the market did remove the sawdust that had once covered the floors.
Cheung says the stools at China Cafe’s long red counter still fill with regulars and families that have been coming for generations. He admits he's added a few dishes. “I think because the culture of the building people keep coming,” he says. “They've changed it, but it's still good and lots of people are coming. I'm busier now than I was before the remodel, almost 35 percent more. So we know that the changes are good for everybody.” He also adds that now that Grand Central Market stays open later — 10 p.m. nightly instead of the historic 6 p.m. — they see much more business, though not all the vendors stay open that late. The addition of stalls that serve alcohol likely also helps encourage more customers to linger at the market.
Yellin says the extended hours, as well as events and activities such as game nights, live music and classes, are part of an effort to invite in more of downtown’s residents and to help vendors. “It's another opportunity for our tenants to make a little more money, she says. “Also to serve the neighborhood, there are more people living downtown. You've got to be open so that they can come to you. If you close every night at six, you've got one or two meals basically they are serving. It's always been this magnet to attract the community. There's so few places like that in Los Angeles, unfortunately. We have no center. This is a center. It's just exciting.”
Fernando Villagomez is one vendor who can be considered part of both the legacy tenants and part of the new crop at Grand Central Market. Since 2008. Villagomez’s popular stall Las Morelianas has been serving tacos with carnitas made in huge bubbling cauldrons to throngs of customers. And more recently he opened La Tostaderia, along with co-owner Gerardo Reynoso and chef Sandra Felix, serving upscale takes on ceviche, tostadas and seafood tacos. “My grandfather used to come to see the Mexican performances next door [at the Million Dollar Theatre], and he would come to the market and get his vegetables,” Villagomez says. “And I think for Latin people in the Los Angeles community it has a lot of meaning. I never thought I would come to downtown L.A. and have a business in this market where my grandfather went, it's amazing.”
Villagomez recalls what Grand Central Market was like when he first opened Las Morelianas, “The market was all Latin stuff, vegetables, fish, meat. It was really cool if you were Mexican, you could find any products from Mexico and Latin America. And it was also super busy. But I think the market has to improve in order to grow up with the L.A. community and the way that downtown L.A. has been changing.”
And while he admits that he was initially uncertain that the market could evolve and grow, he’s now excited about all the new changes, especially since he was given the opportunity to expand himself. “I've always claimed myself as a son of the market. Because Grand Central Market for Fernando that was the platform to go to the next step as a chef,” Fernando says, referring to himself in the third-person. “They really helped me to get to the next level, and wake up and go to different places. They really pushed me to go for it, and I went back to school. I finished my culinary degrees. And all of those things are because of the market. If you have the chance to know me, you'll find that Fernando is Grand Central Market because it's old-fashioned, but at the same time has the new techniques and new hip concepts, and it's the same with me.”
“I know some people say things about Grand Central Market, but they never know how historic it is, and how much it's evolved over the generations in the market,” adds Villagomez. “You walk through the market, and you can feel all the good vibes all around it. And now you can get involved with all these new people and new chefs and ideas, and all together we're making a great sense of community and concepts for food.”
Update: Since this article was first published, Grand Central Market was purchased by Langdon Street Capital, a Beverly Hills real estate investor, for an undisclosed sum.
Top Image: Tobin's at Grand Central Market c. 1941 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection