Published in – The Globe and Mail – January 20, 2015
Welcome to Koreatown: Los Angeles nightlife like you haven’t seen before
Once a no-go zone, the area has evolved into an urban, textured neighbourhood, one visitors aren’t used to seeing in Southern California
It doesn’t get more quintessentially L.A. than the evening a friend, an Angeleno, recently described to me: After catching a movie in Hollywood, she and her son went to Mel’s Drive-In, a diner on the Sunset Strip that’s open round the clock.
In one booth, the former teen star Amanda Bynes sat solo, mumbling to herself. Nearby was Justin Bieber, in the company of an entourage-type person who was proffering affirmations about the singer’s likeability. The restaurant was otherwise quiet, almost empty.
“I don’t know who made me feel sadder,” she told me over breakfast recently. “That’s what you get going for a bite in Hollywood after 10 o’clock at night.”
Apart from red-roped Hollywood clubs, Los Angeles never has been known for its night life. But to counter that, I recently spent a night a mere 10 kilometres away in Koreatown, one of central L.A.’s largest ’hoods. Stretching seven square kilometres – from Beverly in the north down to Olympic, and west to east from Crenshaw to Virgil – Koreatown is emerging as an after-hours capital for those in the know, boasting the city’s highest density of late-night and all-night businesses, from ubiquitous barbeque joints and karaoke to 24-hour spa and sauna houses.
It was nearing midnight by the time I met up with my friend Joanna, a food television producer who wrapped up a shoot not long before coming out to join me. We hit up Toe Bang, a Korean pub tucked out of street view behind the façade of Chapman Market.
Just a few blocks from the Wilshire/Normandie Metro stop, Chapman was built in 1929. It’s a gorgeous, terra cotta-roofed Spanish Renaissance building with a huge interior courtyard. The parking lot for what was the city’s first drive-up grocery store. Tonight, that lot is full of Mercedes and BMWs and twentysomethings who’ve popped outside from the numerous bars ringing the courtyard for a smoke.
Though Toe Bang isn’t a particular destination in and of itself – spots like this exist right across K-town – there’s a wait for a table. Yes, at midnight.
Once inside, we find photos depicting bottles of soju and various menu items lining the walls. Parties of six are jammed into wooden booths designed to hold at least two fewer. It’s loud and dark and feels like we’ve stumbled into the biggest party in town, and from outside Chapman Market, you’d have no idea. In fact, we passed the front of the building twice before walking around the side to determine we were in the right place.
“I feel like we’re on a pirate ship,” Joanna yells over the din, eyeing wooden beams tied decoratively with rope, separating the booths. We order a bottle of soju and “corn cheese,” because it’s listed in a section of the menu called “that goes well with soju,” and peruse the menu further. It comes in a skillet and is like mac and cheese, only with sweet corn instead of the mac. We forgo the barbeque and egg rolls filled with spam and cheese, and instead request a platter of gently marbled, seared beef sliced paper-thin and covered in a mound of fresh herbs, plus a stew teeming with octopus, mussels and prawns. The seafood dish takes up about half the table and costs just $20. Its spice level lands right on the brink of the pleasure/punishment divide, and it, too, goes well with the soju.
By all accounts I should be exhausted, having arrived from Toronto the day before and not quite having adjusted to West Coast time. But I’d killed a few hours waiting for Joanna to finish work at Wi Spa, an all-night complex where the price of admission increases after midnight, and where showing up in four-inch stilettos and clubby clothes is the norm. (Customers are handed regulation yellow cotton T-shirts and shorts upon check-in. Once inside, everyone looks like a member of a religious cult or an inmate in an asylum.) More effective than a disco nap was the “Wi Special Skin Care” – a facial that included at least three different peels and mask (at some point, I fell asleep and lost count), ozone therapy and a leg massage involving thigh-high moon boots that rhythmically inflated with warm air and then deflated while the esthetician worked. “Now, you party,” she announced when she finished up.
Koreatown’s unpretentious brand of night-owl fun is just starting to draw out L.A. residents who live beyond its borders – no small deal in a city where living downtown and dating someone from Santa Monica is considered a long-distance relationship – but it’s hardly a new neighbourhood. In the early 1900s, the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that cuts through Koreatown was the most prestigious area in town. It was Hollywood before Hollywood existed, home to the likes of Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd and packed with grand art deco, Spanish and Italian Renaissance-style opulence. (Check out the Gaylord Apartments, one beautifully restored example, where John Barrymore and Richard Nixon once held residency, right across the street from the site where the Ambassador Hotel stood.)
As the glamourous crowds moved west, Korean immigrants moved in, opening businesses and constructing mid-century-style strip malls before much of the neighbourhood burned in the 1992 riots. For years after, Asian and Latino gangs roamed empty streets, and this part of town was, rightfully, known as one of the city’s most tense and violent. But then, in the mid-aughts, L.A.’s mayor struck a $300-million (U.S.) deal to channel investment from Asia into the area, slowly transforming Koreatown from dangerous slum into the kind of urban, textured neighbourhood that doesn’t come to mind when you think of southern California. An emphasis on walkability (K-town is considered one of the easiest places in Los Angeles to go car-free, in part because of its accessibility by subway) and reasonable rents means street life has flourished. While it’s still advisable to know your route, most streets are perfectly safe, even at night.
Angelenos are catching on, thanks in part to services such as UberX, which allows residents to venture further afield minus the need for a designated driver at little cost. When I stayed at the Line Hotel, a boutiquey new property smack in the middle of the action, another L.A.-based friend took advantage of the opportunity to come check it out. We dined at Pot, an on-site restaurant opened by Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef heralded as a co-founder of the food-truck movement, and then walked over to Lock & Key, a speakeasy-type bar you enter by way of an anteroom full of antique doorknobs; you have to keep trying until you find the one that opens the interior door. Inside, it’s all low ceilings, tufted green leather seats and dark wood. Artisanal cocktails are served in chiselled crystal alongside a snack menu of Korean street food. We plan on one round, but there’s little debate about staying for a second: Our search for worthy Los Angeles nightlife is over.