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Travel & Nightlife

A Guide to Downtown Los Angeles' Gritty, Glam Art Scene

Grit and Glamour
Photos courtesy of Discover Los Angeles

Once decrepit, downtown LA is now the beating heart of the city's art community. 

It's hard to believe that, 20 years ago, downtown Los Angeles was a ghost town after dark. Now it's brimming with those key indicators of gentrification: art and good booze. Bars like The Varnish helped pave the way for an influx of excellent cocktail spots, and big galleries have turned a once-derelict warehouse district into something more like SoHo in the late '80s. The recent opening of the biggest private gallery in the country from Hauser & Wirth marked the ascension (and mainstreaming) of the newly minted Arts District, and cool weekend crowds hit the galleries and shop at boutiques amid the decayed, Instagram-ready walls. Then they head to these spots to get their drink on.

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Bar Mattachine

Finally, a gay bar that kills it on the craft cocktails--and succeeds in being fun and friendly. Owner Garrett McKechnie oversees a legit drinks program and a cheerful staff who can nail any ridiculous request, even at 1:00 a.m. Try the Harry Hay, named after the founder of Mattachine Society (and whiskey enthusiast), a well-balanced, stirred rye number. DJ Sindrisalad serves up an eclectic mix of Italo and Nu Disco, tropical synth, and deep sexy house to a highly festive crowd.

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Bar Clacson

This crisp new spot mixes smart takes on classics, and skips the formality of banquettes, booths, and table service--think more aperitivo than martini. Plus, there's a crazy-cheap happy hour, featuring the best $5 old-fashioned you'll ever drink. A soon-to-open neo-dive in the back will offer high-volume old-school drinks served from the soda gun, and a dedicated early-'80s punk-rock soundtrack.

The Varnish

One enters this impressively dim speakeasy through the restaurant Cole's and immediately feels transported into a mythical craft-cocktail past. It's an unbeatable date spot.


Inside the massive Hauser & Wirth complex, Texan chef Wes Whitsell crafts some highly elevated down-home cooking, working with very-local herbs and greens from an on-premise garden. The cocktail program extends that fresh ethos with summery sippers that use garnishes handpicked fresh from the yard.

Birds & Bees

This is essentially an underground concrete bunker made cozy with '50s-esque wooden tables and chairs for an intimate vibe, and spot-on classic cocktails appropriately inspired by mid-century stars like Doris Day, Desi Arnaz, and Ella Fitzgerald.

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Killer Looks:

Make an art date for these eight

The Broad

The sleek museum built by Eli and Edythe Broad hosts a dazzling collection of modern and postwar art.

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

The cavernous space features major shows of artists like Kerry James Marshall and Doug Aitken.

Hauser & Wirth

It's the big boy of the downtown arts scene, housed in a repurposed flour factory/mill.

Venus LA

The lofty gallery presents ambitious exhibits, like a group show inspired by J.G. Ballard's Concrete Island.

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Corey Helford Gallery

Many of its works comment on pop culture, like a recent exhibit of Alex Gross's reflections on technology and relationships.

The Box

The small gallery offers bold shows like Judith Bernstein's timely "Cock in the Box" exhibit.

Little Big Man Gallery

An upcoming show at this idiosyncratic spot will feature local Chicano photographers chronicling the changing DTLA culture.

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