DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Step into the open-air corridor at the Spring Arcade Building around noon on a weekday, and your eyes might turn to the daylight filtering through the 90-year-old structure’s massive skylight-like glass ceiling. Or perhaps you’ll notice the grand Spanish Renaissance arches looming over the sidewalks outside. 

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More likely to capture your attention, however, will be the line stretching out the door of Guisados, which opened on the Spring Street side of the building this month. The Downtown outpost of a lauded taco chain based in Boyle Heights, it has quickly attracted foodies hungry for the tender braised meats and salsas topping thick, golden corn tortillas made on the spot. 

The Guisados’ line is where Adrienne Gee and Nancy Corona, two area workers, stood last Wednesday, feeling the balmy breeze flowing from the street. 

“They’re embracing the community that’s here today,” Corona said. “People in the neighborhood need great places to eat.” 

Corona wasn’t referring just to Guisados, but to the entire Spring Arcade, where a growing number of independently operated eateries are filling storefronts. The former swap meet at 541 S. Spring St. that once catered to those looking for affordable electronics, apparel and gifts is entering a new phase as a dining hub. It’s akin to the infusion of new eateries at Grand Central Market, except the Spring Arcade has more space for seating and no history as a food-focused market. 

“This is turning into a culturally diverse complex with interesting cuisine — interesting and affordable,” Gee remarked.

The first food spot to arrive was Crepes Sans Frontieres, a crepe shop with sweet and savory specialties that Ruth Hudin opened last August near the center of the structure that runs from Broadway to Spring Street. Eight months later, in April, came Gelateria Uli, which doles out gelato and sorbets crafted by Uli Nasibova. The latest addition is Guisados, led by the father-son team of Armando De La Torre Sr. and Jr., which has been drawing lines every day since debuting on Aug. 11. 

Still to come are Green Grotto Juice Bar and Bierbeisl Imbiss, a casual outpost of chef Bernhard Mairinger’s Austrian bistro Bierbeisl, which won raves in Beverly Hills before shutting down for a still-pending move to West L.A. (Bierbeisl Imbiss will also have bakery, dubbed Falco). Royal Clayton’s, an Arts District pub that closed in 2010, will make its return inside the arcade. Also on the way is a restaurant that will fill about 2,000 square feet on the Broadway end of the building.

According to Greg Martin, vice president of building owner Downtown Management, the revamp of the structure presents a unique opportunity in a quickly changing neighborhood. 

“It’s the only covered retail mall in the Historic Core,” Martin said. “It’s a very comfortable area to be sitting and it’s very conducive for dining, since you’re not dealing with crowded, and often smelly, sidewalks.”

Still, it’s a work in progress: While there is a line at Guisados for lunch, the arcade is frequently devoid of foot traffic, in part because only a small handful of businesses are open. The momentum is building, however, as more entrepreneurs take a chance and more visitors arrive. 

“These people have a dream, and a vision to work with us here,” Martin said. “Brokers were telling us that nobody was interested.”

Storied Past

The Spring Arcade Building, then known as the Broadway Arcade, opened in 1924 and quickly became a thriving retail scene. It was marketed as a “City Within a City,” according to old stories from the Los Angeles Times. 

By the 1970s, however, the arcade had few tenants. That coincided with a general downturn in Downtown Los Angeles, as numerous businesses fled the Central City for points west, and many of the century-old structures in the Historic Core emptied.

Things did change. By the 1980s and ’90s, Broadway had become a busy shopping hub, albeit one dominated by swap-meet style businesses. Still, the office and residential scenes lagged. In 1987, Australian real estate investor Joseph Hellen purchased the Spring Arcade Building with hopes of reactivating it. It didn’t happen quickly.

Hellen began serious work on a turnaround in the years after Tom Gilmore kicked off the residential revolution in the Old Bank District. Hellen’s Downtown Management has now transformed three old structures, the Spring Arcade, the Jewelry Trades and the Chester Williams buildings, into nearly 300 apartments.

The historic look and feel in the Spring Arcade remains. That has helped attract tenants including Kieran Roberts, who hopes to open Green Grotto in October. In addition to juice, he will sell specialty teas, coffees and handmade snacks.

“I’m from Brooklyn, and that town is full of history,” Roberts said. “I went Downtown looking for a space and the Spring Arcade reminded me of something that really has a past. It grabbed me. The vibe and energy here feels great.”

Crepes Sans Frontieres’ Hudin also fell in love with the atmosphere in the arcade, which she said reminds her of an old French train station. Though she initially struggled to attract a steady stream of customers, Hudin sees growth ahead.

“I really like a challenge. So I wanted to make this place really special and make it work,” Hudin said. “I think there’s a lot of potential because Downtown is so cosmopolitan.”

The migration of new eateries, however, was preceded by an exodus of the swap-meet style vendors that once filled the arcade. Paper signs on shuttered storefronts direct former customers to new addresses. Only a Spanish-language video shop and a store hawking handbags, luggage, shoes and clothes remain. 

The change in tenants at the Spring Arcade Building, of course, mirrors the change occurring across Downtown. In approximately 15 years the area has seen its residential base surge from about 18,000 people to more than 50,000. Dozens of defunct office buildings have been turned into housing, and more ground-up structures have been built.

Guisados’ De La Torre Jr., who lives in the Historic Core, sees the change as a positive force for the future.

“I live in the neighborhood, and what I see is more new people,” he said. “Some call them hipsters, but it’s young couples, young families, who are rejuvenating Downtown. I’ve been driving through here since high school, and it really was a place to drive through. Now it’s becoming a star.”

How long it will take that change to come to the arcade is unclear, though the new vendors hope that word of mouth and increased marketing will expedite things. As Gelateria Uli’s Nasibova notes, staking a claim in the arcade is a long-range strategy.

“I knew I needed to be somewhere before it got big,” said Nasibova (whose husband and business partner is former Downtown News staff writer Ryan Vaillancourt). “I think the most recent wave in the arcade will help get it back to that state of glory it once had. That, to me, is very exciting and worth the wait.” 

Nasibova has done some research to find photos of the Broadway Arcade in its heyday. The pictures show huge crowds of men and women milling in the corridor, their faces alight with smiles as they visit stores, including the Arcade Flower Shop, which is where Gelateria Uli sits today. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @eddiekimx


A FOODIE EVOLUTION

Three eateries have opened in the Spring Arcade, and more are to come. Here’s the rundown. 

OPEN

Crepes Sans Frontieres: Ruth Hudin’s crepe shop touts both savory crepes, or “galettes,” with fillings including eggs, ham, cheeses and a variety of vegetables, as well as dessert crepes with fruits and sweet toppings. 

Gelateria Uli: Uli Nasibova churns out handmade gelatos and sorbets with flavors ranging from the traditional, such as pistachio and salted caramel, to the unexpected. Go ahead, try poblano. 

Guisados: This local taco mini-chain run by Armando De La Torre Sr. and Jr. offers rich, slow-cooked meat fillings on corn tortillas made fresh in-house. 

COMING 

Green Grotto Juice Bar: Kieran Roberts will feature cold-pressed organic fruit and vegetable juices, as well as coffees, teas and snacks. Expect an opening in October. 

Royal Clayton’s: This British-themed watering hole, which called the Arts District home until 2010, will offer a menu full of pub classics (think fish and chips and shepherd’s pie) as well as sandwiches and salads. 

Bierbeisl Imbiss: Expect casual versions of Austrian dishes such as veal schnitzel and stew-like gulasch from chef Bernhard Mairinger. 

Falco: Connected to Bierbeisl Imbiss will be an Austrian bakery dubbed Falco. Expect takes on pastries such as sachertorte, a rich chocolate cake, and strudel. 

Unidentified Restaurant: A 2,000-square-foot restaurant will come to the Broadway side of the arcade. Downtown Management’s Greg Martin would not reveal an operator.

—Eddie Kim

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014