Looking Back at the First Best of Downtown Issue

The inaugural Best of Downtown issue hit newsstands on June 19, 1989.

DTLA - The Best Of issue is a staple of newspapers and magazines across the country. Los Angeles Downtown News joined the game on June 19, 1989, publishing an issue that, according to a front-cover description, served as “an eccentric & incomplete compendium of wonderful things to see, eat and do in the Central City.”

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That issue is something of a time capsule of Downtown Los Angeles. The late ’80s was an intriguing period: Downtown was at the tail end of a development boom (a brutal recession would begin a few years later) that had seen the construction of numerous steel-and-glass skyscrapers on Bunker Hill and the Financial District. Many of the Best Of winners in that first issue served the growing white-collar workforce. 

Some of those winners are still operating, and also are winners in this 30th Best Of Downtown. Consider Clifton’s on Broadway. This year the woodsy-themed restaurant, which received a top-to-bottom renovation from current owner Andrew Meieran, was voted by readers as the Best Downtown Classic. In 1989 it was named Best Place to Return to a Simpler Age.

Some 1989 winners are not honorees in the current issue, but they still stand out. St. Vibiana’s Cathedral was selected as the Best Place to Get Married in Downtown three decades ago, and it remains a popular spot for brides and grooms, even if it has been deconsecrated and now serves as a private events venue. The penthouse of the Oviatt Building was named Best Art Deco for Rent in 1989, and is still unrivaled. In that first issue St. Vincent’s Court off Seventh Street was called the Best Roman Alleyway. Nothing in modern Downtown can compete. 

The Jewelry District was cited as the Best Place to Bargain in 1989, and that reputation persists in 2018, though Santee Alley is also a contender. In 1989 Casey’s on Grand Avenue was chosen as the Best Place to Hear/Tell a Dirty Joke. It is still in the running, particularly during Casey’s huge annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

The then/now comparison reveals a number of changes that show how Downtown has evolved. Chief among these is the Spring Arcade Building; in 1989 it was named Best Place to Buy Cheap Plastic, and in the following decades it functioned as a swap meet. Today, however, the property has undergone an immense renovation. The plastic hawkers have been pushed out and modern food purveyors have flooded in. The 2018 Spring Arcade holds businesses including Gelateria Uli (winner of this year’s Best Gelato prize), taqueria Guisados (Best Bang for Your Buck) and the just opened Clayton’s Public House.

A number of winners simply closed down over the course of decades. The restaurants Stepps, A Thousand Cranes and Yorkshire Grill all won Best Of prizes in 1989, and all are gone. So is a dessert-themed winner, Robin Rose Ice Cream. Legendary Arts District punk club Al’s Bar was called best Low-Rent Arts Institution, but it departed in 2001. Little Tokyo destination Oiwake was hailed as a hub for karaoke in 1989, but patrons of the destination in Japanese Village Plaza sang their final songs in 2015.

Some elements are bittersweet. In 1989 Caravan Book Store was selected as the Best Place to Get Lost Among Musty Old Books. The antiquarian shop in the PacMutual building held that title for decades… until it closed this past February.

Looking back, a few categories cause some head scratching. Consider 1989’s Best View From a Urinal, which went to the City Club on Bunker Hill, then on the 54th floor of the north tower of Wells Fargo Center.

There are also winners where timing is, well, interesting. Giannini Place at Seventh and Olive streets got the nod for Shiniest Lobby Floor in 1989. It was a lovely space, but then it closed and remained shuttered for well more than a decade under the control of an absentee landlord. The former bank headquarters was finally sold, transformed and returned to life this past January. As the NoMad hotel, the Financial District property once again has plenty of shine.

Another former winner reveals even more of a change. The inaugural Best of Downtown gave the Best Lobby Globe designation to the commanding centerpiece in the First Street entrance of the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times. The globe is beautiful and stately today, but how long it will remain there is in question now that the paper has decamped to El Segundo.