Getting into the restaurant business is a notoriously volatile prospect. Fickle customers and rising real estate and wage costs continuously fuel the high turnover rates of eateries in culinary hubs like Los Angeles. With nearly 30,000 restaurants around the city, the scene never eases up on its cutthroat competition and slim profit margins, and the social restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have only made the situation more dire.
“All the normal heartbeats of business are gone. You’re predicting,” said Chris Patterson, the owner of Spring Street Smokehouse, a barbecue joint on Downtown’s eastside. “Downtown restaurants in general are in a very tough spot.”
Running his business during the pandemic has proven intensely stressful—a kind of blinding roller coaster of confusion. His experiences, mirrored in the countless other restaurants forced to adapt to this constantly shifting public health crisis, are marked by a frustrating lack of direction. Likening the experience to plugging holes in a sinking ship, he fears the worst for businesses in the months to come, saying the myriad of problems fundamentally arise from a “vacuum of leadership” across the board.
“These businesses, like mine, are very specifically set up to sell food in this very specific way,” Patterson said of the switch to a takeout or Postmates-style delivery partnership. “(Changing that is) sort of like asking McDonald’s to be a fine-dining restaurant.”
Without the established infrastructure, local support through to-go and delivery orders may still lead restaurants down the slow march to closure, unable to pull in necessary profits to cover expensive rents and unpredictable ingredient reserves. But other culinary ventures have discovered alternative avenues for success in these changing times.
Brandon Parker, a co-founder of Spread Mediterranean Kitchen, found an entirely new way to use food to connect with the Downtown community during the pandemic. As their flagship Fourth and Main store struggles without indoor dining, their kiosk location at The Gas Co. Towers on W. Fifth Street converted into a takeaway eatery and a limited farmers market.
“We stumbled onto this market model. It forced us to say we need to sell our spreads,” said Parker of the kiosk. “We take the new thing we’re offering and try to make it better every single day.”
This optimism came from a concerted effort to stay connected with the Downtown and greater Los Angeles community—a frankly difficult task during this year of distance. But as outdoor spaces reopen with safe protocols for in-person experiences, now may be the time to rediscover local favorites as they teeter on the edge of an indirect pandemic demise.
Outdoor dining guide
Home-cooked meals and delivery orders brought Angelenos through the last six months, but in-person dining experiences return (again) for reopened, socially distanced outdoor meals. Downtown’s limited space makes patios a bit rarer in the local restaurant landscape, but plenty of fantastic spots have found creative ways to welcome back diners for freshly prepared food.
Listed are some of the best places to eat in LA’s urban core while staying masked and outdoors:
This Middle Eastern highlight comes from the same group that started the massively successful Italian restaurant Bestia. At Bavel, however, the pastas are swapped for hummus, flatbreads and shawarma. The restaurant works out of a renovated warehouse near the Arts District, one with an especially large outdoor space ready to welcome back diners to its off-kilter assortment of innovative takes on a variety of classic dishes.
Bavel, 500 Mateo Street, 213-232-4966, baveldtla.com
These self-described “street taco aficionados” made waves when starting as a food cart serving upscale tasting dishes on Downtown street corners. Since then, the restaurant found a permanent space, but it never stopped consistently combining the cutting edge of culinary culture with the reliable, familiar flavors Angelenos love from Mexican staples across the city. Stop by at any time of the day for a different menu service or check out the custom at-home taco kits to bring the taste with you.
Guerrilla Tacos, 2000 E. Seventh Street, 213-375-3300, guerrillatacos.com
Just blocks away from City Hall, Redbird’s outdoor patio provides a perfect space to enjoy modern American fine dining. While the signature renovated church space can’t operate at full capacity, the happening restaurant still offers impressive brunch and dinner fare alongside its renowned signature cocktails. As the world slowly reopens, keep this place in mind for pretheater meals or after an afternoon Broad visit.
Redbird, 114 E. Second Street, 213-788-1191, redbird.la
No one can deny the ubiquity of Koreatown’s signature barbecue, but Downtown hosts another East Asian style equally worthy of international attention—Cantonese. RiceBox brings the distinct flavors of southern China with selections like the char siu (barbecued pork) and mapo eggplant. Though still committed to authentic flavors, the restaurant also puts special effort toward selecting fresh, high-quality, usually organic ingredients for all its dishes.
RiceBox, 541 S. Spring Street, Suite 131, 213-988-7395, ricebox.net
Spread Mediterranean Kitchen
Part Mediterranean lunch spot, part farmers market. Spread partners with local farms to bring fresh produce to Downtown with a pop-up market—one that also features their namesake homemade spreads. The market also features free delivery for those in the Downtown area, keeping the shop locally connected and dedicated to providing good food whatever the circumstances may be.
Spread Mediterranean Kitchen, 555 W. Fifth Street, 213-537-0284, spreadkitchen.com
Spring Street Smokehouse
Serving up barbecue classics from brisket, to ribs, to Texas sausage, Spring Street Smokehouse recently received city permission to extend its outdoor seating onto the street and sidewalk. With the extra space, the restaurant is serving up a full menu of its slow-cooked fare, all topped with its special Carolina-style sauce.
Spring Street Smokehouse, 640 N. Spring Street, 213-626-0535, sssmokehouse.com
As a local chain and staple for big breakfasts, casual brunches and professional lunches, Urth Caffé’s Downtown location benefits from a relatively large patio, at least by the neighborhood’s standards. With distancing in place, customers can once again enjoy the large menu of sandwiches, salads, bowls and pastries alongside Urth’s extensive coffee and tea selection.
Urth Caffé, 459 S. Hewitt Street, 213-797-4534, urthcaffe.com