It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Downtown LA exudes holiday charm.

Christmas decorations inside the Millennium Biltmore Hotel across Olive Street from Pershing Square. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Shopping centers and theme parks across the southland are decked out for the holidays with patrons enjoying the full color spectrum of sparkling lights, forests of Christmas trees, and ornaments of every shape and fashion. The Christmas decor at Disneyland, South Coast Plaza, and The Grove are as grand and extravagant as anywhere. By contrast, in Downtown Los Angeles, still in the youth of rebirth, holiday decorations are fewer, farther between and more modest in scale, but with this comes the unexpected charm of discovery that larger holiday displays may not deliver. The giant professional displays are enjoyable, but the understated scale of many downtown displays have a certain sincere quality, which feels less commercial and more authentic.

Some of downtown’s good cheer is easy to spot. The red and green lights atop the US Bank Tower are seen for miles, but discovering other pockets of decorations may require some searching out. Colored lights can be found filling the sky in some unexpected places.

Here are a few places to discover and enjoy some holiday spirit while downtown.

The Old Bank District

A short walk from the Civic Center/Grand Park or Pershing Square Metro stations (both the Red and Purple Lines stop here) in the Old Bank District section of the Historic Core is an intensly Instagramable light display. Above Fourth Street, between Spring and Main strands of lights stretched across the road form a lovely tunnel of lavender-blue lights. The simple, single colored light display is completely striking. Approaching from Main or Spring, there is no sign of what you’re about to see until you turn the corner onto to Fourth. Even if you can’t make into the area on foot, which is the best way to see it, it is at least worth taking a detour to drive under the lights.

The holiday light display above Fourth Street in the Old Bank District of downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Douglas de Wet

While you are in the area to take in the lights on Fourth Street, be sure to take in the lights and decorations around the corner on Main Street.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” — Charles Dickens

At the intersection of Fourth and Main, you’ll find a number of excellent dining options, including chef Josef Centeno’s latest restaurant P.Y.T., which shares the space with Ledlow. In the spirit of the holiday, P.Y.T. is an excellent spot to practice compassion through dining.

Looking across Main Street from in front of Ledlow and P.Y.T at the lights above Fourth Street. Photo by Douglas de Wet

P.Y.T. serves primarily vegetarian food from locally sourced seasonal produce even sourcing many items from the biodynamic gardens of The Los Angeles Leadership Academy, referred to on the menu as LALA. Even though P.Y.T.’s focus is on seasonal vegetables, they do not make a fuss about being a vegetarian restaurant or promote a vegetarian lifestyle. The food is served without preaching or pretense, and is delicious and easy to enjoy whether you’re a vegetarian or not.

Green Piri Piri Rice topped with fried egg at P.Y.T. in a Humble Ceramics bowl, at Fourth and Main Street, in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Douglas de Wet

The menu at P.Y.T. is constantly changing based on what’s in season, so from visit to visit, the menu can change dramatically. Some of the favorite dishes we have enjoyed include the Melon and Jicama Salad, Georgian Pizza with Fontina and Wild Mushroom, Baby Butternut Squash, Green Piri Piri Rice. In his recent review for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Gold said the rice was mushy and bland, but both times we had it, it was fragrant and flavorful with bright, fresh herbs. Mr. Gold also just listed P.Y.T.’s slow roasted turnip as one of his 10 favorite restaurant dishes of 2016.

Melon and Jicama salad with persimmon, fresh figs, and pomegranate seeds. Photo by Douglas de Wet

The fresh produce is treated with the utmost respect as the seasoning is performed with a light hand. The appearance and flavors of the vegetables are minimally modified. The food is beautiful, and there are many rich satisfying items to enjoy even if you are a devoted meat eater, and you can feel good about the food as you eat.

“Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.” — Dr. Suess

Also nearby, around the corner of Fourth on Spring St, down the stairs to the right at the entrance to Le Petit Paris in the El Dorado Lofts building, is the recently opened El Dorado cocktail bar. Open at 6 pm, they don’t serve food, but they have excellent happy hour deals every night from opening till 10 pm.

Grand Central Market

A short walk north on Hill St. from Pershing Square and the Pershing Square Metro Station is Grand Central Market. Here you’ll have hundreds of food and drink options to choose from. Even if you’re not in the mood to eat or drink anything Grand Central Market is a lively place to visit with plenty of holiday cheer, and it is a must see while exploring downtown. The Market has entrances on both Hill and Broadway.

“One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.” — Andy Rooney

In addition to an incredible, abundant selection of reasonably priced, top-notch food, Grand Central Market hosts many free, special events year-round. The holiday season is no exception. Their December calendar includes live music, movies, trivia, and even drag queen bingo.

Also check the schedule at the historic Million Dollar Theatre. It is worth the cost of attending an event just to see the inside of this gorgeous theater.

Pershing Square

Probably downtown’s most recognized spot for holiday festivities is Pershing Square. Each November it undergoes a transformation into a Christmastime-winter-wonderland with a family friendly Holiday Ice Skating Rink, and a rainbow of colored lights, and decorations. Lockers and skates can be rented on site.

In addition to ice-skating, which this year runs from early November into mid-January, there are free Lunchtime Concerts on Wednesday and Friday afternoons for the month of December.

After you taken in your fill of holiday cheer at Pershing Square, if you have not injured yourself skating, you can head west across Olive Street to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

From Olive Street you enter Rendezvous Court which leads into the main hallway of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. Here it is dressed for the Christmas season. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Inside the ornately decorated Millennium Biltmore, which has entrances on Olive and Grand, more holiday atmosphere awaits. The Biltmore is stunning year-round, but it is especially charming during the holidays when all the Christmas decorations are up. While inside, be sure to stop in the corridor with historical photographs of events hosted in the hotel ballrooms,including photos from some of the early Academy Awards Banquets.

The decorations inside the main hallway inside the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. Photo by Douglas de Wet
Decorations inside the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Arts District

The Arts District, serviced by the Goldline Arts District/Little Tokyo Metro station, may be the most neighborhood-like neighborhood of the downtown rebirth. Many of the businesses here are locally owned and specialize in local, creative, and handmade goods.

Christmas lights along adorn the fermenting tanks inside Arts District Brewing. Photo by Douglas de Wet

If you’re looking for a festive night out with a group friends or family, and have lot of different tastes to please, Arts District Brewing may be the ticket. Owned by the outstanding downtown pioneer of watering holes, 213 Hospitality, with food, beer, full bar, lots of seating, and games, this is a great spot to visit anytime of year, but it’s an especially nice spot for holiday season. Because it is a large, casual place, with a big variety of reasonably priced food and drinks, it is a great place to plan get togethers with larger groups. It’s easy for people to order on separate tabs and come and go on their own schedule.

Arts District Brewing on Traction shares its space with Fritzi Restaurant and Penny Pound Ice. Photo by Douglas de Wet

While you can order food from Neal Fraser’s Fritzi at the to-go window inside the brewery, there is a more extensive menu available inside the restaurant itself, which is in the same building with a separate entrance out front. The food is tasty, and nothing on the menu is over $20. You order at the counter, but once seated, the servers are very attentive to diner’s needs. Try the Spring Chicken Salad for $12 or their flavorful Rotisserie Chicken. You can get a quarter chicken with a side for $15 or half a chicken with a side for $19. The potato waffle with cheddar is yummy and greasy in a good way, just the thing to soak up some of that booze you’ll be drinking. Fritzi has a full bar, wine, and many of the beers that are available in the brewery can be had here as well.

Sun setting in the Arts District in front of Arts District Brewing on Traction. Photo by Douglas de Wet

If you enjoy gift shopping, and if your budget allows, try to make into the Arts District early enough to enjoy some of downtown’s best Christmas shopping. This is not the best neighborhood for bargains, but it’s home to some of the most beautiful, unique, high quality stores in Los Angeles. Even if you don’t buy, visiting these stores can be inspiring. Along Third Street you’ll find Apolis, Poketo, Alchemy Works, Guerrilla Atelier, the Artbook bookstore at Hauser Wirth and Schimmel, and Hammer and Spear on the corner, across the street from SCI-Arc. Here you will find unique items, many are handmade and/or locally sourced.

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

In the One Santa Fe Building, there are many more shops to explore, including Wittmore, Voyager, and the Hennessey + Ingalls Art and Architecture Bookstore.

On December 18, the final Smorgasburg LA of 2016 will be held at the Wholesale Produce Mart off Alameda. On the 18th, this weekly pop-up, featuring food and shopping, will have a Holiday Market theme.

If you move south along Mateo, there is another light display to be enjoyed on Industrial Street at Mateo, between Church & State and the Little Bear. This display is one of the more surprising light displays downtown. It does not fill the sky as the lights above Fourth Street do, but it is in a much quieter part of town, so it is a completely unexpected joy to happen upon the these snowflakes and icicles.

The lights above Industrial at Mateo between Church & State and the Little Bear. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Hot Drinks to Warm Up With All Around Downtown

Even though winter is no guarantee of chilly weather in Los Angeles, the odds of crisp mornings and cool nights increase with the holiday season. Fortunately, there have never been more outstanding options for cup of java, spot of tea, or hot chocolate while adventuring downtown. Walking outside in the cool Los Angels air with your breath showing and a warm paper cup of steaming hot beverage of choice in your hand while basking in the glow of twinkling lights is a wonderful holiday treat.

Here are few places across downtown to find an excellent hot cup and tasty bites.

Little Tokyo

At Cafe Dulce you can enjoy your coffee or tea with unique selection of sweet and savory pastries. Give the chewy and not too sweet Dinosaur Egg or Tapioca Roll a try.

Cafe Demitasse in addition to their excellent coffee drinks, they do some mean hot chocolate.

The Arts District

At Blacktop Coffee, less is more. The menu is tight, but the quality of the coffee and eats is top notch. As a bonus, on most Fridays, Guerrilla Tacos can be found parked in front from 10 am to 2 pm.

You can shop for bikes and bike gear and have your bike repaired while drinking an outstanding cup at The Wheelhouse. The address is Sixth Street, but it is set back the road, so it is difficult to see without walking or pulling in.

Stumptown Coffee while you enjoy your cup, you watch them roasting the beans. Their hot coffee drinks are excellent, and they usually have three or four iced coffee options on tap.

Freshly roasted beans packaged to take home at Stumptown. Photo by Douglas de Wet

American Tea Room an outstanding variety of teas to enjoy here or to take home in a tranquil setting.

Serving out of a repurposed shipping container, Shreebs Coffee is a fun spot to pick up a cup. You can browse the clothing and jewelry in the shipping container next door or chill at one of their picnic tables.

Housed in the former Handsome Coffee location, San Francisco transplant Blue Bottle also has an Arts District outpost. Across the street is Zinc Cafe, which is an all day vegetarian restaurant with a to-go market and a lovely bar space called Bar Mateo.

Continuing in the Arts District, just up the corner from Stumptown is the superb Bread Lounge. While this is definitely first and foremost a bakery, their coffee is great too.

The Historic Core

Inside Grand Central Market, your caffeine needs can be served by G&B. In 2014, the New York Times suggested they may make the best iced latte in the United States, but you can’t go wrong whatever you order here. In addition to hot and cold coffee and tea, their coffee milkshake is a popular item.

Spring for Coffee the coffee is tasty, but the space is small, just a few outside seats. Be prepared to get your coffee to go.

Verve Coffee Roasters on Spring Street has a lovely patio, solid coffee and tea, wifi and and assortment of juices to boot.

Tierra Mia is also on Spring, and their Horchata Latte is a winner, but seating here is also quite limited.

In Need of Holiday Cheer

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it.” — Pope Francis

After such a long and divisive election, many feel that 2016 was one mutha of a year. There was a tremendous volume of venom spewed, and it appears to have blinded many who were poisoned by it. No matter where your politics fall on spectrum, you probably spent some time feeling angry with at least one candidate and maybe you’ve been frustrated with some of your fellow countrymen for who they support or opposed.

“Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.” — Charles M. Schulz

On November 7, KPCC’s Air Talk hosted by Larry Mantle ran a segment called “More than polarized — hatred in America in 2016,” in which they compared and today’s divisions with some of our historically most troubled times, including the Civil War time and the Gilded Age. When one guest explained that things were much worse during the Civil War, the another guest pointed out that was not saying much.

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.” — Benjamin Franklin

My liberal leaning Facebook feed has been flooded with forcasts of dark days ahead, including a story shared by Bill Moyers lamenting: “American died on Nov. 8.” With so many dark warnings, it feels nice to illuminate some of the darkness some some beautiful Christmas light displays.

“Kindness is the light that dissolves all walls between souls, families, and nations.”―Paramahansa Yogananda

The majority of Angelinos and Californians were hoping for a different outcome. If you were happy with the outcome, then you are already in the mood to celebrate. For the others, on the bright side, if we don’t all die in a nuclear apocalypse, people of all political persuasions still have a lot to look forward to over the coming years. Many of the things we enjoy have not been taken from us. We are still free to spend time with friends and loved ones and improve ourselves as we see fit; in addition, trouble times often inspire great art and lots of comedy.

“We have to reach out to each other. To forgive each other. To let the light of our good deeds shine for all. To care for the sick, the hungry, and the downtrodden. And, of course, to love one another. Even our enemies.” — President Barack Obama

We can use some holiday cheer, love, and compassion more than ever. While holiday cheer can be experienced wherever people create it, downtown Los Angles is a great place to share the spirit of Christmas with family, friends, and strangers.

“God bless us, every one!” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Happy Holidays! Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year!