Chinatown: The Story of an L.A. Icon

The historic neighborhood is experiencing a dining and nightlife renaissance

Central Plaza in Chinatown

 |  Photo:  Yuri Hasegawa

Chinatown is one of L.A.'s most popular tourist destinations, located in Downtown L.A. near the city's civic and cultural center. Travelers may be confused by the "New Chinatown" mural that marks the neighborhood's Central Plaza, but there's a story behind that. L.A.'s first Chinatown was located where Union Station is now. In the early 1930s, the old enclave was razed in favor of L.A.'s major train terminal, and in June 1938 a new Chinatown celebrated its grand opening not far from where the original neighborhood stood. New Chinatown became a significant part of both local and national history - it's the first such neighborhood in the U.S. that was actually owned by Chinese residents.

I had been heading to Chinatown for years to hang out and sometimes DJ at the local venues. In late 2012, I became a resident. After settling into the neighborhood, I started to notice the ebb and flow of foot traffic, which is always at its thickest around lunch and dinner.

Dim sum at Ocean Seafood | Photo: @ijohnny33, Instagram

Dim sum at Ocean Seafood | Photo: @ijohnny33, Instagram

A Mecca for Food

In Chinatown, a mix of new and old restaurants caters to every palate. You can find dim sum at Ocean Seafood, an extensive selection of soups at Pho Broadway, and tasty banh mi at Golden Lake Eatery

Bing Eggs with Smoked Trout Roe at Majordomo

Bing Eggs with Smoked Trout Roe at Majordomo

 |  Photo: Joshua Lurie

After famed chef and Kogi BBQ Truck founder Roy Choi opened a Chego shop in Far East Plaza in May 2013, the neighborhood's reputation for good eats increased enormously. In the last several years, other foodie faves have moved into the neighborhood, too. Eddie Huang, whose memoir Fresh Off the Boat inspired the TV show of the same name, recently opened Baohaus, also in Far East Plaza. In January 2018, David Chang (of Momofuku fame) opened his first West Coast restaurant, Majordomo on Naud Street.

Surf & Turf Po'boy at The Little Jewel of New Orleans

Surf & Turf Po'boy at The Little Jewel of New Orleans

 |  Photo: Joshua Lurie

The cuisine in Chinatown goes beyond pan-Asian fare. Folks are lining up for fried chicken at Howlin' Rays. Over at Burgerlords, the grill is fired for both meat lovers and vegans, while Little Jewel of New Orleans serves po' boys in a market full of Southern snacks and drinks that are hard to find in Los Angeles.

Philippe the Original French Dip pickled eggs

French Dip with pickled eggs at Philippe the Original

 |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Early birds should stop by Philippe The Original, a local institution that's beloved for its iconic French Dip sandwiches, but also serves a mean classic American breakfast. A Chinatown staple since 1938, Phoenix Bakery is beloved for their strawberry and whipped cream birthday cakes. Or, you can go to Wonder Bakery in Central Plaza, for a variety of sweet and savory pastries. Night owls will want to head to Full House Seafood on Hill Street, which is open late into the night.  

Photo: Chinese American Museum, Facebook

Photo: Chinese American Museum, Facebook

Chinese American Museum

Food is undoubtedly part of Chinatown's local acclaim, but the restaurants are far from the only reason to visit. History buffs will want to start their trip at the Chinese American Museum (CAM), located just outside of Chinatown at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The museum is housed in the Garnier Building, the oldest surviving Chinese building in a major metropolitan area of California.

Twin Dragon Gateway in Chinatown | Photo: Chains of Pace, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Twin Dragon Gateway in Chinatown | Photo: Chains of Pace, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Twin Dragon Gateway

From CAM, it's a short walk to the twin dragon gateway on Broadway that welcomes visitors. But, know that you can learn a lot more about Chinatown once you venture into the neighborhood.

Bruce Lee statue in Chinatown's Central Plaza | Photo: @yagoddamnright

Bruce Lee statue in Chinatown's Central Plaza | Photo: @yagoddamnright

Central Plaza

A massive statue of Bruce Lee has become a must-photograph site in Chinatown's Central Plaza. The late martial arts star once had a studio in Chinatown at 628 W. College St.

Realm in Chinatown's Central Plaza | Photo: Art Salon Chinatown

Realm in Chinatown's Central Plaza | Photo: Art Salon Chinatown

Home decor shop Realm tells the building's story through photos on its walls. Years earlier, this was Hong Kong Cafe, a restaurant that became an important cornerstone in the city's punk rock history. You'll even find a photo of L.A. punk icon Alice Bag hanging on the wall. 

Dragon Chasing Pearl mural (1941) by Tyrus Wong

Dragon Chasing Pearl mural (1941) by Tyrus Wong

 |  Photo: Daniel Djang

Nearby is the Dragon Chasing Pearl mural originally painted in 1941 by Tyrus Wong. The legendary artist, who passed away in December 2016 at age 106, was renowned for his work in film, particularly as the lead artist on Disney's Bambi.

Photo: Charlie James Gallery, Facebook

Photo: Charlie James Gallery, Facebook

Art Galleries

For years, Chung King Road has been an L.A. art hub. The small courtyard tucked in off Hill Street is home to a number of noted galleries, such as Charlie James Gallery, The Good Luck Galleryand Coagula Curatorial. Galleries have been moving into other parts of Chinatown as well, like Eastern Projects under the Blossom Apartments on Broadway and College.

Untitled portrait by Vhils in Chinatown | Photo by Liz Ohanesian

Untitled portrait by Vhils in Chinatown | Photo by Liz Ohanesian

Street Art

Take some time to check out the street art too, like an untitled portrait by Portuguese artist Vhils (Alexandre Farto) at 759 N. Spring Street. A second mural by Vhils is located a block away at 837 N. Spring St. facing N. New High Street.

For a very different style of art, visit Velveteria, located on New High Street, to check out a massive collection of unusual velvet paintings.

General Lee's in Chinatown

Photo: General Lee's

Nightlife

At General Lee's, you can sip craft cocktails, listen to live jazz and catch local DJs on the decks. The Grand Star Jazz Club, where this writer sometimes DJs, hosts a variety of live band and dance nights. Located on Hill Street across from Central Plaza, Melody Lounge has an extensive beer list, full bar and a calendar packed with events. Opened on Spring Street in January 2018, the speakeasy-style Apotheke features a “prescription list” of cocktails made by bartenders in pharmacist coats. In March 2018, Highland Park Brewery opened a 9,000 square-foot taproom across from Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Chinatown Summer Nights | Photo: KCRW

Chinatown Summer Nights | Photo: KCRW

Festivals

Chinatown hosts block party-style events throughout the year, like the music and food truck Chinatown Summer Nights and the annual Moon Festival. The biggest event, though, is Lunar New Year. Celebrations include the Golden Dragon Parade and Chinese New Year Festival along with the L.A. Chinatown Firecracker bike ride and run. If you're in L.A., these events are a good way to get a taste of L.A.'s cultural diversity.

Metro Bike Share at the Gold Line Chinatown station

Metro Bike Share at the Gold Line Chinatown station | Photo: vtpoly, Flickr

Getting There

Those traveling without a car will be pleased to know that Chinatown is easily accessible by public transportation. The Metro Gold Line drops off visitors and residents about a block away from Central Plaza via the Chinatown station. The neighborhood is a short walk from Union Station and is accessible by multiple buses that travel along Broadway and Hill Street. Want to cycle through the neighborhood? Metro also has several Bike Share stations in Chinatown.