Chinatown: The Story of an LA Icon

The historic neighborhood is experiencing a dining and nightlife renaissance

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

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.

Broadway Cuisine in Chinatown
Broadway Cuisine in Chinatown | Photo: Michelle Y, Yelp

A Mecca for Food

In Chinatown, a mix of new and old restaurants caters to every palate. You can enjoy dim sum at Golden Dragon, traditional favorites at Hop Woo, Chiu Chow style noodles at Kim Chuy, and a massive 242-item menu at Broadway Cuisine, which opened in August 2021 in the former Plum Tree Inn space. There's also comforting soup bowls at the cash-only Pho 87 and tasty banh mi at Golden Lake Eatery Cambodian Restaurant.

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. (Choi closed Chego in April 2019.) In the last several years, other foodie faves have moved into the neighborhood, too. In January 2018, David Chang (of Momofuku fame) opened his first West Coast restaurant, Majordomo on Naud Street.

Uni & Hamachi Tostadas at Angry Egrette Dinette in Chinatown
Uni & Hamachi Tostadas at Angry Egrette Dinette | Photo: @angryegretdinette, Instagram

At Angry Egrette Dinette, former Guerrilla Tacos chef Wes Avila features an Alta California style menu with favorites like the PuPu Platter, hearty tortas, breakfast burritos and specials like uni & hamachi tostadas. Folks keep lining up for Nashville hot chicken at Howlin' Rays, while Little Jewel of New Orleans serves po' boys in a market full of Southern snacks and drinks that are hard to find in LA. For burger fans, there's Amboy Quality Meats from Eggslut founder Alvin Cailan; and Burgerlords, where the grill is fired for both meat lovers and vegans.

Philippe the Original French Dip pickled eggs
French Dip with pickled eggs at Philippe the Original  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa
Nick's Famous Ham N Eggs at Nick's Cafe in Chinatown
Nick's Famous Ham N Eggs | Photo: Nick's Cafe

Early birds should stop by Philippe The Original, an LA institution that's beloved for its iconic French Dip sandwiches, but also serves a mean classic American breakfast. Opened in 1948, Nick's Cafe is located across from Los Angeles State Historic Park and a local favorite for the signature Nick's Famous Ham N Eggs, weekend-only "Great Eight Benedicts," and Diner Monster Dogs.

Launched in March 2020, Thank You Coffee is a hidden gem pop-up tucked inside Paper Please in Central Plaza. Specialty drinks include the MSG-infused Five Spice Latte, house-roasted Hojicha Latte, and the You're Welcome Latte, made with espresso, smoked black tea syrup (lapsang souchong from Fujian, China), chicory pecan bitters and oat milk.

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 on weekends.

Photo: Chinese American Museum, Facebook
Photo: Chinese American Museum, Facebook

Chinese American Museum

Food is undoubtedly part of Chinatown's 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. Of course, you can learn much more about Chinatown once you venture into the neighborhood.

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

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.

"Dragon Chasing Pearl" mural in Chinatown by Tyrus Wong
"Dragon Chasing Pearl" (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 and Tierra del Sol Gallery. 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 St.

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 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.

Wine fans should check out Oriel Chinatown, which opened in the shadow of the Gold Line in October 2017; or visit nearby Angeleno Wine on weekends for wine tastings, glasses of wine and bottles to go.

KCRW Summer Nights at Chinatown Central Plaza
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. Experience LA's cultural diversity in Chinatown during Lunar New Year and beyond.

Metro Bike Share at the L Line (Gold) Chinatown station
Metro Bike Share at the L Line (Gold) 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 L Line (Gold) 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.