Discover the Hidden Gems of Koreatown

Koreatown's fascinating gems—some truly hidden and others that contain intrigue and wonder

Within three square miles, the streets of Koreatown comprise a most eclectic urban landscape where neon signs in Korean mix with various types of architecture providing clues to a multi-faceted history—from art deco to Spanish and Renaissance revival to Moorish and modern. Multi-level shopping malls are markers in between small shops, and modern and traditional Korean restaurants in LA offer places where not everything is as it seems. Among it all are fascinating gems—some truly hidden and others that contain intrigue and wonder.

Aroma Spa & Sports | Photo: @yoohanbinpro, Instagram
Aroma Spa & Sports | Photo: @yoohanbinpro, Instagram

Aroma Spa & Sports

Aroma Spa & Sports isn’t your typical Korean spa in Koreatown. Who knew you can practice your golf swing in the middle of the city? LA's largest semi-indoor golf range is located in the heart of Koreatown. The 150-yard fairway is accessible from four levels with 15 tee stations on each level with state-of-the-art computer-automated systems. Choose to go at your own pace or hire an in-house pro instructor. Take a break at the juice bar and relaxation lounge. The golf range is open to the public, but is part of a membership “preferred” club that is part of a 336,000 square-foot shopping complex that includes fitness, spa, shopping and dining.

Cafe Jack | Instagram by @mrkmrkx
Cafe Jack | Instagram by @mrkmrkx

Cafe Jack

Pushed back behind gates on Western is one man’s tribute to the Titanic—the movie, that is—a ship set on the back of large lot just south of 5th Street. And so it goes, the name of the "ship" is a reference to Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the movie. Owner Jack Shin built the restaurant/karaoke bar in 2007. It’s a maze of various sized rooms, patios, and hidden areas full of memorabilia and kitsch. The eclectic menu includes sushi, ramen, pasta, shakes, and a big selection of coffee, tea and desserts. Beer and soju are the only alcohol options. The food isn’t really the thing here—it’s the experience. You can even get your tarot cards read.

Dwit Gol Mok | Photo: Postmates
Dwit Gol Mok | Photo: Postmates

Dwit Gol Mok

Dwit Gol Mok means “back alley” in Korean, which is fitting considering you’d never stumble upon this hidden dive-bar/restaurant unless someone told you it was there. Those in the know call it DGM for short. The "front door" on Wilshire with a Korean neon sign is considered a back door, but on occasion is open. The real entrance is through a small, nondescript door in the parking lot at Caffe Bene on Berendo. Those who’ve been to Korea say it’s the closest thing to an authentic bar - dim lighting, cement graffiti walls, posters, wood seating, and K-Pop blaring. The menus are in Korean, but English is available upon request. Go for the soju, seafood pancakes, corn cheese, kimchee stew, spicy chicken wings, and watermelon with soju. And if you’re a fan of gochujang (red chili paste), it’s smothered on everything. Orders before 8 p.m. are half off.

Festival de Moles at Guelaguetza | Photo: Guelaguetza
Festival de Moles at Guelaguetza | Photo: Guelaguetza

Guelaguetza Restaurant

Located just down the street from the Korean Pavilion, you’ll find Guelaguetza—one of the best Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles and a 2015 James Beard award-winner in the “American Classic” category. The large corner building is immediately recognizable by the impressive murals on the sides of its burnt orange exterior walls and the Asian-style tile roof. The Lopez family opened their establishment, which specializes in Oaxacan cuisine, in 1994. It is noteworthy not only for its food and drink, but as a non-Korean business that embraces the community and recognizes the significant Latino population in the area. Don’t miss the tamales with mole Negro sauce and soak up the ambience while sipping mezcal and listening to live music.

Hotel Normandie | Photo: Hotel Normandie

Hotel Normandie LA

Although boldly visible at the corner of 6th and Normandie, Hotel Normandie ranks in this category for its history and status as a 1926 City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument landmark, while the restaurants and bars inside are among the most unique in the area. The Renaissance Revival style hotel operated for 90 years and hosted many famous people, including English novelist Malcolm Lowry who wrote a good part of Under the Volcano while residing there. By 2011, the hotel was nearly in ruins with unsavory sorts staying in the rooms, but was then sold and underwent a multi-million dollar restoration through crowd-funding and was rebuilt to current code according to the original design.

The Normandie is now a destination hotel with four distinct dining/drinking “gems”: Cassell’s Hamburgers—an update of the original 1948 diner that was moved to this location; Le Comptoir—Chef Gary Menes’ nine-seat counter restaurant serving an eight-course vegetable-inspired tasting menu with optional wine pairing; and The Normandie Club—a moody cocktail den serving classic cocktails with a twist.

Koreatown Pavilion Garden | Photo: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
Koreatown Pavilion Garden | Photo: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Koreatown Pavilion Garden

Every day, thousands drive past the 5,000 square-foot traditional Korean gazebo with a small garden on the northeast corner of Olympic and Irolo, west of Normandie, on a daily basis without knowing anything about it. Officially called Da Wool Jung ("harmonious gathering place"), the Koreatown Pavilion Garden was built by South Korean craftsmen at a cost of $695,000 and opened in January 2006. Although Korean immigrants started arriving a century ago, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Koreatown became a cultural center, marked by a grocery store that stood across from the Pavilion. Constructed from pine and painted in traditional shades of green, rust and red, the open-air pavilion is topped by an upswept-tiled roof. A bit removed from traffic, it’s a part of Koreatown history where one can sit, unwind, and contemplate.

Break Room 86 | Photo: Houston Hospitality
Break Room 86 | Photo: Houston Hospitality

The Line Hotel

There are hidden gems throughout the uber-hip LINE Hotel, a modern, industrial property at Wilshire and Normandie. Josiah Citrin's greenhouse restaurant, Openaire is discreetly located on the roof next to the swimming pool. Shepard Fairey's 10-story Peace Tree mural covers an entire eastern wall, while Look Into My Eyes by D*Face is tucked beneath a ledge off Ardmore Avenue. Located by the lobby elevators, Poketo is a design-forward lifestyle store with innovative, artist-driven home goods, clothing, stationery, jewelry and accessories.

Hidden at the back of the hotel is Break Room 86 from L.A. nightlife impresarios, the Houston Brothers. Step through the secret entrance off Ardmore and it’s the 1980s all over again with private karaoke rooms and VHS cassette menus, vintage arcade games, a wall of old TVs, boom boxes, high school lockers, vending machines, and an old school phone booth. Another Houston Brothers creation, the Speek Suite features 1960s-70s décor including a king bed, mid-century fireplace, retro wallpaper, vinyl records and turntable. Their latest project is the Studio 54 / Great Gatsby mashup, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, located in the former POT space.

Shatto 39 Lanes | Photo: @banfhammer, Instagram
Shatto 39 Lanes | Photo: @banfhammer, Instagram

Shatto 39 Lanes

Old school bowling is alive and well at this 39-lane bowling alley that has remained unchanged since opening in 1954—well, except for a new vending machine that is filled with Red Bull, Starbucks iced coffee, and various other energy drinks. Located at Vermont and 4th, it’s certainly not hidden as the beige building with a nod to Googie architecture looms large, but it’s definitely a gem with retro lanes, beige checkered floor, colorful vinyl chairs, 17 billboard tables, arcade games, and a bar and café. It’s open 10a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, except Friday and Saturday when it’s open until 3 a.m.

The Venue | Photo: The Venue
The Venue | Photo: The Venue

The Venue

Although there are many karaoke bars in Los Angeles, the Koreatown bar The Venue is the first of its kind in Los Angeles. Locating it can be a challenge as it's below street level and can only be accessed by a private staircase (once you get your ID checked). The restaurant’s upscale dining room and bar area don't really feel subterranean, since the ceilings are 18 feet high. Choose to dine or imbibe a craft cocktail, or head straight for one of the 13 state-of-the-art karaoke rooms which accommodate 2 to 50 people and are priced by the hour. The seasonal menus for both dining and karaoke features primarily American bistro cuisine with an emphasis on shared plates. Reservations recommended.