It’s Friday at midnight in LA’s Koreatown…
The electric energy and glittering nightlife of K-Town light up the early morning hours.
Words: Michael Hafford
Images: Tanveer Badal
In a city full of Art Deco masterpieces, LA’s Pellissier Building holds a particular stature. Its faceted, celadon form reaches 12 majestic stories, making it the city’s tallest privately owned building when it was unveiled as a cinema in 1931. Almost a century later, the Pellissier, now a concert hall called The Wiltern, is still a flame to which the city’s night-crawlers flock as they traverse this neon-lit section of Wilshire Boulevard.
The Pellissier is much like the environs in which it stands, Koreatown. Its audiences and K-Town’s inhabitants skew young — the affordable rents and plentiful entertainment foster that — but it also tells an older story, a story about a neighborhood that was one of Los Angeles’ first, a story that continues to unfold.
LA began life as a series of hamlets connected by cable cars, the old money concentrated in its downtown and the surrounding areas of Hancock Park and Pasadena. Located three miles west of downtown, Koreatown was a middle- and upper-middle-class residential area with a handful of landmarks like the Brown Derby restaurant and the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, a celebrity hangout and Academy Awards venue in the 1930s.
As the city spread out along its freeways, much of its wealth decentralized even farther from downtown, making way for immigrant families from Mexico, El Salvador, and Korea to slowly transform the neighborhood — now the most densely populated in all of Los Angeles — into the vibrant scene that exists today. It’s a vibe nurtured by its uniquely diverse array of residents and public transportation in a city notorious for its car culture. (A total of four K-Town subway stations make getting around easy, while a fifth line down its primary artery — Wilshire Boulevard — will soon extend another nine miles westward.)
Between its Deco architecture, the ease of mass transit, and the trilingual symphony you hear on its avenues, Angelenos are realizing, yet again, that Koreatown is a palm-lined gem in the center of the city. And for many this discovery is made at night, when Koreatown beckons with an unmatched variety of dive bars, speakeasies, and karaoke clubs, not to mention 24-hour spas to chase away the inevitable hangover.
Like the Pellissier, The Line hotel has undergone its own reinvention. Built in 1964 and rebranded in 2014 by local legend and Korean chef Roy Choi, it is unquestionably the after-dark hub of Koreatown. Pot, its lobby bar, slings potent Slurricanes alongside expense-account bottle service, while a line to get in weaves around the corner. Found through the hotel’s loading dock, Breakroom 86 nods to the area’s most beloved activity, karaoke. It pulses with an all-’80s playlist and a live band complete with Michael Jackson impersonator.
Just a block away, the opulent Hotel Normandie, another Jazz Age rethink, lures the late set with no less than four options: secret-door lounge, retro burger joint, high-concept French boîte, and clubby cocktail bar. These recent arrivals are joined by foodie-minded karaoke den The Venue, glamorous, nuevo-Latin-meets-Korean eatery Terra Cotta, and rowdy, SoCal-style bistro Here’s Looking At You. Of course, these newcomers have to compete with neighborhood mainstays and the best traditional Korean fare this side of Busa: Park’s BBQ’s grill-it-yourself Kobe beef, Sun Nong Dan’s comforting stews, and Myung In Dumplings, a mandu mecca.
After that, anyone looking to continue the festivities can either search for that elusive 4 am soju happy hour or dip into a late-night spa like Wi or Natura, which is tucked into the basement of Wilshire’s gleaming, I. Magnin department store building, circa 1939.
And for those looking to fully detox come sunrise, the Koreatown Run Club meets every Saturday morning outside the The Line. (It’s organized by the guys behind Instagram handle @koreatown.) One of the founders, Mike Pak, wanted to make a small contribution to bring the community closer together. “We all party hard,” he says, “but we all come together once a week to work out.”
And that’s a good thing — because Saturday has only just begun.
4 Hot Spots to Hit
Accessed through a hidden entrance on The Line hotel’s loading dock, this bar puts a 1980s spin on K-Town karaoke.
Here’s Looking At You
This Asian-inflected bistro, nestled into a low-slung Deco building, encourages splurging on the $26 mai tais.
Housed in a 1927 apartment tower, its horseshoe bar has cameo’ed in New Girl and Mad Men, but the real star here is the Korean fried chicken.
The 24/7 spa offers a two-hour Korean service of milk body scrub, aromatherapy, and gold powder to eliminate all traces of debauchery.