I saw a lot of things working at Water Grill more than a decade ago, but I never saw a late-night dinner rush on a Sunday.
Working the early dinner rush at my family's downtown Los Angeles restaurant in the fall of 1999 could be a harrowing experience. Like a wave off the jetty of one of Southern California's beach breaks, Water Grill's penchant for serving formal dinners in a rather leisurely time frame was smacking up against the effects of the recently opened Staples Center, which brought in guests looking to get in and get out in time for the 7:30 Lakers game tip-off.
Combine that with a pre-theater rush, and you had a restaurant that at 6:45 p.m. could be in full panic mode and an hour later felt like the air had been let out of it.
All of which left me dumbfounded on a recent dinner visit when I witnessed a steady stream of people rolling through the front door at 9:45 p.m. On a Sunday night. Welcome to downtown Los Angeles 2013.
The story of downtown L.A.'s revitalization might be framed in my mind by seafood, but for someone like me, who grew up in the city, the food metaphor associated with the area's nighttime activity was something a little less healthy: a donut.
The Westside had its glitz and glamour; Hollywood could be seedy but always had a nightlife; the Valley teemed with its suburban neighborhoods and strip malls; the San Gabriel Valley had its odd mix of old-line Pasadena wealth and a Chinese immigrant population that infused the area with activity; and the South Bay remained closest to the prototypical Southern California experience of beaches by day, local bars by night.
But downtown was a pretty quiet place after the offices emptied out.
After years of false starts and billions of dollars in investments, though, downtown appears to have hit upon that quixotic mix of old-school authenticity and new-school buzz that's drawn in locals and tourists alike. With the $2.5 billion L.A. Live entertainment and retail district built out between 2007 and 2010, downtown appears to be getting a bigger chunk of the region's estimated 41 million overnight and day visitors.
Even more telling is the jump in the district's residential numbers. Between 2006 and 2011, downtown's residential population jumped almost 60%, to more than 45,000 residents, according to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.
In fact, in 2009, the area received the ultimate validation in this star-struck town: a movie, "(500) Days of Summer," that among other things, celebrated living in downtown Los Angeles, with the area's batch of century-old buildings providing much of the backdrop.
As a result, hotels are playing catch-up (see related story, "Hotel surge reflects renaissance in downtown Los Angeles.").
With an inventory that was largely stagnant for the better part of two decades, downtown Los Angeles added the dual-branded JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton in 2010 to boost its room total by about a fourth, to some 5,000 rooms. It is slated to add another 1,500 rooms by 2017.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned late dinner rush at Water Grill.
Facing declining sales, the restaurant was gutted as thoroughly as the fish it serves, then reopened about a year ago. Out went the white tablecloths, classic jazz soundtrack, many of the booths and a bar that was separated from the rest of the dining room. In went wooden-topped tables, contemporary -- even rock -- tunes, a relaxed dress code and flat-screen TVs at the bar (which, had they been there during my days as a manager, would have made me even less productive, if that's even possible).
Of course, catering to the changing face of downtown won't please everyone. A visit to Water Grill's Yelp page will reveal the occasional complaint about the higher noise level and the sports games on the TVs. Hey, it's Yelp.
But as downtown's resurgence has proven, there's safety in numbers. While far from inexpensive, the restaurant revamped its menu to match the dining room's less formal vibe, resulting in a 10% drop in the average check. But that's been more than offset by about a 70% jump in guest counts, pushing business up about 60% compared with the pre-remodel days.
And that's no fish story. Contact Danny King at email@example.com.