LOS ANGELES – Years ago in another time, the wealthy residents of Bunker Hill would venture down from their Victorian mansions above the city to do their shopping on the streets below.
They made the short trip on Angels Flight, the iconic funicular rail cars which united hillside homes with the city’s busy shopping district.
While Angels Flight is temporarily out of commission and the Victorian mansions have long since disappeared, the Grand Central Market, which first opened in 1917, is attracting a new generation of shoppers who appreciate the energy and the spirit that have always made these public gathering places an inseparable part of civic life.
I recently ventured into the market and found many impressive changes since my last visit, which was at least 40 years ago.
These days, the market still has its purveyors of fruits and vegetables, fish and meats, but it has added some new “foodie” stalls, where you can enjoy a variety of cuisines from Chinese, Thai and Mexican to deli and oysters, and everything in between. (The complete list of vendors and foods is found at www.grandcentralmarket.com.
) It’s all classic “marketplace,” where one rubs shoulders with a cross-section of the city to enjoy a rich offering of foods.
Grand Central Market owes its rebirth to two people who years ago adopted Los Angeles as their home – the late Ira Yellin, a Harvard-trained attorney with an abiding interest in urban planning, and his wife, Adele, who previously worked in residential design but is now busy managing the market following her husband’s passing in 2002.
Pursuing his devotion to urban preservation, Ira Yellin purchased the market as well as two other historic buildings: the Million Dollar Theater next door, and the Bradbury Building across the street. The theater, incidentally, was opened in 1918 and once welcomed the likes of Charlie Chaplin.
Adele Yellin greets me in her spacious office in the Bradbury Building, a circa-1893 Victorian masterpiece lovingly restored by her husband and used more recently as a setting for Hollywood films like Blade Runner; the Academy Award-winning silent flick The Artist; Chinatown; Lethal Weapon 4; and Wolf with Jack Nicholson.
Bountiful sunlight filters through the Bradbury’s glass ceiling, while an open-cage elevator slowly carries me upstairs under the guiding hand of a uniformed doorman. I can’t think of a better introduction to the renewal of downtown Los Angeles! “You talk to any Angeleno,” Yellin tells me, “and you will find that they have some connection to the market.
“It’s been around so long. Their grandparents used to bring them, or their parents did; but then, you know, everything moved out of downtown towards the Westside, towards the Valley, and basically the city sort of decayed… the interior of the city.”
But thanks to the Yellins, this process has been reversed, with the added ingredient of efforts to encourage people to actually live downtown, rather than just come here to shop.
Adele explains that her husband converted the empty offices above the market and the Million Dollar Theater into apartments – a fateful step in downtown’s continued growth.
“That was the beginning of the new wave of apartments in downtown Los Angeles,” Adele says.
“That’s how downtown started getting this huge population increase.
There are at least 50,000, maybe 60,000, and it’s going to about 100,000 [people] over the next year or two.”
And who are these new downtowners? “They’re coming from all over,” says Yellin, who points to baby boomers “giving up their bigger homes and moving downtown to be near more of the cultural things that are happening in downtown LA.”
The cultural trappings of Bunker Hill include the Los Angeles Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the soon-to-open Broad Museum.
Then there are the members of the Millennial Generation, who live somewhere else but work downtown during the week.
I saw a lot of them eating at the market’s food stalls, obviously enjoying both the food and the ambiance. I assumed that most of them must be employed in the new high-rise office buildings that reach up into the downtown skyline.
Then there are the tourists, obviously drawn to downtown for a walk through the market plus a bite to eat.
“It’s like a cross-section of the world,” says Adele. “It’s sort of a reflection of what Los Angeles is all about.”
All of this newness recalls Ira Yellin’s vision for downtown LA.
“He was a unique individual,” recounts Adele, “very committed to the Jewish community, very committed to the city. He just loved cities, and he was quite creative and way ahead of his time.”
Her husband “wrote about the decline of cities and what you needed to do to bring them back. He said that if you can bring back a city and make it vibrant, the whole city flourishes... It’s true… you see it here… he proved his thesis.”
Two of the market vendors who attracted my attention were Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli, and Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections.
“As everybody knows,” says Wexler, the James Beard Award semi-finalist who was born and raised in North Hollywood, “Los Angeles is very spread out; there’s a lot of city centers, and it’s great to see downtown emerging as one of those.
“There’s been a real effort in downtown to preserve and to restore, which I think is really special because there’s a lot of great architecture down here. It’s allowing an area of the city that used to thrive to thrive again, in a way that it once did.”
For Wexler, the talented chef of LA’s former Mezze Middle Eastern restaurant, that preservation attitude translates into cooking “old school” in his popular 10-seat deli.
“You know,” he says, “there’s a tradition and culture of delis that goes back many years, of a real, home-style cooking and the sort of craft and techniques of curing, smoking and pickling that were all done on the premises.
“Over time and as things got more industrialized, not just in delis but all over the country... I think that a lot of delis started to move away from that and lost the technique of doing things themselves.”
Wexler and his business partner, Mike Kassar, asked themselves what kind of deli they wanted – “a modern spin,” or something going back to its roots? Their choice was easy: A place where you could say, “Hey, this is the pastrami sandwich of my dreams, or this is the bagel and lox I remember as a kid, growing up, that I can’t find anymore.”
“That’s really the ethos behind the deli.”
For Gordon, who runs Valerie Confections with her partner, Stan Weightman Jr., preserving and reinventing the culinary past is what it’s all about.
“The aesthetic of our company,” she says, “the approach to our food is very much about timeless, classic mainstays, and this is part of my thing of resurrecting older desserts and playing with classic recipes.”
Valerie Confections started in 2004 with toffee – six flavors of it, in fact.
“There’s a lot of butter in the toffee,” Gordon says, “so it has a sort of a soft crunch texture to it.
It was how we stated our company, and it’s very, very popular. Our almond fleur de sel toffee in particular is, I would say, to this day one of the highest-selling things that we make.”
Gordon, whose cookbook Sweet was nominated for a James Beard award, originally planned to go into acting. But while pursuing these studies, she worked in the restaurant trade and realized food was her “true calling.”
At Grand Central Market, she also offers sit-down service, and among the tasty menu categories are sweet items like the crème fraiche scone; savory items like the prosciutto, pear and goat cheese croissant; and pies and tarts like the 9-inch yellow peach and caramel pie.
Gordon’s approach to food fits in nicely with the idea behind Grand Central Market’s rebirth.
“I’m a huge believer in preservation,” she notes, “and this is something that Los Angeles lacks sometimes.
“So absolutely, we feel lucky to be involved [with the market]. We have been supporters of the idea from the get-go, when a lot of people were very hesitant. I’ve never seen a place transform in energy so quickly as the Grand Central Market… It’s been an energetic shift, palpable and amazing and really infectious.