The City of Angels has seen its share of restaurants come and go, many fading away into the dustbin of history with even less fanfare than the closing of a window. Not that it's altogether surprising considering how many boast vastly underwhelming menus, banal decor and less originality than a Xerox. Those that do manage to weather the constant storm of competitors usually find creative ways to grow and maintain a loyal customer base despite the fickleness of L.A.'s epicurean elite. An even smaller handful manage to elevate originality to an art form, not just surviving, but thriving by adroitly utilizing their establishment's colorful history to attract clientele. Four such restaurants in particular owe at least part of their prosperous run to the sui generis nature of their digs.
Bow and Truss
"You used to be a what?" That might be an understandable reaction when you discover that this rapidly fomented mainstay of the NoHo arts scene was formerly an auto mechanic shop built in 1930. One tell-tale sign may be the swing-up style garage door now serving as an oversized entryway or the 2,000 square-foot courtyard where Beemers and Benzes used to await their tune-ups. But the signature architectural achievement is the arched ceiling from which the place draws its name. Once seated underneath it, you're treated to a Latin-inspired menu created by executive chef Aaron Grissom. Feast on shelled paella teeming with mussels and chorizo, pork cheek tacos or an Argentinian skirt steak medallion that would make Evita proud. And thanks to Liquid Assets, you can pair your meal with dozens of craft beers, wines and specialty cocktails. It's definitely enough to rev up your appetite.
L.A.'s uninitiated may be tempted to stop by for a claw hammer and some ten penny nails, but instead, they'd be greeted by hordes of WeHo hipsters and Shiraz-sipping gourmands. Not exactly your father's hardware store. No, don't pull out your phone to check the address; you're in the right place. But Laurel's near overnight conversion from plywood peddler to haute cuisine hangout threw many for a loop. Take a step inside and soak in two divergent design schemes. The airy front features white-tiled walls, Formica tables and an exposed kitchen area, while the back shows a shadowy side with dark metallic accents lit by hanging bulbs in metal cages. The American-style menu brags of its continental influences, using seasonal organic produce and free range meat stock to create succulent dishes for any palate. It's also consistently ranked as one of L.A. Eater's fave drinking spots, which means the only thing that's going to be hammered here is you.
Le Ka Restaurant
Certainly, others have ably transformed what was once a banking space into a fully functioning bistro. For instance, the Knitting Factory pulled it off handsomely with The Federal at both their Lankershim and Pine Avenue locations. However, Le Ka is unique in that it managed this same feat with nary a trace of the Chinese-owned Cathay Bank that resided there previously. One might only harbor such suspicions based on those cavernous ceilings and the upscale well-to-dos that shimmy in for happy hour from downtown's nearby financial district. The menus are crafted by chef David Féau, once named one of the "Six Best Chefs in France Under 30 Years Old" by Le Chef Magazine. While many competitors' menus are writing checks their cooks can't cash, Le Ka sports tantalizing French-Californian fare like Beausoleil oysters, handmade pappardelle and côte de bœuf that'll be making a deposit on your taste buds. And that's something you can bank on.
Philippe The Original
This is one of those rare SoCal joints where patrons not only clamor for the food, but the camaraderie; a bastion of local heritage since 1908 with a proud (if unverified) moniker blazing, "Inventor of the French Dip Sandwich." Moving to its present location on Alameda and Ord in 1951, this deli-style sit-down took over a waning machine shop with a hotel just above. Homages to years past still remain, from floors strewn with wood shavings to walls lined with framed newspaper stories. Upon celebrating its centennial, Philippe's even sold French Dips for a dime and coffee for a nickel. Roast beef, pork, lamb, turkey and ham are served on French rolls, dipped in their natural juices, with sides of cole slaw or pickled eggs. Weekday lunch lines have been known to go out the door, with an egalitarian aura that has the urban poor hobnobbing with Hollywood nobility. Camaraderie, indeed. Bon appétit.