It’s a Wednesday evening during prime dinner hour, and a crowd of young and seemingly well-heeled sophisticates is gathered in front of Laurel Hardware. A couple strolls hand-in-hand up to the hostess, who cheerfully informs them the wait for a table for two is an hour. Thanking her, they head towards the jam-packed bar: A stiff cocktail (or two) will no doubt make the time pass quickly and pleasantly. They eventually find seats in the lounge across from a group of young professionals celebrating a co-worker’s birthday.
Laurel Hardware is one of a trio of trendy, upscale eateries that have given the formerly shabby stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood’s center a reputation as a dining and nightlife destination.
“We’re coming up on our four-year anniversary, and business has never been better,” said Beau Laughlin, CEO and co-founder of Cardiff Giant, the hospitality group that owns and operates the Hudson, another part of the trio along with Connie & Ted’s, chef Michael Cimarusti’s seafood restaurant. On Thursday, Cardiff is opening another venue on Santa Monica Boulevard in the former Voyeur location just east of North Laurel. Dubbed “DBA,” it will serve as an art gallery and performance and event space and, on select evenings, a nightclub.
Laughlin says he expects the area that he calls “Mid-City” to become a hot zone for the hospitality industry.
“In terms of Mid-City, with the addition of great businesses like Connie & Ted’s and Laurel Hardware, we’re confident that more and more hospitality operators and retailers will come to this already vibrant part of WeHo,” he said.
Indeed, architect Thomas Schoos, who famously designed TAO restaurant and nightclub locations in Manhattan and Las Vegas, is expected to open his beach-themed restaurant, Beach Nation, on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue later this year. It will offer a startling contrast to Irv’s Burger’s, the ramshackle hamburger joint next door whose recent closure has upset some of its fans. Schoos declined to comment for this article, saying Beach Nation is still in development, and he does not wish to discuss the project yet.
Mid-City, that stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between La Cienega and Fairfax, once was a hodgepodge of businesses that included a psychic, tattoo shops, a medical supply store, a gay clothing store and Lomography Gallery, a now-closed camera store, There was little reason for anyone to go there at night, except perhaps for a beer or two at Gold Coast, the gay dive bar on the corner of Santa Monica and North La Jolla, or to check out the porn across the street at Circus of Books. The area stood out for being so unremarkable in a city that, while only 1.89 square miles, boasted famous districts such as the Sunset Strip, Boystown, the westside Design District, and Melrose Place, all of which drew tourists.
Mid-City slowly began to take on a more sophisticated look of its own, without dislodging Gold Coast or Circus of Books. The transformation could be said to have begun in 2003, when Schoos and Michael Berman opened O Bar on the north side of Santa Monica Booulevard just east of Sweetzer Avenue. The following year Angeleno magazine gave O Bar its “Best Restaurant Design” award. O Bar closed in 2011, to be followed by Don’t Tell Mama, the Los Angeles iteration of the famed New York City cabaret and restaurant. Another dash of upscale retail came with the opening in 2005 of the organic-focused Whole Foods Market in a shopping plaza on the northeast corner of Santa Monica and Fairfax that housed a still existing Russian bakery, a liquor store and other small merchants.
Then the Hudson opened in 2009 at the intersection of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights boulevards, immediately attracting a crowd of largely heterosexual young people, something of note in a town where most nightlife was gay off the Sunset Strip . In July last year, Phil Howard and Dean McKillen opened Laurel Hardware in the former location of the eponymous hardware store, which had been at 7984 Santa Monica Blvd. near North Laurel since 1946. Immediately lines of people, both gay and straight, began to form down the sidewalk on weekends. Earlier this year Michael Cimarusti and Donato Poto’s Connie & Ted’s seafood restaurant opened at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Havenhurst, replacing the old Silver Spoon Diner. Connie & Ted’s quickly drew attention for its dramatic architecture as well as its food.
The area is now a mixture of old and new, hip and traditional, all punctuated with a splash of color from West Hollywood’s Russian community. For example, Traktir, the largest Russian restaurant patronized by expats from the former Soviet Union sits on North Crescent Heights Boulevard, just north of Santa Monica.
While most of the new venues draw a sophisticated and young heterosexual crowd, establishments such as Don’t Tell Mama and Hamburger Mary’s still attract the gays. You are as likely to see a gay couple canoodling at a corner table at Connie & Ted’s as you are to see a heterosexual couple doing the same.
“Our…clientele is very diverse, which is just the way we like it,” said the Hudson’s Laughlin. “That diversity, and sense of community is why we initially chose Mid-City WeHo to start our first hospitality business. My partners and I all live or have lived in the area, and knew it was the perfect location for the Hudson.”
Mid-City’s gay residents seem to embrace their neighborhood’s increasing heterogeneity. Taylor Emerson, 23, moved to Mid-City two years ago. An actor, he spent most of his life in the closet, and has a large number of close heterosexual friends. Emerson says he likes being able to take his heterosexual friends for a night out on the town in his own neighborhood.
“It’s a good mix of gay and straight. My world doesn’t just exist in the gay community,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be all go-go dancers … Plus, it has the possibility of opening a dialogue” between gays and straights.
The area also isn’t only about dining and drinking. Though a number of storefronts remain empty, retailers like clothing boutiques Forget Me Not and Paris House have moved into the neighborhood, and a Walgreens is set to open shop in coming months. Just Food for Dogs, which makes fresh and organic dog food, opened this fall at the southeast corner of Santa Monica and Fairfax. More retailers will help nurture the growth of Mid-City as a dining and nightlife destination, says West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Genevieve Morrill.
“Restaurants always benefit from retail,” she said. “You always want to have a mix.
If you have more retail, more clothing stores, more gift shops, more pharmacies—all of those things help to generate more businesses for the bars and restaurants. “
Interestingly enough, Mid-City’s renewal has occurred organically, without prompting from the city. “We just process the permits,” said city Planning Division Manager John Keho.
The fact that the area now attracts more visitors from outside West Hollywood has helped long-established restaurants and bars such as Traktir and Marcos Trattoria, where it doesn’t take weeks to book a table.
In fact, Marcos manager George Mezzos said the difficulty people have getting a table at Laurel Hardware or the Hudson has been good for his restaurant, which often gets customers who don’t want to wait for a table elsewhere. “We don’t see [the new restaurants] as competition,” he said.
Mid-City’s growth into a hip dining and party spot has not come without some pain — notably . problems with crowds, security and limited parking.
A 12-hour block party hosted by The Hudson in 2012 attracted a crowd of 4,000 people, upsetting the Laurel-Norton neighbors. Hudson co-owner Michael Jay chose to deal with the issues head on. The Hudson made a substantial donation to the SOVA Food Bank and Jay now holds monthly meetings with residents adjacent to the restaurant. He says his goal is to fix any problems they bring up.
“The neighbors are our best customers,” Laughlin said. “We love that we see the same faces three times a week, and more often then not those faces are our neighbors…to see the business imbedded in the community the way it has couldn’t make us happier. “
Laughlin and Jay’s strategy appears to be working. Laurel-Norton resident Allegra Allison calls Jay a “community leader” and says she welcomes Mid-City’s transformation.
“We get more exposure. It’s a good thing,” she said.
To mitigate the parking issue, the city plans to build a $20.5 million garage behind the City Hall building at 8300 Santa Monica Blvd. at Sweetzer. City Hall employees will park there during the day, while customers of the restaurants and bars can use the structure at night.
The city also has launched an entertainment shuttle dubbed the Pick-Up Line to take partiers to bars and restaurants along Santa Monica from Fairfax west to Doheny Drive on weekend nights.
What’s next for Mid-City? With two new buildings under construction nearby featuring apartments, stores and underground parking, more growth is certain.
“I do feel that the Mid-City business community has incredible momentum for growth, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” Laughlin said. “I’m excited to see where it goes over the next few years.”