Sunday, September 14, 2008

A hidden L.A. treasure

Today we had to run an errand in Koreatown. It was about 5 pm, and we'd slogged through some horrific traffic, successfully completed our mission, and we were hungry.

Just across the street from the site of the vanished Ambassador Hotel, is a brick apartment house called The Windsor, built in the 1920s and designed to give an impression of dignified distinction - all decorative brickwork, carved pediments, and limestone quoins. There are many such apartment houses in this neighborhood, and they all have dignified names like the Gaylord or Regency - those names often appear on rooftop signs that were once lit up in their heyday.

On the ground floor is a place called The Prince. I'd heard about it from a friend, who said it was a great "dive" bar with food. Why not give it a try?

Once through the door you walk down a few steps into the dining room - which surprises you with its ambiance and decor. The impression is RED, DARK, and veddy, veddy British.

Wow. Half-moon booths are upholstered with red leather. Fancy paintings hang on the wall beneath museum lights. Flocked red velvet wall-paper like a brothel in a movie. Dark wooden wainscoting. And there are these crazy red-shaded lamps that are little statues of British redcoat soldiers!

When we were there, it was pretty empty - who goes to bars at 6:00 anyway? There was a group at a table in the back room and two businessmen at a table off to the side. As our eyes got used to the dimness, we could see it was a little shabby, a little worn, the carpet scuffed. The waitresses chatted in Korean while they set candles on tables and sliced lemon wedges at the bar. A flat-screen TV hung over the large horseshoe-shaped bar showed a baseball game, and '70's rock played on the PA.

My friend tried to order a martini, but they didn't seem to understand what he wanted. So we ordered a big bottle of Korean beer to share and tried to decide what to eat. The menu had two pages of exotic offerings listed first in Korean and then in wildly, comically misspelled English. I mean - "ping intestine?" Really?

The beer came, along with a bowl of tortilla chips and salsa - Yes, chips and salsa. And really good fresh-tasting salsa.

We ordered some fried dumplings, and a dish of kim chee with spicy pork and tofu. The kim chee was spicy but the wedges of tofu were a perfect foil against the heat. The waitress also brought a complimentary plate with a kind of fried pancake with bits of green scallion - it was delicious!

On the left is the pork and kim chee, surrounded with wedges of tofu. Above are the dumplings, and to the right the pancake. It was abundant and delicious! We had so much food we brought it home.

When I came home, I checked out The Prince online and learned that it had started as the Windsor Inn, the restaurant for the original apartment hotel. In the '40s it became the Windsor House restaurant, one of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles. It served dishes like Chicken Kiev and Steak Diane. Its waiters dressed in tuxedos, and President Nixon had dined there. The mid-Wilshire neighborhood was considered quite elegant in those days, with the famous Brown Derby restaurant nearby and the Coconut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel.

The interior was even used as a location for films, including "Chinatown" and "Thank You for Smoking."

After the Windsor House was sold in 1991, the new owners changed the menu to feature Korean food, but left the decor unchanged. Its quirky juxtaposition of Korean food, music, and culture on a 1940's American version of a British pub attracts a diverse crowd, including neighborhood regulars, Korean businessmen, and trendy hipsters. I can certainly imagine the scene here around midnight! The bar is known for its popular soju drinks, and a generous pour with the whiskey and tequila bottles, while the kitchen is known for its spicy fried chicken and exotic menu offerings like silkworms and bugs.

People often say that L.A. doesn't preserve its history. And while the empty site of the Ambassador Hotel testifies to that, L.A. is full of secret treasures where history survives - in some very peculiar fashions. The Prince once provided a British club atmosphere where middle class apartment dwellers could feel like gentry. Now it hosts Asian college kids drinking soju martinis and eating kim chee, and trendy hipsters soaking up the noir coolness. This is what I love about L.A. - the distinctive layers each generation and community leaves on the city.

If you're looking for a touch of wacky elegance, L.A. noir, and great Korean food, check out The Prince. It's at the corner of 7th and Catalina, in Koreatown.

And dig those crazy redcoat lamps!!


barbara said...

What a fascinating bit of history you have uncovered. A great article about The Prince. I would never have guessed.

Scooterblu's Whimsy said...

Neat story and interesting place! I like those red coat lamps! Kind of crazy, huh? LOL! They are pretty unique and cool!

Hope you are enjoying your weekend! ~Rhonda

Tootsie Farklepants said...

I'm not sure your friend knows what "dive" bar means. That place is incredible!!

Lara said...

it's always ncie to discover such places!

Marcy Writes - The Glamorous Life said...

Oh my goodness. I am chomping at the bit to go there NOW. I lived just blocks away (Hancock Park and Larchmont) for several years...and I was bar REGULAR all over town...and I have NEVER been here. Ya think it would be the worst thing to bring my kids there? Maybe before 5:00? :)