In the heart of downtown Los Angeles stands a rather unassuming building, but on its first floor is a unique icon of the city, Grand Central Market. Under various buzzing neon signs, each advertising a different vendor, crowds of people make their way through what is now a first class food hall offering unique dishes from around the world, many with incredibly long lines. But it wasn’t always that way, proving that one must adapt or perish.
The building that Grand Central Market sits in was built in 1896, and was the first building west of Chicago to have concrete floors. Originally the location was home to the fashionable French department store Ville de Paris, which catered to the wealthy citizens who lived in the Victorian mansions of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill. In 1917 Paris fashion was out, and a market packed with 90 different vendors arrived. Here well-to-do Angelinos could shop a variety of produce vendors, butchers, bakers, florists, and dine at a handful of lunch counters. And they did. It was wildly successful, until World War II.
After WWII, wealthier LA residents began to move out of downtown, and into the suburbs that connected to LA via brand new freeways. As a result, the once opulent Bunker Hill mansions that had previous housed posh Angelinos became low income rentals, and Grand Central changed with the times, selling discounted produce and offered cheap dining options.
Before too long, the decaying mansions of Bunker Hill were demolished, making way for tall, gleaming skyscrapers. By the 1970s Grand Central mostly catered the Hispanic population, specializing in their unique ingredients, which is exactly what brought Adele Yellin to Grand Central for the first time. Adele was planning on making Mexican food one night, and her search for specialized ingredients found her at Grand Central Market, “You know, in those days they didn’t have poblano chiles at Ralphs,” she said in a later interview. Not long after, in 1984, Adele’s husband, Ira, purchased Grand Central, he loved the place’s long standing history. In the 1990s a parking structure was added, but the Yellins faced a series of ups and downs, including defaulting on loans. In 2002 Ira passed away, and Adele took over. Recessions of 2007-2008 impacted Grand Central greatly, with older vendors leaving, resulting in a near 40 percent vacancy. By 2011, Adele knew it was time for a change, “I wanted foodies. I’m a foodie. I wanted young, entrepreneurial chefs…I just felt it would be right.” She got in contact with Kevin West and Joseph Shulder who began interviewing vendors, seeking to create a diverse atmosphere.
Tenants that arrived during this shift had growing pains, “It was a ghost town during weekends, there was hardly anyone there,” said David Tewasart of Sticky Rice, the first new tenant. More new tenants dishing out fresh takes on food arrived, but everything changed when Eggslut arrived. Taking up residency in a space that had been vacant for ten years, Eggslut drew crowds and long lines, which was good for everyone else too. Soon, people who came just for Eggslut saw the plethora of other unique, flavor driven restaurants, dishing up Mexican, American, Japanese, German, Chinese, and Italian food. The rise in Grand Central’s popularity has also resulted in a change in its hours. Originally Grand Central Market closed at 6 pm, today most vendors stay open until 10 pm. While most of Grand Central’s vendors are mini restaurants, there are still a handful of specialized vendors offering ingredients to take home, such as Chiles Secos, whose been there since 1975, Clark Street Bread, DTLA Cheese, and more.
One thing that is prominent in Grand Central is the presence of neon. While not a requirement for being a vendor, it is highly encouraged that each space have their very own neon sign. China Cafe, who has been serving Chinese and Chinese-American dishes to generations of hungry patrons, still has its original sign from 1959.
In late 2017, its centennial year, Grand Central was bought by Langdon Street Capital, a Beverly Hills real estate investor, but thankfully they want to “safeguard” this iconic treasure of LA than create change.
Grab a bite, buy some cheese, and roam under the neon at Grand Central Market at 317 S Broadway in Los Angeles. I highly recommend Horse Thief BBQ. Be sure to visit their website for specific vendor hours.