Downtowns used to empty out after dark. Now that's when things get started.

In the Eighties, downtown Houston was so deserted at night that, as someone who lived there at the time puts it, "You could lie down in the middle of the street and go to sleep." If you tried that stunt this evening, you'd be covered with tire marks from Lexuses and BMWs. About three years ago, Houston discovered its downtown, and it has become the site of the city's most fashionable night-life scene. All over the country, in fact, downtowns are on the rebound after decades of suburban flight, scarring freeway construction, mindless demolition and other forms of city killing. Local governments, atoning for past sins, have poured money into new sports stadiums and museums. Endangered landmark buildings have been saved and turned into nightclubs, loft apartments, hotels, galleries and restaurants. As a result, neighborhoods that used to be empty after dark are now the busiest spots in town. What follows are back-from-the-dead tales from three of the fastest-growing downtowns in America.

Downtown growth rate First in the United States.

The dark ages Long after the rest of America had discovered historic preservation, Houston could still look at a majestic turn-of-the-century building and see a vacant lot waiting to happen. Dynamite and wrecking balls were applied liberally to the three-story brownstones in and around the old Market Square district until the city was almost completely hollow at its core.

The renaissance The turning point came in 1997 with the conversion of the ornate Rice Hotel, which the demolition crews had inexplicably overlooked, into loft apartments. The venture's success started a stampede to snatch up space while rents were still laughably cheap.

Restaurant scene The earliest arrival was Solero, a chic Nuevo Latino tapas bar that chef-owner Arturo Boada opened in 1997. On its heels, a more traditional tapas spot, Tasca, appeared a few blocks away. The imposing new Bayou Place entertainment complex is home to four restaurants, notably the flamboyant Sake Lounge, where an American chef and a Chinese chef work side by side to produce Asian fusion cuisine. And nearby, Hogg Grill serves what it calls Global Tex Cuisine: chargrilled steaks and seafood. Its soaring space and black-clad staff might have been airlifted straight from Manhattan's SoHo.

Other highlights Houston is currently building a state-of-the-art ballpark for the Astros. By next March, the Ritz-Carlton chain will go head-to-head with the Four Seasons when it opens a four-star hotel in the former Texaco building. And as early as this July, the smart set will be able to meet for cocktails at The Mercury Room. A former silent-movie theater, it is being retrofitted as a swank nightclub to the tune of $1.2 million.
--Laurann Claridge

Downtown growth rate Third.

The dark ages The oldest section of Denver, Lower Downtown (LoDo), be-gan life as a mining camp during the 1860s Gold Rush. After the silver bust of the 1890s--and up until just 10 years ago--LoDo was a sordid hash of flophouses, missions and bars.

The renaissance Since 1995, when Coors Field moved to LoDo, the area has drawn Denverites in cowboy boots and Land Rovers. The bars are still there, but they sell microbrews and $10 cigars instead of Muscatel and Tiparillos. LoDo is a major residential center, too, with many of its red-masonry warehouses converted into lofts.

Restaurant scene LoDo has so many different restaurants these days--52 at last count--that it's like a food court with sidewalks. Of the latest crop, Mattie's House of Mirrors is the most ambitious, incorporating a New American kitchen into an Old West bordello. (Denver's most famous whorehouse once operated in the same quarters.) Vesta Dipping Grill is the sexiest, with its supercontempo design (crystal and gauze, cement and washed steel). Meanwhile, the action is spreading into other parts of LoDo: Busara, with its lobster pad thai and its curried duck, brought some spark to the relatively quiet western end when it opened earlier this year.

Other highlights LoDo's cultural hub, the Tattered Cover Book Store, hosts readings and carries some 500,000 titles. Drinking headquarters is Wynkoop Brewing Company, billed as the country's largest brewpub.
--Bill St. John

Downtown growth rate Fifth.

The dark ages In the Eighties, one faceless skyscraper after another was built in Seattle's retail core. But workers fled the area by night, when First Avenue became a promenade for drug peddlers, panhandlers and porn aficionados.

The renaissance Robert Venturi's Seattle Art Museum, opened in 1991, raised downtown's cultural level a few hundred notches. High-tech millionaires and old-money patrons bankrolled other cultural outposts: the Paramount Theatre and the symphony's Benaroya Hall.

Restaurant scene Pacific Place, which opened last fall, is by far the most stylish shopping mall Seattle has ever seen. On the top floor, Jeremiah Tower's Stars Bar & Dining boosts the glamour index in a town where dressing up tends to mean putting on your new khakis. A few blocks away, restaurateur Drew Nieporent will debut Earth & Ocean in the W Hotel this fall; Parisian-trained executive chef Jean Michel Boulot says that his menu will not be divided into appetizers and entrées but into "ocean" (seafood) and "earth" (everything else). At the lovely Brasa, ex-Campagne chef Tamara Murphy has installed wood-fired ovens for Mediterranean-style roasting. Then there's Salumi, a humble café where Armandino Batali (Molto Mario's pop) is spending his retirement years curing Italian country sausages.

Other highlights The most intriguing addition promises to be the Experience Music Project, a phantasmagoric rock-and-roll museum designed by Frank Gehry.
--Providence Cicero

    By Bill St. JohnLaurann Claridge and Providence Cicero