Two of L.A.’s Best Bars Are Inside a Train Station
Happy hour is rush hour at Imperial Western Beer Co., the stunning new brewery/oyster bar at downtown L.A.’s Union Station. A lot of bars obviously offer happy hour to bring in a crowd when things are slow, so serving $1 oysters and $5 housemade craft beer from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, an already-busy time at this commuter hub, feels like an act of benevolence from Imperial Western proprietor Cedd Moses—who just wants to make it easy for commuters to grab a fresh unpasteurized beer on their way home or wherever they might be headed. Moses knows that people have other places to go and that many visitors on a budget roll through this station. Even when it’s not happy hour, a lot of Imperial Western beers, like pale lager, saison, session IPA, and milk stout, are $7 or less.
When I visited on Sunday, my dining companion and I each had a beer and shared some excellent clam chowder, loaded with clams still in their shells, and an oyster po-boy—for $40. The food here, not incidentally, is from shellfish savant David Lentz of The Hungry Cat. Imperial Western is an easy and delightful spot to eat and drink, whether you’re in a rush or want to linger while you play pool and watch a baseball game on the TV screens.
“We don’t want to turn commuters away,” Moses says. “We want to put a fresh beer and some oysters in their hands very quickly. We want to be able to get them a great cocktail extremely quickly.”
Nestled inside Imperial Western is The Streamliner, a craft cocktail bar that offers lovely renditions of classics like an Old Fashioned with bonded bourbon, bittersweet powder, and essential oils. The Streamliner is a lounge where the drinks are $7 to $9 and designed to be served in a hurry, but famed barman Eric Alperin and a crew that came over from four-time James Beard Award semifinalist The Varnish (a drinking den that was opened by Moses, Alperin, and Sasha Petraske in 2009 and named Best American Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012) are ensuring that there’s no skimping on quality. It’s not unlike how head brewer Devon Randall of Moses’ Arts District Brewing Company is in charge of the beers at Imperial Western. Moses has a network of talent at his downtown hot spots, so he knew whom to call when he was working on this ambitious Union Station project.
Imperial Western and the circumstances that surround it are staggering in a lot of ways. There’s room for more than 400 guests. The bar is part of a train station that dates back to 1939 and has close to 100,000 passengers pass through on a daily basis, a number that’s expected to grow rapidly as the L.A. Metro system expands across the city. Imperial Western, located in an Art Deco-Navajo space formerly occupied by the Harvey House restaurant, has a three-story-tall arched ceiling. Like with so much of what he does, Moses, who began his downtown bar empire when he reopened the historic Golden Gopher dive in 2004, is embracing L.A. history while looking toward the future. He’s already thinking about what Union Station might be like in 2028, when the Olympics are in Los Angeles.
“As a company, our vision is to be timeless not trendy,” says Moses, who owns 213 Hospitality, which now has 16 downtown bars. “But we also want our concepts to feel fresh.”
Moses, who used to go drinking with underground poet Charles Bukowski, knows a few things about creating cool and important bars. He opened downtown’s Bar Clacson in 2017 and saw it get a James Beard semifinalist nod in 2018. But one thing that makes his bars cool is that Moses has never cared about being cool.
“We view all our places as places for everyone,” he says. “We don’t consider ourselves cool. Cool is kind of an abstract thing anyway.”
It’s the kind of descriptor that really only matters to people who are fixated on being cool, Moses believes.
“We’re much more about inclusivity than exclusivity in our venues,” says Moses, who stresses that he’s always been focused on good drinks and friendly service without cover charges or bottle-service expectations.
He likes that downtown, despite its recent real estate boom, is still rough around the edges. He likes that downtown is calibrated to the pulse of a diverse city with diverse needs and desires. He likes that downtown is a place for living and working and passing through and going wild and chilling out.
“We want to appeal to a wide cross-section of people, young people, old people, commuters, destination traffic,” Moses says.
On the Sunday night I popped by, Imperial Western was pure L.A. right down to a guy in a Sandy Koufax jersey who arrived at Union Station and went straight to the beer bar. He parked his car, took an elevator, walked through the train station, headed inside the bar, and started playing shuffleboard.
Before Moses even opened his first bar in downtown L.A., he had a vision of opening 10 bars and turning the area into a drinking destination. The 1999 approval of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance paved the way for historic buildings to be converted into residences, hotels, restaurants, bars, and so much more. A downtown upswing seemed inevitable to Moses.
“I saw it as, like, the most obvious thing I’ve seen,” he says.
So Moses bet his life savings on a downtown renaissance even though people told him he was completely insane to invest money in such a grimy part of Los Angeles. Eighth Street, where the Golden Gopher is located, “was one of the worst streets in downtown,” Moses says. It wasn’t in Skid Row, but it might as well have been. The Golden Gopher itself “was a total dive when we took it over,” Moses adds. “It was probably the sketchiest bar I’ve been to outside of third-world countries. It was basically a front for drugs and prostitution.” But Moses, who had long loved dive bars and believes that “they often have more soul” than trendy bars, saw potential amidst the gang activity, homelessness, and addicts around Eighth Street. The Golden Gopher, which was once owned by Teddy Roosevelt, had great bones and a liquor license that allowed it to simultaneously operate as a bar and sell booze to-go.
With all the new hotels nearby in downtown L.A., Moses has seen the Golden Gopher’s to-go sales thrive in recent years. The once scary block the bar is on has seen a dramatic transformation. When Roy Choi, a chef who’s always celebrated imperfections, started parking his revolutionary Kogi truck downtown almost a decade ago, the Golden Gopher was one of his first locations. The bar is now across the street from the sceney Freehand hotel, which is down the block from new outposts of Sweetgreen and Shake Shack. There’s a Whole Foods a block away from The Golden Gopher.
“I really think downtown is going to become the Manhattan of our city,” Moses says. “It’s the only part of the city with the Manhattan-style eating habits of breakfast, lunch, after work, dinner, and late night.”
As much as anyone else, Moses has been a pioneer of L.A.’s new-look downtown. He says he averages about 1.5 million guests at his downtown bars each year, and that number is only going to get larger after the opening of Imperial Western on October 4. (At the same time, Moses isn’t one to look past the grit that remains. Spirited Coalition for Change, a nonprofit that expects to raise around $150,000 in 2018 to help L.A.’s homeless population, was co-founded by 213 Hospitality.)
Moses knows that creating great venues that endure often requires studying the past and the present. So, yes, New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar was an influence on Imperial Western, but mainly just as “a data point” about how serving oysters is a good idea in a train station. Imperial Western’s food (including Peruvian scallop aguachile and a grilled tuna sandwich with pickled carrots and yuzu kosho) and drinks (including a lineup of sour beers Randall is developing) are a lot more modern, of course.
What was an even bigger inspiration than Grand Central Oyster Bar was the redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station. It’s a revival Moses is so keen on that he’s about to open an outpost of his Seven Grand whiskey bar near the downtown Denver train station. If you’re keeping score, that will be 25 bars for Moses: 19 in L.A. (including two in Koreatown and one in Silver Lake), two in San Diego, three in Austin, and one in Denver.
Moses loves how Denver proves that “a train station can be a timeless destination for a city again,” a destination where people from all over the city go to eat and drink, a destination that’s packed until 2 a.m. on many nights.
“We want to be that for our city,” he says.
Imperial Western is serving its regular food menu until 11:30 p.m. on weeknights and until 1:30 a.m. on weekends. Plus, there’s a menu of small bites that’s available until 2 a.m. every night. There are also snacks at The Streamliner.
Moses has come a spectacularly long way from taking over a crime-ridden bar. The downtown renaissance he envisioned has happened. Moses collaborated with L.A. Metro and the Los Angeles Conservancy on Imperial Western while bringing in design firm AvroKO, which also worked on Denver’s Union Station, and Janel Wright Design to create a new place that’s built to last.
“It feels good to have this kind of traffic downtown now and to be a major destination,” Moses says. “That was the vision.”
After visiting Imperial Western, I headed over to Chinatown, less than a mile away. Chinatown has seen a major makeover with Far East Plaza scene-makers like Choi’s Chego, hot-chicken sensation Howlin’ Rays, and 2018 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year Lasa. On this Sunday night, there was also an undeniable energy outside Yang Chow, a restaurant that dates back to 1977. There were hipsters in streetwear on dates and three generations of multiple families. There were big groups of white people and black people and Asian people and Hispanic people, all patiently waiting to sit down and order fried rice and slippery shrimp.
When I mention this to Moses, he instantly understands why I found the scene outside Yang Chow compelling. It’s not unlike what he sees at Union Station, where there’s a sea of commuters and an express bus to Dodgers Stadium. It’s not unlike what he’s seen all over downtown at his bars.
“That’s what downtown is,” he says. “That’s what we want to represent in our venues. Everyone’s welcome.”