WHERE TO EAT: Little Tokyo and Chinatown, two important ethnic neighborhoods downtown, are tightly packed with shops, the offices of bilingual doctors, dentists and lawyers and big-volume bank branches. Japanese corporations own huge swatches of downtown real estate, and Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan have begun making investments here, too. But what draws outsiders to Little Tokyo and Chinatown is the vast array of first-rate yet inexpensive restaurants.
Everyone has his own favorites. But, among the most reliable in Chinatown, are Mon Kee, a small, spartan place that serves up succulent clams, lobster and other seafood in garlicky sauces; the Mandarin Deli, which makes the best fried and steamed dumplings this side of Beijing (and serves them, as they should be, with thick vinegar); and the Plum Tree Inn, which purveys standard Mandarin and Sichuanese dishes in upscale surroundings.
Like Tokyo eateries, many Japanese restaurants here display in their windows wax replicas of everything on their menus, so you know what you're likely to find inside. Even the Shakey's Pizza Parlor in the Japanese Village Plaza observes this custom.
For sushi, try Hamasushi on Second Street, a classic sushi bar; for yakitori -- chicken and vegetables grilled on skewers -- there's Nanbantei in Weller Court, a branch of the Tokyo restaurant of the same name; for tempura, Inagiku, an elegant hideaway on the mezzanine of the Bonaventure Hotel. Those just getting acquainted with Japanese cuisine could duck into the basement of the Sumitomo Bank building for Horikawa, a sprawling restaurant that does everything well.
Three of Los Angeles' most respected restaurants are found downtown, too. Highly praised by local critics are Bernard's, a soothing bastion of nouvelle French cuisine, in the Biltmore; and the Seventh Street Bistro, a chic spot where many diners try the fixed menu, changed daily and definitely French with light California touches. More controversial is Rex il Ristorante, arguably the most beautiful restaurant in California with its restored Lalique glass, expanses of dark oak paneling and marble-topped tables; some complain, though, that the northern Italian food is overpriced and the portions stingy.
You needn't be dining on the expense account to have a good time here. Stepps, a favorite watering hole for downtown lawyers and bankers, serves pasta and trendy Cajun food at reasonable prices. Museum-goers can stop at Il Panino, the Italian cafe at the MOCA, for imaginative antipasti, unusual sandwiches of smoked chicken, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and the like on crusty rolls, and gelato. At the other end of town, near the loft district, is the Downtown L.A. Cafe, a brick-walled, concrete-floored artists' hangout that looks straight from Greenwich Village; inside or on the tiny patio out back, you can try savory chicken salads, herb teas and a vegetable plate delectable enough to convert carnivores.
TOURS: The Los Angeles Conservancy offers walking tours of downtown buildings every Saturday at 10 a.m.; tickets are $4 and reservations are required. For more information: Los Angeles Conservancy, 849 S. Broadway, Suite M-22, Los Angeles, Calif. 90014, (213) 623-2489.
INFORMATION: For further information, contact the Greater Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau, Arco Plaza, 505 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90071, (213) 689-8822. -- Linda Mathews