Liza B. Zimmerman — Contributor Downtown Los Angeles is seeing a major revival. New restaurants and hotels are popping up left, right and center and one of the most exciting […]
December 12, 2023
LA TIMES – Live lucha libre, secret passageways and celebs: This is dinner at downtown’s Level 8
OCT. 13, 2023 — BY STEPHANIE BREIJO.
Enter through a long hallway tucked just off a downtown alleyway, where a projected light show twirls and pulses around you. Then take the elevator of a new skyscraper hotel and step out onto the eighth floor into a maze-like restaurant and nightlife complex. This is where the real show begins.
There are luchador matches held in a wrestling ring suspended over an agave bar; rows of gold-hued hot pots filled with simmering soup beneath a 40-foot harp; and hidden passageways inside a fictional adventurer’s library bar.
Level 8, a colossal new collectionof eight restaurants and bars, is located under one roof at the combined Moxy and AC hotels near Crypto.com Arena and the convention center. The grandiose project imagined by nightlife impresarios the Houston Brothers (who also own hot spots No Vacancy, Black Rabbit Rose and more) is nearly complete, with a range of concepts that have been slowly rolling out since late summer. All but one have debuted in the 30,000-square-foot-space: Oyster and Champagne bar Mother of Pearl is expected to open this fall.
“This just was like the perfect storm and the perfect time,” said Jonnie Houston, who noted that he and his twin brother, Mark, had long sought to open a venture downtown. “We wanted to create this kind of multidimensional, experiential vibe that blended so many different cultures.”
The result is unlike any other restaurant, bar or club in L.A. right now: Mixing nightlife and culinary destinations, it encourages exploration and falling down rabbit holes. It’s the most ambitious project yet for the entrepreneurs, who already had made their name injecting L.A.’s nightlife scene with whimsy, burlesque shows and transportive spaces for the better part of a decade. According to the Houstons, Level 8 could be just the beginning: Maybe someday, they say, the complex could appear in other cities — a bet on experiential dining and clubbing to draw crowds.
It’s also their most expensive project. The Houstons declined to state the total cost of creating Level 8, a venture between Houston Hospitality and real estate company Lightstone, but noted they are still spending and building. Items and plans that cost the team as much as $250,000 apiece had to be scrapped, as many as six times.
The money and time spent on every detail hasn’t gone unnoticed. Reservations — at least for the three full-service restaurants — are a necessity. On a recent Thursday night a tuxedo-clad man arrived, friends in tow, at the host stand for Mr. Wanderlust to celebrate his 40th birthday. He was hoping for a seat at teppanyaki restaurant Maison Kasai but, sans reservation, was turned away.
Another guest, visiting from Costa Rica, stepped onto one of Level 8’s patios amid couples hugging and dancing in line at the no-reservations Brown Sheep taqueria.
“This type of concept with a lot of restaurants, it’s my first time [visiting],” said Eduardo Silva, a guest at the hotel for a work conference who noticed an announcement for Level 8 in the elevators. “I like the concepts. I’m just discovering.”
Visitors crane their heads around hallway corners, unsure of what new performance or doorway awaits them. Glowing model types take photos of one another against the sunset. A traffic jam clusters in the hallway outside of Mr. Wanderlust as an aerialist twirls behind the host stand cloaked in red light. A comedian dines in one restaurant while a world-famous DJ eats in another.
The process of bringing it all to life hasn’t been easy. Level 8 took five years to build, with plenty of troubleshooting. For a live luchador stage that floats above one bar, “Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” said Jonnie Houston,including the hydraulics and other mechanisms.After a litany of inexplicable occurrences, such as sprinklers bursting and lights shorting, one contractor told the brothers there could be an angry spirit, and they hired a shaman. According to the Houstons, it might’ve worked; things ran more smoothly after the multiday site cleansing.
“There are like 1,000 things that we’ve dealt with where my brother and I lost countless hours of sleep and stress,” said Mark Houston. “It was like, ‘Why are we even doing this? Why did we put this much stress on ourselves?’”
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One of the most immersive venues is Mr. Wanderlust, a library-aesthetic jazz and piano bar inspired by a fictional, eponymous owner, where aerialists spin from the ceiling, cabaret performers dance in hidden alcoves and live bands take the stage. On the menu: chicharrones with sumac and vadouvan curry; karaage; seasonal focaccia; caviar service; and Wagyu lengua “cigarettes.”
Maison Kasai is chef Joshua Gil’s French-Japanese “house of fire.” Gil — who also is the chef behind Mírame and Mírate — and his team sear seafood, steaks, poultry and vegetables at large teppanyaki tables. Gil, who worked with Level 8 culinary director Richard Archuleta previously, wanted to go big after he was approached for the project — so big that he wondered if all his cooks could also be fire breathers. While his chefs don’t actually spit fire, there is an air of theatricality as fire shoots up from the grills.
“It’s a lot, it’s definitely that,” Gil said of Level 8’s many moving parts. “But we all have the same goal: We want the same success for everyone.”
At the other end of Mr. Wanderlust, another secret entrance reveals a waterfall-projected hallway to chef Hisae Stuck’s Lucky Mizu — translating to “lucky water” — which specializes in shabu-shabu and seiro-mushi. The Joël Robuchon vet serves the bubbling golden cauldrons and steam boxes from beneath a suspended 40-foot harp.
Exit Lucky Mizu and you’ll find yourself in a hallway affixed with mirrored butterflies. Under a stained glass chandelier is the entrance to wood-fired steakhouse Qué Bárbaro, the latest project from chef Ray Garcia of Asterid and Broken Spanish. Decorated in green tones with hanging plants, Qué Bárbaro serves South American cuisine with a focus on gaucho-style, live-fire cooking.
“There’s usually a separation between [restaurants and clubs] and for a reason,” Garcia said. “My restaurants center around food, and it’s bringing some of that other energy into it. I think it’s a good intersection of the two. I don’t think other people are doing anything quite like it or at this level. And I went for it.”
It shares kitchen space with Garcia’s other restaurant: Brown Sheep, a quick-service taco “truck” on the patio that riffs on fusion flavors. Cross-cultural influence shows up in a Thai-inspired aguachile with fish sauce, green papaya and mint, or the antojito tostilocos, here done with an Indian spin featuring panipuri and tamarind chutney.
Sinners y Santos is the most recent opening in Level 8 and one of the most theatrical. The bar’s double wooden doors open to a short catacombs-like hallway of golden skulls. A church-like bar sits at the center, a DJ booth at a large pipe organ at one end and an alcove for either seating or a stage at the other. The second room offers velvet banquettes and bottle service, while a wrestling ring over the bar hosts live luchador matches — all in a space designed as an ode to legendary luchador El Santo.
The forthcoming Mother of Pearl is a Champagne-pouring raw bar that’s also led by chef Gil.
On the other patio, poolside bar Golden Hour serves tropical cocktails from Level 8 beverage director Devon Espinosa beneath a rotating, chandelier-bedecked circular bar with periodic performances by capoeira dancers, fire dancers, and more.
“We’re in the business of creating a vibe and transporting people into a different world for the evening so that they can just relax and enjoy life for a moment,” said Jonnie Houston. “That’s the one thing that we want to do is just transport people.”