Taking on L.A.’s Skid Row with the owners of The Escondite, DTLA’s burger and craft beer hideout

The Escondite, located in Skid Row adjacent to Little Tokyo in downtown L.A., blocks away from the epicenter of L.A.’s contemporary restaurant and bar culture. Co-owner Erin Carnes describes the area as, “a great location with a lot of history. It’s an old bar stemming way back to the 80′s called Al’s Bar (closed in 2001). People raged here – it was a celebrity hangout.” Her business partner Brian Traynam was emphatic about the location and endeared himself to all of its qualities, “it’s just such an awesome spot. We call it Skidrowkyo.” A nickname Brian gave to the geographical position of the restaurant and bar.

An undesirable location

The Escondite, which opened in the summer of 2011, may be in an undesirable area of downtown L.A. but for the owners it was a place to accomplish their culinary goals. “We wanted something that was affordable. In Los Angeles, there’s a resurgence of a lot of great bars and restaurants – I find a lot of them to be higher end and there’s really no middle bracket. Now there seems to be more of that middle-ground coming in. That’s what makes a city, when you have all those different variants,” Erin tells us.

Brian had a similar idea in mind as well, he explains, “we would find ourselves going to a bar then going out to eat or eating and then going to a bar, but there was no one-stop shop. We were looking for somewhere that wouldn’t break our wallets while getting our drink on.”

Why did it take this long for a bar to make its way back into Skid Row? Brian says, “it’s Skid Row dude – everyone downtown passed on this place.” It was a “risky area and investment,” a despondency Brian was told over and over again.

According to the LAHSA, a non-profit that funds programs providing housing and services to the homeless in L.A., as of 2011 there are over 23,539 homeless people in the City of L.A., and over 3,500 of them reside either in shelters or on the streets in the area surrounding the Escondite.

[quote align=right]Erin and Brian both share empathy for those that are unfortunate, “there’s a big misconception about what people’s personal ideas about homelessness and the actuality of what’s really going on out there,” Erin relates. “I find a lot of people that are homeless are really just trying to survive and live their life. They’re not going to rob you, they’re not going to attack you. I walk around by myself and they don’t bother me.”

The hideout

Escondite means “hiding place” in Spanish. The owners named it with that reason in mind, for guests to confine in the food and the drinks. The restaurant and bar features an open patio overlooking the skyline of downtown L.A. and booth seating that parallels a lengthy bar.

Erin, a seasoned bartender, curates the bar featuring nine beers on draft, with over 20 bottles and canned beer selections plus a full liquor bar. Major liquor and beer labels have been replaced by smaller, more-family oriented brands and craft beers.

Being on the cusp of both downtown and Little Tokyo allows them to see all manner of patrons. The customers are completely diverse with a broad age-range, and Erin prefers it that way. “You’ll have moments when you look across the bar and you’ve got this old-head talking to this young guy and they’re totally vibing and its really nice to see that. Strangers are actually having a communal conversation going back and forth, buying each other shots. I don’t ever see that in L.A.”

The food

While Erin (wo)mans the bar, Brian heads the kitchen. It took Brian a year and a half of cooking out of the back of his truck at different L.A. bars before he created his gourmet burgers at The Escondite. He attests, “that’s when I had crappy meats and frozen buns, and I had a line down the block to go into the bar to get a drink just so they could have a burger.”

The food menu features not only burgers but a range from brunch dishes to sandwiches. A generous portion of burger with fries is between $9 – $11 and nothing currently on the menu is over $11. Brian explains his pricing decision, “I wanted to make a good product where we could make double the money and you can just hang out. We’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s good tasting food that will fill you up and afterwards you’ll say, ‘wow, that was ten bucks and I got fries.'”

Brian was a vegetarian for years, and he understood the limited choices when eating out. To avoid that at problem he offers vegetarian options on all the burgers, ”we do separate sauces, separate chili, and separate gravies that are vegetarian oriented, so that vegetarians can come in and get a burger and be able to experience the same thing as everybody else.”

There is plenty more going on at the Escondite than simply food and drinks. For them the ultimate goal is to create a lighthearted place in a bewildering world, Erin explains, “there’s a lot of reward when you get to see people enjoying themselves. They’re eating good food and they’re happy – that’s it. It revitalizes you. We are trying to create a place, and we think we have, where everyone is absolutely comfortable.”