Two men from Malibu are helping to change a seedy neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles into a destination area for food, drinks, entertainment and art. The mostly unknown section in the burgeoning area now known as DTLA is called the North Sea District; it lies just west of the hottest neighborhood in town—the Arts District, filled with hipsters and galleries—and south of bustling Little Tokyo. However, the North Sea District, which earned its name from rows and rows of seafood wholesalers in the area, is also next to Skid Row. But with the recent opening of their bar High Tide, Flynn Helper and Brandon Bustillos hope to shake up the area. The buzz around their unique space in an otherwise nearly desolate part of the city is doing just that.
The big draw to High Tide is that it’s the only bar around with actual glass blowing. Yes, Helper is a master glass blower of 18 years. The artist, a graduate of the old Colin McEwin High School in the Malibu Country Mart (Helper says he went to high school above Taverna Tony) calls High Tide an art café because, while there’s drinking, entertainment and a seafood-centric menu, he creates hand-blown glass art in front of patrons.
Helper was originally looking for a studio to work his craft.
“It was my dream to have a raw warehouse space to make art in,” he shared. With no luck in Los Angeles finding a space, a childhood friend from Malibu told Helper he had bought a building downtown and offered him a lease. With Bustillos, the two opened an underground art/bar called Space Camp. “When that ran its course, we decided to go legit,” Helper clarified.
The roomy, 4,000-square-foot space is half indoor and half patio. A big chunk of patio is Helper’s semi-enclosed glass blowing studio, complete with a firing kiln. The Malibu native is launching an introductory glass blowing class in the next few weeks. He already has a VIP glass blowing experience in place he described as “where two people get to come behind the glass studio, pick colors and in an hour I craft a piece of glass art for each of them.”
Co-owner Brandon Bustillos, who went to Pepperdine University from 2005-07, describes the North Sea District as a revitalization and beautification project.
“In the 1920s through 1960s, it was a busy area for wholesale seafood. All seafood in Southern California was brought through this corridor,” he explained. “After Skid Row took over, this neighborhood had a big decline.” With other neighbors, the two men have planted palm trees, painted buildings and “hired artists to depict sea life on buildings over here.
“All the seafood served at High Tide comes from our neighbors,” Bustillos continued. “We get our oysters from across the street—our scallops from someone a half-block away. That’s what the North Sea is all about.”
But High Tide is mostly a bar and gathering place. The craft beer selection is extensive, with 16 local breweries represented on draft. High Tide also offers more than 25 wines and is known for their frozé concoctions—that would be an adult version of a slushie, but made with rosé and Instagramable ingredients like charcoal that tint the frozen drink black.
Helper and Bustillos have planned nearly nightly entertainment. Wednesday evenings are devoted to trivia. Thursdays are for local artists, including a collective of what Bustillos called “female empowerment artists.” Fridays will have either live music or DJs. Saturdays are DJs and Sundays will feature live jazz.
While High Tide is changing the tide in the North Sea District as the first bar/eatery on the block, across the street there’s an event venue that’s the scene of weddings and parties thrown regularly by the likes of Google, Honda and Facebook.
“It’s bringing people down here. But as far as a daily open business we’re pretty much it so far,” Bustillos said.