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Koreatown Founder Dies at 79, Leaving LA With One of America’s Greatest Dining Neighborhoods

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Hi Duk Lee passed away on March 7

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Guelaguetza, Koreatown
Guelaguetza, Koreatown
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

It’s impossible to cover the Los Angeles food world without considering Koreatown. As one of the city’s most dynamic dining areas, K-Town is full of notable restaurants and bars with a constant stream of newcomers on the way. Now, per the LA Times and LA Taco, the community’s founding father, Hi Duk Lee, has died at the age of 79.

Lee’s legacy began in 1971 by opening one of the city’s first Korean grocery stores, Olympic Market at the intersection of Olympic and Normandie, according to the Los Angeles Times. Lee then built the Korean Village, which harbored 40 shops and restaurants in the neighborhood.

In 1975, Lee opened the VIP Palace, a restaurant and events facility that was central to the Korean community. Families hosted wedding banquets, parties, political dinners, and business meetings there for years, until it flipped into the now-iconic Oaxacan favorite Guelaguetza some 25 years ago.

Though Lee continued to invest in the neighborhood (even lobbying former Mayor Tom Bradley to designate the area as Koreatown), he ultimately filed for bankruptcy in the early 1980s. Less than a decade later, Koreatown would be transformed again because of the devastating 1992 LA Riots. The city amassed $1 billion worth of damage, with half of that coming from Korean-owned businesses.

The Koreatown of today continues to expand and diversify, where restaurants are going beyond Korean food, with Cassell’s Hamburgers, Pollo a la Brasa on Western, and Dante’s Fried Chicken inside Hotel Normandie. Many longstanding Korean restaurants keep attracting crowds including Park’s BBQ, The Prince, Korean-Chinese fast food joint, Zzamong, and Kang Ho-Dong Baekjeong, which always features lengthy wait times.

Koreatown’s cafe landscape is unlike any throughout Los Angeles. Some caffeinated spots remain open until later hours, including the Yellow House Cafe that keeps serving until midnight or even 2 a.m. Simply put, Koreatown’s evolution is a cultural phenomenon in the center of Los Angeles, a credit to Hi Duk Lee’s vision.