Ooh la LA
The weather has been so delightful lately, that I realized it was time to invite people to visit Southern California before it’s too late and we are either roasting alive or dying of thirst, LOL! These are my insider’s tips on visiting La-La land: the only five places you will need to know to party like a native. 😉
New York is the place to visit in autumn, as I wrote last year. Spring is the time to visit LA. When I was reflecting on Los Angeles, and trying to summarize what it is about LA that is so attractive to people — apart from endless sunshine, that is, natch — the word seductive came to mind.
A few years ago, I read this book about France and the French character. It is worth reading just to see how differently the French look at everyday life, relationships, food, tourists, Americans etc. Not to say that they are right or wrong, necessarily but truly it is a culture apart. France is seductive.
Los Angeles is like that. Someone should write a book about it (note to self). Unlike NYC that instantly triggers love or hate, Los Angeles sidles up to you and lures you in with that sultry come hither environment that allows everyone to be utterly, nakedly themselves. And that is no mere metaphor. You have permission to be as uninhibited and as outrageously ‘you’, as you want here — and that is what I love most about this city, its welcoming diversity.
There are three urban hubs that you need to hit if you want to understand California. In some ways it should be two or three states. San Francisco and San Diego are distinctive megalopolises with their own sphere of influence and mindsets. You won’t get to know or understand all three, by just visiting one of them.
People everywhere are drawn to Los Angeles, but not for the beaches, because, honestly, there are others far more beautiful. If you are looking for the ideal beach environment, go to Cape Cod, Monterey, the Northeastern coast of Brazil or the Caribbean. Don’t come to LA for that.
People love Los Angeles because of its gigantic entertainment industry and the allure of being close to the stars. If you are a wannabe, the magnetism of LA is powerful and rightly so. But, I think the true main attraction of LA is that, you can park philosophies and ideologies at the threshold when you land at LAX and step into a completely welcoming, accepting culture that signals immediately: anything goes. Relax, have a great time. Not a Hawaii-lie-around-the-pool great time. A get-out-there-and-have-a-ball. Mingle, go to barbecues, hit the club scene, do a night on the town. Be free to enjoy yourself, however you like. Angelenos are incredibly outgoing and friendly, right away. They don’t need time to warm up to you. For a transplanted NYer it was palpable immediately. Smiles and welcomes, sincere ones, not papier-mâché politeness, characterizes the citizenry.
Last week, my cousin was in Los Angeles on an assignment. She always stays at the London West Hollywood. Claire and I chatted in her sleek ultra-modern suite and then went up to the roof patio for dinner. It was a beautiful clear day looking out over LA on the top floor of the hotel in late afternoon. As we were sitting there gabbing, afloat over the city, evening fell, draping everything with its violet shawl. All around us was a crystal view of the sprawl that is the LA metropolis, its lights flickering on and the stars popping out overhead. Some miles to the east, Downtown appeared as a cluster of glittering stacks that huddled together like intimate giants sharing a secret. Farther along Wilshire, Century City was gazing across the concourse toward Westwood. It was pure magic.
Come to Los Angeles between April and July. Summers here are too brutal now, the autumn is unremarkable and the winters, well, they can be misty and dull.
Here is where I would start. Stay at one of the newly restored more affordable hotels Downtown or on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. There is a lot to do at night on this stretch of the Strip. If you like off-off-off Broadway entertainment, lol, the Strip is the place to go. Start at the Whiskey. You can walk to it from the London WH, and frankly, that is where I would stay. Rooms average about US$350, reasonable by LA standards. The other advantage you would have is being able to get to Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, the Melrose restaurant row very easily, even using LA’s notoriously limited public transportation. I have ridden the Metro bus and train system locally and they are clean, air conditioned, safe and comfortable. Not like London, Paris or NY, not efficient, fast and ubitquitous, but good. You can even get to Downtown and Pasadena using public transportation, from a central hub of West Hollywood. Hollywood itself is also east on Sunset, so you couldn’t ask for a better place as home base.
Not to oversell this location, you can also take Sunset to Santa Monica, Brentwood and Venice Beach. Although, as I will explain in a minute, I would suggest the South Bay or Beach Cities instead. They are far more exemplary of what Angelenos consider beach living, while Santa Monica and Venice are for tourists.
From the hub you choose, I would visit the following places, depending on how much time you have:
- Downtown, LA
- West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose
- South Bay beach cities: Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach
- Beverly Hills/Westwood
As you plan your visit, just remember the LA Golden rule:
Everything is always 45 minutes away from everything else …
Downtown, as I have said previously somewhere on this blog, is really hopping now. If there is a happening place in LA, DT is it. It is packed with restaurants, clubs, bars, loft-hotels and entertainment. The Disney Concert Hall, the Chandler Pavillion complex and other similar venues for traditional theater- and concert-going are at the north end. There are museums and cathedrals as well as the very trendy and cool Grand Central Market that is worth an afternoon of eating and coffee in itself.
There is also a fab Art Walk that takes you around to galleries and the hidden creative underground/grunge that makes LA appealing for millennials right now, from burning men to urban hipsters. The Natural History Museum and the Staples Center are at the bottom of DT LA and both are worth the trip. Just walk up and down the north/south artery of Figueroa and you will see a history of architecture from the 18th through the 21st centuries, rising on either side of you. While you are doing that, make sure to stop at Fig&7th to have a snack or a drink and get in a bit of shopping. Just a block or two north and you can eat at the famous, original Pantry, continuously open since 1924. Or take Wilshire from DT, via the Metros, all the way West to the beach, and watch the progress of the city the automobile built, materialize as you go.
And while you are there, make sure you have afternoon English tea at the Biltmore Hotel. It is an LA institution and I guarantee you will gape at the world’s glitterati parading around you as they stream into DT in droves, snapping up refurbished buildings to re-rent out or install start-ups. It is very reasonably priced at about $200 per night for old world luxury.
When we are DT, we eat at various places. You can always grab a bite at the Grand Central Market, with all its many food stalls. If you are deep in the dough, try the Water Grill for perfect food in a flawless upscale environment. If, like us, you are on a budget, head to the Fisherman’s Outlet. An LA legend is Philippe’s for sandwiches.
West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose I probably don’t need to tell you too much about this part of LA, West of Downtown. This is the hub of the night scene. There is shopping, of course, with a robust array of boutiques and galleries. But clubs and restaurants are the main draw. The Viper Room, Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy Theatre and all sorts of sky bars are strung along Sunset. Just drop your stuff at the hotel and head out in either direction on the Boulevard and you will stumble on them. Whenever I am in this area and I have time, I make my way over to Little Ethiopia for lunch. Not only is it affordable, it is exotic and exquisite food made and served by natives. Try Messob, my fave.
Pasadena may be a bit more staid but for my money, skip the Getty and the LACMA and head straight to the Norton Simon Museum, Gamble House, Asia Pacific Museum and Huntington Library and gardens that stretch from one end of Old Pasadena to the other. There is more shopping and eating in Pasadena, with every kind of food from all over the world, than in any place outside of DT LA. It is a beautiful, pristine, elegant old city that has been updated and now boasts an influx of condo dwellers at an unprecedented rate. Every possible kind of entertainment is available and you can walk to it, from the Metro which has several stations in Old Town. Definitely check out The Pasadena Playhouse for live theater, as well as various cinema complexes up and down the main east-west thoroughfare — especially at The Paseo –, Colorado Boulevard. You can attend free concerts all summer at the Levitt Pavilion or the symphony at the stunning, world class Ambassador Auditorium.
Make sure you stop by the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, Vromans and have a homemade sundae at the 100 year old Fairoaks Pharmacy in South Pasadena. Eat dinner at the incomparable El Cholo, for Mexican food, SoCal style.
Southbay/The Beach Cities This may be a bit out of the way, unless you have a car. If so, head west on Sunset to the 405/San Diego Freeway and points south. Get off at Rosecrans and go west to Pacific Coast Highway, turning south again. You will be in Manhattan Beach, the largest of the three. Turn right on Manhattan Beach Boulevard and take it down to the Ocean. There you will find yourself amid the real coupon-clipping laid back millionaires that teem all over this part of LA. These are the Angelenos who never work. Everywhere around you will be bronzed blonds zipping along in Italian convertibles. There are literally dozens of places to eat, in every price range, as well as boutiques and bars. But, of course, as you rise over the crest of the hill on MB Blvd., you will see the Pacific gleaming and winking ahead of you. Bring a towel and beach wear. This is the place to watch the roller-bladers gliding along The Strand in front of the multi-million dollar manses that perch at the sand’s edge. Take your margarita down there and imagine what life would be like if you had nothing to do every day but gaze out at the ocean liners and Catalina, while your help kept you supplied with refreshments.
MBch is the best kept secret in the Southland. Try the ancient Kettle for lunch and Love&Salt for dinner. Farther down PCH pointing south is Hermosa Beach. Like Manhattan, it is for play not work, but trendier, younger, hipper and more bohemian. Finally, a bit farther down is Redondo Beach. It has the Pier and attracts an older, quieter crowd. You can’t go wrong with any of the three. Hermosa has a comedy club that is actually fabulous. You never know who is going to do a gig there, often well known comics, so check before you go and reserve a seat.
Beverly Hills/ Bel Air/ Westwood I typically avoid the first two. By the way, Century City is in this area but it is largely businesses and residential. There is not much there to recommend you spend time in CC when you could be Downtown, in Manhattan Beach, or Pasadena. Beverly Hills needs little introduction. If mansion-crawling is your thing, just go west on Sunset from West Hollywood, and you will be in Bel Air in ten minutes. It is self-explanatory once you see the sign (you can’t miss it). If you find yourself in Bel Air, visit the North side of the UCLA campus, the old part of this 419 acre magnificat. You shouldn’t waste time looking at houses in BH, the main attraction of which is that Sultanic mecca known as Rodeo Drive. By the way, if you want to stay in this part of LA and actually go to the LACMA anyway, you can stay at the iconic Beverly Wilshire (Pretty Woman). But, it’s pricey.
Don’t bother eating in BH either. Overpriced, overhyped, mediocre food. No celebs will be eating there, just tourists. Eat instead in Westwood, the home village of UCLA, SoCal’s other premiere University (beside CalTech). There are so many fantastic places to eat in Westwood, I would need another post for them. Our favorite is Native Foods.
Ok, ok, I hear you saying, but what if I absolutely must tell people I ate in Beverly Hills and money is no object? Then absolutely, you have to go to Crustacean, if for nothing else, the experience of the place. You won’t be sorry — broke, but happy. If you just need to use a restroom and grab a snack so you won’t faint while shopping, go to Neiman Marcus, located on Wilshire.
Then head over to Westwood, gape at billionaire’s row on Wilshire as you approach the Westwood Village, and rest on the UCLA south campus after all this activity.
By the way, there are three more items you might want to consider: LAX, Burbank Airport and Union Station. If you want to start in the South Bay and see these three beautiful and entertaining beach cities, by all means fly into LAX. They are just 15 minutes south on the 405 Freeway. If you want to start in Pasadena or West Hollywood? Use the very nice, easy, safe Burbank Airport, you will be just minutes away from both. If you plan to start Downtown, consider taking Amtrak to Union Station and see a classic with one of the best restaurants anywhere, Traxx.
That’s it. If you just hit those five key spots, you will be immersed in LA and totally ‘get it’ ever after.
Images: Beth Byrnes, The London West Hollywood and The Examiner