This introduction to Los Angeles is written by Danny Feingold. A lifetime Angeleno and longtime managing editor of the late local weekly, Los Angeles View.
Dream factory. Capital of pretension. Surf city. New Age mecca. Third World melting pot. Suburban idyll. Rising sun of the Pacific Rim. Company town.
Welcome to Los Angeles, California, city of multiple personalities — perhaps the ultimate experiment in urban diversity that our species has yet produced.
Trying to take the pulse of this bustling omnilopolis is not easy. The trick is to shelve preconceptions and experience L.A. in all its erratic, often unglamorous glory.
Los Angeles is a place where it’s possible to take a starlit horseback ride in the Hollywood Hills that ends up at a Mexican cantina in the Valley; attend poetry readings at a Venice literary hub converted from a jail; or play a midnight chess game outside a jazz-drenched coffeehouse in Leimert Park, heart of L.A.’s African-American arts renaissance.
Amidst the teeming theme parks, overhyped studio tours and too-chic Rodeo Drive shops is the other Los Angeles — a city far more cultured, way less commercial and light years more fun than the Los Angeles most tourists ever imagine.
Melrose and Hollywood
For a small sample of L.A.’s countless identities, spend a day roaming the swath of city bordered by Beverly Hills on the west and Hollywood on the east. Here one finds a half a dozen distinct mini-cultures that rival the urban idiosyncrasies (if not the neuroses) of Manhattan.
Start the day at the Farmer’s Market (3rd and Fairfax), a charming indoor/outdoor collection of shops, stalls and restaurants pervaded by an Old World flavor. This haven for the various immigrant populations of the surrounding neighborhoods offers some of the best people-watching in the city, as well as an abundance of culinary treats that will put you in mind of a slightly exotic country fair.
For a more concentrated ethnic experience, head north to Fairfax and Beverly, the slightly past-its-prime but still vibrant hub of Jewish L.A. Wandering from kosher bakery to kosher butcher to kosher restaurant, it’s interesting to note that the dominant establishment on this three-block stretch is the not-so-kosher Canter’s (419 N. Fairfax Ave.), a deli that migrated west with the city’s Jewish residents a generation ago. Further up Fairfax, the Israeli influence starts to make itself felt as knishes give way to falafel while Yiddish fades into Hebrew.
Follow Fairfax north to Melrose, immortalized forever by Heather Locklear and pals. Ten years ago, this mile-long stretch of novelty shops and restaurants was too cool by half, attracting hordes of the young and pierced. Melrose still boasts some of the heavier foot traffic in L.A., offering a dizzying abundance of absurdly proportioned women and Brad Pitt lookalikes, but thankfully it’s mellowed out a bit since its ’80s heyday. Food skews toward Italian (Cucina, 7381 Melrose, is one of the best), but you can also find Mexican (Antonio’s, 7472 Melrose), Thai/Japanese (Tommy Tang’s, 7313 Melrose), Indian (Star of India, 7212 Melrose) and even Argentinean (Lala’s, 7229 Melrose). Then there’s Pink’s (711 N. La Brea Ave.), the legendary hot dog stand whose unmistakable aroma draws beggars and movie stars alike into its cozy open-air confines. For appetites of a different nature, drop into Drake’s (7566 Melrose), a sex shop that stocks everything from the latest in S&M paraphernalia to bath-salt aphrodisiacs.
Melrose/La Brea also houses L.A.’s premier revival theater, the somewhat tattered but resilient New Beverly (7165 Beverly Blvd.). It’s amazing that in the film capital of the world this theater has to struggle to keep afloat, but the owners seemed undeterred, quenching the thirst of cinemaphiles with everything from Fellini to Flesh Gordon.
Speaking of tattered but resilient, Hollywood beckons. For Hollywood dining the way it used to be, Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Blvd.) — a fixture since 1919 and host to the likes of Hemingway and Chaplin — is unsurpassed, if pricey. A close second is Miceli’s (1646 N. Las Palmas Ave.), where chianti bottles hang from the ceiling and the ’40s ambience is as thick as the spaghetti sauce. The All-Star Theatre Cafe at the fabled Knickerbocker Hotel (1714 Ivar Ave.) is another favorite throwback, while Catalina Bar & Grill (1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd.) ranks as one of Southern California’s top jazz clubs. For other tastes, the very hip Three of Clubs (a white building with no sign on the northwest corner of Santa Monica and Vine) is one of the only bars in L.A. whose owners know anything about lighting. To work up a sweat, there’s Dragonfly (6510 Santa Monica Blvd.), a dance club/bar with a cool garden patio in back.
While nightlife still thrives in Hollywood, within ten minutes’ drive can be found three entirely different scenes. Head west on Sunset and you’ll hit the Strip, a winding three-mile stretch lined with screaming billboards, ritzy hotels and a slew of clubs, including the cavernous yet seductive House of Blues (8430 Sunset Blvd.), the intimate Roxy (9009 Sunset Blvd.) and the raucous Whisky-A-Go-Go (8901 Sunset Blvd.). Running parallel to Sunset is Santa Monica Boulevard, the main artery of West Hollywood, L.A.’s gay capital. Bookstores — including the excellent A Different Light (8853 Santa Monica Blvd.) — cafes and clubs abound, as do one-of-a-kind establishments such as the French Quarter Marketplace (7958 Santa Monica Blvd.), which somehow melds a queer sensibility with Southern gentility.
For yet another slice of nocturnal Los Angeles, head back to the Fairfax District and check out Canter’s Kibitz Room (419 N. Fairfax Ave.), a bar/club with a certain seedy charm. Across the street, the darkly elegant Largo (432 N. Fairfax Ave.) offers up live music six nights a week, with an accent on Irish folk/rock. Slice lovers will want to duck into Damiano (412 N. Fairfax Ave.), a late-night dive with the best New York-style pizza this side of Little Italy. It’s just one more reason why refugees from the Big Apple whine a lot but never go home. All-nighters will need Insomnia (7286 Beverly Blvd.), a subdued coffeehouse where introspective types armed with laptops coax screenplays from the depths of sleep deprivation. Sweet dreams, indeed.
South and West LA
Locate the Santa Monica Freeway on a map of Los Angeles, and you’ll see that much of the city falls below this major east-west artery. But for most tourists — indeed, for many locals — L.A. south of the 10 might as well not exist. Yet exist it does, harboring some cultural treasures that should not be missed.
Before venturing south, start the day with a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd.), a complex offering a bevy of excellent permanent exhibitions (including a wonderful collection of ancient Asian ceramics) and such amenities as the lovely Japanese Pavilion. Nearby is the Petersen Automotive Museum (6060 Wilshire Blvd.), a must-see trip through 20th Century car culture.
Another must-see is the Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniature Art, also on Museum Row. Their motto is “The world in the palm of your hand,” and they’re not kidding. See everything from a replica of the O.J. Simpson trial, complete with a mini Marcia Clark, to French palaces furnished with Van Gogh paintings and rice-size chandeliers. Some scenes look so real, you’ll feel guilty of voyeurism.
To “cross that invisible line,” take Fairfax down to the 10 and head east to the 110 south. Get off at the Coliseum exit for the Museum of Science and Industry (700 State Dr.), where you can relive those childhood moments of innocent wonder. Don’t miss the ultimate cinematic thrill ride at the museum’s IMAX theater, featuring mind-blowing nature documentaries like “The Living Sea” on a 70-foot-wide screen. Also within walking distance are the Natural History Museum (900 Exposition Blvd.), famous for the Ralph M. Parsons Insect Zoo, and the Afro-American Museum (600 State Dr.), which delves into black life in the Americas.
Get back on the 100 and head south to the Watts Towers (1765 E. 107th St.), L.A.’s internationally renowned symbol of urban ingenuity. Built between 1921 and 1954 by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia from metal, plaster, glass and seashells, the towers rise to over 100 feet, gracing the surrounding community with their unconventional beauty. Incredibly, urban renewers tried to tear down this irreplaceable landmark in the late ’50s to clear space for a bowling alley, but sanity prevailed.
For some down-home food, go west on the 105 Freeway and take the Crenshaw exit north to Slauson, where you’ll come upon Woody’s Bar-B-Que (3446 W. Slauson Ave.). A no-frills joint that goes way back, Woody’s serves up the best barbecue in town, not to mention flavored sodas you’ll rarely find north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Further up Crenshaw just off 43rd Street is the Leimert Park area, which in the last few years has birthed a vibrant African-American cultural revival whose impact has been felt throughout the city. At the center of this creative flowering is 5th Street Dick’s (3335 W. 43rd Pl.), a charmingly unpretentious coffeehouse/jazz club that draws a multicultural crowd from all over L.A. Live music and poetry readings go late into the night, as do the fierce chess matches at the tables lining the sidewalk. Around the corner is Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn (4339 Leimert Blvd.), a legendary blues joint formerly located on Central Avenue. The new version is quite simply one of the best clubs in the city, a stylishly subdued room with enough ambience and soul to keep you coming back again and again. One block west, The World Stage (4344 Degnan Blvd.) serves as a breeding ground for jazz musicians and poets alike, offering workshops and performances for the serious artist and listener.
Head northwest to Culver City for another venue bursting with creative energy, the marvelously iconoclastic Jazz Bakery (3233 Helms Ave). Conceived by singer Ruth Price, this nonprofit performance space and gallery is housed in the historic Helms Bakery building. Along with Catalina Bar & Grill, the innovatively designed Bakery offers the best live jazz in Los Angeles, augmented by a rotating exhibit of jazz portraits (the curator is world-famous photographer William Claxton).
After dinner, drive west along Washington Boulevard through Culver City, whose broad, quiet streets, old buildings and rambling movie studios cast a slightly eerie but entrancing spell. Continue on to West L.A.’s venerable Cafe Danssa (11533 Pico Blvd.), a folk-dance club which heats up about a thousand degrees every Friday and Saturday night with a Carnival-like frenzy of Brazilian music. You’ll swear you’re in Rio, and you’ll samba until your partner drags you off for some shut-eye.
L.A. may be famous for its melanoma-courting beach fanatics, but there’s far more to do along the coast than catch some rays. In the course of a day, it’s more than possible to feast your eyes on world-class art, indulge the palette, sample some L.A. counterculture and still have time to bask in the glow of a Pacific sunset.
Head out to the coast along stunning Sunset Drive, a meandering stretch of road that cuts through some of L.A.’s most affluent neighborhoods, including Brentwood (don’t even think about it) and Pacific Palisades. When you hit Pacific Coast Highway (locals call it PCH), go north to Topanga Canyon Road, which will take you deep into one of L.A.’s most eccentric subcultures.
A mere fifteen minutes from the upscale eateries and shops of Santa Monica, Topanga Canyon is a refuge for artists, nature lovers, nudists, New Age gurus and other outside-the-mainstream types who still want (or need) to be close to the action. Perched on a hill above the main road is Inn of the Seventh Ray (128 Old Topanga Canyon Road), a local institution famous for its spiritual pedigree and idyllic outdoor patio as well as its menu. The restaurant caters mostly to health-food devotees, but don’t let that frighten you: indulgence is part of the credo here (try the fondue, if you dare), and you will leave with both a full stomach and serene heart.
Less than a mile up the main road is the turnoff for Topanga Canyon State Park. Lazy souls can take a short walk and find a shady oak for an afternoon siesta; the more ambitious can choose from several hiking trails, some of which eventually lead to a dramatic view of the coastline.
By now you’re probably thirsting for some ocean air. Drive back to PCH and, if it’s early enough, head north. There are plenty of nice beaches all along the highway, but the coast turns more ruggedly beautiful once you get past the overdeveloped eyesore of central Malibu. At Leo Carillo State Beach, you can play explorer in some cool seashore caves, then climb up on the jagged rocks and lose yourself in the rhythm of the crashing waves.
Once you’ve had your fill of nature, head back on PCH and make a beeline for Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. While this outdoor pedestrian mall is typically overrun by yuppies and blissed-out couples, it can be fun in small doses, especially if you need a zap of civilization after a day in the wilds. Be sure to check out Midnight Special (1318 Third Street Promenade), one of the area’s best independent bookstores, as well as Hennessey & Ingalls (1254 Third Street Promenade), which offers an amazing selection of books on art and architecture.
By this time, the sun should be sinking low, so walk down to the Santa Monica Pier and watch the sky get magical. Lest you start feeling too laid back, drive over to the Novel Cafe (212 Pier Ave. just off Main Street), where you can revive yourself with some strong joe while leafing through Tolstoy or eavesdropping on your bohemian co-patrons.
Now you’re primed for anything the avant-garde L.A. art scene can throw at you, so take your pick between Beyond Baroque (681 Venice Blvd.) and Highways (1651 18th St.). The former, once an abandoned jail, is a literary oasis where poets and other wordsmiths reinvent language; the latter riles up Jesse Helms and his neanderthal pals with cutting-edge theater, dance and performance art that challenges sexual and cultural stereotypes.
Your stomach should be rumbling, and you could do far worse than Border Grill (1445 Fourth St.), which serves up mouth-watering Southwestern fare that’ll make you wonder why you ever eat anything else. Right across the street, dance it off at Harvelle’s (1432 Fourth St.), a classic blues club that’s been around longer than most of its customers (which is saying something in L.A.). When the show’s over, catch a glimpse of the Pacific by starlight and breathe in the midnight ocean air. You’ll go to sleep feeling more relaxed than a Zen master.
Things Not to Miss
Venice Beach: On weekends, L.A.’s seaside promenade is like a mild acid trip. Jugglers, rappers, skateboarders, musclemen, polemicists and various kindred souls put on a spontaneous circus for all to see. Stroll the boardwalk, or grab a table at the Sidewalk Cafe (1401 Ocean Front Walk) and just watch the show go by.
La Brea Tar Pits: Forget Jurassic Park — this prehistoric graveyard complete with replicas holds a morbid fascination for mammals of all stripes.
Griffith Park: The largest public park in the country, this urban refuge offers everything from hiking to animal-gawking (Los Angeles Zoo) to star-gazing (Griffith Observatory).
Bradbury Building: One of L.A.’s seminal architectural achievements, the recently renovated Bradbury is a wrought-iron and wood wonder that stands out among Downtown’s remaining landmarks.
Mulholland Drive at Sunset: On a clear evening, this two-lane road that winds along the city’s mountain divide yields a stunning view that’ll humble even the most cynical L.A. detractors.