MY INTRODUCTION TO LA: THE CITY OF ANGELS
DAY 1: HAPPY LANDING
Close to 4 million people call Los Angeles home. And on almost any given day, it feels like most of them are on the city’s famously clogged freeways, headed to the airport or to the beckoning Pacific coast beaches in Venice or Santa Monica. By the way, my beloved, lovely wife at www.happygreatday.com will object to the first sentence of this article. She thinks the traffic is manageable. If you know both of us, you know that’s no surprise. Suzana loves LA. When I say “loves,” let me note that what I mean to say is that she is flat-out infatuated with this town. She is all about fashion and glamour, and LA is part of her heart. Whereas her focus is fashion and travel, my beat is travel and food. On that note, the aptly named yummy.com neighborhood market in Silver Lake, one of LA's many neighborhoods, was my kind of place with its fresh fruit and vegetables and made-to-order sandwiches at its in-house deli.
… On another positive note, the nation’s second largest city is a patchwork of distinctive neighborhoods linked by a network of roads. Being in LA is a state of mind -- one that’s multi-cultural, energetic, artsy, outdoorsy, creative, superficial and self-indulgent. (Note to self: Bring Wifey flowers after she reads this post.) … Instead of a melting pot, LA is a Rorschach test – a person’s impression of the city is heavily dependent on that individual’s personality and emotions. Alas, the LA Dodgers were out of town, so I missed a chance at visiting every storied baseball park in the country – a personal mission. There are many great attractions I missed. Even if I had made this trip solo I would want to give this place another go, because my handle is iamnotoldnews.com. (meaning I'm not dead yet). LA is an exciting adventure, and I can't wait to go back.
DAY 2: HOP ON THE BUS, GUS, DON’T NEED TO DISCUSS MUCH
With apologies to Billy Joel, there must be 50 ways to leave your lover, and 150 ways to begin your first day in a new, strange city, especially a sprawling one. As a first-time adult visitor to LA, I had visited LA as a kid when my parents took our family to Disneyland, but that magical visit doesn’t count. I heartily encourage taking some kind of bus tour for your first day in any town, whether it’s LA or Nashville or Chicago or Washington. Tour busses, with their experienced drivers and guides, offer a stress free, comfortable, entertaining and informative way to get your arms and head around a new locale. Given that my sweetheart “felt pressure to sell me on her ‘other hometown’” we took in the iconic sights that this city is famous for by a bus tour on Day No.1.
I have to admit it was quite a joy to be ferried to all the hot spots – from the Griffith Park Observatory to see the giant Hollywood sign gracing a surrounding hill, to the mansions of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, with their star-encrusted ownership. (This is where you can really see how the Joneses lived – Tom Jones, that is, along with the high-end bungalows of Beyonce and Michael Jackson.)
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see where Uncle Jed, Granny, Jethro and Elly May Clampett lived as the Beverly Hillbillies, as this real-life Bel-Air mansion that Jed bought with his millions next door to the home of his TV banker Milton Drysdale was not on our tour. This palatial mansion, known as Chartwell and located in Bel-Air, was on the market a few years ago for a cool $195 million, we were told by our guide. Well, doggies.
But as interesting as the pedigrees of the high-end places are, I was more entranced by the smaller, noteworthy but less well-known houses, like the so-called Wedding Cake house in Beverly Hills. The walls look like they were made of white swirling cake frosting. Even the view from the alley offered a pleasing, whimsical architectural surprise. I’m glad no one called the cops on me for my gawking and snooping at an original creation that seems jointly inspired by Dr. Seuss and Antonio Gaudi.
The more hard-core star-gazers can purchase a “Homes of the Stars” map for Beverly Hills from one of many sketchy looking peddlers on the roadside. A few of these maps may even be accurate. But more fun is seeing the houses owned by real people, like the Monopoly houses on a genuine Pacific Avenue in the funky beach town of Venice, also known for its public weight lifting (a former California governor named Schwartzeneggar supposedly used to hang out here) and gymnastics areas and basketball courts. Surfing, of course, is a No. 1 beach attraction and some hard-core surfers even bike to the beach carrying their boards.
Just down the coast, only minutes away on a relaxing, air-conditioned bus ride, is Santa Monica, where the elite meet to stick their tootsies into the ocean or to visit the iconic pier with its Ferris wheel, that has appeared in many movies and television shows. The Sting, Iron Man, Forrest Gump, and Threes Company are just a few of the productions with scenes that feature this famous setting. The bad news about taking a tour bus ride is that we weren't in Santa Monica long, but that was okay since the goal of seeing LA by bus with a guide was only for me to get an overview. Now Santa Monica is on my radar for a future trip.
After Santa Monica, the bus deposited us back in the city where we saw some stars, literally. I went straight to one of my favorites, the Steve McQueen star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star with McQueen's name was one of more than 2,600 five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded into the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. I couldn’t help it. I looked down every step of the way. Interestingly, for every Steve McQueen and John Wayne there were countless memorable but lesser-known stars who made their marks in the entertainment industry, like musician Jerry Colonna and funnyman Lou Costello. It was fun to remember how these stars influenced our popular culture too. Even Lassie rightly has a star, which I keenly understand and appreciate as a child of the ‘60s, but there’s no explaining David Hasslehoff. (My wife is a big Hasslehoff fan. She said she and Hasslehoff bumped into one another at F&S Fabrics in LA one time, and that they were wearing the exact same “Superman” glasses. Suzana promised me that was all there is to tell.)
DAY 2: IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Los Angeles is less of a single homogenous city than it is a stew pot of distinctive neighborhoods – Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Westwood, Koreatown, Echo Park, Los Feliz (a hipster hillside enclave where inhabitants like Brad Pitt hide out in their heavily guarded compounds)—I got this information from our tour guide on Day 1, who said he does all his research on TMZ, and it’s pretty accurate, he claimed, which is scary. He also complained about the rash of overpriced drinks on the LA bar scene, which he blamed on the plague of glorified “mixologists” who are replacing humble, modest “bartenders” at most watering holes.
While I was fond of the collection of blue Dodger batting helmets that one fan used to decorate his bushes in Echo Park, my favorite neighborhood that we visited was Silver Lake, an up-and-coming area with a flood of new and interesting shops, markets, restaurants, and bars, all straddling a steep hill facing downtown LA. The street scene is vibrant. The staircase that takes you from the street to the hilltops is steep. And the views at the crest will take your breath away.
Speaking of which … LA’s infamous smog. I didn’t notice it. I was there during the yearly “June gloom” period of the summer – a weather pattern that results in cloudy overcast skies. But I must say that the weather itself was splendid – high temps in the 70s, with low humidity. I now see why so many people move to Southern California for the fine weather, where every day is a potential golf day or beach day or hiking day. Or shopping day.
DAY 3: SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP, THEN HEAD TO ROSCOE’S
Every other business establishment in LA seems dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are not created equally and that some are more handsome or beautiful than others. Even the average LA dog seems vivacious. The number of clothing shops, wig shops, hair salons and storefront health clubs is staggering. It’s no surprise that the most popular fabric among women seems to be Spandex, but it is surprising, in an admiring and appreciative sort of way, that most women pulled off the look of being encased in something akin to sprayed on clothing. I’m also guessing, without the benefit of hands-on research, that plastic surgeons do a brisk trade, too. People here like to see and be seen. This is one of the best people-watching cities I've ever visited. To add to this please-notice-me attitude, every other car in the more fashionable parts of town seemed to be a Ferrari, a Lamborgini or a Rolls Royce. Hey, I wish I had one, too – a Rolls, not a vulgar modern version, but one of the cooler old classics, like a Silver Cloud that I saw parked outside, of all places, a Trader Joe’s in Beverly Hills.
The epicenter for fancy shopping in LA is Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. A great way to begin away a day of shopping is with a cup of coffee from Alfred's, with its snappy and colorful “but first coffee” wall mural by JGoldcrown, a few blocks from Rodeo. (Note: This wall's mural is frequently updated.)
Shopping, as they say, is hard work and causes one to develop a raging appetite. Especially after a splendid side-trip to the cavern-like Amoeba Music record store in Hollywood, which is the largest independently owned record store in the world. So when the going gets tough, the tough look for a delicious place to fill up. In my case, that was Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood. This soul-food restaurant chain is considered an LA institution, for good reason. Many West Coast folks are like their East Coast brethren. It did my Southern heart good to see so many Angelenos devouring mounds of fried chicken, stacks of waffles, bowls of grits and other food that is standard fare in Georgia and across America’s Southland. Ever since my stroke and subsequent “pin strokes” I’ve had to watch my diet carefully and fried or greasy is not on the menu. But Roscoe’s is quite the famous destination. Another stroke may be my undoing, but I had to have a taste of what all this national fuss is about. (President Obama was a regular here. His picture was prominently displayed across from our table -- there's even an "Obama special" on the menu; 3 wings, a waffle or potato salad or French fries).
You can only eat so much sushi and fancy food, and LA is full of fancy. Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles is my kind of place -- it serves good food and plenty of it. I wonder if places like Roscoe's, which speak the universal language of food, could help build culinary bridges that unite our divided country. We are divided by politics. But everyone can unite over the simple goodness of America’s finest vittles -- crispy chicken, gooey gravy and wonderful waffles. Sharing is caring, and finger lickin’ good. If only our politics were as generous and as even-tempered as our table manners. Keep hope alive: Roscoe for president. No, better yet, Roscoe for our Kitchen-Commander-In-Chief. Can I get an Amen?
Tommy Barton is the former editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News and a food and travel blogger at iamnotoldnews.c