By Sandra Hutchinson
With our older son living in, dare I say it — Hollywood —we have been making regular trips out to Los Angeles from northern New York state to visit him since he moved there in the fall of 2014. A city that initially seemed to us overwhelming in its sprawl and sheer unmanageability now feels more familiar. We’ve found neighborhoods, restaurants and spots we particularly like, and my husband and I have grown to look forward to our periodic trips to La La Land.
We actually made our first visit to Los Angeles years before we had any inkling that one of our sons would end up living there. In researching that trip, I remember being boggled by the vastness of the region, and I struggled to figure out the best way to plan a week’s vacation there, with two teenagers in tow. I diligently read guide books and studied Web sites, and we ended up first staying a couple of nights in Santa Monica, then several more in West Hollywood, with a final two nights near Disneyland.
We arrived for our visit a few days after Christmas, when most of the entertainment industry shuts down for a few weeks (minimal taping of shows, etc.) but we still managed to have a lot of fun. We went to the iconic Santa Monica pier (it extends out into the Pacific and houses a small amusement park; it is also the terminus of Route 66); we drove up Route 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway, or “PCH”) along the ocean to Malibu and to state parks and beaches beyond; we went to Venice Beach and saw the original “Muscle Beach” (outdoor weight-training equipment); we went to Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame; saw a Clippers game at the Staples Center; checked out Rodeo Drive; took a private tour of celebrity home locations (we were chased away from Leo DiCaprio’s driveway by his guard); and viewed the Rose Bowl Parade floats up close in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, where they are put on display in a park, following the parade. (Everything used to decorate the floats must be made of plant materials.) My husband and I had drinks at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s star-studded Polo Lounge as well as at the legendary and atmospheric Chateau Marmont. And yes, we went to Disneyland.
On subsequent visits, we’ve absorbed a bit more culture (LA style), taking an architectural walking tour of downtown LA; visiting the Getty Art Museum, the Getty Villa in Malibu (it replicates an excavated Roman villa at Herculaneum), the Broad Museum, and the Huntington Preserve and Museum near Pasadena. We’ve been to the Griffith Observatory several times; we’ve checked out a bunch of farmers’ markets (please see my blog post from April 2017); and we’ve expanded our culinary horizons by visiting taco trucks and shabu shabu, dim sun and sushi restaurants. We’ve also enjoyed lots of comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, both at the Franklin and Sunset Boulevard locations. We’ve toured Paramount Studios and been in the audience for several tapings of Sports Jeopardy, hosted by Dan Patrick. I’ve killed time (no pun intended) by visiting cemeteries where celebrities are memorialized, including Toto, Dorothy’s dog from The Wizard of Oz. Hey, it’s California.
People write entire books about visiting Los Angeles, so this blog post is simply meant to highlight my top tips and recommendations for a vacation visit!
If you’re flying, consider arriving at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, especially if you are headed to the more northerly parts of LA. It’s much smaller and manageable than LAX. We usually fly to LA on Southwest Airlines, and our home airport is in Albany, NY. We can easily get to LA with only one stop; usually through Las Vegas, or more commonly, through Baltimore/Washington or Chicago (Midway). Southwest does fly into Burbank, although the fares are usually more expensive than flying into LAX.
Rather than renting a car at the airport (I have horror stories about arriving late at LAX and trying to find an available rental car even with a confirmed reservation), consider renting at a car rental location in the city. The last time I was there, a friend and I Ubered in from LAX to Hollywood, then rented a car the next day in the city at an Enterprise location. It was much cheaper and easier than the airport option. Just go on the various car rental companies’ Web sites and search for the city locations.
If you hope to really see LA and the region, it can be difficult without a car. But if you wish to go without a car, or you want to park your car and head out, it seems there’s an Uber or Lyft driver on every corner. There is a LA Metro, but it is very limited in terms of route and usability.
You can get some great hotel deals during the Christmas holidays because so many Angelenos leave town and much of the industry is on hiatus. During the holidays, we found a relative bargain at the London West Hollywood, which offers enormous suites with fantastic views of LA, and a hip rooftop pool and bar (many LA hotels tout their rooftop bars). At the time we stayed there, British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was associated with the restaurant— he was at the hotel for New Year’s and we encountered him.
At other times of the year, staying in a prime location is expensive. One hotel we particularly like, though, which is well priced and well situated, is the Elan Hotel, located roughly near the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills border. The hotel is housed in a former adult home and while it doesn’t have a pool or chic bar, the rooms are comfortable and nicely appointed; there are affordable suites (for additional family members or friends); there’s reasonably priced (for LA) valet parking; and breakfast and an ample afternoon wine bar with snacks are included. Check the Web site and search for specials. Side benefit: the hotel is close to the Beverly Center shopping mall and an adjacent shopping plaza with excellent off-price stores like Nordstrom Rack, and it’s within walking distance of some great restaurants on Third Street (try Joan’s on Third for lunch or brunch.)
We’ve also stayed at an Airbnb. We rented a charming guest cottage not far from our son’s house, near Franklin Village in Hollywood, at the rear of a larger home owned by a couple who work in the film industry. It was surprisingly affordable, and the living room’s sofa bed was fine for our friend who was accompanying us. We had a nifty outdoor patio where we enjoyed our coffee each morning and soaked up the sun.
Restaurants we like:
In Los Feliz, which is a trendy neighborhood east of Hollywood, my favorite spot is The Alcove. You order inside at the counter, then choose a table outside on the leafy patio. It’s comfortable, the food is fresh and interesting, there’s a nice bar, and it’s just comfy. Nice place to sit for a good long while.
On my last trip to LA, my best friend, my older son and I had a memorable dinner at Osteria Mozza, on Melrose Avenue, which is co-owned by Nancy Silverton (a founder of La Brea Bakery), Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. It’s Italian-inspired, with a mozzarella bar; expensive but excellent cocktails, and attentive service.
Some of our ethnic choices
During our last visit, we had a fantastic Mexican meal at one of the several branches of Mercado, on Third Avenue. I’m not a huge Mexican food fan, but the various small plates we shared there challenged our ideas of standard Mexican dishes and were outstanding.
We’ve also enjoyed dinner several times at Sushi Roku, at both its Santa Monica and Third Street location. Excellent but pricey. At our first visit to Sushi Roku, one of our sons recognized our waiter as an actor from the American Pie movies. We relied on his recommendations for dishes and were highly pleased.
Los Angeles’s Koreatown is large and has many great choices for hot pot; likewise, there are spots for the Japanese version, shabu shabu. It’s just plain fun to sit around with friends and family dunking meat and vegetables in a shared pot of boiling broth.
Many of the great ethnic dining spots in LA are little “holes in the wall.” I highly recommend viewing the film City of Gold, the 2015 documentary about LA Times’s restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. We can confirm what Jonathan Gold says — some of the best food in LA is found in unlikely places, like strip malls. Google his name and discover some fantastic spots.
I asked my son what his favorite restaurant is in LA, and he replied: “Chego— this is my favorite food spot in LA. It’s Korean/Mexican fusion, created by Chef Roy Choi. It’s located in a plaza in Chinatown across from the new LA food institition Howlin’ Rays Chicken (also great but regularly boasts a two-hour line). The Beefy T bowl is my go-to, and their Ooey Gooey fries are bar none the best fries I’ve ever had. Most of their food is basically super flavorful mixed with delicious curry-ish sauces mixed into rice. Oh, and it’s like ten bucks. Ten bucks and you’ll never feel like you have to eat again.”
Now that’s a five-star review!
And when in LA, you must visit a taco truck. My son’s favorite? Here’s what he says: “Leo’s Taco Truck – located on the corner of Western and Sunset, this small taco truck franchise has some of the best and cheapest tacos in town. They’re known for their al pastor (barbecued pork) which, at night, they chop off of a giant rotating spit that they bring outside of the truck.”
A retro spot— The Apple Pan Diner on Pico Boulevard feels straight out of the 1947, when it opened. It’s said to be the inspiration for the Johnny Rockets restaurant chain. Seating is at a large U-shaped counter, the burgers are grilled in front of you and served wrapped in wax paper, and the sodas are in paper cones set into aluminum receptacles. Cash only, of course. The day we stopped there for lunch, the actor John Larroquette was there with a couple of kids.
Ice cream in Larchmont Village
The Portland, Oregon-based Salt & Straw now has several LA-area locations. We like the one in quaint Larchmont Village, an area that feels more like a leafy suburb of New York than a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Flavors include tastes like honey lavender, sea salt and caramel ribbons and almond brittle with salted ganache. Yum.
Fresh, casual seafood in Malibu
We had an excellent, casual lunch at Malibu Seafood, on Route 1. Reminded me of Arnold’s in Eastham, on Cape Cod, one of my favorites.
Celebrity watching at the Polo Lounge
We’ve gone for drinks a few times at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge and have found the waitstaff to be friendly and welcoming. Cocktails don’t come cheap, but you never know who you might see.
Some of our top sights to check out:
Downtown LA is a mixed bag. There are a lot of homeless people but the city seems to be working to help them and provide services. (Here’s a link to a New York Times article concerning the issue.) If you’re headed downtown, your best bet is to have a specific destination or event. One such spot is Grand Central Market. a large, indoor market which opened in 1917, that has both food vendors and restaurants. It’s a must-see.
There are many ethnic choices, cool neon signs, and intriguing spots like Eggslut, based on the love of eggs, which opened in 2011 and now has several locations. The signature dish is a coddled egg in a mason jar, atop potato puree, but Eggslut also has a wide variety of sandwiches.
Intriguing downtown architecture
On one of our visits to LA, we took a walking tour of downtown, which included stepping into the Victorian skylit atrium of the Bradbury Building, built in 1893. The elevators are open-cage style, and there are intricate wrought iron railings, stairs and balconies. The atrium has appeared in a number of movies, including Chinatown (1974) and Blade Runner (1982). The Bradbury Building is at 304 South Broadway.
Also downtown is the Broad Museum (pronounced “brode”). Open since September, 2015, the striking building houses a tremendous collection of contemporary art, collected by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. Admission to the regular galleries is free, but it is recommended that you reserve ahead for an admit time, online. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary art, but I was blown away by the Broad.
Moving out of downtown, one of our favorite things to do is to go to one of the star shows at the Griffith Observatory, and there’s nothing like the view over the Los Angeles basin, including the downtown skyline, which is recognizable to almost anyone who pays attention to TV commercials, many of which are filmed with that view as a backdrop. The Observatory, in Griffith park near Hollywood, has appeared in many films, perhaps most famously, the 1955 James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause. More recently, it figured prominently in La La Land, when Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling fly around under its dome. For information on visiting, programs, etc. check the Web site here.
This impressive 207-acre property is in San Marino, a short drive northeast of Los Angeles, near Pasadena. Founded by railroad tycoon Henry Huntington (originally from Oneonta, in upstate New York) and his wife Arabella, The Huntington includes an noteworthy collection of European and American art; a major research library housing manuscripts, rare books, prints and photographs; a science museum; and extensive botanical gardens representing various garden styles and ecosystems, like the desert garden of cacti and succulents.
Since you’re likely to spend most of a day at The Huntington, you’ll want to check out one of the several spots to get a bite to eat. We had a fantastic lunch at the 1919 Café (named for the year the museum was founded), and happened upon the restaurant’s executive chef Susan Feniger, who my friend immediately recognized from the Food Network TV show called Too Hot Tamales. Of course we had to grab a photo. Susan Feniger is on the right in the photo below; my friend Elissa is on the left. Susan invited us to visit her at her Border Grill restaurant in downtown LA later that evening, but sadly, because of other commitments, we weren’t able to make it.
For information on visiting The Huntington, check its Web site here.
Of course most first-time visitors check out the handprints and signatures in the concrete in the forecourt of Grumman’s Chinese Theater, but the hordes of tourists will probably put you off.
Nearby, the Walk of Fame is kind of anticlimactic. It’s about 2600 five-pointed celebrity stars imbedded into the sidewalks along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.
Improvisational Comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theater
Make sure to check out one of the hysterical improv comedy shows at one of UCB’s two Los Angeles locations — Franklin Avenue, or Sunset Boulevard. Check the theater’s Web site for show times and ticket info, here. There are multiple shows each night, and tickets are cheap (usually $7). Shows sell out, so you are well advised to purchase tickets ahead, online. After you buy your ticket, get there early and line up to get the best choice of seats.
We’ve seen some side-splitting comedy at UCB. We’ve also been surprised by unannounced appearances on the improv stage by such well-known actors as John Hamm, the star of Mad Men, who had won his 16th Emmy Award for his role as Don Draper just a few days before we saw him at UCB Franklin. Again, you just never know who you might see!
Please leave your own suggestions for spots to visit, places to stay, and restaurants to try in Los Angeles, below!