Once you discard the concept of Los Angeles as a single city it all becomes a lot more enjoyable. LA’s vast sprawl is really a collection of separate cities, with all the gaps filled by six-lane roads, parking lots and drive-thrus. Tackle it like that, and the intimidation and frustration some visitors feel quickly subsides.
From then on, it’s a case of deciding where to make your home. It could be among the poseurs of Venice Beach, the Malibu surfers, the Beverly Hills credit card-brandishers or the emerging downtown cultural advocates.
Handily, three of the most interesting neighbourhoods line up alongside each other, just south of the Hollywood Hills. And these three have an intriguing mix of characters — from out and outrageous to inventive but intimate.
Remember that bar from the film Swingers? Probably not. Twenty-one years have passed since it came out, and by now you only vaguely remember what it was about, right?
Los Feliz is a case study in what happens when short-lived movie cool runs its course. For a period, it was LA’s hippest hood, partly due to its role in that particular movie. This is no longer the case, and it’s had a chance to evolve and mature without the spotlight bearing down on it.
Separated from the heart of Hollywood by some frankly grim stretches of strip mall and self-storage depot Americana, Los Feliz’ most engaging street is Vermont Avenue. Here, bookstores have a busy signing schedule and pointedly political tomes in the windows, while clusters of small fashion shops each concentrate on one thing — be it dresses or vintage. There are also a lot of gift stores like Co-op 28, whose stock ranges from homemade cards to vegetable garden kits via body butters and shoe-shine gear.
Eating and drinking delves into niches too. Figaro Bistrot does the moochy French terrace thing very well, while Bru is unashamedly po-faced about coffee, offering home brewing classes on Thursdays at noon.
A few blocks along, Hillhurst Avenue seems, at first glance, to be more of the same strip mall hell. But prod around, and things get interesting. Ye Rustic Inn looks dreadful from the outside — covered in Bud Light promos — but brave entry and it’s all mood lighting, stained glass windows, dark red leather booths and cocktails served at all hours to those who don’t much care what time it is.
Between the two avenues are beautiful wooden houses, impressive, large-scale murals, bakery-bar hybrids and florists that go in for elaborate, artsy arrangements.
There’s plenty of invention here, but no desperate urge to impress. Los Feliz is a place that has had its time as the cool, edgy spot, but is happy to see those edges smoothed and the thirst for the hottest new opening move on. There’s a reasonable amount of money, but no great desire to display it, and enough energy to keep things interesting while never being overcome by the urge to push boundaries to breaking point.
There’s now nowhere people are going to be fighting for bookings at, or lining up outside to get in. And that suits Los Feliz just fine. Sauntering along, nosying around a shop or two, then taking a seat at somewhere that tickles your fancy is what the area does best.
Anyone coming for Hollywood glamour is in for a rude shock — not least because it’s a far better place to catch live music and theatre than it is to spot movie stars. The studios are to the north in Burbank, and the vibe of Hollywood Boulevard is more grubby circus than movie fantasy. This is not to say that there’s not something weirdly compelling about wandering along the Walk Of Fame, seeing the utter randomness of the names in the adjacent stars (Sting next to Donald Duck is a particular favourite).
Yet often hidden in plain sight amid all this is a curiously different Hollywood. It’s somewhere people come for the dream, but for the people who actually live there, there appears to be an intense craving for normality.
Next to Hollywood Pantages Theatre, where the touring production of The Book of Mormon has given way to Hamilton, is a joint that couldn’t be less pre-theatre if it tried. The Frolic Room has a garish neon sign out the front, and is deliciously divey inside. Heavily tattooed men in drag, amorous couples in sports gear and bitching divorcees may be among those gathering and pumping money into the labyrinthine jukebox. But all just want a beer, a chat, and maybe a bit of ’80s-hair rock.
Then something else emerges once you take a right on Hollywood Boulevard and head down Cahuenga Boulevard. Here, the Hotel Café has carved out a niche in hosting singer-songwriters, while over the road The Running Goose is an organic restaurant with a herb garden, serving Central American-leaning gastropub dishes and craft IPAs.
Further down is the Sassafras Saloon, which has climbing plants outside and mossy grasses hanging from the ceiling. A gorgeous curving balcony set up to be a stage for live bands and a house that’s been transported brick by brick from Savannah, Georgia, are inside, while barrel-aged sazeracs and maple-infused Manhattans are served up. This could all be very pretentious, but it doesn’t come over that way. It’s just a beautifully pulled-off concept that feels homely and welcoming.
Cahuenga has several joints like this, where a bit of imagination has created somewhere agreeably down to earth. In a place where the spectacle and hype fails to deliver, the thoughtful indie productions are putting in award-worthy performances.
On Saturday afternoon at the Petit Ermitage, the huge day beds on the roof deck are occupied by beautifully toned cocktail-swiggers. The tunes are perfectly calibrated for the mood, and there’s a feeling that exclusivity could break into excess at any minute. It’s a very in-the-know hotel, filled with the owner’s art collection and a Wes Anderson-goes-to-Europe approach to interior design.
Tackled from the south west, West Hollywood is place of discreet dignity. Around the Pacific Design Center and along Melrose Avenue, the stores are aimed at those who know what they want and are prepared to spend to get it. There’s nothing so vulgar as a crowded window display, or sale signs — West Hollywood Design District is all about taste rather than tarting up.
Approached from the north east, however, it’s an entirely different story. On the Sunset Strip, absurdly gaudy mock cantinas mix with raucous pastiche saloons where lingerie-clad mannequins lean out of upper-floor windows and happy-hour promos are likely to lead to drunken disgrace. Comedy clubs battle for attention with legendary live music venues such as the Whisky a Go Go, where The Doors were once the house band.
There are some high-attitude velvet-rope joints on Sunset as well, but it’s far more enjoyable when you let your hair down rather than meticulously style it up. It carries with it the spirit of West Hollywood, which got its character during the Prohibition years. As unincorporated land between Downtown and the beaches, it was lightly policed, and thus the logical place to set up venues you didn’t want cops coming near.
Then running through the middle is Santa Monica Boulevard, the beating heart of liberal California. Garish, high-energy bars wrapped in rainbow flags sit next to Big Gay Shops selling #Resistance muscle vests and toilet rolls with pictures of Donald Trump on them. The Whole Foods Market store squares up to the venture opposite selling gourmet food for the city’s pampered population of tiny dogs. And, in among it, are small businesses set up by the long-established Russian community and the likes of Laurel Hardware, a hip, farm-to-table restaurant you could easily walk past, given it’s disguised as a hardware store. This is the land that’s proud to be La La.
When in Los Angeles
The stereotype about LA being the world capital of food fads is not entirely unjustified. But this does make for a great collection of juice bars that, between them, manage to throw up just about every combination of weird ingredients imaginable.
Lycra and legwork
Want more stereotypes? Then head to the hills, where you’ll find people puffing and panting in lycra, often holding/dragging tiny dogs, along the trails. Runyon Canyon is the prime spot, but there are plenty of others.
LA is notoriously car-centric, although the Metro network is slowly expanding. It’s a handy alternative on some routes, such as Santa Monica or Hollywood to Downtown, and virtually useless on others — especially from north to south.
This is not just the world’s movie capital, it’s also the centre of the TV universe. And it’s usually free to watch programmes filming in the studio complexes, via agencies like On Camera Audiences.
Los Angeles is arguably the farmers’ market capital of the world. The Original Farmers Market, at the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in the Fairfax District, is the granddaddy of them all, but there are dozens of others city-wide. LA Weekly has a comprehensive list.
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)