Is it worth the drive?
Anyone who has seen the movie Entourage (yes, that’s nearly two hours of my life that I won’t get back) may remember the one funny line when the friends saw a distraught “E” walking. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like “Why the hell are you walking in LA? You look like an idiot.”
That sums up Los Angeles for us. In New York, you’ll willingly walk for miles, sometimes in bad weather, and experience the streets. In LA, if you say you’re walking, the response is incredulous. “You’re walking? But that’s almost a quarter mile away! Why wouldn’t you call an Uber?”
We witness that first-hand every time in LA, most recently around New Year’s. For this particular night’s progressive, we tackled Santa Monica. With a quick look at Dialogue, which has the craziest location for a big-name chef (in what’s basically a strip mall, which we visited another night), we headed to Cassia for dinner. Following an incredibly flavorful dinner that included chopped escargot in lemongrass butter, we hit two more very close by places: Tar and Roses, and Cassia’s sister restaurant/wine bar, Rustic Canyon. My guess is the total walk was 500 meters.
We walked into Rustic Canyon to a pretty full bar and a few bar tables open.
“We just walked here from Cassia, but we’re thinking we’d like dessert outside instead of a bar table.”
The response: “Well, I know you’re not from anywhere around here, because that’s a long walk and no one wants to sit outside.”
It was 65 degrees with heaters everywhere. Gotta love LA.
We’re in the city almost monthly these days, so we’ve had a chance to love, or at least like, LA a lot more—despite its lack of leg transport. And in spite of the complete reliance on cars. With all the great natural beauty, why do they spend so much time in the car? The answer is because it takes two hours to drive two miles. And that’s not much of an exaggeration. And why not walk? There don’t seem to be too many sidewalks either. Ugh.
So we’re learning to stay in areas where we can easily access some great places without being entirely car-bound. It’s a great two-day town, unless you’re on your way north (Santa Barbara, Montecito), or south (Newport, etc).
Let’s start downtown, with its recent resurgence (here, “resurgence” is defined as a blend of some remaining Skid Row places coexisting with the hippest of new hotels and restaurants).
Where the cool kids went:
First, the Ace Hotel deserves huge kudos for taking a challenging, but very cool, historic building and creating a hotel, complete with the pre-WWII musty smell. The Ace was a great addition and a huge catalyst of change downtown. In the beginning, the cool kids came. But in true LA fashion, the cool kids don’t stay long.
The Ace still boasts a pretty great rooftop and gathering spot, but if you stay there, be prepared for a room that is weirdly shaped and, in some cases, unnecessarily big (or mindbogglingly tiny). Also be prepared for minuscule soap and running into a guitar perched in the middle of the floor as you get up during the night—let’s call the décor eclectic rather than functional.
The best new option is the Nomad which was just opening on our last trip. There is also the Freehand, with a quirky vibe, great bar and sister hotel in Miami.
Downtown, which is where the convention center and LA Live are, will soon be the home to many more new hotels. Mostly chains, but reputable ones, giving a lot of great options.
The restaurant scene downtown is definitely evolving. Within a short walk (off of Spring and 4th/5th), you run into Josef Centeno’s thoughtful and fun creations: Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston, Ledlow, and Baco Mercat.
Grand Central Market on South Broadway has had a recent resurgence of hipsters.
Others not to miss are Otium, Bottega Louie, and Eggslut (is that not the greatest restaurant name?) for breakfast. Rossoblu is the newest notable addition, and Broken Spanish, the year+ old Spanish/Mexican joint is always seemingly busy.
Don’t miss Bestia, It’s a cab ride and probably a wait, but a fun vibe and eclectic menu.
Off to Sunset:
Ahh, West Hollywood. Still home to the cool kids. Home to Chateau Marmont, the London, the Mondrian, the Andaz, and the SLS or Sofitel a little further down on La Cienega. They all have happening outdoor bars or rooftops with overpriced cocktails and great weather. Of the supposedly “cool” hotels, our go- tos are the London and SLS. The London for the balconies and the rooftop view, and the SLS for the unmatched hotel breakfast by José Andrés. Seriously. The breakfast is unbelievable. Try the eggs Benedict if you don’t believe me.
The SLS is where Maybachs actually mate, sometimes with the Ferraris. Try pulling up in a rental Ford to the valet following a Maybach and watch the “smell the fart” face the valet guys give you.
If you stay in this area, the restaurants to hit are in the area from La Cienega to Highland between Sunset and Melrose.
There is a group of restaurants owned by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo that are actually all worth a visit, from Trois Mec, a finer dining prix-fixe spot, to Animal (a great choice on Fairfax) to Jon & Vinny’s (a tiny place with great pizza, pasta, meatballs, and more on the same street as Animal). There’s also Son of a Gun (near to the ever-popular Joan’s on Third) and Petit Trois. Petit Trois is a freak of nature. They have a great French menu coming out of what may be the world’s smallest kitchen. The food is fantastic, and we actually enjoyed it more than the finer dining Trois Mec, which is right around the corner. These are all great examples of the theater a kitchen brings into a restaurant.
In this same area, general area, Republique is worth a stop anytime of the day, with great space and a revolving menu for every daypart.
On Melrose, you have a few interesting and known selections clustered more on west Melrose. The eastern part of the street still tries to maintain the hip grittiness that made it famous, even though it’s interrupted by the occasional Johnny Rockets and Subway.
Melrose has the newest, pretty good izakaya transplant in Aburiya Raku. It also has Red O. It’s more scene than substance now, but this Mexican place had our client Rick Bayless help with the initial menu. Providence, a long-term player in the finer dining scene, sits on Melrose. Lucques, by Suzanne Goin, serves up phenomenal steak frites at the bar, and Ago, which is a decent choice for fine Italian. For another Suzanne Goin treat, try AOC, a wine bar about 10 minutes from the SLS hotel. Yes, we did walk, and yes, we probably looked like idiots.
This area also has the LA Farmer’s Market, which is mostly shopping mall, but it’s still great to see the old-school, unchanged food stalls.
Even though Beverly Hills and West Hollywood are intertwined neighbors, we’ll separate them out for the purposes of hotels and restaurants. The hotels are decidedly bigger, more posh, and much more expensive:
Sixty (of the too-cool-for-school Thompson Hotel group). The cheapest of the bunch, and you’ll see why.
Hotel Bel Air or Beverly Hills Hotel (both part of Dorchester) is you want to stay in an icon (and the Bel Air is like a free-standing resort complete with swans swimming about). The Viceroy L’ermitage is a higher end price point, but you can actually walk into Beverly Hills if so moved.
For restaurants, this area has the perennial to-do, Spago, as well as the teeny-tiny-but-attention-getting Maude. Sotto is a good Italian choice, and Hinoki & the Bird is always interesting. There are also all the big-dog restaurants, many within the big-dog hotels.
Food trucks need to be chased in LA, but they’re worth it. Just remember to factor traffic into everything.
Back to Santa Monica. Here are a few other great places to check out:
Shutters on the Beach (A luxury hotel with beach house inspired design)
Oceana (Classy but still breezy and not far from the Santa Monica Pier)
Viceroy (We always give a cool-kid, scene option. This is it.)
Palihouse (A historic, eclectic Mediterranean Revival boutique hotel)
Felix (a newer Italian-focused restaurant in Abbot Kinney that brings the quality level up in this area)
Melisse (A 2-Michelin French restaurant and probably the only true fine dining left….there may be a reason why since fine dining is tough these days)
Rustic Canyon Wine Bar (Small plates and a huge wine list)
Gjusta (A great display and all-day dining)
Tasting Kitchen (Mediterranean spot with killer cocktails and bustling brunch)
Cassia (Southeast Asian cuisine with a clean California vibe)
Gjelina (One of the city’s most-envied patios)
LALA Land is great for a while—making it the perfect two-day town.