When people ask me about my time in Los Angeles, I am quick to inform them I will never live in that barren wasteland of inconvenience ever again. I spent six years living in LA between college and life after college though, so while there is not money on Earth that would ever get me to live in LA again, I actually spend a fair amount of time there and there are a fair number of places I like to visit with regularity.
In fact, I am in Los Angeles right now and have spent much of my weekend showing my friend Josh the town, as he is a movie buff who has never been to Hollywood before.
The thing is, I am more an off the beaten path LA tour guide than most. I will show people Hollywood Boulevard as I did today (which is where, btw, we just stumbled upon an incredible bookstore called Larry Edmunds). I still get all giddy when I get to show someone the beautiful facade of the American Cinematheque Egyptian Theater. I can drive Sunset Blvd, pop into the Beverly Center, hit up the beach and Third Street Promenade, but what I take the most pride in is showing folks the side of LA they may not really know about.
So, while Josh may not be getting your standard tour of the City of Angels, I’d like to think I am giving him some glimpse at the city that is arguably a little more worthwhile. I am no Angelino expert. Hell, I’m not even an Angelino. But, if you ask me, these are the ten things I would suggest you do if you ever make it to the City of Angels:
1. Eat a French Dip at Philippe the Original
You can debate whether or not this old-fashioned lunch counter across the street from Union Station, but you can’t debate that it is probably the best French Dip sandwich you’re ever going to eat. Bring cash, as this order-at-the-counter establishment doesn’t take cards, but don’t worry, it won’t break the bank. The most expensive of the sandwiches, the lamb dip, is $8.25. Throw on a slice of cheese and it’ll cost you $.50 or so more. I’d also advise to save room for pie, as they carry a wide array of slices and you can tell as soon as you walk in the place that this is the type of joint that knows how to make a good pie. And they sure as hell make a damned fine sammich. In the past two years, I’ve had a 100% success rate with friends getting Philippe and leaving completely satisfied. It is a slam dunk of a win of a meal, plus, if you want to walk it off afterwards, the charming Olvera Street is just two blocks away and worth taking a gander through. You may want to save room though, as the aroma of delicious tortillas and Mexican food might just win you over.
2. Indulge in some cookies at Diddy Riese
While on the subject of cash-only cheap but amazing eats, let’s talk cookies. I am of the belief that there is truly no more perfect dessert in the world than a chocolate chip cookie and the chocolate chip cookies from DIddy Riese in Westwood are perhaps the most perfect specimen of them all. Plus? You can get three of them for $1. You will have to wait in line for those cookies, but it is most certainly worth the wait. My friends are big believers in the ice cream cookie sandwich option (which is a slightly pricier $1.75), but I tend to just go straight cookie for the most perfect sweet snack LA has to offer.
3. Go see something, anything at the Hollywood Bowl. Bring a picnic.
Okay, okay, this isn’t exactly off the beaten path, but I don’t think the Bowl gets nearly enough love. It is a truly stunning place to see a concert. Even if you get the nosebleed benches at the back of this amphitheater, the acoustics are amazing and the views of the stage and the surrounding hills of Hollywood are spectacular.
What really threw me the first time I went to the Bowl though is that you can bring in whatever you want with you. Unlike most concert venues that basically strip search you and confiscate your Juicy Fruit if you don’t buy it from the concession stand, the Hollywood Bowl encourages patrons to pack lunches, bring bottles of wine, and have a full blown picnic. So, even if you may not feel like a night of symphony music is worth it, the experience of noshing on wine, cheese, and crackers, taking in the atmosphere, and spending it in good company will make even the most boring show well worth your while.
By the way musical theater fans, each August the Bowl stages a popular musical with an all-star cast. In past years they’ve done Rent, Grease, and Chicago, and this summer they’ll be staging Hair.
Over the past ten years, the concept of chicken and waffles has gotten a little more common. When I arrived at USC in the fall of 2001, I hadn’t really ever thought of pairing fried chicken with a waffle, but nonetheless went on a dorm-sponsored outing to Roscoe’s. A lovely waitress named Mama Ella refused to serve us if our elbows were on the table, insisted we mind our manners, and proceeded to serve us one of the more perfect food combinations in the world.
My order of choice is the Carol C special, a chicken breast and a waffle. I also add a biscuit though, for as all Southerners know, breakfast is not breakfast if you don’t add a biscuit if it is an option.
You may think you can find chicken and waffles all over the place, but I implore you to understand that there are chicken and waffles and there is Roscoe’s, you may have tried one, but you have certainly never experienced the other.
5. Buy some fresh produce at the LA Farmer’s Market
Tourists go to The Grove because it is basically a celebrity petting zoo. A small, confined outdoor mall where there is almost always some celebrity in the vicinity, it is a good place to people watch, don’t get me wrong. But the real gem of this spot at the intersection of 3rd and Fairfax is the LA Farmer’s Market.
This place has been an LA institution for 80 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Dozens of booths selling everything from fresh fish to fresh fruit to children’s toys, this bustling marketplace is probably the most European-feeling spot in the LA area. Time permitting, you should absolutely explore the entire place, but if you have to pick and choose, some of my favorite spots are Kip’s Toystore, Bryan’s Pit Barbeque, any of the fruit merchants, Tusquella’s Seafood, and the piece de resistance: The French Crepe Company where a snack is pretty much mandatory.
6. Grab a late night cup of coffee at Canter’s Deli
Just down the street from the Farmer’s Market is one of several Jewish delis in the LA area. While some people will laud Jerry’s or Art’s or Factor’s as the best, for my money as the most convincingly Jewish non-Jew in poker, Canter’s wins.
My friends and I used to hit up this all-night deli after attending, of all things, poetry slams down the street. Perhaps it is the late night availability that won me over. The counter of baked goods and cookies that always provide good take-home treats helps too. But the food is pretty solid. The chicken soup is the star, but all of the breakfast items are more than sufficient. A benedict and a latke? Don’t mind if I do!
7. Crash Dr. Drew Casper’s Class at the University of Southern California
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that something USC-related made the list. Sure, a night at Traditions or a trip to Chanos is a lot of fun. It goes without saying USC football is now Lane Kiffin-free and hopefully back to its fun and winning ways. But the real star of my college days was Dr. Drew Casper, the foremost Alfred Hitchcock authority in the world and allegedly the highest paid professor on campus. His lectures are more like performances and he might have the best taste in film of anyone I have ever met in my life.
It also helps that his classroom is actually one of the five nicest movie theaters n the country. The Norris Cinema Complex features nothing but the best equipment, including a virtual one of a kind digital projector selected and donated by alumnus George Lucas. The seats are a lush crushed red velour, just like an old movie house. If you are a film fan, there genuinely might not be a better cinematic experience, just don’t get caught crashing the course.
8. Chow down on Mexican food at El Cholo
While you’re in the vicinity of USC, take the 15 minute drive over to the Mexican food institution that is El Cholo on Western. While you want to go during blue corn tortilla season, it is going to be a delicious experience year-round. While you may have to wait a while to get a table, you can pass the time sipping on a margarita scoping the place for celebs (we would often see Jack Nicholson hanging out post-Laker games).
9. Go see Marty and Elayne rock out at The Dresden
As a recovering hipster, I would be remiss not to include some sort of representation of the Los Feliz/Silver Lake hood. I spent my 21st birthday there sipping on cocktails living out my “Swingers” fantasy of being that kind of Angelino. The movie “Swingers” is really what put The Dresden on the map, highlighting the delightfully unique musical duo of Marty and Elayne. This geriatric musical group does lounge music-style covers of pop music hits under the dim lights of this 50’s-esque lounge.
You can go there for dinner, but this is really just a chill place to grab a drink or two, catch some memorable entertainment, and marvel at just how many hipsters this neighborhood has to offer.
If I had to name my favorite place in Los Angeles, it would be the tiny stretch of three blocks or so that constitutes the Village of Larchmont. My college roommate and I discovered this hidden gem that I would call the quaintest place in LA when we moved to Koreatown senior year (btw, we were way ahead of the curve on K-town being cool). This area, which kind of feels like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls boasts a ton of tiny cafes and restaurants, a wine and cheese shop that serves incredibly tasty sandwiches, and a ton of boutiques selling everything from books to toys to clothes to jewelry.
It is also home to the best pizza in Los Angeles: Village Pizzeria. This New York-style pizza joint allows you to dine-in or take out. You can order by the pie or by the slice, but be warned that a single slice is basically the size of my head. For around $5, you can get a massive slice of thin crust tasty pizza and one of their signature garlic coils, which i sjust enough fuel to power your walk to the other side of the drag to grab a Crumbs cupcake for dessert.
When I lived in LA, this was my sanctuary. Long walks, leisurely shopping, and dropping by Landis Gifts and leaving a book on the take a book, leave a book shelf. It is the most un-LA section of LA, but it is hands-down my favorite and kind of what Hollywood is all about–a place providing escape from the real world, with all the clean and shine of a movie set that feels too good to be real.