TIM MAGEE returns to Los Angeles regularly, where he is inspired by its creative, colourful lifestyle …
LA isn’t America anymore – it’s moved on.
My first trip there was over 30 years ago, when LA was America’s poster child. Reagan – a Californian governor via Hollywood – was president and LA’s showreel was a world of skinny bleach blondes and buff beach bodies beckoning us to the birthplace of Disney and the movies. To shop or window shop on Rodeo Drive, tour the stars’ houses in Beverly Hills or spot the stars on the Walk of Fame, see Jaws at Universal Studios or ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier. Plastic and celluloid characters living in a dreamy beach city where anything could happen.
Except LA was actually a kip – dislocated, a set of satellite towns orbiting a soulless concrete desert, laced with the worst public transport and traffic in America, sitting under a solid canopy of smog.
Today’s LA has moved on to become something hardly recognisable from my first visit, or even from ten years ago. I work on and off there now, spending a month or more in the city each year. California has left the rest of the US behind and that poster child Los Angeles has changed its colours forever.
California has the fifth biggest economy in the world. If it were a country it could be number one in terms of green credentials for its size. LA, sitting between the mountains and the big blue of the Pacific, is a city that is greener every day. An electric green.
This is the town where years ago now wealthy tech heads and Hollywood A-listers dumped their four-wheel show ponies and made driving a Prius cool. A friend of mine works away on his iPad listening to podcasts in his Tesla while it drives him to work and manages the traffic for him.
Traffic is like the tide to Angelenos. Know your tide times and beware the numbered monsters that control the city’s mood. Monsters like the Interstate 10, and the terrifying 405, a scary freeway that is mostly to be ignored by strictly planning your day to stay on one side of it. As soon as you are off the mobbed Scalextric tracks of LA’s freeways and in the sonic safety of near silent neighbourhoods with their stealthy electric traffic, you can breathe again.
You don’t need a hire car in LA. Rent a car for the day – never from LAX – if you are going to make a run out to El Matador, Surfrider or Zuma in Malibu. Go early via the Getty and swim after. Or don’t bother driving at all and get the train then bike along Venice Beach, stitching in and out of the shops on Abbot Kinney. Ride sharing companies have opened LA up more than anything. Download Lyft and Uber – they’ll be your two constant guardians in the City of Angels, so hand the keys back and travel by app. Today’s LA is Blade Runner directed by Frank Capra.
When Los Angeles was founded, the city’s name was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Ángeles Sobre el Río Porciúncula. Most Angelenos today don’t need that translated. The white people on that poster from the 1980s are in the minority and California’s politics are the blue of the Democratic Party. While a third of the country reacted with racial animus and a whitelash to a black president with their version of orange is the new black, the Sunshine State voted overwhelmingly to have anyone else for president other than who they got. If you want to avoid going to Trump’s America then Los Angeles is the America for you.
LA is vast. Not so much sprawling as densely populated and distinct districts with deep-rooted cultures quilted tightly together, but getting to know your neighbourhoods and the endless boulevards and avenues that mesh them doesn’t take long. First-timers should just pick one or two areas to explore, but base yourself in Downtown regardless. Until recently LA always had a centre but no heart. Downtown was a ghost town, but that has changed. Downtown, or DTLA, is becoming the heart of city life for the first time in a very long time.
Like a version of Mad Men’s Manhattan, the combination of the city’s beautiful old bones, being deserted for 40 years and the climate means you have a perfectly preserved set for 1960s New York. The series was shot here. Not just in the studio, like most New York-based shows, but in gems about town. Pick a red banquette or a green booth from Mad Men, a hotel lobby or a bar, and chances are you can find it and live for a few hours over boat drinks in an imaginary La La Land straight off the screen.
DTLA has some refurbed beauties as hotels but I’ve given up on the Nomad LA. Even the hotel’s famous restaurant has been dumbed down and under that glorious turquoise ceiling the food and service recently was a pale version of the NYC hotel. The Figueroa is my new LA home. Built for ladies in the 1930s, the biggest project of its kind to be financed, owned and operated by women, it’s a Spanish Colonial stunner and one classy dame.
The month after Anthony Bourdain died last summer the food world was in mourning again with the passing of Jonathan Gold. In an ever-increasing world of bullshit around food it was a shock to lose two of its most down-to-earth heroes. Both were a generation closer to hippies than hipsters but each did more for the food you eat with one hand and plastic chair dining than most. Both loved real people who made real food and had a shared hunger for other cultures’ food. Gold, the Pulitzer prize-winning food critic for the LA Times, may not have had Bourdain’s onscreen charisma but he had it in spades on the page.
Understanding eating out in LA is easier through Gold’s lens and words and his last seminal Gold List is still as good a start as any.
Los Angeles is the sum of its edible parts, but those parts are deep-set food cultures, the tacos, maeuntang and moo hong that are better than anywhere outside of Mexico, Korea or Southern Thailand. There is no need to spend any more money than you would at home eating out in LA. DTLA’s Grand Central Market has become the Clery’s clock for food obsessives and a quick way to eat your way around what the city has to offer without leaving one building. Breakfast at the city’s HQ of cool Sqirl, take lunch to the beach from Gjusta and have dinner in the Middle East in the arts district’s Bavel, or a put-me-to-sleep supper with some of America’s best pasta in Felix. Have cocktails in the Frolic Room or the majesty of Delilah or the reborn Formosa Café that reopens this month.
Los Angeles is not perfect – DTLA has a serious homeless problem and there are those tidal traffic monsters roaring around the city – but the creative capital of the world and California in general feels much greener, more tolerant and kinder than much of the rest of the US. (Californian lawmakers this year made it illegal for pet shops to sell pets unless they are from shelters.)
It may sometimes feel like winter in America these days but LA is like Scandinavia in year-round sunshine – a peek at a future that any liberal European city could admire. America’s second city feels like its first.
Tim Magee @manandasuitcase
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