Los Angeles: a star is reborn

Los Angeles, formerly lacking soul, has reinvented itself as a city with a heart


Downtown LA was once the homehome of the city’s banking merchant classes, and now its streets are lined with large brick testaments to the muscle and monolith of old money. Its former movie theatres are another architectural quirk, ornate buildings with all the drama of small European palaces, but lumped into an indifferent urban setting.

Many of these have slipped into disuse but in more recent years, Latino communities have moved in, turning downtown streets into booming, colourful communities. A second, recent renaissance has followed, as hip hotels and bars have caught on to the cheap rents and ambitious architecture. Suddenly, the laid-back edge of downtown LA is making New York and its boroughs look a little gray around the gills.

The Ace Hotel (929 South Broadway, acehotel.com) is a chic case in point. It’s in the former United Artists building, established by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbank and Mary Pickford in a break from the studio system. Its slick, fashionable rooms are all exposed metal features and brushed concrete, and its outstanding rooftop terrace must be the envy of the neighbourhood. But perhaps its best feature is the spectacular, restored original theatre. It has a working orchestral pit, coving and decoration inspired by the cathedral at Segovia, and murals depicting its Hollywood founders.

This is a neighbourhood in full technicolour transition. There’s the charm of the local boticas selling tiny bottles of potions for everything from love to wealth. There are the dive bars such as the Lexington (129 East 3rd Street) that Charles Bukowski might have had a lean against. Walking its sun-warmed streets, there is a sense of a community that is shaking off its seedier past, without being fully sanitised.

One of the key hubs for the area’s resurgence has been the Staples Cen ter, now home to the LA Lakers. They might be undergoing something of a slump – we witness a humiliating defeat to the Phoenix Suns – but this is still a sports event as only Americans can make it: pure spectacle with bursts of sound, half-time shows and cheerleaders.

The snacks and beer seem as important as the action on court, while Jack Nicholson and The Game are hectoring from the best seats in the house.

Head southwest towards the coast and you’ll roll into another side of LA in Santa Monica, where on a balmy Saturday morning, all of California’s easy-going life is out to play. Joggers and cyclists wind along the sandy paths while the wooden rollercoaster trundles along the pier. Volleyball teams are in full flow on the beach, while a game of street hockey whirls and clicks its way around the car park. This looks like the place dotcom millionaires move to when they retire at the age of 32.

The wooden lifeguard huts will be suddenly familiar to anyone who misspent their teenage youth staring slackjawed at episodes of Baywatch. The beach’s caf es and bars are elegant affairs, and a few blocks off the main seafront is a small institution. Amelia’s (2645 Main Street) sells enormous sandwiches, great coffee and freshly squeezed juices in a clean, well-lighted place with none of the elaborate trimmings you’ll find nearly everywhere else. Laptops are banned, conversation is encouraged and from behind her till, Amelia keeps everything rolling along at a bright, cheery boil. Who says LA doesn’t have a heart?

Laurence Mackin travelled as a guest of Visit California and Air New Zealand.
See visitcalifornia.com


Palm Springs has the well-brushed, faded glamour of a town that’s seen wilder times, and has grown old gracefully with a glint in its eye. It might not stay out quite as late as it once did, but it still knows how to mix a mean martini.

During the omnipotent era of the studio system, contracted actors were obliged to be within 120 miles of their filmic mothership. Palm Springs fits within the radius and also had the additional benefit of a ban on paparazzi – so Frank Sinatra and his crew could stumble out of a bar without worrying about making front-page news.

This is a resort town, so most houses were built as second homes. The owners generally brought a large amount of money to the drawing board and architects could let their imagination run riot - assuming they stuck to the almost standarised one-storey height restrictions. The result is a city packed with fantastical modernist architecture (pictured above) .

Michael Sterns runs tours of these homes (themoderntour.com). At $150 a person, the tours are pricey, but it is a chance to get inside some real architectural gems. The Edris house is a particular jewel in this clean-lined crown. It’s been scrupulously restored by JR Roberts, an architect and former mayor of Sausalito. It’s the kind of home that would cause even Don Draper to raise an eyebrow in appreciation.

If the desert air is more your thing, the foothills are filled with hiking trails, or you could take in the BNP Paribas Open, one of the world’s biggest tennis tournaments. The facility had an overhaul before the Open earlier this month. You may need to book months or a year in advance for a full “classic” ticket, but seats or individual games can be picked up reasonably enough. Anyone looking to improve their game or even stone-cold beginners can also use the facilities on a walk-up basis.

Rarely has a film done more for a region than Sideways , the 2004 paean to Santa Ynez’s wine country. Now you can follow in the footsteps of licentious Jack and seething screenwriter Miles, and hit nearly every stop on their bleary itinerary. Don’t expect quite as wild a ride, though.

Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café (2879 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos) serves great food and has a giant selection of wine in this sleepy town, and you can recreate the “no f***ing merlot” scene if you really want to in the restaurant’s alley way. (We did; the locals hate it.)

High on any fan’s list though will be a steak dinner in the Hitching Post II (406 Eat Highway 246, Buellton), which serves straight-up, good grilled food in enormous portions. Perhaps the most fun though is stopping off in many of the wine shacks that dot the roads around here for a swift sample. Foxen Wines (7600 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos) is a particular gem (and yes it’s in the movie for about 20 seconds).

Blow the budget (after all that wine you probably won’t care) and stay at the outstanding El Encanto Hotel, perched high above the Riviera neighbourhood of Santa Barbara. It’s run by Orient Express so it operates at the level of luxury that royalty and Hollywood A-listers are used to. Keep yourself in the style you’re now accustomed to by having dinner at San Ysidro Ranch (900 San Ysidro Lane, Montecito).

Oprah lives around the corner, and JFK and Jackie O honeymooned here.

Perhaps the best meal you can have in the region, though, is at the big, shared wooden tables of the Lark restaurant (131 Anacapa Street). Their Hope Ranch mussels are pictured below .


GET THERE: Air New Zealand flies direct to LAX from London, from £529, with comfort and quality that puts most of its competitors to shame. Airnewzealand.com

SLEEP : The Ace Hotel, from $240 a night. 929 South Broadway, acehotel.com

EAT: Roi Choi is something of an LA all-star, and eating at his A-Frame restaurant it’s easy to see why. Outstanding Asian fusion food, built for sharing, in a casual “modern picnic” setting, this is an essential stop. 12565 Washington Blvd, aframela.com . Australian chef Curtis Stone’s latest venture, Maude, takes one key ingredient over nine courses in a small 25-seater space. 212 South Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, Mauderestaurant.com. Tex Mex that might have been made by your mother is chef Josef Centeno’s approach in the excellent Bar Ama, right in the heart of downtown. 118 West 4th Street, Bar-ama.com

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