Illustration by Darcy Muenchrath
It’s hard to believe, but Beverly Hills used to be a pretty little town where everybody knew everyone’s name and you could always find a parking spot. This was before the tour buses and the world marketing of Rodeo Drive. Oh, the streets were stage-set perfect and the townsfolk rich — but they did their own shopping back then, and did a lot of it on Cañon Drive, between Santa Monica and Wilshire. It was always a practical street: The hardware store was on Cañon, and so was the Premier market, with its prime meats and glorious produce, where, at 9 a.m. you might run into a beautifully dressed Fred Astaire selecting a melon. If you ducked into Beverly Hills Silks and Woolens for a button and thread, the salesclerk greeted you by name.
Today, Cañon sits perched on the cusp between commercial and residential zones; its cafés and restaurants attract merchants and neighbors, office workers and only a fraction of the Rodeo tourists. A few large, fancy shops — Smith and Hawken, Tesoro, the downright monumental Umberto — have moved in, but Cañon still bears vestiges of a bygone era: the odd little stationery store, another one selling children’s shoes, not to mention a 56-year-old candy shop. Restaurants also vary in age: Walter’s coffee shop has been there around 50 years now, Spago Beverly Hills for two. For a spell, the street’s only upscale dining room belonged to the Bistro and its frilly offspring, Bistro Gardens.
Cañon is thick with restaurants, from Mulberry Street Pizzeria to Spago Beverly Hills, from Nic’s to Walter’s to Chasen’s, from Caffe Roma to Xi’an. Some are favorites, a couple are struggling, and at least three are worthy of a schlep across town.
Larry Nicola, a veteran chef whose first restaurant was in Silver Lake and the second in downtown L.A., now serves his multiethnic California cuisine at his urbane supper club adjacent to where the Premier market once stacked apples and head lettuce in plump pyramids. The comfortable and sophisticated Nic’s Restaurant and the Martini Lounge is worth a peek to see The Butler’s in Love, a large portrait of anguish in gloves and a tuxedo. You may as well order one or more of 15 types of martinis, sit back and enjoy the young fella playing jazz tunes on the slick black baby grand. Then, maybe, munch on a stuffed pasilla chile or an oyster salad and move over to the dining room for grilled fish or Steak Diane. Heck, stick around, move back to the plush banquettes in the bar and sip another Belvedere.
If you take your first cup of coffee in the morning on Cañon, grab one from Il Tramezzino. This small Italian café makes a startlingly good espresso — each sip keeps deepening with a roasted, dark, intense, almost chocolaty flavor that’s never bitter or burnt. There are croissants and oatmeal and, later in the day, sandwiches — including tramezzini, finger sandwiches — salads and half a dozen penne dishes. There are a few tables on the sidewalk, and a few jammed indoors that are usually full, so we’ll take our coffee to go.
A few doors down, marked by white umbrellas, is another "sidewalk café in the Italian tradition," Porta Via. With slim counter, tiny interior and sidewalk umbrellas, it’s stylish and hip — and also packed, especially at lunch. Here, oatmeal is steel-cut, served with fresh strawberries and maple syrup. There’s also Grand Marnier French toast and truly exceptional baked goods: Scones with currants and orange zest may have shrunk in size over the past few years, but they are still the best in town, crumbly, short, just sweet enough to compel another bite. The scones alone can induce a drive of any number of miles to eat one. Bran muffins, also with currants, are moist, flavorful and, again, right on the alluring edge of sweet. Gingersnap cookies are chewy and wonderful, if misnamed — there’s no snap at all. I’d gladly meet anyone here on a Sunday afternoon for the grilled shrimp salad with cannelini beans and asparagus. The house specialty is hand-rolled lasagna with sautéed wild mushrooms, spinach and ricotta cheese: simple, perfect. Look for other lasagna on the daily specials; I remember a bright-orange version made with acorn squash and cauliflower.
If scones and croissants aren’t enough for breakfast, Walter’s pours Yuban and Brim into its bottomless cups and serves bacon and eggs all day long. (Pancakes and waffles, however, are banned from the grill once lunch starts.) Walter’s, like all good coffee shops, is a breakfast and burger and blue-plate-special joint, with a reputation for great tuna sandwiches. One older Beverly Hills resident sniffs, "It’s where the help eat," then admits he’s never been inside. Well. The surgically groomed hip quotient may be low, but teens and families and office workers and pensioners appreciate the down-to-earth ambiance and un–Beverly Hills prices.