Maybe it’s because I’m basically a slacker, but outings that involve planning for days, packing up the car, finding a pet nanny and then driving more than a 100 miles for a chance to relax miss the point of “getting away from it all.” Unless I’m doing some serious traveling — a trip to Nepal, say, or to the Suriname coast — my favorite outings are inside the L.A. County line and require no more than tossing a bottle of Evian into the car. The following itineraries — some off-the-wall adventures, some rich with information — cram as much as possible into a day, and feature food and eating rather prominently. You may want to follow directly in my footsteps, or merely use the information on each stop as the nucleus of an outing that you devise on your own.
Downtown on Saturday: Breakfast, Angels Flight, an L.A. Broadway theater tour, Jewelry District shopping, best Saturday eats.
In their heyday, the lavishly designed theaters along Broadway, with their rococo cast-plaster ornamentation, exquisite detailing and luxurious lobbies, transported audiences into a glamorous fantasy world. Even the theater names — the Palace or the Million Dollar — rang with opulence. A few theaters began as vaudeville houses. But as motion pictures grew in popularity, a dozen major movie palaces flanked a six-block area on and near Broadway, and by the ’30s, Broadway had the world’s highest concentration of movie houses. These grandes dames, often turned into churches or retail ventures, would likely have met the wrecker’s ball were it not for the Los Angeles Conservancy’s efforts to revitalize the old theater district. Now, each Saturday morning, with the guidance of the Conservancy’s tour docents, you can revisit L.A. entertainment history. Tony Valdez, or “Uncle Tony,” a phenomenal repository of show-biz history and lore, barraged us with snippets of old insider gossip: the hardheaded business tactics practiced by Mary Pickford, the ego trips of impresarios encouraging the building of ever-more-elaborate theaters. With the minisearchlight that hangs from his belt, Valdez pointed out interior theater details. At the Orpheum, a member of the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society serenaded us on the resounding “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ. We viewed the Palace, built in 1911, with its façade of multicolored terra-cotta flowers and fairies loosely styled after a Florentine early-Renaissance palazzo. And we finished up inside the Spanish Gothic–influenced United Artists Theater, now a church.
A fortifying breakfast before the tour and a parking spot are necessities both, and the best deals are at Third and Hill streets, where, at Angelus Plaza (305 S. Hill St.), you can park all day for $3. The lot puts you across the street from Grand Central Market. It’s also a few steps from the restored Angels Flight funicular railway, originally opened in 1901. The cars will transport you up Bunker Hill and drop you near the Biltmore Hotel, where the tour officially begins. The cheery little red portal and the two-minute ride in the diminutive rail cars set the mood for the tour’s step back in time. Disembark, and you’re at the Water Court. Take the elevator down one flight, and walk left (south) about two short blocks.
Good breakfast spots: Jolt-Bar Cafe, in front of the market, sells espresso drinks, regular coffee, Mexican hot chocolate and fresh baked goods when Grand Central opens, at 9 a.m. Several market stalls, however, open as early as 6:30 a.m., serving the market’s vendors or anyone else who’s inside. I entered the market by the side door at the south end on Hill Street and found Jose Chiquito (stall A-6) offering a long list of breakfast options, including a cheese, bacon and avocado omelet with toast for $3.49. Sarita’s Pupuseria (stall E-5) also serves egg dishes, as well as exotic banana empanadas — pockets made from mashed plantain and filled with creamy cheese. Sarita’s platanos fritos is a plate of sweet, succulent fried bananas with beans and rich Salvadoran cream.
For a quick after-tour lunch, Anne Laskey of the Conservancy recommends The Sultan, a Middle Eastern café â that’s popular with Jewelry Center employees. The fare, all beautifully fresh, includes roasted chickens, kebabs, falafel, shawarma, tabbouleh and other Near Eastern nibbles. Ensenada Restaurant, a charming blue dining room nearby, features excellent Mexican shrimp cocktails, ceviche tostadas and more than a dozen shrimp dishes on its huge menu.
And the entire neighborhood is awash in gold. The International Jewelry Center and Saint Vincent Jewelry Center have hundreds of vendors open Saturdays. If you shop late, you may indulge in the Water Grill or Cicada, both of which are open for dinner at 5:30 p.m. If you’re dining alone, try Longtong Cap Gome at Batvia Cafe in Chinatown. A one-bowl $7.95 Indonesian banquet comes with chicken, beef curry, an egg, vegetables in a coconut milk sauce, rice cakes and fanciful garnishes.