Suburban childhood turned me into a committed urban dweller as an adult. But creeping gentrification has made metropolitan centers prohibitively expensive for all but the filthy rich. I’ve watched in dismay as the dismantling of rent control transformed my hometown for the past 18 years from the People’s Republic of Santa Monica to the Temporary Digs for Entertainment Lawyers Building Their Houses in the Palisades. Nevertheless, those of us who still pay reasonable rents get to hang in there and keep things from getting too tony. And we can walk everywhere to do that, or at a stretch use the city’s excellent Big Blue Bus system. There’s almost nothing I can’t do on foot, from walking my daughter to and from school to getting my eyes tested and her teeth braced, my car fixed and tires replaced, my passport renewed, my body massaged when I’m flush, my groceries bought fresh and local or exotically ethnic, my books borrowed from two excellent public libraries, my soul renewed by a walk on the beach, or my child’s renewed by a therapeutic scream on the rides at the pier.
For entertainment, the lovely, drafty old NuWilshire movie theater may have closed (taking with it a fine little shoe repair joint, and being replaced thus far by nothing but garbage and a chain-link fence), but my daughter and I can still walk to the Aero on Montana Avenue — one of the few remaining affordable things on that posher-than-thou street, where only screenwriters can shop without being forced into bankruptcy. The Aero, among other things, has become an excellent revival house for children’s movies courtesy of the American Cinematheque.
Speaking of children’s movies, now that Blockbuster doesn’t stock anything released more than five minutes ago, we stop in at Second Spin, where they buy and sell a pretty good array of used DVDs and CDs, or we bus it down to Vidiots on Pico and Fourth, where you can find every movie ever made. But our favorite thing is to go in search of food, especially breakfast — and if there’s one thing there’s no shortage of around here, on or off the Third Street Promenade, it’s places to eat — and then work off the calories in shoe-leather. Enjoy!
Bread and Porridge
Cute, bordering on cutesy, red decor. All the usual breakfast stuff is good, especially the wide range of terrific omelets, my favorite being the Swiss chard, which comes with cheddar cheese, chicken sausage and mushrooms, and a side of red potatoes. My child wolfs down the blueberry pancakes, largely because the chocolate chip pancakes are verboten by her meanie of a mother. The catch is that if you come late, you’ll be waiting forever unless you make a same-day reservation. We had a perfectly good dinner there, too, with excellent service, since ours was one of two tables filled on a Monday night.
2315 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-4941.
Le Pain Quotidien
A chain, but a really good chain with the inspired idea of one long communal table down the center for sociable types. If you’re more private, stand-alone tables hug the sides. Atmosphere is festive, waiters are central casting. Menus come wedged into loaves of really excellent artisan breads; the pastries will send your lipids soaring. If you’re more brunchy than breakfast-ish, they serve winsome little tartines on individual boards, with curried chicken or avocado or tuna to die for.
316 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-6800.
I could live without the noise level at this gigantic New York–style deli, but my daughter loves it for that very reason, and for the stuffed croissant. The fish and chips is hardly up to British grease standards but not a bad facsimile.
1457 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 451-0616.
Celebs in their sweats show up early to debate the Democratic ticket at this upmarket coffee house on Montana Avenue. It has “exclusive” writ large on the small number of wooden tables, but they do a lovely, if pricey, cappuccino with a leaf pattern, and tucked behind the pastries, a brown baguette with walnuts and raisins.
925 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-2222.
At the other extreme, our favorite greasy spoon is Callahan’s, which is nominally Irish, with green walls in need of a paint job, but run by a Latino family so warm and friendly, I can send my child ahead alone to nab a table and be certain they’ll watch her. It’s not for food snobs or dieters, that’s for sure, but you can get a standard two eggs plus all the fixings for next to nothing, and they ring up the check on an old-style manual cash register that makes me swoon.
1213 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-6210.
If, like me, you balk at the sky-high prices of the far-from-superior produce (not to mention the overly buffed, vitamin-rich bodies prodding and poking it) at Whole Foods, then sling your hemp bag over your shoulder and walk, bike or bus it to one of SM’s farmers markets. Wednesday and Saturday mornings you can find top local chefs cruising the stalls with heaped carts of eggplant, grapes, fennel and even beef at the higher-end outdoor market on the Promenade (though prices have taken a big leap), or take the new little crosstown Blue Bus to the Saturday Pico farmers market, on the corner of Pico and Cloverfield, where the equally fresh, but cheaper, produce has a more Latino flavor. A well-kept secret, unless you’re from Eastern Europe, are the Russians selling cheap, fresh fruit and veggies out of trucks on Third Street just above Wilshire some weekdays.
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Visit the backroom of this market, where the fruit and vegetables are unrefrigerated but fresh and inexpensive, and when you’re done there, take a pass around the rest of the store, whose clientele is mostly Iranian. Which means lovely smells and terrific breads, huge bags of rice and beans and other dry goods, loose feta, dried fruits and herbs, and pickled-just-about-everything. Time was when I’d take a baklava over to a matinee at the NuWilshire. This whole stretch of Wilshire Boulevard is going yup at a rapid clip, so pray the titans of mammon don’t buy out the baklava, too.
1417 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-6719.