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Mickey Petralia: Blazing Trails

PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

At the southern edge of Griffith Park in the shadow of the Observatory lies a place Huell Howser once dubbed "California's Gold." It's one of this city's countless hidden oases, but few of them look like Trails Café, a quaint gourmet snack bar hemmed in by oak trees. Families and singles, bikers and hikers, tourists from up the hill and industry folk from down Fern Dell Place all come to pretend, if only for a moment, that they've got nothing better to do.

"You can tell who the first-time customers are," says owner Mickey Petralia, "always kind of antsy, hovering by the window. The regulars know what's up. Everything slows down once you get up here."

Petralia's not exactly the tree hugger you'd expect. He looks the sort — tall and lean, ageless with dark-gray, shoulder-length hair and a three-inch salt-speckled beard — but the man is a music-business veteran, a Grammy-winning producer/engineer whose discography includes records by Beck, Peaches, John Cale and Flight of the Conchords.

He's still active in the industry — you may have even caught his cameo as a record exec in The Runaways — but these days Petralia splits his time between his Pasadena studio and this forest sanctuary. Humble, nourishing, growing sans advertising and operating on a cash-only basis, Trails is basically everything the music biz isn't.

"When I first started putting this place together, I code-named it 'Operation Exit Strategy,' " Petralia says. He opened Trails in June 2005. "The record industry had started to change, and I was pretty certain it was never going to get back to where it was. It's hard to sustain a house and two kids on music alone now."

It's a credit to Petralia's vision, then, that when he discovered the future home of Trails, the tiny building was little more than a graffiti-covered bunker with a hole in the floor where a safe used to be. The dilapidated, city-owned concession stand had been closed for several years.

Though Trails' H.Q. doesn't measure up to even 400 square feet, Petralia spent about a year on improvements — repouring the concrete base, installing plumbing and electrical and creating a new facade. He envisioned it as an art project. Early on, he broadcast pirate radio from the café. Today, hidden speakers make Elliott Smith tunes sound as if they're materializing from thin air.

"When we first approached the city, they were, like, 'Nah, the Coke machine does fine,' " Petralia says with a laugh.

In place of the vending machine is a dedicated staff of bakers and baristas, and a sign below the service window that reads, "All goods baked from scratch." They recently introduced handcrafted s'mores to the lineup of popular steadies: quiches, scones, and sweet and savory single-serving pies. On weekends, the line stretches nearly to the street.

"I could be running an 80-seat restaurant with the time and energy I put into this," says Petralia, who's at Trails most mornings. He's begun taking meetings there, under the trees, just feet from the kiddies climbing on hay bales. "People always ask if I'll open another café somewhere else, but it was always about location for me. It'd have to be a really special spot."


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