Chatsworth: Los Angeles' Final Frontier

A view of Chatsworth from the Santa Susana Mountains
A view of Chatsworth from the Santa Susana Mountains
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

Deep in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Susana Mountains mark L.A. County's boundary with Ventura County. Chatsworth — nestled at the foot of these hills and still laced with Old West charm — is the final frontier of Los Angeles. The sounds of the city fade into the distance, replaced by wind rustling through the brush, the clip-clopping of horse hooves, and occasionally a coyote call echoing through the canyon. The smell of sage accents the fresh air. Rocks beg to be climbed and trails call out for exploration. Other than the view from the top, with the city stretching far-off into the horizon, rusted-out trucks left long ago and a train whistle in the distance serve as the only reminders that civilization is not far away.

Chatsworth is most famous as home to the porn industry, though new condom laws are driving many production companies out. Still, the town's unmarked warehouses and suburban studios are where the majority of porn was filmed over the past two decades. 

Along with sex in suburbia, in Chatsworth, quaint blends with quirky, conservatives mix with meth heads, and gang graffiti adorns the rocks overlooking goat farms. Chatsworth offers the chance to escape to another time and place, where things move more slowly. It hangs onto its history, and for a small town it has a big past.

Santa Susana Mountains
Santa Susana Mountains
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

The earliest inhabitants were Native Americans who left behind artifacts and artwork on the walls of its caves. Gold Rushers traveling to and from San Francisco risked their cargo along the cliffs of the rocky, steep “stagecoach trail” that snakes through the mountain pass. After it was officially founded in 1888 homesteaders’ citrus groves and thoroughbred farms grew alongside the status of the burgeoning cityscape.

By the 1920s, Hollywood directors saw its potential and Chatsworth became the backdrop for popular films and TV shows for four decades. Many were Westerns, and before long the lines between fiction and reality were blurred — the town’s identity became firmly aligned and cemented with the cowboys filmed for the silver screen.

Many Chatsworthians speak with a twang. Horseshoes adorn bus benches, and it is not unusual to spot an overall’d busker playing banjo outside the supermarket. The red-painted barn that housed horse-celebrity Mr. Ed still stands — but is now home to a fiery miniature donkey who will bray at you through the fence.

See also: Scenes from Chatsworth (PHOTOS)

The classic barn that once housed Mr. Ed
The classic barn that once housed Mr. Ed
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
A friendly miniature mule
A friendly miniature mule
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
A community theater group performs in an barn-turned-theater
A community theater group performs in an barn-turned-theater
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

If the look and feel of the town aren’t enough to win you, the tastes on offer should seal the deal. Just off the two-lane road that weaves past the Chatsworth Reservoir and through Box Canyon, Cookin’ With Lenny beacons hungry passersby with the smells of smoked BBQ. The perfectly grilled ribs he’s famous for are marinated in signature sauces made from scratch and served up with fresh bread, or one of the many Southern-inspired sides. 

Cooking With Lenny BBQ
Cooking With Lenny BBQ
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
Outdoor BBQ, Cooking With Lenny
Outdoor BBQ, Cooking With Lenny
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
Ribs at Cooking with Lenny
Ribs at Cooking with Lenny
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
A local favorite sandwich at Cooking With Lenny
A local favorite sandwich at Cooking With Lenny
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

Closer to town, the Country Deli caters to regulars and tips its hat to Chatsworth history with a painted interior of the town’s country characters. Carrying piles of plates brimming with the best breakfasts or high-stacked sandwiches, the makeup’d matrons deliver dishes with a side of sass. 

A waitress delivers drinks at The Country Deli
A waitress delivers drinks at The Country Deli
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
Rueben sandwich at Country Deli
Rueben sandwich at Country Deli
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

The Munch Box is the quintessential lunch destination. It was built in 1956 and has retained its look along with its menu—hotdogs, hamburgers, and fries drowning in chili and cheese. You can get them without it, but that would be a rookie error.

The Munch Box hotdog stand
The Munch Box hotdog stand
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

Sit yourself down on a stool under the overhang, or at a sunny picnic table, stick a straw in your root beer, and prepare for afternoon time travel.

When it’s time for dinner Los Toros is where to go. The Mexican restaurant has many thematic rooms, each with a different dream-like take on the geographically inspired ambiance. It’s a fitting atmosphere: the bean dip, given to each table upon arrival, is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Accompanied by fresh hot chips and a side of salsa, it sets the scene for an internal battle of self-control vs. Cookie Monster-style consumption. To top it all off order one of their “secret recipe” margaritas—strong, smooth, and not overly sweet, the margs at Los Toros are the real memory makers (or perhaps memory erasers). 

Los Toros Margaritas
Los Toros Margaritas
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
Fajitas at Los Toros
Fajitas at Los Toros
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

Up next, Chatsworth nightlife...
 

A band performs at the Cowboy Palace
A band performs at the Cowboy Palace
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

After a few rounds you’ll be ready to follow the crowds down the alley to The Cowboy Palace. Chatsworth’s most famous bar, it is a real saloon, and patrons dress the part—Stetsons are the norm and you better come prepared to shuffle your boots across the dance floor. 

A live band plays every night and line dancing is serious business. If you don’t know the moves, it’s best to move along. It's enough fun just to watch from the sidelines. Still, the Palace offers lessons for beginners, complete with a free dinner on Sundays. 

Fun and games at the Cowboy Palace
Fun and games at the Cowboy Palace
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff
Line Dancing couple, Cowboy Palace
Line Dancing couple, Cowboy Palace
Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

There are many sides to Chatsworth. And although it is firmly rooted in its history, things are already starting to change. New housing developments creep closer along the horizon. Chatsworth Park South is now closed, its manicured green grass browned and overgrown.

And, change can be good. When the Cowboy Palace decides to remove the Confederate flag from behind its stage, that will be a proud day. Still, there are parts of Chatsworth culture that shouldn't be altered. It is still the place to go to lose yourself in the picturesque hills. You can still go for the good food and stay for a good time. You can come for the novelty and explore the neighborhood. Mostly, Chatsworth still offers the chance to escape the city — without ever having to leave.

See also: Scenes from Chatsworth (PHOTOS)


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