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.
With the so-called help going to Walter’s, where do the helped go? One can see lots of jewelry and taut skin line up at lunch time in the portals of La Scala. Compared to Walter’s, La Scala is a relative newcomer to Cañon, and many say it has never been the same since moving from its original Santa Monica Boulevard location a dozen-plus years ago. The red booths, many of the staff and the famous chopped salad are still around, but the charm (which included the lunch spot La Scala Boutique and, for favored regulars, a booth right in the kitchen) and La Scala’s standing in the culinary world have diminished. The food was, and is, American Italian — way too much sauce on the pasta, salads of iceberg lettuce. Order the chopped salad and the lasagna, which is meaty, rich, and has chunks of hard-boiled egg. Despite the decline in quality and allure, La Scala still packs ’em in.
Il Pastaio, on the corner of Cañon and Brighton, was Drago’s first casual café, and its original concept — carpaccio, salad, pasta and risotto — remains sound. The corner room is sunny and European in feel, with the maximum possible number of small tables crammed together. An older Frenchman broods solo over latte and the Figaro; co-workers split salads, swap office gossip. Try the sturdy, chewy garganelli with broccoli and sausage — it’s terrific when not too salty (the chef does like his salt shaker). Spelt spaghetti dressed in ricotta and lemon zest has a sublime simplicity. Best risottos include wild mushroom and mascarpone, and the remarkable black squid-ink risotto, which looks like gravel and tastes like heaven.
South, past Smith and Hawken, Xi’an, a big, sunny, very noisy and reasonably priced Chinese lunchroom, occupies the former postmodern digs of a short-lived Italian establishment. Here, older couples walk over from Crescent Drive condos, and workers stroll over from the office buildings and shops for the lunch specials (entrée with soup, $6.95–$9.95). The food is standard American-Chinese — chopsticks bestowed on request; beside us, lingerie salesmen swap catalogs for "Passionate Playthings" over fluorescent-red sweet-and-sour chicken and classic Chinese chicken salad. There’s little discernible difference between Szechuan shredded beef and Kung Pao shrimp. Even the fortunes in the fortune cookies are bland: "You could be a lawyer."
Down a shop-lined passageway into a central courtyard sits Caffe Roma. It could be a quiet side-street sidewalk café in Rome or France; indeed, Italian and French float in the air. Outside, a fountain trickles and the occasional Gauloise spikes the drift of cigarette smoke. Inside, a pizza maker slaps dough into shape; salads and antipasti are displayed behind a sneeze-catcher. Caffe Roma’s good for a tête-à-tête with your real estate agent, a leisurely lunch or coffee away from the madding crowd, or a late-afternoon apéritif. The full Italian menu (pizza, pasta, carne e pesci) has been adapted specifically to Cañon Drive; if one person in your group wants a Walter’s tuna sandwich, another demands decent espresso, and a third suggests Il Pastaio for carpaccio and risotto, the happy compromise may be here, with reasonable versions of the desired dishes all in one place.
Transplanted New Yorkers who complain about how hard it is to find pizza by the slice on the West Coast should know about Mulberry Street Pizzeria, which dispenses slices warmed to order. The selection varies — you can always add toppings to a plain cheese slice. There’s something austere, pristine and enchanting about the white slice, sauced with ricotta and dotted with spinach. But the red pizzas, where an excellent tomato sauce is ladled generously onto the chewy-crisp-thin crust, are better yet; I recommend the lasagna-style pizza, featuring Bolognese sauce with concentric moats of thinned ricotta.
The 200 block of Cañon Drive once belonged to the Bistro; today it’s all Chasen’s. Another émigré to the street, Chasen’s, like La Scala before it, proved another disappointment. It’s hard to say if the new version of the venerable old steak house merely showcased what was always lacking in hobo steaks and Chasen’s chili, or if indeed a dip in quality has occurred. At any rate, Chasen’s clubby, formal ambiance and sky-high prices have great appeal in B.H.: Just like the regulars at Walter’s who stake out a counter seat and order "the usual," chilly rich folk like to have their table, their server and their usual. Humans will be human.
On the very same spot where the quintessential ladies’-lunch hangout, Bistro Gardens, once thrived (Nancy Reagan was a regular), Wolfgang Puck and his in-house designer Barbara Lazaroff opened Spago Beverly Hills. Raffi, one of the Gardens’ beloved waiters, carries on at Spago, and his knowledge of the neighborhood clientele has been invaluable. Spago is at once a neighborhood place, a destination restaurant for all L.A. and a magnet for tourists. It’s also the largest, most ambitious fine-dining restaurant in the city — on many nights, the kitchen serves close to 500 dinners. On a Friday night, when kitchen and staff are in full swing, the tables are filled, the bar is packed, the place runs like a symphony. Spago is famous for being a tough reservation, and part of the problem comes from the institutionalized loyalty to long-term, devoted customers. The rest of us eat happily early or late.
The menu is a unique and harmonious pairing of Puck’s Austrian cuisine (Wienerschnitzel, beef stew with spätzle, chicken bouillon with bone-marrow dumplings) and chef Lee Hefter’s sophisticated, classically based, culturally diverse cooking (agnolotti filled with marscapone and shaved black truffles, Hong Kong–style black bass, pan-roasted organic squab with Chinese green beans). Try Hefter’s nightly tasting menu to appreciate the full range of his abilities. Pastry chef Sherry Yard makes velvety sorbets (Bartlett or Anjou pear in a spiced winter-fruit soup, tangerine sorbet flavored with a little pepper); she also makes her own versions of Austrian "imports": hand-pulled, not-too-buttery apple strudel, kaiser- or etienne-schmarren (crème fraîche pancakes with sautéed strawberries or huckleberries). Fresh hot cookies and soufflés are baked to order. Yow.
One last note: On those occasions when you simply want something sweet-chocolate, Edelweiss Chocolates makes all its candy on the premises. With little prompting, owner June Miller offers a tour: In the first backroom, a man takes perfect caramel-coated candies off a conveyor belt, while a woman hand-coats marshmallow squares with a crunchy caramel. In the next room is the other end of the conveyor belt, which, it turns out, is part of a well-used, chugging little machine called an "enrober." The enrober covers all sides of the marshmallow (or any other luscious candy center) like a little car wash. The thing to buy at Edelweiss is chocolate, assorted in many different poundages, or one perfect, deep dark French truffle to pop in the mouth. A sign on the door says, "Have a sweet day."
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NORTH CAÑON DRIVE RESTAURANTS
350 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 274-7834;
246 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 858-1200;
444 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 275-0341;
400 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 205-5443;
454 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 273-0501;
410 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 275-0579;
Mulberry Street Pizza,
347 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 247-8998;
Nic’s and the Martini Lounge,
453 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 550-5707;
424 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 274-6534;
Spago Beverly Hills,
176 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 385-0880;
434 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 275-5505;
362 N. Cañon Drive, (310) 275-3345.