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.
Los Angeles Conservancy — (213) 623-CITY or (213) 623-2489 for tour reservations. Jolt-Bar Cafe, 317 S. Broadway; (213) 617-CAFE. Jose Chiquito, 317 S. Broadway; (213) 680-3363. Sarita’s, 317 S. Broadway; (213) 626-6320. The Sultan, 311 W. Sixth St.; (213) 236-0604. Ensenada Restaurant, 517 S. Spring St.; (213) 489-2950. Water Grill, 544 S. Grand Ave.; (213) 891-0900. Cicada, 617 S. Olive St; (213) 488-9488. Batvia Café, 970 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 626-6738.
Dodger Stadium, Echo Park Lake, Laveta stairways, Angelino Heights’ Victorian homes, Avenue of the Athletes.
In their book Stairway Walks in Los Angeles, Larry Gordon and Adah Bakalinsky have come up with 18 surprising urban L.A. treks that unveil many of the city’s secret nooks and crannies. Walk No. 5, a gentle two-and-a-half-hour stroll up and down a few flights of stairs circling Echo Park Lake, seems the perfect prelude to a night of sitting and noshing through untold innings at Dodger Stadium. The walk, with stunning city views, is an easy mile or so from the ballpark, taking you gently up or down Clinton Street stairway, Belmont stairway, Laveta stairway, and stairways on Echo Park Avenue and Crosby Place. It includes great side trips to Carol Avenue in Angelino Heights, with its covey of enchanting Queen Anne and Victorian gingerbread houses, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s domed Angelus Temple, and a stretch of Sunset sporadically dotted with plaques honoring famous sportsmen and -women. The book has an easy-to-follow map for the jaunt. Were it not for the problem of parking, you could walk from Sunset Boulevard to the game, where, nowadays, food appears to be as important as the score.
It seems Dodger management, which has sunk $50 million into renovating the stadium, hopes to make a night at the ol’ ball game as much of a bacchanal as possible. Wolfgang Puck has teamed with the upmarket Levy Restaurants (famous for providing haute cuisine to luxury-seat holders around the country, including at Chicago’s Wrigley Field) to create food that’s a lure for any party animal, even those with barely a passing interest in the game. You can even order caviar and smoked salmon, for heaven’s sake. In the new, 350-seat Stadium Club restaurant, with its sweeping views of the field, Puck’s wood-fired-oven pizzas and Chinois salad are part of a $29.95-per-person “Chef’s Table” that includes carved-to-order meats, exotic entrées, and a selection of fruits and cheeses. A la carte service offers such items as crab-cake appetizers and on-the-bone filet mignon sauced in port wine with Maytag blue cheese. To dine here, though, you do have to be a club member, or a guest of someone who is, or cough up 215 bucks for a ticket.
But the hoi polloi haven’t been ignored, either. The price of a ticket often includes promotional Dodger merchandise, such as beach towels, hats or flip-flops. And food in the concessions has come a long way since peanuts and Cracker Jack. Jody Maroni’s cheddarwurst or spicy andouille sausage smothered with fancy grilled red and yellow peppers and onions (available at designated kiosks) has become the chichi alternative to good old Dodger Dogs. Fans can wash these down with a Gordon Biersch beer and a side of garlic fries or peppery jalapeño peanuts. Beyond burgers and dogs, you can get King Taco’s all-meat burritos and soft tacos, Pizza Hut’s individual pizzas, sold piping hot, and warm churros dusted with cinnamon sugar. Some disappointments: cold Krispy Kreme doughnuts and $5 for a 20-ounce beer.
Handy Hint: At customer service or by mail, get a little map of the stadium with color-coded designations for various food sellers. Even without a season ticket, white-glove treatment may be had. The primo seats in the luxurious dugout area (565 seats in three rows right behind home plate) include access to the smart Dugout Club Lounge and pre-game Chef’s Table. Or meals may be ordered from uniformed waitpersons roaming the Dugout seat section. Ticket information: (323) 224-1-HIT; general information (323) 224-1400 or (800) 6-DODGERS; ticket options: season-ticket prices per game $40 to $6; single game tickets $215 (Dugout Club includes meals and parking) to $6, parking $6; luxury-suite rentals, (323) 224-1370.
Rancho Santa Anita: Santa Anita Park, L.A. County Arboretum, Sierra Madre lunch or afternoon tea.
“I always consider racetracks to be an important tourist destination,” wrote Andrew Beyer, the author of Picking Winners. Being a famous handicapper and all, he has his reasons, but even for those of us unfamiliar with racing, the pageantry of the sport, the power and beauty of the thoroughbreds and the glorious shimmer of the jockeys’ silks on parade creates an outing worthy of the moniker “Sport of Kings.” Plus, the Santa Anita race-course facilities serve pretty darn good food, all year round. The racetrack, which sits on the old ranch property once owned by Southern California gold-mining king E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin (credited with bringing thoroughbred racing to SoCal), was built in 1934 by movie mogul Hal Roach and was the haunt of early show-business tycoons. Now, with more than 2,000 horses stabled here, the facility trains thoroughbreds throughout the year. Start with breakfast at Clocker’s Corner, watching the horses as they are put through their paces in the inner training ring, at the practice gate or on the grass track. The place opens at 5:30 a.m. (enter Gate 8 from Baldwin Avenue and follow signs), and by 6, the railbirds and professional clockers, stopwatches in hand, have gathered at the west end of the grandstand to time the horses’ speed for handicapping. Bettors, huddled around the steam of coffee cups, pore over their racing forms to plan their wagers.
There’s a serve-yourself café for eggs any style (even Benedict), plus cereals, fruit, waffles and morning pastries. (A playground is open for kids during racing season, and children under 17 are admitted to the racecourse free with a parent.) After 11 a.m., when the grandstand and clubhouse open, bettors engage in intertrack wagering on live races, from Hollywood Park to the East Coast, beamed in by satellite to the stadium’s hundreds of TV monitors. On hand is an amazing array of food, â from carved sandwiches to full-course meals served in the elegant, old-fashioned Americana Room (jackets requested). During racing season, from October to April, there are free narrated tram tours of the barns and track facilities on weekends. With a Turf Club admission ($15), you can dine and watch races from the comfort of box seats near the finish line, or in the Turf Club restaurant.
The park’s $45 million improvements include the stunning new FrontRunner Restaurant, with tiered seating that gives wide-open views of the racecourse. The menu offers lavish entrées and a long list of grazing dishes — glazed gulf shrimp with candied macadamias, smoked salmon pastrami on pumpernickel toast with red caviar, or seared ahi on Asian greens. When not immersed in the races, patrons can view food as it is prepared in the exhibition kitchen. For simpler fare, there are 39 other choices. From what we hear, the Paddock Room has the best fish and chips, and the best barbecue sandwiches are at Stand No. 43. Patron-services desks will supply you with a color-coded map of the track and its eateries.
Directly across Baldwin Avenue from the track is another famous piece of Lucky Baldwin’s vast estate. His personal ranchero and home, where he cultivated exotic fruits and lined the roads with ornamental trees, is now the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Baldwin’s go-for-broke mentality is evident when you take one of the frequent tram tours through 127 acres of Arboretum grounds. The flamboyant property dates to 1839 and — with its deer park, peacock garden and restored Santa Fe Railway depot — is justly famous for a vast range of exotic flora from around the world. On one of the lagoons is a restored 1885 Queen Anne Cottage, encrusted with Victorian ornamentation and engulfed by a lush jungle of rare plants. It’s easy to see why set directors have been captivated by the place. Road to Singapore (1940), starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), starring Johnny Weismuller, were filmed here.
If you skipped lunch at Santa Anita, the glass-enclosed Peacock Cafe, on the premises, serves simple, freshly made sandwiches, salads and soups. But the last stop of the day holds more culinary promise. A drive north on Baldwin Avenue, making a westward jog above the 210, brings you to the town of Sierra Madre, a lovely slice of small-town Americana. Sierra Madre Boulevard is a haven for family-run shops, a local playhouse and Taylor’s, the rare butcher with dry-aged prime meats. Though hidden away, the town is full of urbane dining rooms. The stylish, highly recommended Restaurant Lozano describes its food as “American and California Cuisine with ethnic touches.” Dishes range from jerk chicken with cilantro-lime cream to prime-rib sandwiches. Phuket Island’s cooking is familiar Thai, but with an extra measure of attention paid to freshness and culinary details. The restaurant also offers a long vegetarian menu. And if it’s too late for lunch, you might prefer afternoon tea at The Four Seasons Tea Room (no relation to the hotel). On its shady, vine-covered patio or in the charming rooms, tea service (sandwiches, scones, fudgy squares and pastries, $14) is delivered in vintage china, each piece collected by the tearoom owners from estate sales.
Santa Anita Park, 285 W. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; (626) 574-7223 for reservations and information regarding Clocker’s Corner, Americana Room Restaurant and FrontRunner Restaurant. Los Angeles County Arboretum, 301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia; (626) 821-3222. Peacock Café, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 445-4267. Restaurant Lozano, 44 N. Baldwin Ave., Sierra Madre; (626) 355-5945. Phuket Island, 85 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; (626) 355-1616. The Four Seasons Tea Room, 75 N. Baldwin Ave., Sierra Madre; (626) 355-0045.
An authentic Japanese-style breakfast, L.A. Conservancy’s Little Tokyo tour, lunch stops, Little Tokyo shops, Japanese American National Museum.
Now that Southern California’s Japanese-Americans are so widely dispersed throughout L.A. county, downtown’s Little Tokyo, once the heart of Japanese-American life here, is but a symbolic mercantile hub. The Los Angeles Conservancy’s two-and-a-half-hour tour examines the area’s past and present. For total immersion, start with an old-fashioned Japanese breakfast. At the Miyako Inn, breakfasts consist of miso, rice or porridge, and a minibanquet of okazu (rice accompaniments) that may include salted salmon, sliced tamago (omelet) or grilled sardines, and the ever-present pickles. At the New Otani’s A Thousand Cranes, the meals are fancier ($20-$40), and you get a magnificent view of the hotel’s rooftop water garden. On the other hand, since you’re in the center of Japanese-American culture in Los Angeles, the enduring Mitsuru Grill, with its Japanese/American/Hawaiian/Californian-style menu, may be equally appropriate. Mitsuru has a reputation for its gachas — eggs scrambled with vegetables and your choice of meat (which may be Portuguese sausage, Chinese cha-shu pork or Spam). Rice or hash browns â accompany the dish. Finally, there’s the always-wonderful Franco-Japanese pastry shop, Frances Bakery and Coffee, which opens around 7 a.m., about an hour before the baker begins pulling from the ovens what many argue to be L.A.’s best croissants. The very gently sweetened cinnamon rolls and coffee are excellent, too. (Return for afternoon tea if you don’t come here for breakfast.)
The tour meets beside the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, in front of the rock sculpture on the brick plaza, both designed by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi. For coffee and emergency rations, there’s a small sandwich shop in a passageway called Azuza Street, to the left (facing the statue). After everyone assembles, you’re on your way to the bucolic James Irvine Garden, a.k.a. Garden of the Clear Stream, a surprising thatch of greenery and trickling water in the shadow of San Pedro Street’s high-rises. Built with rocks from Mount Baldy and crowded with traditional Japanese plants, the garden’s rushing stream symbolizes the issei’s turbulent life. But the stream winds down to a quiet pool, suggesting subsequent generations finding peace. Incorporated into the tour are old and new monuments, including the First Street North Historic District, the home of Fugetsu-do, L.A.’s first Japanese mochi and sweet shop, nearly a century old. Among the other highlights: the Astronaut Ellison Onizuka monument, the Matsuzakaya America department store, Union Center for the Arts (home of the East-West Players), buildings circa 1925 that are remnants of prewar Japantown, and the Japanese American National Museum’s striking new building, opened last year. The tour ends at Higashi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, near Third Street and Central Avenue.
Lunch spots abound: There’s Frying Fish, with conveyer-belt sushi, or Shabu Shabu House in Japanese Village Plaza, but there’s also Shangrila Café, a hidden gem, just behind the museum, that incorporates handmade noodles from on-the-premises Kadoya’s soba shop into its menu. Behind the dining room is a serene, shady patio. The restaurant offers the usual array of soba dishes, as well as chicken cutlet, salmon teriyaki, and Japanese-inflected Western dishes such as spaghetti, and smoked salmon with capers on a French-style roll.
After lunch, you may want to return to the museum on your own, as the tour does not go inside. The museum’s Media Arts Center, with its display of action documentaries pertaining to the legacy of Japanese-Americans, can keep you involved for hours. Then there’s shopping. For handmade papers and pottery, there’s Rafu Bussan, and for gifts there’s Bun-ka do and the Little Tokyo Ceramic Gallery and Clay Works.
Los Angeles Conservancy; (213) 623-CITY or (213) 623-2489. Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. First St.; (213) 625-0414. Miyako Inn, 328 E. First St.; (213) 617-2000. A Thousand Cranes, New Otani Hotel, 120 S. Los Angeles St.; (213) 629-1200. Mitsuru Sushi and Grill, 316 E. First St.; (213) 626-4046. Frances Bakery and Coffee, 404 E. Second St. (Honda Plaza); (213) 680-4899. Sandwich Shop, 340 E. Azuza St.; (213) 621-7919. Fugetsu-do, 315 E. First St., downtown; (213) 625-8595. Matsuzakaya America, 460 E. Third St.; (213) 626-4926. Frying Fish, 120 Japanese Village Plaza, downtown; (213) 680-0567. Japanese Village Plaza, 327 E. Second St.; (213) 680-1930. Shangrila Café, 744 E. Third St.; (213) 680-3770.
Mission San Fernando, Placerita Canyon Nature Center, pre-Mission breakfasts, William S. Hart Ranch.
Here’s a close-by, nearly free day trip that lets children see for real the stuff social-studies lessons attempt to make interesting. Though the sojourn begins a short, 25-minute drive from Central L.A., the city seems worlds away. The San Fernando Mission is actually a working church where weddings, memorial services and quincieras take place, sometimes several in a day.
The buildings have been through so much renovation or replacement, due to the Valley’s numerous earthquakes, they seem a tad too cute to be regarded as an ancient relic. Still, the structure’s style is mostly true to history. In the museum, early mission life comes alive in dioramas and other displays depicting native Indian workers weaving, forging iron, preparing adobe bricks. You can pick up a map, with explanatory notes, of the grounds and buildings when paying your entry fee at the gift shop. One chamber that must not be missed is the Madonna Room. Tucked into the last quadrant of the mission’s convento, the dark room lights up and music swells from its doorway when anyone approaches. The room displays an extraordinarily diverse Madonna collection, including a “Madonna of the baseball mound.”
Start your visit with a good, hearty breakfast near the mission; there are several very recommendable spots. The fabulously vintage James Restaurant in San Fernando, east of the mission and the 5 freeway, opens at 5 a.m. It’s renowned for its ham with scrambled eggs or with pancakes, and for its steak picado. Sit on the patio, if you can find a seat. Sierras No. 1 — an old Cal-Mex standby and a good bet â for huevos rancheros or chilaquiles — opens at 11 a.m. If you want to do your eating after the mission visit, Sierras is equally famous for its so-very-light crab enchilada. At El Abuelo (the Grandpa), a modest but popular family-run cantina, the huge, steamy dishes of mole poblano and the steak salad are the things to order.
Placerita Canyon Nature Center is a short jaunt north on the Golden State Freeway (15) to Highway 14 north. Exit at Placerita Canyon Road and proceed east about 1.5 miles. On Saturdays at 11 a.m., there are docent-led nature walks. During the week you can use maps to the self-guided nature trails, some as short as half a mile. The maps, which you can get for free in the office (walk past the snakes and turtle habitat), identify plants, geological formations, animal habitats, and other stuff to amaze and delight kids and their jaded parents.
The grounds have slightly shaded picnic areas, but they are not as pleasant as the ones at the next stop, the ranch and home of silent-film cowboy and director William S. Hart, who portrayed rugged frontier heroes on the screen. Leaving the park, head back to Highway 14, or take the parallel Sierra Highway to San Fernando Road west. Up the street you’ll find El Taco Llama, good for lunch or a very casual early dinner. The restaurant, somewhat funky but with great tacos al pastor and shrimp cocktails, is part of a chain; this one is actually quite good. Hart’s work made him a considerable fortune. He built his 22-room Spanish Colonial Revival mansion on part of what was Newhall Ranch, and lived there nearly 20 years before his death in 1946. He left his estate to the county of Los Angeles. Today, the house still holds original furnishings. Hart’s impressive collection of Western art is here, too, along with early Hollywood memorabilia and Native American artifacts. But what most young children like best are the various farm animals and the bison from a herd that inhabits the ranch. The grounds include a large, grassy picnic area right off San Fernando Road, and also 265 acres of natural wilderness and hiking trails. During summer, Wednesday through Sunday, tours of the house are free.
San Fernando Mission, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills; (818) 361-0186. Placerita Canyon Nature Center, 19152 Placerita Canyon Road, Newhall; (661) 259-7721. William S. Hart Museum, 24151 San Fernando Road, Newhall; (661) 254-4584. James Restaurant, 739 Truman St., San Fernando; (818) 361-1850. Sierra’s No. 1, 500 San Fernando Mission Blvd., San Fernando; (818) 365-9196. El Abuelo, 452 N. Maclay St., San Fernando; (818) 365-8283. El Taco Llama, 24374 N. San Fernando Road, Newhall; (661) 253-9067.
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Santa Monica Pier
A visit to Santa Monica Pier will indulge the child in every soul. Here is the end of fabled Route 66, as far west as you can go without falling into the drink. The pier’s beloved carousel, seen in hundreds of films, still has the heart-pounding bass notes of its thundering Wurlitzer. Shrill, giggly screams emanate from the midway, with its neon-encrusted Ferris wheel, its loop-the-loop roller coaster, and one of those swinging Viking boats that dumps you nearly upside down. Would-be rock climbers can try their skills on a sheer vertical granitelike tower, or get rid of their pent-up road rage on the SigAlert bumper cars.
Each squeaky-clean food concession inside the Pacific Park portion of the pier has a recognizable brand name. The alternative to Starbucks here is the Nescafé stand, with its selection of slushy drinks. There’s plasticized pizza, stamped-out nachos and burritos, and banana splits made from soft-serve frozen yogurt. Outside the park area, the big news is the fancy reworked Lobster, a somewhat pricey, updated seafood house with a crazed bar scene. Mariasol, a reasonably good Mexican seafood house, sits at the other end of the pier. The Boathouse, with its classy views of the beach, has ditched its old-fashioned menu in favor of house-made shrimp ravioli, ahi tuna niçoise salad, and grilled chicken with roasted-pepper mayonnaise for lunch. Live crabs and lobsters drift in the tanks at the funky Santa Monica Pier Seafood. Inside, a series of vendors sell chilled seafood platters, sushi, and crabs and lobsters cooked or sashimi-style. Prices on the crustaceans compare to the Lobster, sans its chic ambiance. You must at least stop at Rusty’s Surf Ranch, a throwback to the ’60s, with a serious vintage collection of longboards on the ceiling and walls. It’s perpetually happy hour here, with karaoke or other entertainment nightly. You’ve seen everything on the menu before, maybe not the grilled-chicken tostada salad, but surely the fajitas, steamed clams in wine shallots and garlic, and linguine marinara. For a nostalgic dessert, walk back to Beach Treats at Pacific Park to buy cotton candy . . . just don’t be surprised when you discover it’s vivid blue.
The Lobster, 1602 Ocean Ave.; (310) 458-9294. Mariasol, 401 Santa Monica Pier; (310) 917-5050. The Boathouse, 301 Santa Monica Pier; (310) 393-6475. Santa Monica Pier Seafood, 258 Santa Monica Pier; (310) 394-9683. Rusty’s Surf Ranch, 256 Santa Monica Pier; (310) 393-7437. Beach Treats, a stand located on Santa Monica Pier.