Best of L.A.

Best Of 2008


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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

Best Poker Room
Hustler Casino

A few months back, I went to play some low-stakes poker over at Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino, and who did I bump into, right next to me at a corner table in the back of the room? Not only Flynt himself, in his gold-plated wheelchair, but sitting around him were none other than Ted Forrest, Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey and a handful of other living poker legends and superstars. This was sort of like going to the local bar to watch a ball game on TV and finding your stool flanked by A-Rod and Greg Maddux.

Until then, I had been playing regular cash games of Hold-em at the cavernous Commerce Casino and some tournaments over at the Bicycle Casino. But I quickly got hooked on Flynt's much more elegant, intimate digs, built in 2000 on the ruins of the old El Dorado club in Gardena.

And so it is that at least two afternoons a week, if you take a seat at the lowly $1/2 no-limit table, Flynt and his gang will be playing 10 feet from you — for somewhat higher stakes. The buy-in to Flynt's long-running game is usually $200K per head, with an opening bet of $2K, so it's certainly a gas to be neighbors at a table with a couple of million stacked up on it.

But it's not just the celebrity allure. The Hustler, even with its unfortunate name ("Honey, I'm just leaving the Hustler now and then I'll meet you at the teacher-parent conference"), is a cut above all other Los Angeles–area poker rooms. Its more than 50 poker tables sport soft new felt, hanging crystal provides soothing lighting, large plasma TVs freckle the red-brocade walls and the place, no kidding, has a totally civilized, genteel, dignified feel. As long as you keep them out of Flynt's gift shop, even your spouse and mother wouldn't cringe, and they might enjoy the very, very inexpensive food served on the gambling floor.

Sometimes the wait for a table is a bit longer than at the hangarlike Commerce or the nearby Bike, but it's worth it. The Hustler spreads the most player-friendly Hold-em games in town, especially the popular $1/2 game. At both Commerce and the Bike, there's a maximum buy-in of only $40 for the $1/2 game. But Hustler allows a $100 buy-in, giving you almost three times the amount of blinds to play with and that much more margin to either strut your stuff or flub like a donkey.

I have to admit, I even like the blue $1 chips better at the Hustler. They're a weightier clay than their flimsy plastic competitors across town. And as you look down at Big Slick, and see Phil Ivey right out of the corner of your eye, stacking out a dozen or 15 of them on the felt sometimes makes you feel like you're playing for a million.

—Marc Cooper

1000 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, 90247
Best Free Comedy, Beer Included

Comic book geek or hip alt-comedy scenesters? The line is pretty blurred on the fourth Friday of the month at Meltdown Comics. That's when the back room stays open after hours for a nonglamorous, harshly lit evening of standup comedy. The show is free, as is the plentiful Asahi beer, which is notable not only because the talent lineup is cover-charge/drink-minimum-worthy, but also because the show takes places only blocks from the Laugh Factory and Comedy Store, where parking costs almost as much as half a tank of gas. There's no valet for Comedy Meltdown, and you should arrive early to fight for a space, but you can peruse Alison Bechdel's latest graphic novel while you wait. You'll be rewarded with intimate performances by such established comics as Craig Anton, Blaine Capatch, Jackie Kashian, Morgan Murphy, Howard Kremer, Duncan Trussell, Melinda Hill and Maria Bamford. The show's put on by Linda Pine, who longs to book Eddie Izzard, Louis C. K., Emo Philips and Tom Kenny. Says comic Melinda Hill, a Meltdown regular, "I love performing at Meltdown because Linda packs the room with comedy fans equipped with all the free beer they can handle, sells your merch online for you, and hands you a scarf she knitted herself. It's like doing a comedy show run by your grandma, if your grandma was a comedy-loving hipster with a cute haircut."

—Libby Molyneaux
7522 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046
Best L.A. Record Label

It buggers the imagination that any sane person would consider running a record label in this chaotic environment. Why not play it safe and open a sub-prime brokerage, instead? In this landscape, a hearty huzzah to those who channel their musical passion into pumping the sounds of others. Labelwise, Los Angeles 2008 is a hearty place: Everloving Records outta Los Feliz has been globetrotting this year, putting out thrilling music by Germans, French, Japanese and Angelenos (the labyrinthine An Invitation collaboration between Inara George and Van Dyke Parks); PPF has tossed out sloppy dirgy smellpunk; Vanguard set the standard for songcraft (the Watson Twins, Greg Laswell); Plug Research, Dangerbird, Hellicopter, Ipecac, Aquarium Drunkard, anticon, Dim Mak and IHEARTCOMIX — all release music that's consistently inspiring.

But for sheer good taste and hometown pride, the best L.A. label these days is Stones Throw Records, founded by L.A.'s best DJ, Peanut Butter Wolf. The label has fueled our stereos with smart, deep, rich beat-based music from a variety of artists this year. They dug into the crates to celebrate the 1980s sounds of electro-rap pioneer (and former N.W.A DJ) Arabian Prince; threw us a curveball with the odd, ethereal Koushik record — which created a new subgenre: nitrous rap. And where the hell did that James Pants record come from? Who knew Stones Throw dug fucked-up postdisco? Need more proof? The Madvillain Box, which came out a few weeks ago, is a beautiful limited-edition set from L.A. beat genius Madlib (a.k.a. Beat Konducta, a.k.a. Madvillain, a.k.a. Quasitmoto). The label's propping legendary filmmaker and badass Melvin van Peebles by hooking him up with Heliocentrics, and has been instrumental in sealing the late hip-hop producer J Dilla's legacy. To say nothing about Stones Throw's regular podcasts, which could probably be sold as mixtapes; or PBW's eight-night VJing spin in August. Combined, a record label of the perfect sort: one that follows its heart and gut, trusting that good taste and bottom line aren't mutually exclusive ideals.

—Randall Roberts
2658 Griffith Park Blvd., Los Angeles, 90039
Best Master of Puppets

It's not hard to picture what Steve Meltzer must have been like as a little boy. The puppeteer, who mans the box office before jumping onstage to work the puppets for Puppetolio! every weekend, has a big, goofy grin and exudes the energy of an 8-year-old inviting you to play in his room. Puppetolio! is delightfully old-fashioned, a low-tech puppet show with Meltzer's zany cast of stringed characters and really corny jokes that add up to the equivalent of being tickled for an hour.

"I wanted to do what I am now doing when I was 4," Meltzer says. "Paul Winchell was a huge TV star back then, and my idol. I knew his partner, Jerry Mahoney, was not a living person, but Paul acted as though he was, and he made me believe it. The reason I do this is for the sheer joy that I have with the audience as we laugh ... and sing ... and believe together."

In an age where family entertainment has gone through the technology stratosphere, Meltzer's show might be a throwback, but the kids in the audience laugh like little loons. "I love all the modern technologies, but my experience has taught me that humans haven't really changed all that much. We still love to gather together and find the common joy of any kind of fantasy or illusion. In this tech-saturated time, I wish the purveyors of pop culture would realize that 'low-tech' can actually be a selling point."

This month, Meltzer will present the first-ever Santa Monica Puppetry Festival, which will conclude with an appearance by Leslie Caron, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a poor French orphan in the heart-wrenching 1953 movie Lili, in which a lovelorn puppeteer and his puppets play a major role. Meltzer is currently searching for Carrot Top, the cute little boy hand puppet who sang "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" in the movie. Carrot Top was last seen at an MGM props auction in 1971. Meltzer would love to hear from anyone who might know Carrot Top's whereabouts.

—Libby Molyneaux
1014 Broadway, Santa Monica, 90401
Best B-Star Fest
Hollywood Collectors & Celebrities Show

"You are the entertainment capital of the world," says Ray Courts with a slow and polite Southern drawl from his home in Spring Hill, Florida. "We thought there were other people besides us who come to Hollywood and would like to meet some of your favorite celebrity guests. OK, I grant you that we don't have your Tom Cruises or Kevin Costners or your Will Smiths, but dog gone it, ma'am, there are so many of them I'm looking forward to meeting that I just watched on TV and the silver screen."

Thanks to Courts and his wife, Sharan, meeting celebrities other than Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner or Will Smith is as easy as showing up at the Burbank Airport Marriott for the Hollywood Collectors & Celebrities Show. Sure, they're mostly stars from TV and film's bygone era. But for pre-eBay baby boomers who fondly remember their idols as a fraternity of actors and not the paparazzi bait and tabloid headlines of today, these shows are the equivalent of Grauman's Chinese come to life.

Originally from West Virginia, the couple began as collectors and dealers who were inspired to start their own show after frequenting early movie memorabilia gatherings that didn't allow celebrities to attend. For 13 years, the Courtses initially operated out of North Hollywood's Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, fittingly owned by Garland, who starred in My Three Sons. Once the show took off, it was the celebs who approached the husband-and-wife team. And to date, they've wrangled thousands of major and minor stars, retired actors, bit players, Western heroes and the voices behind some of Disney's early animations (Adriana Caselotti, the original Snow White, used to appear in character), all of whom are more than eager to pose for pictures, talk to fans and autograph photos for $15 or $20.

Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Eden and Adam West have all had fans lining up for their John Hancocks. And who wouldn't want to meet Jeannie or the original Batman? Or if it's current celebrities you're hounding, Val Kilmer not only attended in 2003, but signed guitars, while Hilary Duff appeared on behalf of a children's charity back when she was still a teen Disney star.

They also stage mini cast reunions from various films and TV shows, from Westside Story and Star Wars to Little House on the Prairie, The Partridge Family, Welcome Back, Kotter and even The Three Stooges. And dealers from as far as Argentina come to sell more photographs, posters, scripts, lobby cards, movie props and costumes, some dating back to silent films, ranging from a few bucks to upwards of $20,000.

"Even now I collect autographs," says Courts. "Holy smokes, you oughta see our family room. It is wall to wall of our heroes and heroines." Courts' first piece of memorabilia was a knife used by Gordon Scott, who played Tarzan in the '50s, while some of his other prized possessions include studio chairs from The Andy Griffith Show, starring Courts' favorite comedian, the late Don Knotts.

"For us, it is still a thrill," says Courts. "We got the legendary Jane Russell coming to our show. Wow! Howard Hughes discovered this young lady!" Did he say "young"?

—Siran Babayan
2500 Hollywood Way, Burbank, 91505
Best Beanery

Like a little razzle-dazzle when you're getting smashed in the face? At UpHigh/DownLow, the Silver Lake chapter of LADS (Los Angeles Dodgeball Society), you're sure to get a glimpse of sparkly purple tights, perhaps under a gorilla suit, right before a big red ball knocks you into next Tuesday. Although, says UH/DL founder Matty Pipes, those moon boots are just for showboaters. "The flashier people are just there for distraction and usually can't throw for crap," Pipes says. "It's the people with the plain tees waiting in the wings that you need to watch out for." Pipes, who also captains team Bandana Rama, says the Silver Lake division has gotten so much response that he actually has to audition people before they're assigned to a team. "It's $50 to join, but, unlike the other LADS leagues, you must be approved by a captain and me. We have to turn away a lot of people." The chapter's roster of teams features such motley crews as WW4, FAGS (Fun Active Gentlemen's Society), Prom Night Dumpster Babies, etc. But don't be fooled by the silly monikers; the competition gets pretty fierce, especially toward the end of the season. Sometimes the action spills into the stands and spectators are forced to dodge left and right, occasionally futilely, to avoid the ferocious flying bombardment. At the end of the game, though, UpHigh/DownLow is all about the "high-five mentality," Pipes insists. "It's also great to have a place to meet people where you don't feel like you have to be wasted. A lot of people thank us for that the most."

—Rena Kosnett
Best Red Rubber Balls
Dodge Ball at Crunch

Gyms in L.A. are always coming up with one new class or another — cardio boot camp, supercharged spinning, power yoga — so it was only a matter of time before the dodge-ball craze found its way to Crunch on Sunset Boulevard, which has been hosting exciting dodge-ball games (or classes) for the past year. Started last summer as a seasonal offering, dodge ball, which is "taught" by instructor and actor-dancer Dollar Tan, has become a year-round class that attracts men and women who like to compete and get a great workout in the process. A regular crowd often shows up to throw, dodge and catch the red rubber balls, but new players are always welcome.

—Patrick Range McDonald
8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046
Best Small-Fry Fishing
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

Sometimes overshadowed by its gigantic cousin in Long Beach, the Cabrillo Aquarium in San Pedro is a fantastic alternative for visitors who want to spend the majority of their day at an actual beach. Full of hand-painted displays and small-town charm, the Cabrillo Aquarium has a wide variety of marine species, some of which can be experienced firsthand in a touch tank. It's also home to the famous yearly grunion run, where the unique mating and reproductive habits of the small silverside fish attract curious human spectators.

—Molly Lambert
3720 Stephen M. White Dr., San Pedro, 90731
Best Moonlight Stroll
Sierra Club's Griffith Park Hike
Photo: JuanCarlos Chan/Los Angeles Dept of Recreation and Parks

Hiking the hills of Griffith Park alone after dark is, unfortunately, ill-advised. Happily, Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter has your back, offering group hikes of varying difficulty during the week and on weekends — and, once a month, a special moonlight hike. These treks are no secret: Between 150 and 250 trailblazers usually show up for each excursion during the warmer months, the more serious ones armed with a sturdy set of boots and poles. (Difficulty levels are numbered: 1 for beginners, 6 for — let's face it — those in better shape.) Led by experienced Sierra Club volunteers, the hikes are two hours long, exploring all 53 miles of the park's trails and changing each week to keep things interesting. Most hikes stop at a high point to give participants a chance to enjoy city views. From up high, even the 5 freeway takes on a mystic quality, the cars streaming around its curves in waves of tiny white lights. "This is a fantastic way for people to enjoy the park," says Councilman Tom LaBonge, who takes in a hike from time to time. "It's activities like this that make our city great." Damn straight, Tom.

—Gina Pollack
4730 Crystal Springs Dr., Los Angeles, 90027
Best Communal Tennis Courts
Echo Park Tennis Courts

You might not find the next Venus or Serena Williams giving the Echo Park tennis courts a good spanking, but you will find a lively, thriving tennis community there beneath Highway 101.

Unlike the nearby Griffith Park courts, which charge a small fee, the well-maintained Echo Park courts are free to the public. What's more, the hobos sunning on the lawn help out when a wayward ball flies over the fence — happily abandoning their 40s to chase down and toss back errant forehands with surprising swiftness.

Forget to bring a fresh can of balls? Just cross the street to the Chevron station, which keeps them in stock. There are also a number of shaded benches to rest on and the obligatory water fountain for the parched player. Sure, the courts haven't had lights for two years because, rumor has it, the neighborhood wise guys stole the copper wiring, but the Echo Park Tennis Club makes up for that. The club consists of a group of Filipino men approaching their 60s, all with the tanned, toned legs of 25-year-olds. At least half the members are at the courts seven days a week, starting at 6 a.m. On days when your strokes are particularly weak, friendly members will come over to offer helpful tips. These guys have been playing here since the 1970s, and can point you in the direction of a local instructor or a place to get your racket restrung. Avoid the afterschool hours reserved for nearby Belmont High, but on most days, you only have to spend a short time stretching, or take a quick stroll around the lake before a court opens up and you can pretend you're Serena for a session.

—Sophia Kercher
1632 Bellevue Ave., Los Angeles, 90026
Best Compassionate Yogi
Julian Walker

In a town lousy with yoga (and so much of it lousy yoga), how does one pinpoint The Best? What does "Best Yoga" even mean? The whole idea of "best" is anathema to yoga, which means "union," which obliterates reductive, dualistic differentiations like "best" and "worst."

Aargh! I'll give it my best. ...

Noah Williams, seemingly sweet and sparkly, will sadistically whip your Type-A Ashtanga practice into Pattabhi-perfect shape in Silver Lake. If you're looking for a kick-ass flow, perfectly sequenced to the sounds of classic rock & roll, with a little New York humor thrown in and around the hip openers, Vinnie Marino's your man (see Best Yogi Rock). Bryan Kest holds down yoga for the masses in Santa Monica, with his suggested-donation classes geared toward the advanced practitioner and her 80-year-old grandmother alike (see Best Yoga Class for the Masses). Siri Shiva's rockin' an innovative mix of Kundalini kriyas, Hatha flow and ecstatic dance at Golden Bridge. But if I had to choose one teacher (which, apparently, I do) whose class not only rocks my body, but my soul, it's Julian Walker, a sexy South African snack keeping it really, really real on the Westside.

Julian Walker: The thinking man's yoga teacher.

Armed with heavy-lidded bedroom eyes and the slightest hint of his South African upbringing sliding off the back edge of his sultry lilt, Walker peppers his packed Open Sky Yoga classes with poetry — Rilke and Rumi — recited with thoughtful pauses and telling repetition, connecting mind and body, spirit and breath, inhaled inspiration with exhaled everything that isn't.

He's constantly grounding us in the present, inviting us to check in with our experience of the now and to make peace with it as it is, to surrender to the truth of the moment and to honor it, instead of wishing it were different and plowing through as if it were. And while inviting us to tune in to our awareness, he nudges us out of our self-consciousness, urging us to om and ahhh and hum and sing "as though [we've] never been shy" ... (did I mention his rockin' playlists?).

And though I know not the names of my sweaty cohorts, Ujjayi-breathing and tantric-ahhh-ing next to me, we are indeed a community. Julian takes great care in weaving a sacred space infused with intention and compassion, awareness and discernment, a shared experience in which we are safe to cry and to laugh, to let go and to break through. A favorite expression of his is "we take turns," as in we take turns falling in love, mending broken hearts and busted shoulders; we take turns flying high and falling down, soaring and sobbing, celebrating and grieving, expanding and contracting — oh, how we indeed take turns.

And when my spine caved in on itself and I was hurt and broken and I lost my Ashtanga practice and my usual yoga teachers weren't interested in modifying their sequences so that I could play along, Julian welcomed me into his class and showed me how to be gentle, and taught me that to sit still while the rest of the class is flowing all around me is the most advanced practice of them all. I've studied with masters all over this big blue planet, and I've tied myself into knots while balancing in impossible contorted configurations, and in all those years of Ujayi-breathing my way inside myself, I didn't actually find my way to genuine compassion until Julian took me by the hand and showed me.

Plus, he does bodywork (she sighs, with hearts in her eyes) ... and leads workshops and retreats and ... and ... did I mention the bodywork?

—Dani Katz
1640 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, 90405
Best Yogi Rock

We've all heard the story before: Drug-addicted East Coast guido flower child gets clean, migrates to Los Angeles and emerges as Venice Beach superstar yogi. It's as obvious as a Jerome Robbins musical.

Back in the early '90s, Marino substituted for a vacationing yoga-teacher friend, brought his Rolling Stones CDs to class and blasted the jams as the students pretzeled themselves into a higher consciousness. A harmless act with no ill intentions, but word spread like wildfire from Marina del Rey to Malibu. The cat got out of the bag. Vinnie Marino assumed the mantle of next big yoga thing. The rest is history.

These days, when Vinnie lays his dog down and pumps up the jams for his twice-daily Vinyasa Flow class at Yoga Works on Main Street in Santa Monica, hard-body yoga hoochies and celebs sardine-can into the room like it's the last Jefferson Starship reunion tour on Earth.

You really gotta get there early and secure some sacred space if you want a spot in Vinnie's class. His Tuesday, 9:15 a.m., level 2-3 is at the far reaches of my practice, but I decide to go for it.

I'm a little sweaty when I get to the class. "I tell people not to come in here stinking," Guru V says in his East Coast Italian-American drawl. He's disarming in a funny way. It's really inviting and part of why everybody loves him — that and the rock & roll. But don't be fooled by his charisma. Guru V is a master and his classes are not for the uncommitted.

During the 90-minute class, my heart pumps like mad, threatening a brain hemorrhage as I test the limits of my burgeoning practice. However, the other people in the class seem to be doing just fine. Hmm ...

Vinnie's word of mouth has provided him a following of yogis as high-res as Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham, David Duchovny and others.

Vinnie practices Vinyasa Flow classes as well as Iyengar yoga classes at Yoga Works in Santa Monica and privately (of course). In addition to those classes, this squeaky-clean yogi has embarked on another journey. His latest endeavor is called "Recovery Yoga." It's a sort of hybrid yoga workshop for junkies. It's a big hit, of course. Two things are never in short supply here in Los Angeles: yoga and junkies.

—Sam Slovick

Best Poker Room: Hustler Casino


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