Best of L.A.

Best Of 2009


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  • + Northern California
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  • + Westchester/ LAX
  • + Westlake
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Best Of :: People & Places

Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel

Walking down Manchester Avenue near Inglewood, a street lined with car-accessory stores, gas stations and the occasional strip joint, you'll come upon an out-of-place wedding chapel that invites investigation. Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel is nothing fancy, to be sure, with its ceremonies advertised for "as low as $49." But there's more on offer for that 1970s-era price: It includes the minister, flowers, photos and certificates of marriage. In a metropolis where weddings can easily run $20,000, it's an intriguing place. The Rev. Don Johnson has been proprietor of Always Forever Yours since 1977, and he's learned some tricks to keep overhead lean. He picks up his marriage licenses at the county building in Beverly Hills, for instance, a place that requires little waiting time. According to the reverend, who delivers his information without irony, not that many people in Beverly Hills want to get married, but for those who do, the Rev. Johnson will preside over your vows, no matter your religion, location or time of day. He has administered vows in record stores, at motorcycle clubs and at the Greystone Mansion. But his most in-demand service is marrying people in jail. It seems that love does indeed conquer all. 2115 W. Manchester Ave., L.A. (323) 758-8443.

—Juliette Akinyi Ochieng
2115 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles, 90047
Red Rock Canyon

You could live here for 25 years and easily miss the most charming, are-we-really-in-L.A.? scenic drive imaginable. We almost did. Red Rock Canyon is a geographic marvel tucked just off the beaten path in Old Topanga Canyon. It's practically a secret, yet it's L.A.'s own miniature of Arizona or Utah, with its huge, iron-tinged boulders and red sandstone river walls carved by eons of rain and wind. It's a very easy, thoroughly relaxing drive from the belching, stinking city. If you go shortly after a rain, the crystal-clear and seasonal creek will be up and running, alongside a dirt road that ends at Red Rock Canyon Park. The tiny picnic area is one of the most delightful places in L.A. County. Bring your own food and beverages, plus blankets to spread on the litter-free ground, because there are no kiosks, concessions or taco trucks — thank Christ. A trailhead leading into spectacular sandstone formations is situated right near the picnic area, but it took us years just to explore Red Rock in our car, so we'll have to work up our energy for the four-hour hike in the upcoming decade. The very leafy drive into Red Rock Canyon takes you along quiet, insanely charming Old Topanga Canyon Road, an idyllic community of woodland homes and cabins set among California live oak, pine and native sage. Gulp in the air and get drunk on it. Red Rock Canyon Park, 23601 W. Red Rock Road, Old Topanga,

—Jill Stewart
23601 W. Red Rock Rd., Topanga, 90290
Hare Krishna temple

I collect deities, and there is no better place for affordable small, colorful statues of Krishna, Radha, Ganesh, etc. than the gift shop inside the Hare Krishna Temple in Culver City. While the clothing here is beautiful and more then a bit pricey, there are all kinds of other, affordable finds. Good incense and Ayurvedic soaps share shelves with real kohl eyeliner priced at only $2. Even better, when you're done shopping you can feast on the downstairs all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet for a mere 7 bucks. 3764 Watseka Ave., # 1, Culver City. (310) 836-1269.

—Elizabeth Bernheim
3764 Watseka Ave., # 1, Los Angeles, 90034
Whittier Narrows Nature Center and  Wildlife Sanctuary

The Whittier Narrows Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary has 419 acres of wilderness, featuring trails that weave through dense, dry brush alongside the San Gabriel River. With 300 species of birds, bird watching is a favorite pastime. Mountain lions and bobcats have also been seen roaming, and deep inside the sanctuary, the solitude of the desert can be a liberating experience. With all the paw prints pressed into the sand around you, you have the feeling of never quite being alone. Nearby, the Nature Center Museum has collections of archaeology, botany, history, birds, bugs and reptiles. It occasionally hosts free lectures and hayrides. Unfortunately, part of the area is marred by transmission towers and power lines, and signs advertising Mobil and Shell Oil are visible on the horizon. Even so, this is a quiet, relaxing place, completely free of charge. That much, at least, is the way nature’s supposed to be. 1000 N. Durfee Ave., El Monte. (626) 575-2253.

—Todd Krainin
1000 N. Durfee Ave., South El Monte, 91733
Trader Joe's at Sunset and Crescent Heights

That might be your lost copy of Wall of Voodoo's Seven Days in Sammystown on the wall of the spankin' new elevator that leads to the even spankier new Trader Joe's on Sunset and Crescent Heights. The company has long made each of its stores reflect its neighborhood — TV production murals at the Studio City outlet, for example. But they went the extra mile down Dead Man's Curve to make this new Sunset Strip store reflect the rock & roll history of its street. Inside, colorful giant guitar picks with likenesses of Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop grace the walls. But the best part is the elevator — actually, there are two of 'em — covered with actual rock-album covers you can ogle and even stroke as you ride the three stories from the parking garage. Wait — that has to be my Blondie Eat to the Beat cover! 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., L. A. (323) 822-7663,

—Libby Molyneaux
8000 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046
Sunset Strip

When out-of-towners visit, give them a quick, entirely free, tour of the Sunset Strip and surrounding areas in West Hollywood filled with dead celebrity haunts. Peer at the gorgeous, historic Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, where you can startle people with the grand announcement that John Belushi died there from a drug overdose in 1982. Everyone always wants to know what killed him. Correct answer: "a speedball," which is a toxic mix of cocaine and heroin. Things go downhill as you drive west on Sunset to the Viper Room, where, in 1993, young River Phoenix also died from a speedball overdose, on the dirty sidewalk outside the famed club once co-owned by Johnny Depp. Then head east and turn down Holloway Drive. Near leafy Alta Loma Road, at 8569 Holloway, you can announce that Sal Mineo, co-star of Rebel Without a Cause, was murdered outside his apartment there in 1976. A man stabbed the actor to death when Mineo was just 37. End the tour on Santa Monica Boulevard at Barney's Beanery, the friendly, old-time roadhouse where rockers Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin were reportedly regulars. Have a bowl of chili and relax while catching a baseball game on one of the Beanery's decent TVs. Chateau Marmont, 8221 W. Sunset Blvd. L.A.; Viper Room, 8852 W. Sunset Blvd., W.Hlywd; 8569 Holloway Drive, W.Hlywd.; Barney's Beanery, 8447 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.

—Patrick Range McDonald
8852 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 90069

God only knows when it will reopen for business following the devastating Station Fire, but the little Astronomical Museum atop Mount Wilson is not only an unexpected educational stop-off in the San Gabriel Mountains, but a portal into the way the galaxy looked to astronomers in the 1930s and '40s. Built in 1936, its bare-bones displays mostly consist of photographs of the solar system taken at the time, and as such, it's kind of like thumbing through a very old astronomy textbook – the kind that would dramatically feature a colorized photo of Saturn on the cover. However, since the free-admission museum's 1997 renovation, updated captions accompany the exhibits, which also include bits of machinery used in the transportation and construction of the nearby observatory's 60- and 100-inch telescopes. There's also a small auditorium for lectures. If this all seems like a rather long way to go look at some obsolete astronomy exhibits or to hear a lecture, blame it on the original land-lease agreement, which required the new Mount Wilson Observatory grounds to be open to the public during daylight hours – apparently to satisfy the tourist-hungry requirements of the observatory's landlord, the Mount Wilson Hotel and Toll Road Company. The hotel and its restaurant are long gone, so pack a picnic lunch for the afternoon. There are plenty of tables near the parking lot. Take the Angeles Crest Highway north from La Cañada-Flintridge to Red Box Road, then turn off to reach the observatory. (626) 440-9016, Open daily from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in November from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., weather permitting.

—Steven Mikulan
Stoney Point Park

Disclosure: The CHP will be displeased to see this published, so please obey the 45 mph speed limit and approach this triple-gulp car ride with caution: Begin in Chatsworth at the Topanga Canyon exit of the 118 freeway with your windows rolled down, heading south, foot off the gas pedal. As you accelerate down the mountain (watch your speed or the motorcycle cops hiding inside the Indian Hills Mobile Home Village will) at about ¼ of a mile, gaze up to the left (east) and take in the magnificent, boulder-embedded Stoney Point Park (gulp 1) — the site of an ancient Indian village — where climbing pros and novices attempt their skills at bouldering, rappelling and downright foolishness. Look right (west) to spot a tiny black hole carved into the Santa Susana Mountains, which is a railroad tunnel built in 1904 (gulp 2). Coast onward (traffic light, hopefully) with the wind blowing in your hair, and pull over. Sit a spell and contemplate the beauty of these historic landmarks you might not have noticed (gulp 3) had you been in a hurry. Stoney Point Park, 11000 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth. (818) 883-8531.

—Heidi Dvorak
11000 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth, 91311
Neutra VDL Research House

The best way to truly experience the work of great architects is to step inside the home they've designed for themselves. Unfortunately, Schindler's home was left unfurnished, and the best view most of us will get of Charles and Ray Eames' place is with a nose pressed up to the window. But tucked into the shore of the Silver Lake Reservoir is Richard Neutra's residence and studio, the Neutra VDL Research House, an elegant stack of glass and beams, its signature louvers plunging down into an entryway pond. For $10 — all of it contributing to the ongoing renovation — you can see it much like it was when Neutra lived and worked here, beginning in 1932. (A renovation after a 1963 fire was completed by Neutra's son Dion.) Every Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Cal Poly Pomona students give 30-minute tours. Take the last one of the day and position yourself upstairs to catch the afternoon light on the penthouse reflecting pool, which appears to fade imperceptibly into the water of the reservoir beyond. 2300 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A. (323) 644-5480,

—Alissa Walker
2300 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, 90039
Griffith Observatory

You could always take one of those Hollywood tours past James Dean's L.A. haunts, but one of the most beautiful and enjoyable ways to commune with the spirit of the young actor who died too soon is to drive to the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, which was an important location for Dean's best and most influential film, Rebel Without a Cause. The homage is a three-parter. First, as you walk toward the famed observatory and look to the right, you'll see a white slab of concrete with a bust of James Dean sitting on it. The actor commissioned artist Kenneth Kendall to create the sculpture just before his death, and Kendall coincidentally began work on the piece the September 30, 1955, night Dean fatally crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder in Northern California. The bust depicts the inner torture Dean's characters often endured, and it's situated away from the observatory crowds so you can have a moment of silence with your thoughts. From there, walk to the front, eastern side of the observatory, where you'll see a small parking lot. Against a white wall, with a beautiful view of downtown L.A., is where Dean's character, Jim Stark, took part in the famous knife-fight scene in Rebel. No plaque dedicates the site to the actor, but movie history happened exactly at this spot. Few people make it over here, so again, it's quiet and uncrowded. Finally, head into the observatory itself, where Dean's Rebel alter ego actually watched the planetarium show in the 1955 film. Griffith Observatory, Griffith Park. Tues.-Fri., noon-10 p.m.; weekends, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

—Patrick Range McDonald

2800 E. Observatory Rd., Los Angeles, 90027

Ever since its grand opening in July, the Pavilions in West Hollywood has turned into something more than a supermarket — it's where hot gays and lesbians go to mingle in WeHo. While the old Pavilions had more of a laid-back neighborhood feel, this sleekly designed and reasonably priced market's new interior decor features soft lighting — essential for any good pickup joint. And the pickup scene is highly charged: Whether you're selecting apples and peaches near the front, picking out cookies in back or standing in line for a custom-made sandwich next to the in-house Starbucks counter, it seems impossible not to meet someone and strike up a friendly conversation about fresh meat. It almost feels like a trendy nightclub, if not for that plastic bag of bok choy you're clutching. Pavilions is open 24/7, and it's a fun spot to shop — for more than just groceries. Pavilions, 8969 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. Open daily, 24 hours.

—Patrick Range McDonald
8969 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 90069
Children's Book World

While you won't find a double latte or red velvet cupcake at Children's Book World, readers will wander among its more than 80,000 titles, educational games and book title–emblazoned T-shirts and wonder why they ever shopped that chain megastore. This neighborhood book shop is a throwback to a time when expertise mattered more than a 10 percent discount. Owner Sharon Hearn insisted that two concepts define her shop. "We wanted the feel of library, which means depth of categories of books, so that no matter what topic a child is looking for, he could find something here. We wanted a knowledgeable staff, able to find the book you came in for and to offer suggestions for a complementary read." Hearn has accomplished that and more. On a recent visit, when asked for a suitable book for an 8-year-old, dog-obsessed boy, staffer Nikki spent several minutes pulling titles about dog-centered stories. While a request for a roller coaster–themed work of fiction momentarily stumped her, she ultimately suggested Bedknobs and Broomsticks, " 'cuz a flying carpet is like a carnival ride, right?" Satisfied, the 8-year-old left with five other books, including one featuring a dog detective. While it's easy to steer a child to the day's popular read, here, it isn't only best-sellers that Hearn carries. "If we think a book is important but not widely read, we still stock it. For instance, the book Friends by Rosa Guy, for the Young Adult reader; we might sell one a year; but it has so much heart that I still keep it." Perhaps, as important as it is to purchase a new title, when those gently or once-read volumes are not challenging enough for your child, Children's Book World will take them off your hands to share with programs and centers where books are less plentiful. "It's important for children to have their own books, and one they choose for themselves," Hearn explains. The book-recycling program was started when Ann Martin, author of the Baby-sitters Club books, was doing an in-store reading. As part of her participation, she required that the shop incorporate a charitable aspect, so Hearn set up a donation bin. Today, low-income children visit the store's adjacent storage facility to choose their special book. Books are also donated to teachers of low-income students, and to homeless and domestic-violence shelters. "We use the Golden Rule philosophy: Is the book in the condition you would accept for your child?" Hearn asks. So, no writing, no torn pages, no coffee-stained covers. Drop your books off on a selected Saturday and your child can enjoy an hour of storytelling! 10580 1/2 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. (310) 559-2665, Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Karre Jacobs
10580 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 90064

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