Could the best neighborhood in L.A. actually be in the Valley? I think so, and even though you might be a total anti-Valley snob, if you'll hear me out, you might change your mind.
First, let's get this out of the way. North Hollywood's charms might at first seem hidden, or at least understated. But in its own endearing and refreshingly un-hip way, this neighborhood in the southeast corner of the San Fernando Valley has become one of L.A.'s best - especially for those seeking fast access to many other key 'hoods and relatively spacious housing at a bargain price.
Tucked between the slicker Studio City, solidly middle-class Burbank, mansion-filled Toluca Lake and the pleasant, leafy grid of Valley Village, the core of North Hollywood has a vibe all its own - a little more gritty and densely urban.
It's easy to get anywhere from here: Folks anywhere near the main drag, Lankershim, can walk pretty quickly to the Red Line stations at Universal or Chandler and zip into Hollywood or downtown in a matter of minutes. For cars, NoHo is also a wonderland of nearby freeways - 101, 170, 134. A trip to Sunset & Vine literally takes just eight minutes. There's good access to at least four city parks.
But it's not just a bedroom community. Basin dwellers may dismiss the "NoHo Arts District" as a bit underwhelming. But good things have happened in recent years, with a slow-forming critical mass of restaurants, bars and shops.
On Magnolia alone, in the block between Lankershim and Vineland, you now find the Republic of Pie, the Bow & Truss tapas emporium, the Brickyard billiards tavern and a casual diner simply called EAT. Embedded in that stretch are also a few great old playhouses, with most regularly offering plays, comedy shows and acting classes. Due to open soon are an udon noodle shop and a brewpub with an ambitious menu.
Head to lower Lankershim near Universal City and you'll find the acclaimed Firenze Osteria, owned by TV superchef Fabio Viviani, but head up that boulevard and there's the cozy nightspot Skinny's Lounge and the marvelously kitschy Tiki No bar, replete with exterior fire-spewing torches. Pass the tenacious (and pugnacious) little comedy club Ha Ha Cafe on the right and one of my favorite all-you-can-eat sushi places, Miyako, on the left, and a few blocks north you'll encounter the snazzed-up district above Magnolia anchored by the grand Academy of Television Arts & Sciences complex and the shaded-glass Arts College building.
There you'll encounter a dense chunk of walkable, urban goodness. It's here that actor Robert Romanus (Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) recently opened Bob's Espresso Bar. There's also a Pitfire Pizza, a sushi joint, the new District Bar, the grandiose El Portal Theater, the two-floor lounge/restaurant Federal Bar (in an old converted bank) and Laemmle's NoHo 7, which shows a satisfying combo of smarter mainstream films along with weirder indie and foreign choices.
What Basin dwellers who dismiss the Valley may not realize is that historic businesses and offbeat, artsy offerings have long flourished in North Hollywood, making it a mecca for shoppers interested in browsing. Looking for hard-to-find videos? Try Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee on Vineland. Looking for books? There's Iliad Books, a sprawling, comfortably ramshackle bookstore on Cahuenga. Back in my earliest years in L.A., when I was a new stand-up comedian living in Silver Lake, some of the weirdest, most offbeat open mics were at now-defunct NoHo spots like the Kindness of Strangers Coffee House and Aaahhhcapella, both on Lankershim, and the crystal-and-tarot-card-vibed Indigo Cafe at Ventura and Vineland.
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That bohemian spirit is coming around again in new incarnations. There's even dynamite fast Indian food available at Assam Indian Kitchen way up Cahuenga, a hilariously casual and homey spot where two brothers crank out awesome Halal Indian amidst twinkling Christmas lights until 3 a.m. most nights. Authentic Latin American offerings abound as well; add a sprinkling of real, neighborhoody Middle Eastern, Armenian and Thai restaurants, and you've got a quiet, unassuming foodie paradise.
North Hollywood has a refreshing mix of people - stolid, longtime Valley folks, along with recent immigrants and scores of more recent writer/actor/filmmaker/musician/artist types who'd look right at home in Hollywood or downtown. They've chosen NoHo because they like the semi-suburban lifestyle and easy parking at chill prices - but they want urban amenities, too.
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While the streets of NoHo have plenty of apartment complexes with on-site amenities, it's also a neighborhood where creatives still can afford to rent an actual house - often an offbeat bungalow with wood floors, some character inside and a pool/patio in the back. One-bedroom apartments and studios in NoHo go for as little as $900 to $1,100. You can rent a three-bedroom house for $2,000. No way you're finding that in L.A.'s pricier neighborhoods.
There's an offbeat, diamond-in-the-rough feel here, which I think is exemplified by the fact that my current auto mechanic, Karen at North Hollywood Discount Auto Repair, is a woman — and she owns the shop! As a dude, there's something cool about going to a female auto mechanic who calmly, confidently tells you about your car's struts, tie-rod end and intake manifold. I've never seen a woman auto mechanic before anywhere in L.A., and yet she exists, in NoHo.
The neighborhood is the perfect mix of modern, bustling L.A. and unpretentious, working-class suburbia. Stop by some weekend and you'll see what I mean. Standing on Lankershim, you could imagine yourself somewhere else, in the middle of America, in a more innocent and wholesome place and time - yet you could still be back in downtown L.A. or at an acting audition in just 15 minutes. Where else in Los Angeles could you say that?