Culver City, ready for its close-up
The Helms Bakery building in Culver City is home to multiple restaurants and a high-end designer showroom. (Ray Laskowitz/LPI)
It might not have the household name recognition of Hollywood (or even Burbank), but Culver City – a five square mile slip just south of the 10 freeway and east of Venice Beach – has been one of LA’s major neighbourhoods for TV and film production for nearly 100 years, with everything from Citizen Kane to Arrested Development being filmed within its borders.
After a rather dismal period in the 1970s and '80s, Sony moved their motion picture operations to Culver City's former MGM studios in the early '90s, leading to a recently revitalized downtown area with upscale bars and quirky but user-friendly restaurants.
Meanwhile, over the past decade or so, a concentration of cutting-edge galleries - featuring everything from SoCal's native lowbrow street and graffiti artists to Japanese pop-art imports - has reclaimed an industrial area on Culver's eastern edge, creating an arts district to rival New York's Chelsea neighbourhood.
A hip and historical tour of Culver City could start at the oddly shaped Culver Hotel (www.culverhotel.com) which was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1924, sold to John Wayne for $1 in a poker game, has housed everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Munchkins of The Wizard of Oz and is still pampering guests to this day.
Step across the street to Fraiche (www.fraicherestaurantla.com), a loungey, French-Italian fusion restaurant that became so popular since opening in 2007 that it has since spawned sequels in other parts of town. Just down the block is Ford's Filling Station (www.fordsfillingstation.net), a gastropub run by the crafty chef Ben Ford, who prefers whole pig feasts and oven-roasted octopus to fedoras and bullwhips (yep, his dad is Harrison).
Another block or so west is Sony Studios (www.sonypicturesstudios.com), where you can join the studio audience of Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, or just take the backlot tour. While it is nowhere near the theme park-style extravaganza of Universal Studios a few miles northeast, the two-hour walking tour offers an intimate look inside the filmmaking facilities.
Double back and head up a block to Venice Boulevard to visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology (www.mjt.org), a deadpan collection of genuine fossilized curios and phony artefacts that feels like collaboration between Dave Eggers and David Lynch. If you are feeling a bit trippy afterward, a few blocks east is the Actor's Gang (www.theactorsgang.com), a theatre ensemble run by actor Tim Robbins. In keeping with the area's history and irreverent attitude, the theatre runs periodic showings of Dark Side of Oz, a multimedia mash-up where The Wizard of Oz is shown with the soundtrack replaced by Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon.
Slip down around the blink-and-you-will-miss-it Media Park and back to Washington Boulevard and head east, stopping at Royal-T Café (www.royal-t.org). The combination gallery/bistro features Asian pop culture exhibits (think Hello Kitty retrospectives) and perky waitresses dressed in French maid-meets-anime character uniforms. A few blocks farther east and you will cross into the industrial part of town, heralded by the radically renovated Helms Bakery (http://helmsbakerydistrict.com), a massive complex that is now home to restaurants and Vitra (www.vitra.com), a high-end designer showroom full of futuristic chairs and inventive furniture.
Helms Bakery is also home to Father's Office 2.0 (www.fathersoffice.com). When every publication with a food critic named the burger at the original Father's Office in Santa Monica the best in America (and by extension, the world), it became impossible to get in. Not the case here. This larger space has a ludicrous amount of craft beers on tap, along with the same burger that made them famous, an applewood-smoked bacon compote covered, maytag blue and gruyere cheese smothered, caramelized onions, and arugula-topped flavour bomb. Be warned, however, that substitutions are not allowed, and good luck finding ketchup (they will, however, cook the meat to the temperature of your choice).
Finish your tour by walking off burger and beer calories in the Culver City Art District along Washington and La Cienega Boulevards, a roughly mile-long stretch where you can literally go door-to-door at more than two dozen galleries. Corey Helford, LeBasse Projects and Taylor De Cordoba are not to be missed and are a great place to pick up a more significant souvenir than a Men in Black T-shirt.
Chris Kaye is Editorial Director of The Rundown (www.rundown.com), a Los Angeles-based email newsletter with New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and USA editions.