Prowling mountain lions, a home built like an ancient Mayan temple, a cinema full of dead people. It must be… Los Angeles?
Go urban mountaineering with the beautiful
people along Runyon Canyon
Los Angeles doesn’t
flaunt its public spaces. It’s happy for out-of-towners to come, get sucked
into the concrete vortex of 12-lane freeways and 20-mile-long boulevards, and
leave with the words of American writer and poet Gertrude Stein on their mind:
‘There is no there there’ (the quote was originally directed towards Stein’s
torn-down childhood home in Oakland, California, hundreds of miles to the
there is plenty of here here; you just have to know the city, give it some time
and some respect, before it rewards you. Nothing proves that more than Runyon
Canyon, a protected urban wilderness of sheer rock face, hidden trails and
parched scrubland in the section of the Santa Monica Mountains known as the
Hollywood Hills. At the highest lookout point, you find yourself at eye level
with the circling newscopters and LAPD air patrols as they track car chases
below. To the east, there’s the famous Hollywood sign and triple-domed Griffith
Park Observatory set against desert brush and the epic, white-peaked San
Gabriel Mountains. To the west lies the vast circuit board of LA’s grid, with
the city’s major boulevards cutting skyscraper-lined paths to the Pacific
shoreline. If you peer over the cliff edge to the east, you can also see the
rusting hulk of the old Outpost Estates sign, built in the 1920s to promote a
rival development to Hollywoodland.
time to experience Runyon is just before dusk, ideally after a smog-cleansing
rainfall. It’s worth bearing in mind that getting to the top from the entrance
on Fuller Avenue, a few blocks north of Sunset Boulevard, is quite a workout:
in fact, the locals use it as a gym – or at least as an advertising
opportunity, this being a neighbourhood popular with expertly toned wannabe
actors. Dogs are another crucial element of the Runyon experience – there’s
every size, shape and breed imaginable, most of them running free of their
less friendly animals, too: coyotes, rattlesnakes, bobcats and even the very
occasional mountain lion. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about that,’ says Jake, a
scriptwriter I meet who’s setting out on a hike to clear his mind between
penning TV pilots. ‘The last time anyone in California got eaten by a mountain
lion was in 2004, I think.’
Canyon’s entrance is at the top of Fuller Avenue in Hollywood – turn north from
Sunset Boulevard. It’s open from dawn until dusk.
Take-away via Twitter: Experience the food
Lunch trucks, also
known as ‘roach coaches’ due to their reputation for less-than-perfect
sanitation, have always been a part of life in LA. Every day, they make their
way slowly through the Hollywood Hills, sounding steam horns which, like
Mississippi steamboats, you can hear for miles around as they pass mountainside
construction sites. Customers are pretty much exclusively Hispanic labourers
and menu items are usually limited to burritos and tacos, along with the
typical rice and beans accompaniments and sweet Mexican refrescos (brightly
coloured soft drinks).
mobile food concept has taken on a new meaning since the recession, which has
devastated many of the city’s fancier restaurants. Kitchen staff were made
redundant and aspiring restaurateurs weren’t able to launch new concepts
because the banks were too cautious to hand out loans.
‘gourmet lunch truck’ revolution was born. Fed up with the hostile economic
conditions, LA’s best chefs took to the streets: they bought second-hand
trucks, gave them custom paint jobs and advertised their positions every day
via Twitter. And now there are literally dozens of them. Each truck is a work
of art selling everything from cheese steak sandwiches at Lee’s Philly and
truffle-enhanced burgers at Baby’s Badass Burgers to chocolate-banana cupcakes
from Sprinkles and, arguably most famous of all, Korean barbecue tacos from the
Kogi BBQ truck. All of which means that the city’s finest food is now available
for not much more than the cost of the ingredients – albeit outdoors, without
seating and on paper plates.
On a Friday
night in Silver Lake, I stop at a red-and-yellow food truck going by the name
of Let’s Be Frank. It’s a hot dog truck – sorry, a ‘doghouse’ – except that the
cows that the beef comes from are grass-fed, the casing is made from lamb and
the spices are organic. ‘We have a Frank Dog, a Brat Dog or a Not Dog,’ says
Sue from the counter hatch. A Not Dog? ‘It’s vegan,’ she says.
I choose a
Frank and a Brat, each loaded with homemade relish, grilled onions and her
apocalyptic ‘devil sauce’, and then resist the temptation to order a couple
Catch a movie screening in a cemetery
As the memorial
service for Michael Jackson proved, nowhere does farewells quite like LA. The
city’s funeral business has been world-famous since 1948, thanks to Evelyn
Waugh, who based his satire The Loved One – in particular the ‘memorial park’
of Whispering Glades – on the real-life Forest Lawn.
have to be dead to experience the surreal creativity of this town’s most
recession-proof industry. In summer, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa
Monica Boulevard hosts outdoor film screenings on Saturday and Sunday nights
from Cinespia, which celebrates ten years of events this year. Here, movies are
projected onto the white marble wall of Rudolph Valentino’s tomb (the cemetery
also features touchscreen consoles allowing you to view short films about the
At a free
screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest, aside from the £7
suggested donation, I take the website’s advice and bring blankets, pillows,
food and plenty of booze. The movie itself turns out to be little more than a
backdrop; the real appeal lies more with the random conversations you strike
up, the DJs performing before and after the screening and the creepily peaceful
beauty of the place.
attraction: wondering if any of the stars on the screen are now buried beneath
movie screenings are operated by Cinespia
during the summer
Shop and play detective at an estate sale
For many Angelenos, the most satisfying way to shop isn’t at one of the city’s
many pristine outdoor malls, but at ‘estate sales’. These events are held every
weekend at the homes of the wealthy and powerful, typically not long after
their obituary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times. However, these basement
clearouts aren’t only held after funerals: they’re also organised by divorcing
couples or those downsizing from, say, a castle in Bel Air to a cosier
10-bedroom palace in Beverly Hills.
If you were
to drive around one of LA’s richer neighbourhoods on a weekend, you’ll see
makeshift sandwich boards on street corners advertising such sales, but the
most devoted of estates salers check in advance for times and locations on
websites such as estatesales.net. These same people – generally interior
designers and antiques dealers – will then arrive at dawn and fight for the
best items, which can range from 1920s fixtures to jewellery, paintings, rare
books, furniture and even cars. At one notorious estate sale held after the
dotcom bubble burst a decade or so ago, mobile phone billionaire Craig McCaw
sold his private island, a 985-metre-long yacht, a hangar’s worth of executive
jets and a rare wine collection.
expect to be told whose home you’re poking around, however. ‘Part of the fun is
guessing,’ says Lucie, a self-confessed estate-sale junkie, as she buys a
wrought-iron birdcage at a sale in the hills above Los Feliz. ‘The clues come
from which eras of the city are most obviously represented and if the person
has picked up a lot of items from another part of the world.’
it’s often the homes – many of them in aggressively gated communities with
godlike views over the city or ocean – that are the real draw, not the dusty
old curiosities on sale. Visiting a sale in Bel Air, I find the property set
within several acres of grounds with a private railway, complete with two
stations, connecting the main residence to the gardens below. The trains aren’t
working, so I queue up with my fellow scavengers to be taken to the house on an
electric golf cart.
seems to care if people actually buy anything; it seems that this rare glimpse
into how some of the richest people on Earth spend their money is more than enough
estatesales.net and pacificestatesales.com. Cash is the
best method of payment, but events organised by professional liquidators may
take cards. Although high, prices are usually far lower than at antiques shops
or on eBay.
Spot whales, dolphins and possibly cheer on the
empty, sandy beaches of Malibu
When LA locals want
a day at the beach, they tend to avoid Santa Monica, with its crowded, touristy
pier and snoozing bums. Instead, they head further west up the Pacific Coast
Highway to Malibu, more commonly known as The ’Bu.
they go to Zuma Beach – an unbroken, two-mile-long stretch of white sand, clean
water and churning surf. Neil Young named an album after this place, Gwen
Stefani named a son after it, and David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson ran
along it in slow motion for the opening credits of Baywatch (it also features
in the original Planet of the Apes movie as the place where Charlton Heston
finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty).
also of interest for other reasons: it was an ancient hunting ground for Clovis
man – the prehistoric Paleo-Indians who populated America about 13,000 years
ago – and it remains a site of intense academic interest (the ‘real’ Indiana
Jones, a Los Angeles archaeologist named Gary Stickel, infamously attempted to
halt the construction of a clifftop mansion in 2005 so he could do more
digging). It’s also home to many dolphins – they will swim alongside you if you
get out far enough. During winter it attracts migrating whales.
I go to
Zuma on an off-season Sunday and more or less have the place to myself. From
the beach, I hike up a well-marked trail lined with sea figs, sage, coreopsis
(a type of yellow-flowered herb) and prickly pear cacti to the top of Point
Dume – a triangular bluff that juts out into the Pacific. The view from the top
is so good, it feels like I’m floating above the ocean. I don’t spot any
whales, but I do see dolphins and sea lions.
Bruce Lampcov, tells me that in Malibu’s wilder days, I might also have been
able to see a few nudists down in the bay of Pirate’s Cove to the east.
Nowadays, he sighs, ‘you’re more likely to see paparazzi’, thanks to the area’s
countless famous residents, including the likes of Cher, Robert Redford and
Beach is about 25 miles west of Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s
quiet on weekdays and off-season, but expect crowds in August.
Drink like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
If the English had colonised a far-away planet in the early 1900s, the result
might have looked like The Prince, near downtown LA. There’s an
extraterrestrial vibe to this underground lounge thanks to a bloody paint job,
creaking leather, oil paintings and suits of armour – especially with an
all-Korean menu and half-Korean, half-Hollywood clientele. It’s as though
you’ve stumbled onto the set of a Merchant Ivory remake of Blade Runner.
The Prince’s biggest moment came in the mid-1970s when one of its red leather
booths was used in a scene featuring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman
Polanski’s Chinatown. Today, the place is a regular haunt for the likes of Mad
Men’s Christina Hendricks – in fact, it appeared in the show as a stand-in for
Toots Shor’s, the infamous ‘booze and broads’ lounge in Manhattan.
isn’t the only place in LA where you can drink martinis and get all film noir;
the city is full of historical hangouts. Among them is the bordello-themed
drinking room of Hollywood’s newly restored Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which
hosted the very first Academy Awards in 1929.
itself is vast, dark and superbly atmospheric thanks to its Spanish-Gothic
architecture which defined the city in the 1920s. In the bar there’s a long
wooden counter, oxblood leather, mirrored wall tiles, thick fuchsia wallpaper,
chandeliers and wines served in mini-carafes. The burgers are among the best in
LA – a high compliment in such a burger-obsessed town – and can be served with
13 different kinds of cheese and 13 alternatives to ketchup, including
horseradish cream and lemon dill.
Prince (Blue Hawaiian £6, valet parking £1.50; 3198 ½ West 7th Street; 001 213
Roosevelt/25 Degrees (Guinness milkshake £5, valet parking £12 maximum; 001
323 466 7000).
Admire the free-thinking architecture
Los Angeles’ houses
don’t have to conform too much more than basic earthquake codes.
I set out on a tour of LA’s architectural
landmarks, starting with Frank Gehry’s Binoculars Building in Venice and on to
Rudolph Schindler’s 1922 Kings Road House in West Hollywood, generally agreed
to be the first private residence built in the Modernist style. Next is Walt
Disney Concert Hall, another Gehry creation, which resembles a kind of cyborg
insect. A guide ushers me into the main hall, directing my view towards the
organ. ‘People say it looks like a bag of French fries,’ she laughs, pointing
to its vast, chip-shaped pipes. She adds that the final design was more
conservative than the original plan, which was impossible under the planet’s
current laws of physics. That didn’t seem to stop Gehry with the rest of the
could be said of LA: it refuses to conform to rules, including that which says
it ought to be a gridlocked, smog-choked metropolis fit only for poseurs and
wannabes. The reality is quite different.
The article 'Rediscover Los Angeles' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.