“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here,” writes Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Didion’s 1968 book of essays defined the California of that decade and, uncannily, the California of this one too. In Los Angeles, the boom mentality is evident and the city continues to draw masses of people, all hoping to find success, glamour and relentlessly sunny days on which to reveal their toned and tanned bodies. The drive and ambition that comes from the feeling that “things had better work” can be sensed in almost every one of them, whether they’re waiting tables or starring in a Hollywood movie.
Parts of Los Angeles are enjoying a renaissance of sorts in 2014. Downtown, once a place where only suited-and-booted bankers worked and down-at-heel homeless folks lived, is now hip, thanks to several smart bars and apartment buildings and the recent arrival of the Ace Hotel in what was once the derelict United Artists Building. In adjacent Koreatown, The Line Hotel (designed by Sean Knibb) is making that neighbourhood trendy. And, nearby, the now-named Arts District sports some terrific cafés and restaurants (and some of the most decorated streets in the city, thanks to the ever-evolving murals painted on the buildings’ façades).
Unsurprisingly, the car is still king in Los Angeles, and you’ll need one to get to the malls (the excellent exchange rate for the New Zealand dollar demands a shopping spree), the bohemian-chic suburbs of Los Feliz and Echo Park (where the recently revamped, palm-tree-lined Echo Park, one of Los Angeles’ 379 green spaces, is the star of the show) or further afield to Santa Monica or Venice Beach (where design stores have turned Abbot Kinney Boulevard into an exciting high-end shopping destination).
You’ll need a car, too, to get to the top of Griffith Park and enjoy the view at the Observatory. Yes, there will be thousands of people following you up the hill, and it’s a touristy thing to do, but the views of the City of Angels are stupendous.
LOS ANGELES INSIDER’S GUIDE
SHOPS & GALLERIES
The Box: This small gallery in the up-and-coming Arts District hosts exhibitions and performance art and is one of the best indie hotspots in central LA.
Poketo: Kitchenware, accessories and toys have been expertly curated at this design store in The Line Hotel in Koreatown, making it the perfect spot to find a gift.
Le Labo: An Abbot Kinney outpost of the New York perfumerie, this industrial-chic store stocks the brand’s luxe scents.
Mohawk General Store: What’s not to love about a store that stocks A.P.C. mens and womenswear, mid-century furniture, pottery and Isabel Marant clogs?
356 Mission: This light, airy gallery is in the middle of industrial Boyle Heights but is well worth the detour to see work by artists such as Alex Katz and Laura Owens.
The Grove: An open-air mall on steroids, The Grove has almost every store you could want to shop in. Stop for lunch at the adjacent farmers’ market.
EAT & DRINK
Hinoki & the Bird: Tucked down a private road in Century City, this pared-back, sophisticated Asian-fusion dining room is one of the hottest eateries in town. Order the beef tartare with pickled jalapeno.
Animal: Nose-to-tail eating is on the menu at this Fairfax Avenue restaurant famed for its chicken livers on toast and crispy pig’s ear served with a duck egg.
Bar Amá: Mexican food is everywhere in LA but at this Downtown bar and restaurant you’ll find a vibrant atmosphere and interesting takes – lobster chimichangas, carrot-and-potato enchiladas – on traditional dishes.
The Pie Hole: This café is pie-heaven, whether your craving is for savoury or sweet. Grab a seat outside and watch the colourful locals go by or buy a slice to go. Our pick? The lemon meringue pie.
L.A. Chapter: The beautifully designed, ground-floor brasserie in the new Ace Hotel draws in Downtown hipsters and Hollywood types for dishes like stuffed rabbit and sea urchin.
Abbot Kinney Boulevard: This Venice strip is where locals come to buy Jack Spade menswear and Tumbleweed & Dandelion homewares. Refuel with tacos at the Kogi BBQ truck.
Little Tokyo: Sited between the Arts District and Downtown, this neighbourhood is the place to go for Japanese udon, sushi and groceries.
Upstairs at the Ace Hotel: The hip factor – beards, beanies, lots of leather – is off the scale at this rooftop pool and bar. Order a drink and settle in for some serious people watching.
Hollyhock House: Frank Lloyd Wright designed this house, his first in Los Angeles, for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. It’s now part of Barnsdall Art Park in Los Feliz.
The Getty Center: The scale of this art museum, designed by Richard Meier, is impressive, as are the gardens. Admission is free.