Back to La La Land

For lockdown-wearied travellers, Los Angeles is the city break dreams are made of.

Photo: Kate Berry

For lockdown-wearied travellers, Los Angeles is the city break dreams are made of.

After a couple of mezcals, when I get sentimental about this city, I tell people what I really, really, really love about it. “LA is a city where nobody laughs at your dreams,” I say, for it is true. California secured statehood in 1850, off the back of the 1848 Gold Rush that lured 300,000 hopers, dreamers, prospectors and prostitutes to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Boomtowns of clapboard saloons and miner cottages were hastily erected, fast fortunes were made, and California’s character, as a hallowed land of unfettered optimism and opportunity, was carved into the hillsides.

A century later, the hope and hunger migrated south to the movie studios of Hollywood. They even carved it on the hillside. And today, Los Angeles is still the destination for the world’s most talented hopefuls to bring their dreams of screen stardom, artistic acclaim, rapid riches and gastronomic greatness. For food-loving, fun-seeking, culturally curious travellers, all this striving for superlatives makes LA lavish city break material – exactly what our lockdown-wearied souls require right now.

And so here I am, in my beloved LA, bringing my giddiest lockdown-brewed travel hopes to the city. Dreams of decadent dinners in Koreatown, emotional reunion cocktails in Santa Monica, uplifting art galleries and Broadway shows Downtown, and lazing in rooftop pools at luxurious West Hollywood hotels. It is two years since I was last here, but America has flung open its borders to international visitors, and LA is ready for her close-up.

Photo: courtesy of Santa Monica Proper Hotel

Sand, sea and sunsets in Santa Monica

I always bossily tell friends to book their first couple of nights in LA on the beach, in sporty, splashy Santa Monica, an easy 20-minute drive (or Uber trip – ignore people who say you can’t visit LA without a car) from LAX. Lungfuls of sea air and a dip in the Pacific Ocean rinse the long flight off you. And strolling or cycling the boardwalk between Santa Monica and neighbouring Venice Beach offers some of the finest people-watching opportunities on the planet, with gymnasts turning tricks in the hoops at Muscle Beach, wealthy retirees walking their poodles, yogis keeping the organic vegan restaurants in business, and Venice’s new tech community catching a few waves before heading to work at Google.

Santa Monica. Photo: Jessica Sample

The swishest digs in Santa Monica are the 1920s-styled bungalows at the Fairmont Miramar Santa Monica, while the new Santa Monica Proper Hotel wins on Instagram allure, thanks to the handiwork of It-interior designer Kelly Wearstler. Far too many visitors skip Los Angeles itself in their hurry to road-trip to other beaches further south, or the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, or the giant redwoods north of San Francisco, or the modernist homes and spa resorts of Palm Springs. But Santa Monica makes a luxurious landing pad in LA, where travellers can ease themselves out of jetlag with sunset strolls on the beach, and food that tastes like it’s fixing you.

Cassia, chef Bryant Ng’s acclaimed French-Vietnamese restaurant, is reliably life-affirming, with bold flavours and bustling staff and happy diners. In Venice Beach, a little more knowingly hipster and rough-around-the-edges, the hot-ticket restaurant is Felix, Evan Funke’s upscale Italian eatery, which has shifted some of the queue away from Venice stalwart Gjelina. I’ve had many memorable meals in Santa Monica, but when it comes to drinks, there is a lone standout: cocktail chef Matthew Biancaniello, who offers cocktail foraging tours in Malibu, tasting feasts at his home, and brews his own persimmon brandy. It was Biancaniello who first introduced me to Santa Monica Farmers Market, which sees chefs and farmers converge, with stalls heaving with organic, seemingly oversize fresh produce and delicious street eats.

Stay: Fairmont Miramar Santa Monica –; Santa Monica Proper Hotel –

Eat: Cassia –; Felix –; Gjelina –

Drink: Mathew Biancaniello,

Pastas at Felix.

(Photo: Wonho Frank Lee)

Culture and cuisine in DTLA

Suitably nourished by lazy days on the beach, luxurious hotel lobbies and lavish organic lunches, it’s time to venture downtown to feast on culture. Dorothy Parker pithily accused LA of being “72 suburbs in search of a city,” but she was right to observe the distinct flavours and dazzling diversity between neigbourhoods, and edgy, effervescent DTLA is a glorious contrast to the salubrious shine of Santa Monica.

From Santa Monica, LA’s much-heralded Metro E Line takes you into the heart of DTLA in under an hour, deftly avoiding the notoriously clogged freeways. Downtown LA has hugely upped its cultural and architectural credentials in recent years, with a cluster of Frank Gehry-designed buildings like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Liz Diller’s Broad contemporary art museum, and the 32-acre ROW DTLA, a haven of design stores, hip restaurants, artist studios in the Arts District, right around the corner from Bestia, a fabulous multi-regional Italian restaurant that is still the city’s most name-droppable booking. In 2016, gallery royalty Hauser & Wirth gave DTLA’s Arts District their seal of approval, opening a gallery in a former flour mill.

Beyond galleries, design stores and hit-restaurants, DTLA also has Broadway. It’s nothing like New York’s Broadway, London’s West End or Melbourne’s East End, but it’s still something. And as a sucker for faded grandeur and Hollywood golden age nostalgia, I find it quite something. Over the past decade the old art deco theatres and skyscrapers have been conserved and restored, notably The Bradbury (which stars in Blade Runner), The Orpheum Theatre and the United Artists Theatre building, now the 182-room Ace Hotel. Grand Central Market on Broadway has been a downtown landmark since 1917, but a new generation of social-media-savvy vendors has pumped fresh blood into this covered market. City workers blithely queue for 45 minutes for the legendary egg sandwiches at Eggslut, while Sticky Rice serves exemplary Thai street food, and Golden Road Brewing washes it all down. DTLA’s regeneration has also seen a steady flow of design-led city hotels. The slick and stylish Hoxton Downtown LA sits a few doors down from the more luxurious Downtown LA Proper Hotel, about a 15-minute walk from Grand Central Market.

Stay: Ace Hotel –; Downtown LA Proper Hotel –; Hoxton Downtown LA –

Eat: Bestia –; Eggslut –; Sticky Rice –

Drink: Golden Road Brewing,

Luxury and liberty West Hollywood

If DTLA has the creative and cultural chops, and Santa Monica serves salty seaside R&R, the district of West Hollywood is all about decadence. In the 1960s and 1970s, musicians, hippies and artists gathered here, and acts like the Doors, Elton John and Led Zeppelin won hearts and minds at The Troubadour, The Whisky a Go Go and The Roxy; by the late 1980s it was dressed-for-excess metal acts like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses treating West Hollywood as a playground. But – sorry Mötley Crüe – the really revolutionary stuff was going on in courtrooms, when a coalition of gay men, Russian Jews and elderly residents successfully held a 1984 to incorporate the area as the City of West Hollywood, protecting residents from skyrocketing rents. West Hollywood became a self-governed gay-majority, and an incubator for progressive legislation, LGBTQIA+ culture and million-dollar condos around today, but West Hollywood still feels forward-thinking, friendly and fabulous.

The Pendry’s rooftop pool.

(Photo: Christian Horan)

West Hollywood is where you’ll find the most luxurious hotels in town, from storied grand dame hotels with a rock’n’roll heritage like Chateau Marmont, to sleek new city hotels like Ian Schrager’s West Hollywood Edition and the Pendry West Hollywood. Both of the latter properties have rooftop pools, and the Pendry’s rooftop also houses Wolfgang Puck’s Merois. Puck’s return to the Sunset Strip, 40 years after he opened his first restaurant, Spago, is a big deal for West Hollywood. Back in the 1980s, fancy restaurants had to pretend to be Italian, or French, to be taken seriously. His idea of homegrown Australian, British or American fine dining was scoffed at. The well-connected Puck changed this, putting high-concept Californian cuisine on the culinary map, drawing movie stars and moguls such as Michael Caine, Billy Wilder, Sean Connery and Sidney Poitier, and propelling himself into uncharted celebrity chef territory. Merois is a less flashy affair than the original Spago, but with impeccable service, uninterrupted skyline views and a spectacular menu focusing on Southeast Asian and Japanese flavours, it’s a more 21st-century hit.

West Hollywood is welcoming veteran chefs back, but it’s also fertile turf for new talent and ideas. “LA is the big stage,” is how Byron Bay-born chef Monty Koludrvic puts it. “And there’s a synergy between Australian and LA’s hospitality scene – it’s all about people, produce and family.” After six years at Bondi Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, Monty and his wife, pastry chef Jaci, relocated to LA with their two sons in 2020.

Not exactly an ideal year to launch several hospitality businesses, but the Melbourne-inspired café Strings of Life, rooftop bar and restaurant EP & LP and their brand new 15,000-square-foot restaurant and bar complex Grandmaster Recorders have all been roaring successes. “We wanted to take our kids on an adventure, and show them the improbable is possible,” says Monty. “And moving your family to America to set up restaurants in the middle of a pandemic, well, that sure did the trick.” I ask him if he thinks LA is in a good place to bring dreams, and if this is why he came here. He nods. “Los Angeles is big energy. It’s easy to have an amazing time here. And, let’s face it, YOLO.”

Stay: Chateau Marmont –; West Hollywood Edition –; Pendry West Hollywood –

Eat: Strings of Life –; EP & LP –; Merois West Hollywood –; Ospero West Hollywood –

Drink: Grandmaster Recorders,

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