Mark O’Connell checks out drag queens and movie stars, burgers and books in the city of the angels.
Los Angeles is a city of pockets. Not quite the impenetrable concrete freeway its bad press suggests, L.A. is also a city of many cities, neighbourhoods and enclaves. A perfect end-goal for a car drive from San Francisco along the breath-taking Route 101 or maybe a detour from Las Vegas (often less expensive to fly into), the year-round glare of Los Angeles has so much more on its vacation call-sheet than foul star tours and mansion gate selfies.
Los Angeles is an industry town. Its only constant is its state of flux. You will see the costumiers, the sign paint suppliers, the movie lighting stores, the studio car parks and “audience recording” signposts. But Hollywood itself is a smaller, less significant neighbourhood than one imagines.
The actual Hollywood Boulevard where the Oscars unfurl (in a less than golden shopping mall), where Marilyn Monroe’s Walk of Fame star flanks a burger joint and stroppy fake-alikes will pose for ten dollar photos, is worth a cameo in your vacation, but not top billing.
Locals looking for a special twist to their nights tend to opt for crafting their own burger at the Roosevelt Hotel’s 25 Degrees eatery (7000 Hollywood Boulevard, 25degreesrestaurant.com) or a Ginger Rogers cocktail at the Chateau Marmont (8221 Sunset Boulevard, chateaumarmont.com) before heading down to the more significant heritage and opulence of movie palaces the Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (6706 Hollywood Boulevard, americancinematheque.com) and Chinese Theatre (6925 Hollywood Boulevard, tclchinesetheatres.com).
Scan the schedules for their affordable Q&A screenings (The Egyptian once allowed this fan to totally flummox Al Pacino with his limey accent), or just take in a new blockbuster in a part of town that invented the word.
Try a studio tour, but book an early guided slot at Paramount (5450 Melrose Avenue, paramountstudiotour.com). You’ll get a better sense of the working Hollywood rather than stunt shows for the tourists. Afterwards take a stroll into nearby Larchmont and its boutique coffee houses, pop-up clothing vendors and florists. A subsequent lunch under the canopy at Café Gratitude (639 N Larchmont Boulevard, cafegratitude.com) boasts a superb vegan menu, divine banana bread and many A-listers as regulars.
And of course there is West Hollywood. Far less the unwelcoming gym bunny sorority house you would believe, West Hollywood – or WeHo as L.A. likes to abbreviate – is one of the mainstay queer hubs of Los Angeles. It is a vibrant scene with a greater sense of history and community than expected. Grab an early Kichi Salmon and Mojito in the sultry interior of the quietly fabulous Saint Felix restaurant (8945 Santa Monica Boulevard.).
Not far away is the WeHo institution that is The Abbey (692 N Robertson Boulevard, theabbeyweho.com) but pre-empt the later evening crowds queueing for its cavernous Cabana-style cathedral of cocktails, eye-level Go-Go Speedos and buoyant chat. Likewise, Hamburger Mary’s (8288 Santa Monica Boulevard, hamburgermarys.com) and its weekend drag brunch is a favourite with familiar faces from RuPaul’s Drag Race often on floorshow duty and a few doors down on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Larrabee is the more mixed clientele of Revolver (8851 Santa Monica Boulevard, revolverweho.com).
A video bar haven that once led the pack in the early 1980s, Revolver currently boasts Australian Drag Race runner-up Courtney Act and her weekly Monday karaoke residency; and Flashback Saturdays mixes retro video walls with bar-top dancers and the occasional appearance by the likes of Debbie Gibson (you can only imagine our upset of missing her night by one week).
Los Angeles is obviously a city of many party towns too. However, West Hollywood is not all Peach Bellinis and chino shorts. The very special and very hidden Mystery Pier Books (8826 Sunset Boulevard, mysterypierbooks.com) houses one of the rarest collections of first editions in the world – as well as the richest reminders of yesteryear cover art. Dickens’s first-runs signed by Charles himself perch alongside equally rare and often personally dedicated titles by Ian Fleming, Harper Lee, Beatrix Potter and Shakespeare.
And when you leave empty-handed because the cover prices are rightfully ridiculous there is always Book Soup (8818 Sunset Boulevard) and its richly stocked art, photography, LGBT and film sections. Likewise, the West Hollywood Design District is a walkable high-end melange of art galleries, indie fashions and people watching.
Despite Los Angeles having plentiful cabs and having an underground system of sorts (it’s not quite a network – the Beverly Hills locals forever boycott any extension plans), you must get away from the TV billboards and that almost measurable vibe of people trying to make it. Take a rental drive down the 405 to Santa Monica or Malibu.
Of course, the roller blades and pecs of Venice Beach are a Day-Glo cliché so wander too around Venice’s hipster enclaves, juice bars, ballsy street art and the canary yellows and deep pinks of Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Grab a drink at the famous dive-bar Roosterfish (1302 Abbot Kinney Boulevard.) before wandering Venice’s canals for some truly lush and envy-making modernistic homes. On your drive back take a detour to Sherman Oaks and peruse the Van Eaton Animation Art Gallery (13613 Ventura Boulevard, vegalleries.com) which stocks original animation cells and drawings from decades of TV and film animation (this Peanuts fan nabbed an original, affordable sketch for the lounge).
Check out the nearby Floyds 99 Barbershop (13601 Ventura Boulevard) and its lush street mural to the early Bratpack movie, The Outsiders. And go cruise Beverly Hills. The peace of the 1930s Spanish-influenced architecture and the biggest blades of the greenest grass on every lawn is a calming contrast to Sunset Strip and WeHo.
With a vast cast list of hotels to choose from, Los Angeles is less which hotel to stay at but what part of town is wiser? The marble colossus that is Downtown’s The Standard (550 South Flower, standardhotels.com) is perfect for the California Science Centre and the stupidly cheap $2 ticket fee to get up close and personal to the Space Shuttle Endeavour (californiasciencecentre.org).
But its sister hotel in West Hollywood (8300 Sunset Boulevard) is a better sited 1950s Miami-influenced treat with the requisite LA tropes of a rooftop pool and Cactus Lounge bar. Likewise, the funkier, boutique charms of The Chamberlain (1000 Westmount Drive, chamberlainwesthollywood.com) and its 1920s Gatsby veneer and French-skewed bistro is a WeHo flagbearer.
HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Delta offer flights to LAX International Airport.
Southwest Airlines offer budget domestic flights from neighbouring city hubs.
FlyAway (lawa.org/flyaway) shuttle bus service links LAX to the other airports such as Van Nuys, Santa Monica and Hollywood.
WHERE TO STAY
8300 Sunset Boulevard
1000 Westmount Drive
WHERE TO EAT
8945 Santa Monica Boulevard
The Hollywood Roosevelt
7000 Hollywood Boulevard
639 N Larchmont Boulevard.
WHERE TO PARTY
8851 Santa Monica Boulevard
692 N Robertson Boulevard
131 E 6th Street
Out & About Gay Tours outandabout-tours.com