Los Angeles: it’s just so different

by Sophie.Campbell

From the yoga posers on Venice Beach to the idle rich in Malibu, from wet-suited surfers to Hollywood stars - it’s impossible to pin down what defines LA. And that’s what makes it so alluring

The Farmers’ Market on Main Street, Santa Monica, sells quinoa and alfalfa sprouts and squash shaped like dumbbells or pears or pin cushions and Native American tomatoes with purple-orange skins. So when a woman came up I smiled, ready for adventure. “Do you believe in gay marriage?” she demanded, producing a clipboard. I was stunned: yes, partly because I was expecting her to sell me a pound of twirly Peruvian potatoes, but mainly because I couldn’t believe they didn’t have gay marriage already. For goodness’ sake! This is LA!

Or is it? In all these years of coming to the west coast’s megalopolis – actually several cities, many of them miles apart, but somehow managing to convey to the world a single, potent image – I’ve never quite got a grip on exactly what Los Angeles is. And after much deep thought ('Wow! Hollywood’s miles from the ocean! And Disneyland’s nowhere near either!'), I’ve decided I don’t care.

All I know is that right now, one block west of me, long swells are furling glassily over onto the gigantic pale streak of beach and the ocean blue is speckled with wet-suited surfers like a pond full of tadpoles. There will be circles of people under the palm trees down towards Venice Beach, doing yoga and shamanism, and to the north the idle rich will be richly idling in the beach clubs near Malibu.

Exploring downtown

Perhaps most excitingly, 20 miles to the east there is now a new LA, the revived Downtown, where people wear black and live in lofts – it’s 20 miles nearer to New York City, after all – and there is a whole load of stuff to see, from the new cathedral (not my thing, being a fairly brutal assemblage of concrete, but it’s got very cool alabaster windows), the Walt Disney Concert Hall – a Gehry creation whose silver roof swoops and plunges to the ground – and the fine, Streamline Moderne Union Station near the tourist-Hispanic heartland of Olvera Street.

This is where it all began; a small missionary settlement that grew up in the desert by the Los Angeles river and blossomed into a 20th-century city with a Broadway and cinemas styled like European opera houses (you can still spot them on Broadway and Wilshire; just look above the shop fascias) and enough darkness to inspire crime writers such as Raymond Chandler. Then the “Red Cars” ( Pacific Electric’s trolley service) started to the ocean, and the rise of the Westside – as the beach ‘burbs of Venice, Santa Monica, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and others are known – began.

Watching the sunset

A great way to understand all this is to drive up (of course you’ve got a car; this is LA) to the Will Rogers State Historic Park one evening, and watch the sun set in a ball of orange-purple worthy of a Native American tomato. The worse the smog, the better the sunset, as the Angelenos say. Below you lies the great declivity of the city; pools winking in the last of the sun; sudden spurts of high-rise buildings at Century City or Downtown; the pale Celtic knots of the freeways a-shimmer with cars; and fabulous multi-millionaires’ houses perched on the sides of canyons in apparent defiance of the earthquakes, flash floods and fire risk for which LA is famous. Around you is desert. You may well see a snake, or a squirrel, or a fox.

And, if you’re me, you feel reassured by the fact that just a 20-minute drive away – post-rush hour traffic – you will soon be eating exquisitely cool sushi off long porcelain planks at Nishimura on Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, which is probably about as far from the desert as you can get. It’s so, so different. It’s so, so LA.

Where to stay

Le Merigot
I love this hotel because it sounds so pretentious and is truly not; it’s an anodyne building with “partial sea views” (at least they’re honest), jolly southern Californian interiors, a nice pool and spa, and the beach just across the parking lot. Perfect.

Avalon Hotel
The Avalon made its designer – and the owner’s wife – Kelly Wearstler, famous. It’s a small but perfect example of Mid-Century charm: curtained pavilions around an elliptical pool; ocean-blue bar; walls the colour of lemon sherbets. Beverly Hills sits halfway between the beach and Downtown, if you want to do both.

The Standard
Sipping mojitos and shooting the breeze in a red waterbed pod on the roof of this hotel in Downtown LA is one of those things you gotta do. It’s a while since Leo di Caprio hung out here but Andre Balazs' “tongue-in-chic” former office block still works – and without the pressure of its sister hotel on Sunset Boulevard.

Where to eat

8684 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood; +1 310 659 4770; no website.
Small and secluded, with a little secret garden and an air of understated chic. The food is not exclusively Japanese, but really, you have to try the sushi and sashimi platters. Around US$70 per head + drinks.

Inn of the Seventh Ray
Life in the canyons is a different ball game and the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon has, as the name suggests, a New Age sensibility. It's very charming, with tables and twirly iron chairs set out in pretty gardens with a tinkling stream, and an organic – though not vegetarian – menu. Try Sunday brunch for US$35 plus drinks.

The Lobster
The real choice of beachside seafood is down the coast, at Marina del Ray or Redondo Beach, but if you yearn for oysters and ocean views, come to The Lobster, which sits above Santa Monica Pier and has full-on sunset views. The food has East coast and Asian accents; try ahi carpaccio or tiger prawn tempura. Around US$30 for lunch plus booze.