Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.
Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.
But the first stop was downtown.
Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food
There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.
Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.
My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.
But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.
From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.
Pre-Partying Around Hollywood
We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.
But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.
From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.
Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.
Scamming Like It’s 2017
Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.
But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.
And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.
It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.
We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.
We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.
Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.
Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.
A great night saved from disaster.
The Japanese Feast for 2017
Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.
The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.
Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.
Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.
And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.
New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.
Six Flags and a Beach Cruise
We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.
Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.
Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.
We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.
One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.
In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.
Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.
Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!