Downtown L.A – Don’t Dismiss It

This article was first published on the Huffington Post

Downtown Los Angeles SkylineImage Credit: John Paul “Boomer” Iacoangelo

By the time I arrive in Downtown L.A, I’ve heard exceptionally alarming tales of Los Angeles’ central business district; how it attracts the unsavoury, how it isn’t safe and how there’s nothing of interest to see or do here – even the internet is firm in its disdain for Downtown. With these sinister images dancing mockingly in my head and cautionary words ringing in my ears, I arrive wondering if I should’ve retailored my itinerary to bypass this decayed, perilous jungle, and head straight to Santa Monica. But I’m the curious, rebellious sort, and I’m determined to discover the obscure beauty and vibrancy of Downtown L.A.

Los Angeles Central LibraryLos Angeles Central Library & Maguire Gardens. Image Credit: Michelle & Tom Grimm

As it turns out, beauty in Downtown L.A is not as inconspicuous as I’ve been lead to believe. In fact, as I tip the cab driver and grasp my surroundings from the entrance of The Standard hotel, it’s the beautiful art deco like architecture of Los Angeles’ Central Library that grabs me. Inspired by Egyptian, Byzantine and Spanish design, the building boasts ornamental and symbolic compositions, including statues, sphinxes, snakes and mosaics. A colourful-mosaicked pyramid crowns the peak of the building, presenting a sunburst on each side and symbolizing the ‘Light of Learning’, stars a hand holding a torch at its pinnacle. This is a library you’ll want to spend an entire morning or afternoon at; it’s a huge space and worth taking the time to explore, it has the third largest collection of books in the US and exhibits special items from Californian history in its very own gallery. Outside, the Maguire III Gardens with its pretty water features and Cyprus trees make for a pleasant scene for a picnic or photoshoot.

Museum of Contemporary Art  (MOCA) Downtown Los AngelesMuseum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Image courtesy of L.A Tourism & Convention Board

A walk around the district uncovers more architectural gems. There’s the beaux arts style Millenium Biltmore Hotel, the magnificent Bradbury Building, the silenced theatres in the Broadway Historic Theatre District, the Japanese buildings (namely, the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple) in Little Tokyo, the Art Deco City Hall and the last great railway station to be built in America, Los Angeles’ Union Station. For a contemporary art and culture fix, Downtown hosts some wonderful museums and art galleries; the defining Museum of Contemporary Art, the stylish Hive Gallery & Studios and the thriving Los Angeles Centre for Digital Art are, but a few.

After an aesthetically quenching morning, my friend and I seek out a coffee shop of London antipodean standards – nothing else will do. In a quiet street, on a doleful corner in Downtown L.A, sits Handsome Coffee Roasters and as we stumble in, in dire need of a caffeine fix, I drink in the fragrant aroma of perfectly roasted coffee beans. It smells like home. The interior is sparse in décor and furnishings, the rustic industrial scene of many a hipster coffee shop. I order a flat-white and the barista peers sardonically down at me “do you know what a flat-white is?” he asks, “it’ll come in this sized cup,” he asserts, picking up a small tea-cup. I’m tempted to reply with caustic sarcasm, but instead I smile and nod. My friend orders tea and the barista’s already sullen expression transforms into an incensed gaze. We are educated on how a real coffee shop only sells coffee. A peculiar statement about the store’s policy on sugar, soon follows this; coffee should not be drank with sugar, so sugar is banned at Handsome Coffee Roasters. This isn’t an issue for me, but my friend, who enjoys a spoon of sugar in her hot beverages, is not pleased about this pretentious attitude. Excellent however, is the coffee itself and later, balance is restored with friendly service and an excellent sushi lunch in Little Tokyo.

Downtown is also home to L.A’s Fashion District, and if you’re a fashion lover, with an appreciation for new talent and innovative style, this is where you’ll want to shop, when in Los Angeles. The district boasts more than 1,000 stores, over 90 blocks – this is the place to shop the sample sales and grab bargain designer pieces. The milieu of the fashion district is also a testament to L.A’s diverse ethnic population and a refreshing sight after the ostentatious and immaculate exhibitions in Beverly Hills.

Olevera St - Downtown L.AOlvera Street, Downtown L.A Image courtesy of L.A Tourism & Convention Board

It is true, Downtown, unlike L.A’s more popular neighbourhoods, isn’t the polished and glamorous area you might expect a major city’s downtown area to be; poverty and homelessness are acutely evident in parts, conveying a somewhat polarised neighbourhood. But regeneration of Downtown L.A is also tangible; once derelict buildings are being restored and divided into apartments and lofts for the influx of artists and designers to the area, the nightlife is celebrated by locals, tourists and celebrities alike and its fantastic restaurants are fast becoming some of the most enjoyed, in L.A.

One such eatery is the English inspired gastro-pub, The Parish. Located in Downtown’s vibrant fashion district, The Parish is housed in a 1930’s-esque building and brandishes the décor of the era, with dark wood floors and paneled walls, antique furniture, a beautiful tiled fireplace and Damask wallpaper displaying an antique map of Los Angeles – the expert presentation delivers the feeling of dining in a grand old ship.

Angelenos tend to sup late, but even at 8pm, the restaurant is already thriving and I’m glad I’ve made a reservation. The long bar is the spirit of the restaurant; its bartenders expertly producing aptly named concoctions to eager diners – the menu currently serves Pimms Cup, King’s Landing and Cut & Paste, to name a few.

Studying the dinner menu, I’m pleasantly surprised to see so many non-meat options – practicing a Halal diet, gastro-pub meals beyond glorified fish and chips and veggie burgers is a rarity, so I’m excited about eating here. The Parish’s offerings all sound wonderful. In the end, we order oysters, watercress salad, branzino (sea-bass), caramelised green beans and fried olives, served beautifully and all delicious, though it’s a challenge getting through the branzino without swallowing a bone. Dessert is a rich bread pudding – a little too sweet for my liking, but tasty nonetheless and typically English. Post dessert, I decide to brave the coffee menu and order a macchiato – I am thoroughly appeased; unlike the typical burnt, acidic concoction I’ve had in most L.A restaurants, The Parish do coffee properly (without the attitude of Handsome Coffee Roasters); my macchiato is smooth, strong, fragrant and distinctive. I only wish I had another day in Downtown, so I could visit The Parish for my morning caffeine fix and explore the area, further.

Look beyond the often-disheveled façade of Downtown L.A and you’ll no doubt find hidden gems, a dynamic arts scene and a vibrant food and fashion culture.

I flew direct from London to L.A with Air New Zealand. Visit www.airnzealand.co.uk to book flights.

West Hollywood – A Dreamer’s Travel Guide

This article was first published on the Huffington Post

West Hollywood - Instagram - Akeela Bhattay

It’s not often that one finds themselves completely at home in a strange place, yet the streets and silhouettes of the city of West Hollywood (or WeHo as it’s affectionately referred to by Angelenos) feel intoxicatingly familiar and simultaneously seductive. My short stay is retreating hastily; as my plans over-flow in my mind, and I decide instead to take a more organic approach to discovering West Hollywood; each day as it comes.

The residents of WeHo are blessed with incredible landscapes. The view from my voguish room at the Mondrian boasts a frame worthy view of the iconic Downtown skyline, but gaze up at the vista on the other side and it’s the prominent Hollywood Hills that behold you. On my first morning in West Hollywood, I venture away from the famous Sunset Strip in search of a WeHo breakfast.

Other places to stay, in West Hollywood: Andaz West Hollywood, The Standard, Sunset Tower Hotel, Petit Ermitage.

It’s difficult not to neglect the traffic lights here and weave through the abounding cars like a Londoner, when crossing the roads, but I’ve been cautioned extensively against jay walking in L.A (plus I’ve recently watched that episode of New Girl which delivers a sound lesson on the consequences of jay walking in Lala land, and I’m not willing to take my chances), so I gather all my patience and make like a sensible pedestrian.

Built on a grid system, the streets in Los Angeles are easy to navigate, but this does portend an uneventful walk, if like me, you enjoy absorbing different facets of a place. So naturally, I take an unlikely route and find myself transported to a cleverly hidden city suburb. Tree lined streets, lush gardens and enchanting houses of various shapes and sizes paint these mysterious streets, where even the sound of the all-dominating cars is barely discernable. It’s in these little pockets of tranquility, it seems, that WeHo residents journey by foot, if only to walk their dogs.

Emerging from the pretty hamlet, I hasten towards splendid Melrose Avenue and Urth Caffe, for breakfast. I’ve been told Urth Caffe does good coffee, which is of course my primary reason for choosing it as my breakfast destination, but its relationship with one of my all time favourite TV shows, Entourage, cannot be ignored and at that moment, I’m a complete tourist, basking in memories of notable episodes. The café is heaving with customers, the queue trailing outside onto the sunny terrace, but nobody seems to be in a hurry. The drinks menu extends far beyond a single menu board, which worries me somewhat; long coffee menus usually indicate a lack of coffee knowledge and quality, in my experience and I wonder if I’m about to suffer a Starbucks like brew as I place my order. My Italian cappuccino (I’m told this is stronger than the American version) wears a smile in the form of a coffee art bear – cute – and though it’s far superior to anything Starbucks produces, my palate is left wonting.

Formerly known as The Avenues, West Hollywood’s newly named Design District follows Melrose Avenue and meanders over to Robertson Boulevard and Beverly Boulevard, scattered with trendy designer retailers, such as Stella McCartney, Philip Lim, Rag & Bone and Balenciaga, as well as purveyors of premium art and furniture. Unlike Rodeo Drive, WeHo’s Design District enjoys a warm and welcoming attitude (inherently West Hollywood), making for a pleasing window shopping experience. But if like me, you enjoy exploring the unknown; rummaging the wares at independent boutiques, thrift and vintage stores, you’ll find the stores towards and around the east side of Melrose Avenue a genuine treat.

On the Sunset Strip, an alley prepared with a long table of diverse foreign fashion and design publications, coaxes me to take a gander. I travel to the very end and as I’m about to turn back, I glimpse a sign ‘Mystery Pier Books’ – I feel like I’m in an American version of Diagon Alley and of course, I must explore. In what appears to be a deserted house, resides Mystery Pier Books. A bell sounds as I enter the seemingly empty store and I’m alone in a room brimming with literature. I love book shops and this little gem is rather special. Every book at Mystery Pier Books is a first edition and many are signed first editions. I could spend the rest of my stay here and be quite content, though I think it’s best to refrain from asking the owners if they’d mind me camping out in their shop overnight. Harvey and Louis Jason are both passionate and knowledgeable about literature and books and Harvey graciously indulges me in conversation about writing fiction. ‘Do you have an agent,’ he asks, and embarrassed, I mumble that I’ve neglected my writing of fiction for journalism. As I leave, I promise to start writing the new novel that’s been marinating in my mind. Mystery Pier Books can also be explored online.

Dinner is at Comme Ca and I’m running late. My cab driver has no idea where my destination is and I find myself Googling the directions. I am clearly not in London anymore. From the outset, the French restaurant appears slight, but as I walk inside, it seems to stretch indefinitely, teasing me in. My guest, a new L.A resident has heard great things about the restaurant and we are keen to delve into the menu. Our Penicillin cocktails are excellent, my French onion soup, with gruyere cheese lid, divine and the seared scallops, delicious. Combined with the superb service, Comme Ca makes for the perfect start to a night out with friends, in West Hollywood.

Other great WeHo eateries include, chic Laurel Hardware, the refined Asia de Cuba at the Mondrian, Eveleigh, Night + Market.

My next stop is the notorious Hollywood landmark, Chateau Marmont, lovingly referred to as ‘The Chateau’, by locals. This iconic hotel is a must see, if only to view its Gothic like visage, but its fame lies largely in its reputation for being the set of many a scene in Hollywood flicks and the host to the rich and famous. Inside, Chateau Marmont recalls old Hollywood Glamour, with its rich deco furnishings and dark ambience. My friends and I inhabit a table at the lounge bar, where we ask to see the secret menu. The drinks range from interesting to bizarre and we leave wondering if we’d have fared better with the regular menu. Chateau Marmont is also a lovely place for lunch (request to be seated in the garden) and weekend brunch.

Other cool hangouts in and around West Hollywood: Skybar at the Mondrian, Drai’s, Tropicana Bar at The Roosevelt Hotel, House of Blues, The Roxy Theatre.

Visit the official guide to WeHo to plan your trip. http://www.visitwesthollywood.com

I flew direct from London to L.A with Air New Zealand. Visit www.airnzealand.co.uk to book flights.