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Taking in the sights with holiday visitors, an Angeleno rediscovers a bewitching city
Illustration by Gracia Lam
This is the time of year when family and friends return to Los Angeles to touch base. My sister, who lives in San Francisco, usually comes “home” for Thanksgiving and always for Christmas. She has spent her adult life in Northern California but is not—I am happy to say—one of those anti-L.A. snobs easily found in that part of the state. Quite the contrary. She loves this city the same way I do: from inside out, from being a kid here, from growing up in the ocean. On a warm fall day she will resume the posture of our childhood, lying half naked on a chaise longue in my backyard, face tilted to the sun, as I read her recipes for potential Thanksgiving side dishes or we argue about whether to add orange juice or nuts to the cranberry sauce (a purist, I say no). Or she will insist that we go to the beach so she can bodysurf. The return of the native.
With my visitors I take on different habits, different rhythms. The out-of-towners often lean toward places that were meaningful to them, and I get to know L.A. through their stories. These excursions break up my familiar patterns. For much of the year, hunkered in my Brentwood hood, I forget what is out there. When my sister appears, she is often carrying little pieces of paper she has torn from magazines or printouts from the Web about an art opening in Santa Monica or some of-the-moment boutique or restaurant in Venice we should not miss. Other friends have similar ideas. I am forced into being a tourist myself—in addition to playing chauffeur and guide. Inevitably I am struck by how much richer and more sophisticated my city has become in recent years and yet how much it’s the same, with its deep core of physical beauty.
Among my longtime pals who routinely arrive during the holidays are a couple of inveterate culture seekers. I confess that for months at a time I don’t go near a museum or to a play. Suddenly I’m at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which for many years I have tried to love—with moderate success. To me it’s an unfelicitous jumble of buildings, though there is often a compelling show inside. I always end up at the Getty. I don’t find it easy to embrace, either, though the rough-hewn travertine exterior is sensual in a craggy way, and I am always pleased when there is a photography exhibit (they have one of the best collections anywhere) and equally delighted just to sit and sip a coffee and stare at the view. My favorite is the Norton Simon in Pasadena, with its extensive holdings of European, East Indian, and Southeast Asian art. The generous garden is festooned with large, lazy nudes by Aristide Maillol reclining around a pond. They seem, I swear, to put on a pound or two every year. Watching someone discover them in all their voluptuous bulk, I am reenchanted myself. That is generally what happens: With friends or family members in tow and their enthusiasm as a prod, I fall in love with some spot—or a piece of art or architecture—as if for the first time.
Of course the other big cultural locale is downtown. No matter the people I am squiring, I make that a destination—something that would have been unheard of a couple of decades ago—if only to see the remarkable Disney Hall and to watch how the autumnal light hits the building’s sleek stainless-steel skin. I encourage my music-loving friends to buy tickets well in advance so they can hear the place sing. From Frank Gehry’s swooping hall we stroll to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by José Rafael Moneo, a building that strikes me as both cold and moving at once. Then we’re on to Olvera Street, the birthplace of this metropolis. We lunch in one of the restaurants where women are making tortillas by hand and browse the stalls full of Mexican tchotchkes. If someone isn’t in the mood for enchiladas, the downtown midday meal might be at the original Pacific Dining Car. The food isn’t great and it’s costly, but the dark rooms and red booths conjure cops and molls and Raymond Chandler in a way no other L.A. restaurant quite manages.
On a superenergetic day I might haul folks through Hollywood, certainly if they are new to the city—a friend’s niece or nephew, for example, who hasn’t been here before. I don’t do amusement or theme parks; no Universal Studios for me, not even for my cherished stepgrandchildren. I announce that up front. I have a lifelong fear of rides of almost any kind. But I never mind going back to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, with its handprints and footprints, because there is something hopeful and silly about those marks in the concrete—some corny stab at immortality that I find moving. We dip into the redone Hollywood Roosevelt or into Musso & Frank—where the ghosts of stars linger—and have a cocktail (I love that word; it smacks of glamour and history), providing my charges are old enough.
If we are doing an L.A. blitz, we drive along Sunset and drop into Beverly Hills. If someone hasn’t seen it, I cannot refuse them this detour, although the neighborhood feels retro and unhip compared to others in L.A.—and a bit troubling in its expensiveness. But it is a must-see on any outing, just like the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which is the somewhat seedy yin to the ritzy yang of Rodeo Drive.
These are the touchstones of our unwieldy home. They anchor me; they remind me how messy, complicated, and beguiling my town is, a place of extremes, and one that people all over the planet read and dream about and gawk at when they finally come. I will, if pressed, ferry an out-of-towner to the Ivy on Robertson for a possible celebrity sighting—or at least a chance to glimpse the gaggle of paparazzi that gathers hoping for a star shot. I have to admit that the voyeurism is part of my city, too. So, of course, are the beaches, and no tour is complete without them. I try to make sure we get to the palisades in Santa Monica in time to see the sun sink into the ocean. On a clear, crisp late afternoon we can watch the Ferris wheel on the pier spinning through the pink sky and Catalina snoozing in the distance. After all the noise and intensity, standing there at day’s end, at continent’s end, is a kind of benediction.
I like showing off my city in all its grit and glitz. I take pride in it. But I can only do such a major hit-all-the-hot-spots trip about once a year because it is exhausting. The traffic, I remind the rookies, can be fierce. So we don’t venture forth past dusk. The holiday nights are reserved for home-cooked meals. We don’t have dinner out, especially if there are a number of us. It’s just too pricey—and inevitably noisy. Plus shopping at one of the street markets is another mandatory treat. In recent years friends have asked specifically to go to the big Wednesday farmers’ market in Santa Monica. We start kibitzing at breakfast about what to buy and cook for dinner. Tasks are chosen; courses are assigned. Then we set off. To people from colder climates, the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables available in the fall—and all year-round—is dazzling. I never get over it, the aromatic abundance. We pick up lettuces and pears, bitter greens and bread, and sometimes fresh seafood, and retreat to the house to chop and peel while sipping some wonderful California wine. Such an evening is the ultimate advertisement for the L.A. lifestyle.
Come morning, my more energetic visitors might depart for another day of sightseeing. Not me. I am done. I stick close to home. I might take the willing for a long hike in Will Rogers State Historic Park or to the newly renovated Santa Monica Place, quite an architectural improvement, all tend to agree. Or I might cajole someone into accompanying me to one of my favorite destinations, the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga. Sitting outside on the white wrought-iron chairs, listening to the nearby creek, scanning the vegan-friendly menu, I am transported back four decades to the years when the hippies ruled the canyon. I see them still along the roadsides with their scraggly hair and dogs. And I smell them—and that era of the city’s history: a combination of sweat and incense and, oh yes, marijuana. I love it up there, the raffish, rural side of this huge, densely settled place.
By day three my tourists and I are happily spent, content to lie in the yard and read the paper, eat a cold pork sandwich with red pepper aioli, and nap. The kids have returned to their video games and on-demand TV shows. Even the dog is exhausted with the effort of keeping everyone engaged with his pleasures—petting, feeding, ball throwing. Now we are simply living life: a walk, a swim in the pool, weather permitting. There is a general exhalation. We talk about what we have seen out there in the big city and are content—until holiday season returns next year.