Prohibitively expensive. So huge it’s basically impossible to navigate without a car. Where the Kardashians live.
These are the hard facts about Los Angeles that placed it low on my bucket list. But for music and movie obsessives, there’s that gravitational pull to feel what it’s like at the epicenter of culture. Staying with my best friend in Denver, I found my opportunity: a two-and-a-half-hour flight for $80.
It’s weird to think my decision was somewhat influenced by a bunch of Angeleno housing developers dropping $21,000 on an ad campaign 100 years ago. I’m talking about the Hollywood sign of course, now permeating public consciousness for a full century. That’s a big birthday, as good an excuse as any finally to see it up close. I decided to investigate that sprawling, vapid, traffic-laden, sun-soaked, shabby yet oh-so-chic afterworld that is LA.
My friend Sofie’s vacation agenda was simple: “Feel as carefree as I do playing Grand Theft Auto.” Instead of yanking a driver out of a Kia Sorrento at gunpoint, we pick up our getaway car at LAX. My plan? See everything. Eat everything. Sofie wasn’t kidding about the driving. At her speed, we might just manage.
I deliberately choose the weekend of Coachella, when thousands of the rich and fame-ish disappear to the Colorado Desert in a cloud of glitter. Our first stop is Hotel Per La, an Italian-infused downtown spot, a true diamond in the rough. We quickly see this area is hit and miss. Instagram sent me here; I saved a video of the poolside rooftop fireplace shaped like an open-mouthed gargoyle months ago. Now we’re closing in on it like homing pigeons.
I realize Park’s BBQ is en route. We have no choice but to pull over in Koreatown for grilled meats and beers. A patchwork of cultures, K-town is thriving, having rebuilt itself after 75 percent was wiped out during the 1992 riots. We gorge ourselves on kimchi pancakes and Ggot Sal or “flower meat” —perfectly marbled, thin slices blooming on the tabletop grill. Chef Jenee Kim is said to be making the best Korean food in Southern California, and after this meal, I wouldn’t argue.
We know The Broad contemporary art museum offers free entry and is on the way to our digs, so we pop in while we digest. An embarrassment of riches leaves us slack-jawed: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Yayoi Kusama, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol… they’re all here. It’s barely 3 p.m. and our minds are blown. We need a lie-down.
A $50 valet fee (welcome to LA) stings, but we’re soon awed by the beauty of our hotel, housed in the former Bank of Italy. Distractions include 4,000 pieces of art, technicolor floor-length curtains and a grand parlor stuffed with gorgeous furniture. Our Claire Suite boasts a living room, powder room and skyline views. Bar Clara’s cocktail menu is as bombastic as that fireplace — we sink three Bees each, a mix of Ford’s gin, honey, habanero tincture, mint and lemon.
Later, we dine downstairs at Per L’Ora. Primo is meatballs, then a dish I’ve been thinking about ever since: sweet corn agnolotti with corn purée. Our suite’s fridge is soon fit to burst with leftover smashed potatoes with Gochujang, and Brussels sprouts drenched in yuzu butter. I devour them the next morning as a reward for dragging myself to the basement gym in a hungover stupor. The cocktails at nearby Broken Shaker, The Golden Gopher and Ace Hotel’s rooftop really are too good.
Our next hotel is the Moxy Downtown — Disneyland for business travelers. It’s about five minutes’ walk from where the LA Clippers play and steps from Wetzel’s Pretzels (important). Loud bass thumps through the lobby, its cool desert theme an understated nod to the valleys — and festival — just over yonder (the vibey bar pulls similar crowds).
Obligatory downtown sights are ticked off before moving on. We leaf through The Last Bookstore, then spot the iconic Victorian Bradbury building, where Harrison Ford scales the stairs in Blade Runner. We gorge on dumplings in Grand Central Market (cool, but gritty — the market, not the food), then have a gander at Angel’s Flight, said to be the world’s shortest railway. We spend a glorious afternoon wafting around a recreated Roman country home, the Getty Center. Teenagers sketch in the gardens; kids eat ice cream. Charged up, we bomb it to West Hollywood.
We spend a few nights at sister hotels Thompson Hollywood (refined, sexy) and tommie Hollywood (feels like the fun younger sibling who’s definitely cooler than you). They’re two minutes’ walk from each other, have cheap parking meters outside (joy) and sit steps from tourist traps no one can skip. We do the Walk of Fame (underwhelming, crowded), the Chinese Theater (shabby, buzzy) and In-N-Out Burger. (Believe the hype.)
We deem this the perfect location for first timers in LA. You’re steps from the iconic Musso & Frank Grill, featured in everything from Ocean’s Eleven to Mad Men. Sunset drinks at the beautiful rooftop pool(s), which are teeming with potential new friends. At the tommie, canned cocktails and beers are free during happy hour.
We’re a ten-minute drive from Burbank, too — the mystical suburb home of Warner Bros. Studio, also celebrating 100 years in 2023. One morning we fill up on Cuban pastries from local stalwart Porto’s, then jump in a golf buggy zipping around the lot. Aspiring actors (with personalities as large as you’d expect) conduct set tours. Everything from Casablanca to La La Land via Friends and Conan has been shot here. It’s silly, and it’s fun.
We find free parking at Griffith Observatory (the machines were broken, but I still call that a win) then schlep up the hill as the sun dips, finally face to face with that goddamn sign.
And it is iconic, flanked by stunning hiking trails and greenery. I almost expect a fanfare, brass music signaling the completion of my mission. I realize that it can be arranged and switch on Ellen Reid’s Soundwalk — a free public art project that blends music, nature and technology to create an amazing immersive experience in this exact spot. Very Hollywood.
It’s like walking into the establishing scene of every film and TV show, ever. Afterward we peer into telescopes until we can no longer pretend to understand astrophysics on empty stomachs. We clamber back into the Kia (what would we do without her?) and take aim at Chinatown, rolling past Dodger Stadium.
Weeks previously I’d snapped up a late reservation at Majordomo. The huge, industrial-style restaurant forms part of celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku group. We dip countless Chinese flatbreads in cultured butter and honey. Tear apart boiled chicken, dunked in delicious broth. Fill up on the best crispy rice I’ve ever had, doused in jalapeño dashi and sprinkled with plump mussels. We fill a doggie bag so large the receptionist laughs when we roll back into the tommie, bleary-eyed.
We eat like kings for days, packing the world’s best snacks to go celebrity-spotting in Beverly Hills, walk through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, spend too much money on Rodeo Drive and cruise along Sunset Boulevard to the soundtrack of A Tribe Called Quest.
Opting for a liquid dinner, we try for a reservation at Chateau Marmont (no dice) and happily end up in Jumbo’s Clown Room — an inclusive, sex-positive strip club I’d recommend to literally everyone. We finish the night with a bottle of bubbles, conveniently chilled in our room. Happy 100th birthday, Hollywood. For a few days, life was a movie.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2023 World edition.