Casual hip

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It's 9:30 on a Saturday night, and projected on a building on the corner of Alta Vista and Beverly is a scene from the movie "Dr. Strangelove." Inside, there's an opening party for the design/building firm Built, 50 people drinking vodka and cranberry juice dispensed from water coolers and lounging on Built's new line of low, sleek furniture.

"We wanted to be more mainstream but not mixed in with the established design element from Pacific Design Center," says owner John Sofio. "This area has a younger feel, in terms of ideas."

Sofio relocated his business from Silver Lake in part because his firm had outgrown the area's sensibilities -- and incomes. "My client is no longer the person who reads Dwell [magazine] and thinks he can build a house for $120,000, his friends can help, and hey, it's going to be great," he says. "I have a lot of clients in the Hollywood Hills these days, people who want to spend $200,000 minimum to update their houses into this modern vision world."

The other reason to move is location. "There's this new young consortium of modernism going on," says Sofio, "and it's going on here."

Here, specifically, is Beverly Boulevard, between Curson Avenue and Alta Vista Boulevard, a seven-block stretch that in the last two years has seen the convergence of retailers and restaurants that defy conventional wisdom about where to open and whom to woo, and a new breed of Los Angeles consumer, one with Westside wealth but an East Side address and attitude.

Sure, they can afford to shop and dine in Beverly Hills, but it's an awfully long drive from Los Feliz, a little staid, a little icky, with all the big hair and big cars. This shopper is not attracted to conspicuous exclusivity, but conspicuous austerity -- the Eames daybed, the $400 haircut pulled back with a Goody elastic. Plus, there's an urban mix along Beverly, chic boutiques and day spas side by side with tire stores and temples, which makes the street feel egalitarian, even if the prices tell another story.

This area of Beverly -- bounded on one side by the Farmers Market and Park La Brea, the other by the southeast rim of West Hollywood -- is a series of well-kept, tree-lined residential streets of old Spanish-style homes. Lovely for walking but a horror for parking: After 6 p.m., almost all side streets are permit only. There are two-hour meters along Beverly, often available by day, but resign yourself to valet at night.

Here by design

"These are great too," says Yunnie Kim, holding up an $800 pair of carnelian and gold earrings, at Orduña Design, a jewelry store with a vibe between Tiffany and a loft party. There are glittering display cases but also a big couch and soul on the sound system. A buyer for Fred Segal, Kim has been shopping this section of Beverly for years.

"The street has heated up, but it's also cooled down," she says, mentioning she used to "drop $1,200 on shoes at Davolina," a shop across the street that's moved.

"Maybe the area's not pedestrian enough," says her friend Tait Chatmon, a 25-year-old event planner wearing a cropped denim skirt and flip-flops. "On Melrose, it's cheesier, but at least you can walk. Here, it's more upscale, but there's no one on the street."

"But in a way that's good," counters Kim, as owner Beth Orduña writes up her purchases. "It's almost a little best-kept secret; you're not going to find it in the tourist books."

"I opened here because I wanted a retail place, but I didn't want to do California Mart and downtown," says Orduña. "I wanted my customers to see my stuff in a gallery setting, and not be part of the herd. That's very much the way it is with everyone on this street."

Apparently so: A few doors down, LA Eyeworks -- whose Neil Denari design drew attention from the world of architecture when the store opened last summer -- features a window display of 11 miniature plastic horses, two groups of five chestnuts, and a lone palomino, trotting beneath the words, "Herd or Heard." Stepping inside the store is akin to entering the sort of spaceship airlock one sees in the movies: The white and ice-blue room has a luminescent glow, and a feel so mesmerizing and futuristic one expects the computerized voice of Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey," to say, "Welcome, Nancy, here are your glasses. You know you need your glasses, Nancy."

The eyewear, several hundred pairs, jewel-tone and metal, fragile and essential, sit waiting on shelves. Go ahead, touch them, pick them up; opera plays over the sound system as you slip them on, transforming the correcting of one's vision from a dreaded to an epiphanic experience.

"The common denominator of people who've come to locate here lately is a high incidence of original thinking," says Jay Novak who, with brother Steve, owns the mid-century modern furniture store Modernica. Novak says that when the store opened, in 1989, "there was no retail -- we didn't even have front doors."

"Now, the neighborhood is getting a sort of boutique atmosphere, if that's the right word," he continues. "Though I don't think the essence of the street has changed, at least, not yet. You still have the yeshivas and Town Tire. And El Coyote has been here for 70 years or some ridiculous length of time. You have the post office and Pan Pacific Park. It seems as though this is a street of stability."

What about the "for rent" signs in many windows? "We have lost some people," he says. "Lens Craft was next door for 19 years, they did all the paparazzi stuff, and they just closed; it was a rent issue. But I don't think these are the landlords being greedy. I think they are looking for tenants who are going to stay awhile, and who are also going to add something to the street." Rents along Beverly run about $3 per square foot, about half the square-foot cost of renting on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills and substantially below Rodeo Drive's average of $18 to $20.

Though sometimes you can't see it from the street. A few doors down from Modernica is a nearly seamless door of frosted glass, which reads, in very small letters, Naked. Open it, and you're in a low, white hallway with piped-in music; the effect is disorienting, like falling into the rabbit hole. Follow the hall, make the turn, and you are face to face with seven nude-from-the-waist-down female mannequins, each sporting merkins. Some $900 satin-and-leather letterman jackets by Dr. Romanelli are tossed in a rolling wooden crate, and two pairs of paint-spattered Converse sneakers sit on a counter, near a suede purse with an elk-horn handle.

"People who come here don't wear Dolce & Gabbana. We do not get the people who read Vogue," says Steve Trusell, an owner of Naked, which opened 18 months ago. As for what's happening in the area, Trusell, who opened the first Naked six years ago around the corner, says, "This place has been bubbling under for 10 years. Now, with the influx of restaurants, I think it's starting to gel."

Feeding frenzy

It's 11 p.m. on a Saturday, and the lounge at Grace is packed with an eclectic crew: There's a group in casual couture who look to have spent an awful lot of time on their toilettes, a couple in his-and-hers camouflage, a guy in a dashiki and various singles elbow to elbow at the bar, discussing the character of a Russian River Pinot.

"We've been having 110 people a night," says Neal Fraser, chef and owner of Grace, which opened in late March. While Fraser has worked at many Westside restaurants, he says the decision to open along this stretch of Beverly just made sense.

"I was born near here. I went to Fairfax High, and I had a lot of success at Boxer," he says, of the former restaurant where he debuted, three blocks west. "I also felt like the people in this neighborhood were more likely to take a chance on a new restaurant, to give it the opportunity to succeed. It's more serious in Santa Monica; failing means people don't come back. Here, it's dinner. Yes, it's friends, it's celebrating, but it's dinner."

Fraser is not the only one betting that diners will come. In the past few years, the street has seen the openings of spring-green Opaline, owned by David Roshoff, former general manager of Michael's; Buddha's Belly, casual pan-Asian; Ita-Cho, Japanese (but no sushi), in a room 10 times the size of its former strip-mall location. There is Angelini Osteria, an easy room, serving chef Gino Angelini's extraordinary Italian food; Cobras & Matadors, restaurateur Steve Arroyo's perennially packed tapas spot, flanked by his wine store, Bicentennial 13. In mid-May, chef Lesa Carlson will open her raw food/all-vegan spot, e, in a peaceful garden featuring a life-size Buddha. But the busiest place on Beverly is its oldest, El Coyote, which turned 70 this year, and which is packed every night with people downing margaritas in a restaurant of nooks and patios, beneath the big, red iconic sign.The strip's laconic coffee shop, Insomnia Café, feels like a Melrose transplant with an interior that looks as though it were decorated by Stevie Nicks and mediocre coffee served very slowly.

Fashion forward

Beverly specializes in the sorts of goods the new well-heeled Angelena wants: funky yet polished gifts; the sort of minimalist everyday T-shirt that looks as though it cost $8 but actually cost $68, and services that will nourish her body and soul.

"Knitting is the new yoga," reads a sign on the counter at Suss Design, a sunlit store featuring thousands of skeins of colorful yarn as well as hand-knit items. "All of our yarn is hand-loomed and made here in L.A.," says Anna Karin, mentioning that owner Suss Cousins began by knitting sweaters in New York for Bill Cosby. "Now, we do a lot of movies," adds Karin "We did 'Scooby Doo,' and now we are doing 'Scooby Doo Too.' " The store also offers knitting classes.

Letterpress printed stationery can be found at Claudia Laub, a slip of a shop that smells of lemon oil and plays French jazz. Presses from the late 1800s, huge anachronistic machines visible in back, are used to print delicate thank-you notes and wedding invitations, the sort of thing you can rationalize spending a little money on; how often does one send out a baby announcement, after all?

Then there is the pure whimsy of Fifi & Romeo, bursting with precious items for pooches and their human mamas. Puppy carriers, doggie saucers with gold filigree, rhinestone collars, and how about a cloisonné pillbox in the shape of a choo-choo? While the world would continue to spin on its axis if everything in Fifi & Romeo disappeared, it would not be nearly as cute.

Clothiers include Elisabetta Rogiani, featuring '20s-inspired dresses as well as the waist-knotted polka-dot blouses Marilyn Monroe did so much for. Eduardo Lucero is resplendent with the sorts of dramatic, satiny gowns one imagines Nicole Kidman wearing to the Oscars. Richard Tyler Couture is showing ethereal expensive separates, this season in coral. And Beige has scents and soaps, flirty separates, teeny-tiny wife-beaters and the sort of crinkly slip-dress that looks great on someone who's size 2.

"Our customer is the Fred Segal customer," says Ariane Saint Martin, massage director at ona, a day spa that opened in late 2001. "She's sort of young and, I hate this expression, but fashion forward. We get a lot of celebrities and people in the industry too, but ona's not a place to lounge and be seen." Ona is located on the second floor of what used to be the Spanish Kitchen Restaurant, which sat empty for four decades after, according to legend, the owner died, and his wife, in her grief, left the food on the tables, locked the doors and fled upstairs.

"She lived up here like a hermit for 40 years," says Saint Martin, passing treatment rooms so hushed they feel holy. These are where the ayurvedic healing and color sensory therapy takes place. And though ona's clients are, according to Saint Martin, "in their 30s -- and they'd be in their 20s if they had the money to spend," the spa offers such age-eradicating "medical enhancements" as Botox, collagen injections and trichloracetic peels.

It's 2 p.m. on a Friday, and three women, each dressed in slouchy pants and a tank top, look through the racks at Sage, a boutique that sells "a collection of items to beautify your home, baby, body and lifestyle," according to a sign out front.

Jenny Heitz, who's in her 30s and a former copy editor, has all these things: a home in Hancock Park, a 22-month-old, a slender physique and a schedule that allows her to browse in the afternoon; the baby's home with the nanny and the cookbook she's working on doesn't take all her time.

"I probably come to this area twice a week," says Heitz, looking through the racks of Asian, Indian and South American-inspired items. "I definitely don't buy anything at the Beverly Center or chain stores." And though Larchmont is closer to home, Heitz isn't spending there. "They only have two hip clothing stores; the rest of the stuff is dowdy."

Passing a line of yoga wear called Omgirl, Heitz stops at a large armoire full of candy-colored lingerie, including panties at $50 a pair.

"I usually shop at independent boutiques because they have better quality and more unique stuff." She stops herself and laughs. "I guess that's sort of a privileged attitude. But you better have money if you're going to shop here -- or shop wisely."

Part of the invention of Beverly, whose identity continues to evolve, is that it is still finding its customer.

Whether the street is fated to become the bohemian Rodeo or, like Melrose, a parody of itself, time will tell. Right now, it seems happy to have everyone in the house. And if we can't afford the $50 panties -- or the $900 jacket, or the $3,200 couch -- they're awfully fun to look at, to be inspired by or perhaps aspire to, and especially in settings where the sales clerks seem more interested in new ways to set up the wares than in if we can afford them.

The street feels like a block party, with purveyors tossing lots of ideas into the mix, and creating an aesthetic symbiosis with the neighbors that, for the moment at least, equals an extravaganza for anyone who wants to show up.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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