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La Brea Goes From Frumpy to Fashionable : Neighborhood: Trendy stores and restaurants have led a transformation on the avenue. Some fear ‘Melrose-ation,’ but merchants defend changes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Something strange is happening on La Brea Avenue.

Here and there, in between the car lots and synagogues that occupy large chunks of this classic Los Angeles thoroughfare, people are out walking the street--and having a surprisingly good time.

“I feel like I’m in SoHo or the Left Bank,” said Bel-Air resident Jani Baldridge, who was wending through the shops along the wide avenue on a recent afternoon, as the taped voice of a French chanteuse drifted from one of the businesses.

Baldridge can stock up on aromatic olive bread from the popular La Brea Bakery, dine at City or Campanile--two of Los Angeles’ chicest temples of gastronomy--order Victorian-inspired hats and dresses at Patina, or ogle the bold 1950s furniture at HaRry’s, all within a stretch of several blocks north of Wilshire Boulevard.

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At night, serious art collectors attend openings at La Brea’s growing contingent of reputable galleries. Jazz and blues aficionados unwind at a funky Chinese restaurant-turned-nightclub. And college students, actors and bohemians of varying ages sip espresso at coffeehouses that percolate with activity until the wee hours of the morning.

“This used to be a very boring neighborhood,” computer specialist Michael Puccinelli said late one recent night outside the King King nightclub, a favorite hangout. “Now, it’s really become a lot more lively.”

La Brea Avenue, once a monotonous mishmash of carpet stores, car lots and film processing labs, has been reborn.

It is the Melrose Avenue of the 1990s, but with a brawnier, more independent feel.

Its renaissance has drawn so many young, trend-conscious shoppers and diners that some of the area’s longtime residents have taken up a battle cry--to oppose its “Melrose-ation,” a reference to the Hollywood street that in the 1980s became a symbol of kooky, faddish Los Angeles.

Unlike Melrose Avenue’s clutter of boutiques, tourists and teen-agers, La Brea has been “nice and quiet and stable for many years,” said Rabbi Chaim Fasman of Kollel-Los Angeles, one of more than a dozen Orthodox Jewish institutions that line the street.

“Now the Melrose crowd is coming in with big dollars,” Fasman said. “We have to fight this . . . danger of Melrose-ation.”

Avid La Breans, however, are quick to draw distinctions between their street and that other bastion of hip to the north.

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“Melrose is post-punk. La Brea never was punk. We don’t have the skinheads and mohawks. We have artists and cafe people and all the ‘chic-eria,’ ” said Mark Werts, who runs four stores on La Brea--American Rag Cie, Colours, American Rag Shoes and American Rag Youth.

“It’s like you’ve got a ’59 Cadillac that’s real gaudy, and next to it is a ‘60s Caddy which is very sleek in design,” said King King owner Mario Melendez, 26. “That is the difference between La Brea and Melrose. La Brea is just sleeker.”

The rebirth of La Brea, prominent California historian Kevin Starr said, is a “thrilling development.”

“Los Angelenos are desperate to reclaim some of their classic streets . . . (the ones) that formed the original grid of the city,” said Starr, a USC professor who is working on a multivolume history of Southern California. “There is an older Los Angeles reasserting itself here.”

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Starr said La Brea was part of a vital area in ancient times, when Indian tribes came seeking tar to caulk their canoes and make baskets.

In the 1920s, Starr said, developer A. W. Ross turned the bean fields then covering Wilshire, between Fairfax and La Brea avenues, into a shopping district. La Brea became a key thoroughfare.

Its recent re-emergence, the historian suggested, raises the possibility that “the old center of the city” will become a focal point again.

Merchants, both newcomers and old-timers, clearly are betting on La Brea’s promise.

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“I’m hoping it’s going to be one of the best streets in L.A.,” exclaimed Joe Mehanna, president of the Metropolitan Auto Center, an imposing $13-million, 90,000-square-foot auto showroom scheduled to open next month at 4th and La Brea.

Most observers trace La Brea’s hip rebirth to the 1985 arrival of City Restaurant, built in a former carpet warehouse at 2nd and La Brea.

“It gave (La Brea) the title of trendy and brought a lot of people onto the block,” said Michael Bennett of CB Commercial, formerly Coldwell Banker.

Over the next few years, more pockets of new businesses sprouted--here a frame store, milliner and bakery, there a couturier’s shop and antique stores.

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Now the Ralph’s grocery chain plans to demolish its store at 3rd and La Brea and is spending $12 million to build a new store next to it that will be twice as large.

Also scheduled to make debuts on the street this year are two restaurants: Ca’Brea, by the owners of the successful Locanda Veneta on 3rd Street, and Farfalla on La Brea, by the owners of Farfalla on Hillhurst.

They will join an eclectic mix of restaurants, which include Indian and French Vietnamese cuisines.

This influx of upscale eateries prompts Robert Robaire, who sold his La Brea restaurant, Robaire’s, to Ca’Brea last year, to predict the avenue’s rise as “the next Restaurant Row of Los Angeles,” assuming the mantle from La Cienega.

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“La Brea,” Robaire said, “is going up and up and up.”

Real estate agents who work the street attest to its rising value.

Rents on La Brea have gone from 90 or 95 cents a square foot in 1986 to $1.75 to $2.25 today, with one lot at the corner of 3rd and La Brea asking $3.50 a square foot, said Tim Smith of the Celeste Yarnall realty company.

Still, La Brea is a bargain compared to Melrose, where rents range beyond $4 a square foot and the stores are relatively cramped.

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“Melrose had been formed, it had been done,” said Rita Azar, 34, explaining why she opened a florist shop, Rita Flora, and a cafe, Flora Kitchen, at 6th and La Brea. “La Brea attracts a different kind of person . . . people more interested in the arts. It felt like there was a lot more freedom to be creative on La Brea.”

The scene late one night at a coffeehouse called the pikme-up seemed to confirm La Brea’s individualistic bent: A mini-skirted model was drinking cappuccino at the counter, a graduate student was studying a thick textbook, a chess game was proceeding a few feet away and a young woman was rolling a marijuana joint. Sometimes, patrons just come to write poetry.

Up the street, at The Living Room coffeehouse, a young man huddled with a script, reading lines into a small tape recorder. Nearby, Jeff Kay, 25, an assistant film director, and actresses J. C. Brandy, 20, and Amy Davis, also 20, were sprawled on a plush red velvet sofa.

Her feet propped on an antique table, Davis called the cafe “a good place to go after you’ve been to a club and you don’t want to go to another bar. You can come here and have coffee and talk.”

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Many neighborhood residents also welcome the cafes.

“At night, I can leave my studio and walk to a coffeehouse,” said David Davis, 46, an architectural designer who lives on La Brea. “In L.A., that is so rare. There is a whole night life on La Brea that could develop.”

And that’s what worries some people.

The coffeehouses “are the real plague,” complained Rabbi Fasman. “They attract non-neighborhood people, singles. . . . When you bring on the singles, you bring on different lifestyles, liquor, and probably drugs, too. It could ruin everything we have been working for.”

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Fasman said he would like the city to impose stiffer parking requirements on the coffeehouses as a means of discouraging others from opening on La Brea and halting the advance of what he terms “Melrose-ation.”

“I don’t know if we can stop it. But we can minimize or limit it. The community has a vast investment in synagogues and other institutions and won’t easily yield the turf.”

Although many in the neighborhood say they are pleased with the new La Brea, at the same time they have won city approval to limit non-resident parking on their streets. That has dismayed many merchants, such as City Restaurant’s Susan Feniger, who calls it “a big problem” for revitalized areas such as La Brea.

American Rag’s Werts has encountered other obstacles. A few years ago he tried to open a sophisticated French-Mediterranean restaurant on La Brea, but dropped the plans when neighborhood residents fought his liquor-license request.

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“One comment that was made at the hearing was that we would bring in, quote, hordes of urinating youths, unquote, to the area. That was precisely the market I was aiming at,” the businessman said sarcastically.

Werts’ efforts to beautify the street have also met with resistance from city bureaucrats, who have ordered him and some neighboring stores to remove potted trees from their sidewalk--the kind of nit-picking that some urban architects contend is holding Los Angeles back from emerging as a truly great city.

“La Brea is Los Angeles’ expression of some sort of evolution to a 1990s, cosmopolitan, international society,” Werts said. “Those of us who are there are doing the best we can--within the confines of what is possible. Basically, within those confines, it is a pretty successful street.”


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