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Lunch in L.A.? Car Beats Train as Meal Ticket

Times Staff Writer

Let’s do lunch.

How many times has the sheer geography of L.A. -- along with the region’s less-than-accommodating transportation options -- messed up plans for meeting friends, colleagues and even important business partners for a simple lunch?

Last week, I had to cancel lunch with a former colleague for the fourth time in two months -- not because of some unexpected catastrophe, but because I couldn’t get downtown quickly enough to meet him before he had to set out on another appointment.

So I decided to put lunchtime travel to the test. I picked Pasadena as my destination. I would go there for lunch four days running -- twice by transit and twice in my car. Would either be worth it? Which would be easier?

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Here’s what happened.

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Day 1: I decide to drive. I leave the Times office at 12:30 p.m. and walk a block to the parking lot. My husband is meeting me at Saladang, an upscale Thai restaurant on Fair Oaks Avenue, at 1 p.m. I figure I have plenty of time.

It takes a few minutes to get to the car and get out of the Times lot. By 12:40 p.m., I am entering the Pasadena Freeway from Third Street. It’s not going so well.

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The sluggish traffic comes to a complete stop before we even get to the I-5 junction. There’s no sign of what’s wrong. We inch along, and finally I see that Caltrans is closing down a left-hand lane for some kind of roadwork.

I’m getting a little nervous. He hates it when I’m late.

I exit the Pasadena Freeway at Fair Oaks at 1:01 p.m. and turn left. More roadwork. At Fair Oaks and Columbia the cars stop suddenly, and I’m right in the middle of a big intersection. The street’s center lane is closed. It’s been half an hour since I left The Times and I’m still stuck in traffic.

I arrive at Saladang at 1:20 p.m. My husband is pacing outside -- it’s taken him just 20 minutes to drive there from our home in Studio City.

Lunch is pretty good. Afterward, we get into our vehicles and head back to work. It takes about 35 minutes, door to door. I’m at my desk a little before 3 p.m. Kind of a long lunch.

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Day 2: Today I’m taking the train. I’m sure it will be easier, quicker and more relaxing to simply walk the block to the Civic Center Red Line station, hop on the subway, transfer in a jiffy to the Gold Line and get to Pasadena in time to meet my friend Louise for lunch.

If only.

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I leave the Times building at 12:30 p.m. and walk west up 1st Street toward the Civic Center Red Line stop. The sidewalk reeks of urine. By 12:36, I am on the escalator, heading down to the subway station, and at 12:39 I am standing in front of the ticket machines for the Red Line.

“It’s not taking bills,” the person next to me complains, fumbling for change as we hear the screeching of the train we’ve probably missed down in the tunnel. Luckily, I already know that the ticket machines rarely work properly in this station, and have brought a stash of quarters.

It takes 12 quarters to buy my day pass, but at least I’ve got a ticket. I head down to the train. It comes at 12:45, and its next stop is Union Station, my transfer point for the Gold Line.

The signage at Union Station is poor. I can’t figure out where the Gold Line is. Finally I look up and see a sign in the main lobby that says the Gold Line is on Tracks 1 and 2 of the old station, next to the Amtrak lines. We leave at 12:59 p.m., half an hour after I set out from The Times a few blocks away. It’s another half an hour before we reach the Del Mar exit in Old Town Pasadena.

So much for quick and easy. But lunch is great at Trattoria Tre Venezie on Green Street. It takes another hour to get back to the office.

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Day 3: Today and tomorrow I’m going to Pasadena from the San Fernando Valley, using my Studio City home as the starting point.

I get in the car at 12:43 p.m. The maintenance light is on, and I poke my finger on my teenage daughter’s earring, which somehow has gotten wedged in the door handle. But other than that, it’s smooth sailing. I take the Ventura Freeway south to California 134 heading east and make the 16 miles to the Fair Oaks exit in 18 minutes.

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I park easily in a public lot on Fair Oaks between Colorado and Green streets, and by 1:07, I am at Green Street and Raymond Avenue, waiting for Louise. I have a really good Cobb salad at Twin Palms, a restaurant with a huge outdoor patio on Green Street. By 3 p.m., I’m back out in the Valley.

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Day 4: It’s Saturday. I was supposed to go back to Pasadena on Friday, but you know how it is. So far, even the quickest jaunt has taken two hours, and I have two other articles I need to finish. For today’s trip, I’m committed to public transit. I pack up my husband and two kids, ages 3 and 10, and we set out on a train adventure. We are heading to the San Gabriel Valley in search of ice cream.

We pull out of our driveway at 1:30 p.m. and 15 minutes later park in the lot by the North Hollywood Red Line station.

We board the train at 1:50. Leo, the 3-year-old, is scared of the train because his big brother told him it would go fast. He screams that he wants to go home. I have to hold him to keep him from running back onto the platform.

A man behind me, heading to Universal Studios with two little girls, has this to say when one of them complains that the coins in her hand add up to just 50 cents: “It’s better than having a dead cockroach in your hands, isn’t it?” She agrees.

Leo calms down, and at 2:08 we count the number of stops before our train reaches Union Station. Ten more. And that’s before we even get to the Gold Line.

At 2:42, we arrive at Union Station. We race to the restrooms before heading out, but they are closed. We find other restrooms, race to the Gold Line and pull out at 2:49. The nice thing about the Gold Line is that since it’s above ground, you can look around. The kids are enthralled. But by 3 p.m., they are bored and we decide to get off a couple of stops early, in South Pasadena, to have ice cream and cookies at Buster’s on Mission Street.

We exit the Mission Street station at 3:07. By 3:50, we start retracing our Gold Line path but soon get off at its Chinatown station for about 45 minutes of strolling to nearby souvenir and snack shops. With our day passes, we reboard the train, transfer to the Red Line and arrive back at North Hollywood at 5:35.

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The lessons of this little experiment are threefold:

One, even though public transit in Southern California has improved, car still trumps train. The transit lines are slow and poorly connected, and there are too few routes available. And the ticket machines rarely work properly, at least in my experience.

Two, it’s nonetheless a pain to drive, what with ever-increasing traffic, unexpected roadblocks and difficult parking.

Three, if you eat in restaurants four days in one week, you will gain approximately 2 pounds.


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