L.A. ughs: flying and dining

We like to leave early for LAX, to beat the traffic, though that rarely works. For a 6:30 a.m. flight, for example, we will usually arrive about 4 a.m., maybe 4:30, to find the airport aglow with brake lights, brighter than the Vegas Strip.

We will stumble through lines and poorly marked security drop-offs and barely make our flight, despite our certainty that our early arrival should have guaranteed at least 45 minutes to spare. By then, we are usually missing a shoe.

Mayors come and mayors go, but Los Angeles International Airport -- like the city's public schools -- seems never to get any better. The only public official to make a difference in recent memory is the Irish bloke, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, and he is headed for greener, more lucrative pastures. Now what are we to do?

Deal with it, I suppose. LAX surely offers some of the most intractable challenges. The lines. The cramped quarters. I get on a full plane at LAX and marvel that anybody else actually made it aboard. In that sense, LAX is a triumph of the human spirit.

I marvel too at the signage, small or often absent. Were I running LAX, I'd turn to the Art Center in Pasadena for help. "Please, please," I'd beg, "make us some signs that people will see and understand. Help the out-of-towners find a shuttle bus to the rental lot. Help me find the 105 east."

We have lived in L.A. for almost two decades, and it is a place I am proud to call home. Yet, when I leave on trips, I always get a big heaping dose of perspective on the way we live here, with LAX always topping the list of things to carp about.

So here, at the height of the summer travel season, are my latest observations on our great city, con and pro:

* Most airports are better than ours.

* Most newspapers are worse than ours.

* Hipsters are now everywhere, and they all wear the same hat.

* L.A. has the best freeway drivers in the universe; it's not even close.

* Good weather is one of the greatest gifts.

* The quickest predictor of what any trip will be like is the rental car counter. Good service, good trip. Bad service, bad trip.

* If you want to see real road rage, or ornery sports fans, go someplace cold and rusty.

Which brings me to our biggest local embarrassment aside from LAX: bad waiters.

OK, maybe not the biggest, but right up there. Again, I don't know why this never shows up on mayoral agendas, for the service in our restaurants is a super-sized civic blotch. Like rental car counters, it is one of those barometers that are representative of bigger things.

Sure, I've had excellent service in L.A. -- twice in 20 years. I was so impressed, I left my car as a tip both times.

In hindsight, this probably seems overly generous, but you never saw the cars I drove, or the superb and inspired service I received. In general, I am a liberal tipper and rarely stiff even the most awful waiters or waitresses. I was once poisoned and still left 18%.

The other night, we tried a little place representative of a typical L.A. dining experience, a hot new bistro called Torture.

At Torture, the hostess says "This way, please" and doesn't really mean it, frequently leading you in a zigzag pattern between tables and through the kitchen itself. When she finally seats you, she snarls "Enjoy your meal," knowing full well no one there ever has.

Torture is a lot like many high-end Los Angeles restaurants. No one who works at Torture really wants to be there. There are no smiles, no teamwork, no "let me help with that." If you happen to choke on a piece of veal -- and you probably will -- you're entirely on your own.

Torture is an Asian-infused Italian bistro with a big menu in a font you can't really read -- might as well be in Portuguese. When you ask for the English translation, they look at you like you're trouble. Trust me, Torture does not want trouble.

"All I ask is subtitles," I asked.

"Then go to a movie," snarled the waiter.

Generally, it's not a good idea to provoke the waiters at Torture. Our waiter the other night looked like he'd just punched a man. His knuckles were bleeding and he was on the phone to an attorney.

But don't fixate on the service, for at Torture the emphasis is strictly on the food. There are about 12 items on the menu, none of which you really want to eat. There is chicken and salmon, usually steamed and under-seasoned. The broccoli tastes like the green beans, which taste like the snow peas, which taste like the kebabs.

Most of the food, I'm pretty sure, was made last year, then microwaved back to life (offering the same sense of artificial rebirth you get when you see photos of Joan Collins or Fidel Castro).

At Torture, the evening ends with the presentation of the bill, which comes two hours after you request it, no explanation or apology. In one of the little ways that Torture is unique, they don't actually bring you the bill, they tattoo it on your forearm.

Usually, the chef comes out to do the inking, but on Mondays when he is off, they just send over one of the bus boys.

If you're into Torture, that's a good thing to remember.



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