Chris Erskine: Cozy winter hangouts to slurp chowder, escape with a good book
I’ve run aground in the South Bay, in search of the very best chowder and a little nook where I can nurse a cup of coffee and study the fine print of the sports page for most of a morning. When my neck stiffens, I will pause to people-watch, then crack open a new old novel. In the cool shade of January, I will turn up the neck of the too-thick cardigan, the ultimate bubble wrap.
All of us need to flee now and then. What better place than the beach in winter?
Tip No. 1: Leave the phone in your car, for that parasite will pull you out of the tactile pleasures of this stolen day on the water. Better that the wind fills your newspaper like a sail or that you turn directly into that stiff north breeze — the minty stuff that comes out of Canada, ricochets off Oxnard and tingles your cheeks.
Summer at the beach is so obvious. Winter beckons too though. It’s more pensive, thoughtful, serene and cozy. As Dickinson noted, there’s a certain slant of light to winter afternoons. You can skip the sunscreen. No need to circle for a parking space.
In Santa Monica, you can nap for hours in a cabana chair at Perry’s Cafe or rent a bike and wobble along for miles to the marina.
Better yet, immerse yourself in a great book. After all the bumping of butts and elbows at stuffy holiday parties, I promise you a different sort of day — of poetry and wakefulness. Or, at the very least, some much-needed sunlight on your clammy forehead.
Tip No. 2: Bring someone to cuddle up with: Atwood, Gladwell, Patterson, Proulx….
Like me, the Small World Books in Venice is a dusty anachronism. Now 50, it doesn’t belong here among the massage parlors and weed shops. It’s a literary speakeasy. To get in, you zig and zag through a tiny entry. Once inside, this landmark bookstore provides a well-curated collection of recent hits and past loves.
Grab a bestseller, lay down your 20 bucks. If you’ve got a book, you’ve got a pal.
Just north, you’ll find your first winter conquest: Figtree’s Café, where you can linger for hours, the grub is good, and if it rains, you can duck inside where the light is yellow (like Paris) and the tables feature white linen (also like Paris).
Café Collage is another safe harbor in Venice, where an overhang protects your sidewalk table from the rays or rain. Café Collage has cracked concrete, lovely capitals atop the trademark columns and a bit of beatnik grit.
For someplace that whispers instead of shouts, head south to Hermosa, where the beloved Green Store offers homemade chicken soup for $5.99, which you can slurp down at Noble Park, about a half-mile south.
Right next door to the Green Store is the Bottle Inn, with a patio offering ocean views. That’s where I find Mariana Aguilar, who is doing just as we suggest, stealing a day to read and unwind, wisely alternating between a cup of mint tea and a glass of rose.
“I just wanted a quiet day,” Aguilar explains as she pauses while reading “The Overstory.” “I feel like we live in a city where you need to make a point of doing this sort of thing once in a while.”
Hermosa is an ideal winter pit stop, quieter than nearby beach cities and with a bit more country charm. Java Man, just up from the pier, is an excellent hang, a 1920s bungalow featuring tables or benches, sofas or chairs. Don’t skip the turkey and egg white breakfast burrito.
Less precious is the rakish Redondo Pier, featuring an assortment of appealing seafood joints and downright dives. There I find a steamy bowl of chowder at perhaps the quintessential winter retreat: Redondo Coffee Shop, at the end of the pier and within earshot of barking seals.
The portions are generous, and you can loiter for hours. If you didn’t know better, you might think you were in Gloucester or some other moody seaside sanctuary in Massachusetts. On a gray day, the sky is indistinguishable from the sea, just various shades of steel -- misty and pixelating in the distance, sort of tinseled.
This is the place to pen your novel, pore over the sports scores or just veg. The turquoise booths are roomy, and I don’t know the name of those filmy curtains, the kind Grandma kept high across her kitchen windows, but they have those too. If the fish are biting, you can rent a rig for $9 and buy bait (anchovies $5.75, squid $7.95). Drop a line. Feel the sea on your fingers.
By now, you’ve had a day. You’ll be better at work, more fun with your friends, who will wonder whether you’re in love again — or merely drunk — for all your zen.
Truth is, you probably ended your beach day at Tony’s on the Pier, a jaunty bar/restaurant with pirate-ship ambience and lighthouse views up and down the South Bay. Head upstairs for the best sunsets.
In business since 1952, Tony’s could be your portal to a better 2020. Honestly, I’ve sent you to inferior places (Spago, for example).
At Tony’s, waves blast the beach 50 yards away. It’s a fine vista for studying a long winter sunset, pink as Cupid’s tongue. Be patient. The sky won’t really explode till the sun fully sinks below the horizon.
Tip No. 3: Don’t doubt yourself.
Heal the bay? Heal thyself.
For, if nothing else, you’ve now “boxed the compass,” an ancient rite for young sailors learning their way. You’ve started the year replenished, with notes for that novel or inspiration from your favorite author, who seems to sneak peeks at your soul.
You’ve also started the year with the notion that while L.A. may be renowned for its sweaty summers, it might just be best right now.
Worthy winter hangouts
Best coffee (and bait): Redondo Coffee Shop
Best chowder: Chowder Barge in Wilmington
Finest views: Tony’s on the Pier on Redondo Pier
Most likely place for spontaneous friendships: Gum Tree Café in Hermosa
Beachiest menu: North End Caffe in Manhattan
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