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Pandemic lockdown backs ‘Clueless’: Everywhere in L.A. does take 20 minutes

Was “Clueless” right?
In “Clueless,” L.A. travel times were a hot-button issue for Cher (Alicia Silverstone, left, with Stacey Dash).
(Paramount Pictures)

In “Clueless,” the 1995 teen-queen classic starring Alicia Silverstone, her father catches her in a lie when she’s late to come home.

“Everywhere in L.A. takes 20 minutes,” he scolds her over the phone, using their Beverly Hills home as the center of all things.

Actually, Silverstone’s character, Cher Horowitz, was partying in the Valley, hardly 20 minutes from anything.

In 1995, Beverly Hills may have seemed 20 minutes from almost everywhere. Not anymore.

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Or is it? L.A. freeways are deserted these days. Amid the bad news and the worry, the open roads provide a tiny break for those headed to the pharmacy, physical therapy or just to clear their head with a long, soothing drive.

Welcome to my three-hour tour.

Traffic is alarmingly light on the Harbor Freeway heading north out of downtown Los Angeles.
Traffic is alarmingly light on the Harbor Freeway heading north out of downtown Los Angeles, usually a choke point for L.A. drivers.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Burbank to Beverly Hills, 25 minutes

My launch point is Doughn-t Hut, a landmark Burbank doughnut stand at the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Keystone Street, a scone’s throw from John Burroughs High School. Great coffee and a generous roster of pastries. I invest in an apple fritter, heavy as a brick, and a small coffee.

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At noon on Monday, March 23, I’m heading west out of Toluca Lake on the 134. Traffic is super light, zooming along at 70. As I will learn, 70 is the new minimum in Los Angeles, though some drivers will never be satisfied with less than 80. In 14 minutes, I’m exiting Coldwater Canyon in Studio City. After 19 miles, my coffee is still piping hot.

Instead of the usual roller coaster, Coldwater is a Joni Mitchell song. The wild mustard is starting to bloom. There are 300 shades of green.

Eleven minutes later, up over the hump, I’m in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hills Hotel
The entrance to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the famed Polo Lounge is almost a drive-thru.
(Matt Sayles / Associated Press)

The Polo Lounge does takeout

It is deeply leafy here, and the birds speak fluent French. The clouds are imported. Yes, we’re in Beverly Hills.

The dining room at the Polo Lounge is closed, of course. But you can place a to-go order ([310] 887-2170), drive to the door, and staff will bring the order to your car.

That’s right: The famed Polo Lounge is almost a drive-thru.

Menus are online and the choices are plentiful — and pricey.

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For example, the Polo Lounge Club is $34, a very exclusive club.

UCLA to LAX, 20 minutes

There are two psycho trigger points for L.A. drivers — the 405 and LAX.

Not these days. That godless stretch of the 405 from Sunset to the 10 Freeway? Less than 10 minutes. I’m starting to think that life at 70 mph might be like being rich, losing your money, then spending the rest of your life remembering what it was like being rich.

Oops, bad metaphor, or at least an untimely one.

I’m now seeing airplanes in the distance approaching LAX. I spot my first Uber sticker of the day. I begin to worry for Uber. Without them, who will cut me off at lights?

The exits whiz past. They come up so quickly I almost miss them. Wow, was that Hughes Parkway?

At 12:59, I’m at the light at Sepulveda Boulevard, the starting gate for LAX and the seven stages of death that make up the terminal complex.

Yes, it’s a ghost airport. Where are all the shuttle buses? How come no one is honking?

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Seven minutes later, I leave LAX.

LAX at 1 p.m. on March 23.
That’s LAX? Yes. The airport at 1 p.m. on March 23.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

A book and a burger

Just the sight of the ocean gives me a boost, so I take Imperial Highway to the beach, where RVs are lined up at Dockweiler State Beach as emergency shelters. There goes the boost.

The lot just south is open, though. I stop. I check messages. I ponder the Pacific. I consider a quick nap.

But I’ve got to get to Manhattan Beach, where Pages bookstore is offering curbside pickup for call-in orders. How it works: You call the shop [(310) 318-0900], place your order, and the book will be waiting in a bag in the alley.

It’s a literary speakeasy, at a time when libraries are locked and most bookstores are closed.

Across the empty street, Ercoles tavern is serving the best cheeseburger in the area, out of a little window on the sidewalk. It’s open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, and maybe weekends — they’re waiting to see how it works out.

At “Erks,” they grill the burgers till they are pink like Easter, just east of done. They fall apart in your fingers and drip down your elbows, to your knees and around your ankles. It’s almost a form of seduction. I feel a boost.

If you’ve not had an Ercoles burger, what are you waiting for, the end of the world?

Double oops.

The juicy burgers at Ercoles in Manhattan Beach are cooked just east of done.
The juicy burgers at Ercoles in Manhattan Beach are cooked just east of done.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County, here I come

I’m on a roll now. Back on the 405 south, I hit Torrance, then Carson. I can smell the belch of the refineries. I can see the planes taking off from John Wayne Airport.

Life flies by at cartoon speed. I feel like private eye Philip Marlowe chasing a dirty, lying cheat.

Thirty minutes from Manhattan Beach, I am at the Orange County line. By 3 p.m., a half-hour later, I’ve doubled back to Los Angeles and am passing USC, an unheard-of pace. Driving in L.A. is almost too easy.

Best of all, I have been on the road since noon and I have not seen a single accident nor witnessed one rude gesture.

Total elapsed time: three hours (including the 45-minute book-and-burger break).

Total driving distance: 121 miles, just under a mile a minute.

As Cher Horowitz once said: “This is California, not Kentucky?”


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