Southern California Close-Ups: Pasadena and environs

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It’s 1922 and nothing much is up in Pasadena. Not among the orange groves, not along the leafy streets. Just as the little old ladies like it.

But wait. Down in the Arroyo Seco, a crew has just started putting up some kind of stadium. On Pepper Street, Mallie Robinson’s 3-year-old son may already be showing signs of amazing athleticism. Over at Polytechnic School, a tall 10-year-old named Julia McWilliams is developing the taste and aplomb that will make her America’s best-known chef.

That’s right, the Rose Bowl, Jackie Robinson and Julia Child all came up in supposedly sleepy Pasadena around the same time, and 90 years later, this remains a useful reminder: This western edge of the San Gabriel Valley and the area near it can fool you. Beyond the stillness at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, behind all those handsome old Craftsman facades, there’s no telling what the restless minds and bodies of this valley will come up with next. Earthquake measures. Exploding dumplings.

Begin your own explorations with these 10 micro-itineraries for Pasadena and its environs. This is the 11th installment in our yearlong series of Southern California Close-ups (the others are at We will wind up the year on Christmas with a look at Hollywood.

1. Greene, Greene and greenery

Colorado Street Bridge (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

To see why the Arroyo Seco is so central to the Pasadena state of mind, join the early-morning dog-walkers for some vigorous striding along South Arroyo Boulevard near Arbor Street, where grand old trees tower above grand old houses. On your way in and out, look up at the stylish old U.S. courthouse (125 S. Grand Ave.) and imagine when it was the Vista del Arroyo Hotel or, before that, Emma Bangs’ boardinghouse. You won’t be able to miss the 1912-13 Colorado Street Bridge, better known among locals as “Suicide Bridge” for reasons you can imagine. Now, for a closer look at Craftsman style — woodsy buildings, art glass, plenty of tile and bricks but no Victorian fussiness — step into the iconic Gamble House (4 Westmoreland Place), designed by Charles and Henry Greene in 1908. It opens for tours four days a week and has a great bookshop in the garage. From nearby sidewalks, you can also see the 1901 Charles Sumner Greene House (368 Arroyo Terrace); the 1906 Cole House (2 Westmoreland Place); the 1909 Hindry House (781 Prospect Blvd.) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1923 La Miniatura, which looks like a Mayan jungle temple (645 Prospect Crescent).

2. Rodin, Rembrandt, Simon & Co

Norton Simon Museum (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For a lot of top-notch art in a small place, you can’t beat the Norton Simon Museum (411 W. Colorado Blvd.). It begins out front with “The Burghers of Calais,” Rodin’s 1884 bronze celebration of heroic yet human politicians (yes, you read that right). It continues inside with a murderers’ row of European and Asian artists, including Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Hiroshige. Then there’s the handsome garden and pond in back. For a salad, sandwich or dessert, zip west across the Colorado Street Bridge to Little Flower Candy Co. (1424 W. Colorado Blvd.). Feeling renewed? Head about a mile east to the Pacific Asia Museum (46 N. Los Robles Ave.) or the Pasadena Museum of California Art (490 E. Union St.), which stand around the corner from each other.

3. Old bricks, national chains, nightly jazz

Colorado Boulevard (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In Old Pasadena, scads of national chains occupy the historic facades along Colorado Boulevard, and sidewalks are filled with pedestrians day and night. To find homegrown merchants and eateries, check the old brick alleys and side streets or sign onto a Melting Pot Food Tour ( Don’t miss the kid-friendly public art in alleys and the courtyard of the One Colorado complex. For more art, see the Armory Center for the Arts (145 N. Raymond Ave.). For dinner and conversation, try Green Street Tavern (69 W. Green St.). For live jazz, Red White + Bluezz Jazz Club (70 S. Raymond Ave.). For a lively meal in a wonderfully transformed train station, duck into La Grande Orange (a.k.a. the LGO Station Café, 260 S. Raymond Ave.), which neighbors a working Metro train stop. Distant Lands (20 S. Raymond Ave.) will sell you travel books, and farther east on Colorado Boulevard, Vroman’s (695 E. Colorado Blvd.), which dates to the 1890s, will sell you “Hometown Pasadena” (an excellent guidebook) or just about any other book. The nearby Pasadena Playhouse (revived by bankruptcy reorganization in 2010) stands in an atmospheric 1920s building at 39 S. El Molino Ave. For caffeine and Mexico-boho atmosphere, there’s its neighbor, the Zona Rosa Caffe (15 S. El Molino Ave.).

4. The bowl, the market, the path

Rose Bowl (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Now nearing 90, the Rose Bowl is in the middle of a renovation, but the sports continue. Besides hosting the Rose Bowl football game every January, the stadium is home field for UCLA football. And on the second Sunday of each month, the Rose Bowl Flea Market materializes with its antler lamps, dial telephones, amateur art and vintage fishing poles. It’ll cost you at least $8 to get in (they said flea, not free), but it is epic. Meanwhile, the surrounding Brookside Park draws legions of runners, walkers and cyclists, who circle a path of three-plus miles. Nearby you’ll find Kidspace (480 N. Arroyo Blvd.), a participatory museum for children.

5. Shopping, splurging and the synchrotron

Langham Hotel (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Shopping South Lake Avenue is like surfing: Someone is going to tell you how much better it was before you came. And life was certainly good in the ‘90s, when retailers thrived and the Huntington hotel and Ritz-Carlton were linked. But now is not bad. The former Ritz, now the Langham Huntington Pasadena (1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave.), stands on 23 genteel acres and specializes in spa indulgences and twinkling holiday decorations. Its fancy restaurant, reborn as Royce in late 2010, has gotten strong reviews, and overnight rates sometimes drop below $200. Your shopping starts with the old Bullock’s building (401 S. Lake Ave.), a 1947 Streamline Moderne landmark that now holds Macy’s. The neighbors include Orvis (345 S. Lake Ave., No. 102) for fly-fishers, Anthropologie (340 S. Lake Ave.) for teens and Ten Thousand Villages (567 S. Lake Ave.) for buyers of fair-trade art and crafts. Leave time for zucchini bread at Green Street Restaurant (146 S. Shopper’s Lane) or the nouveau cafeteria cuisine of Lemonade (146 S. Lake Ave.). Then walk off the calories amid the fountains and arches of the Caltech campus (1200 E. California Blvd.; Olive Walk tour searchable at, where the Richter scale was born. To fit in, tell people you still miss the synchrotron, a machine for accelerating electrons. It was dismantled in 1970.)

6. Fast track, steep climb, slow town

Santa Anita Park (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There’s a gambler or a horse lover in every family, right? If it’s racing season (Dec. 26-April 22), take him, her or them to Santa Anita Park (285 W. Huntington Drive, Arcadia), where Seabiscuit once galloped to glory and the view of the San Gabriels is reliably gorgeous. Horses usually run Thursdays-Sundays. For just the cost of breakfast, you can watch early workouts (from 5-10 a.m.) from Clocker’s Corner at the west end of the track. In the afternoon, for $5 adult admission, you can watch the races or linger near the paddock and gardens as horses, jockeys and trainers prepare. If it isn’t racing season, head north to cozy Sierra Madre, park on East Miramonte Avenue near North Mountain Trail Avenue, and hike the first 1.3 miles of the Mt. Wilson Trail, which will jump-start your heart and give you a big view. Then turn around at First Water, come down and flop on a couch at Bean Town coffeehouse (45 N. Baldwin Ave.) or spoon some homemade ice cream at Mother Moo Creamery (17 Kersting Court). For a homegrown souvenir, make the two-minute drive to E. Waldo Ward & Son (273 E. Highland Ave.), a family business (with fruit trees, red barn and Victorian house) that has made and sold jams and jellies since 1891. Wind up with a snazzy dinner at Wistaria (44 N. Baldwin Ave.).

7. Peacocks and dumplings

Din Tai Fung (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Tired of people? Try peacocks and cycads instead. At the 127-acre L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden (301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia), you can do that, inspect reflections on Baldwin Lake and read up on the life, times and wives of local pioneer Lucky Baldwin, whose land this once was. When you get hungry, remember that there are hundreds of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants along the increasingly Asian main drags of nearby San Gabriel, Alhambra and Monterey Park. But you have world-famous dumplings within 1.2 miles, so you’re headed to Din Tai Fung (1108 and 1088 S. Baldwin Ave.). Din Tai Fung is a global restaurant chain, born in Taiwan, and the sibling Arcadia restaurants are its only California outlets. Servers whisper into wireless headsets and customers often wait in line (no reservations taken) for a chance at the house version of xiao long bao — steamed dumplings filled with pork and broth, 10 for $7.50 and explosively flavorful.

8. Eggs in Eagle Rock, granite in Glendale

Occidental College (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Start in hipster-heavy Eagle Rock, just west of Pasadena, with a comfort breakfast at Auntie Em’s (4616 Eagle Rock Blvd.). Swing past tiny Occidental College (two blocks east at 1600 Campus Road), where the Marx Brothers filmed “Horsefeathers” in 1932 and undergrad Barack Obama studied from 1979-81. Then it’s time for Forest Lawn Memorial Park (four miles west at 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale), which is a cemetery in the same sense that Hearst Castle is a house. Begun in 1906, these 300 acres of rolling green hills contain more copied Michelangelo sculptures and celebrity graves than any place else you’ll find all week. Humphrey Bogart. Walt Disney. Nat King Cole. Casey Stengel. Shortly after his death in 2009, Michael Jackson arrived, followed in early 2011 by Elizabeth Taylor. Management gives no celebrity directions and keeps many resting spots behind locked doors, but you’ll get plenty of hints from And you’ll have no trouble finding the little museum or the Great Mausoleum, where Jackson and Taylor are both rumored to be, and where you can watch the curtains part to reveal Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” as reproduced in stained glass by Rosa Caselli Moretti. It’s larger than life, of course.

9. Bed, breakfast, ice cream and coffee

Buster’s Ice Cream & Coffee Stop (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

South Pasadena (picture Mayberry with yoga) may inspire daydreams about moving in. But first, get breakfast at Heirloom Bakery (807 Meridian Ave.). Stroll on highly walkable Mission Street, Meridian Avenue and El Centro Street, and maybe break for a snack at Buster’s Ice Cream & Coffee Stop (1006 Mission St.). If it’s Thursday afternoon, catch the farmers market on Meridian between Mission and El Centro. Then retire to your room. Where? Perhaps the Arroyo Vista Inn (335 Monterey Road), a genteel hillside bed and breakfast at the top of a long driveway. It has nine well-appointed bedrooms in a 1910 Craftsman. But there’s no pool, and it’s not a good choice for children. If you have kids, look at the Bissell House (201 Orange Grove Ave.), a lived-in Victorian on the Pasadena/South Pasadena border with a pool in back. From there, it’s a half-mile to to dinner at the Raymond Restaurant (1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena).

10. Home of the Huntington

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

When in San Marino (median household income: about $159,000 a year), why not loll like a 1-percenter? Have an elegant breakfast at Julienne (2649 Mission St.) or get a meal to go from its gourmet market and head for nearby Lacy Park, a 30-acre refuge of tall trees and paths well-suited to beginning bicyclists. (On weekends, there’s a $4 fee for nonresidents 4 and older so you might prefer smaller Garfield Park, which is almost as close at Mission Street and Park Avenue in South Pasadena.) Either way, leave plenty of time for the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Road), where Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th century “The Blue Boy” painting and 120 acres of gardens have long been big attractions. Check those out (especially the Desert, Chinese, Jungle and Children’s gardens), but don’t stop there. In the library, you can eye a Gutenberg Bible and a Charles Bukowski manuscript, both in the same room. In the American art collection, take a good look at the ocean in Edward Hopper’s 1935 painting “The Long Leg.” Who knew this inland journey would bring you to the most luminous blue sea ever?