How wanderlusty are we getting in Southern California, while debate flares over Europe’s readiness for American tourists? Well, I’m sitting at home trying to decide which continental stand-in made me happier, a croque monsieur in Los Feliz or a gondola ride in Long Beach.
I think I’d have to go with the Venetian-style vessels that Gondola Getaway operates on the canals around Naples Island. To slowly drift under a bridge while a gondolier breaks into song — that should put Venetian thoughts in your head, especially if you close your eyes and think of Italy.
Europe is here with us, if we only suspend disbelief. I don’t mean the missions (we know that story) or the churches, though they do deliver impressive domes, murals and stained glass.
I also don’t mean our Coliseum and Forum, which remind no one of Rome, or our Greek Theater, which, for all the fun it gives us, has never made me think of Athens.
I’m talking about the flowering of European homage, nostalgia and commercial knockoff-ery (my rankings, my word) that bloomed here in the 20th century and are now fading as we grow more diverse. These places please many of us, not because they’re genuine, but because somehow, in aiming to feed travel dreams or remind someone of home, they’ve conjured their own SoCal identity. They are Los Angeles when it doesn’t play itself.
But are they created equal? Not in my book.
I’ve ranked these places by how much they make me smile. I did so after gathering ideas from Angelenos and experts, including Los Angeles Conservancy‘s executive director, Linda Dishman, and Ken Bernstein, principal city planner for the city of L.A.’s Office of Historic Resources and author of the new book “Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform American Cities” (Angel City Press).
In other words, no science whatsoever. And once jousting resumes at Medieval Times in Buena Park, that could change everything. But for now, here we go.
21. Venice Beach
Canals, check. Italian arches at Windward and Pacific avenues, check. Botticelli knockoff mural of Venus on roller skates at the corner of Windward and Speedway. Check. (Botticelli’s hometown? Florence. Too bad.)
20. Ikea, 600 S. Ikea Way, Burbank
For the meatballs, again available in the reopened restaurant of the Burbank store, the largest Ikea in the U.S. Also for the dumbom product names. That’s Swedish for silly.
19. Red Lion Tavern, 2366 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake
The servers wear dirndls, so there’s that. It opened in 1959 as an English pub with darts upstairs. In 1963 new owners made it German. So it remains, several owners later, an old-school biergarten beloved by 21st century hipsters. Slurp your beefy goulash at a rustic picnic table. Also there’s an appetizer the menu calls Frikadella. Wasn’t she on the last bill at Coachella?
18. Alpine Village, 833 W. Torrance Blvd., Torrance
Developers put up Alpine Village in 1968, aiming to create “a little slice of Bavaria.” Now its 14 acres include a shuttered restaurant, beleaguered shops (felt hats, beer steins and antique weapons aplenty), a lonely chapel and a scrappy swap meet, all as tired as a barmaid after Oktoberfest. But the village’s tidy Alpine Market, open daily, is another story, well stocked with bratwurst, sausage, beers and enough bakery goods to fatten you out of your lederhosen. In September, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors named the village a Los Angeles County Historic Landmark. Here’s to saving the village, especially the market.
17. Villa Terraza, 9955 Sunland Blvd., Shadow Hills
In 1936, German immigrant August Furst had a brainstorm: build a theme restaurant called Old Vienna Gardens in the foothills near Sun Valley. He did that and added a small zoo with monkeys to ensure his success. Unfortunately, Furst’s timing was off. The Depression was on. And then World War II arrived. It was rumored that he was a spy, the business foundered and the site fell idle. Years later, somebody remade the place as an Italian restaurant. Someone else tried Mexican. Now it’s Italian again, the patio neighbored by a dry moat, fake drawbridge, a strange set of sequestered booths and an architectural theme Bernstein calls “English Tudor and Swiss Chalet.”
16. Papa Cristo’s, 2771 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
When you get to Papa Cristo’s restaurant and market, look for a big white mustache attached to a compact, courtly man. That’s Chrys Chrys, a.k.a. Papa Cristo, age 75, head of the operation, son of the man who opened the market in 1948, when the neighborhood was more Greek than Korean. (St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a block away.) The market is a Greek cornucopia (which is redundant, actually) with olive oils, wines, ouzo, retsina and Cretan honey. “My kalamata olives are actually from Kalamata,” says Papa Cristo, who added the restaurant in 1985. They cater too. Now that the dining room and patio are open, we can root for the return of Big Fat Greek Thursday Nights, with a bouzouki player and belly dancer.
15. Via Rodeo at Two Rodeo Drive, 9480 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills
It‘s the swankiest alley in town, barely 200 feet long, with dainty lampposts and flower pots, quaint balconies and cobblestones imported from Italy. Via Rodeo, built in 1990, cuts through the Two Rodeo Drive shopping area near Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard. Buy a watch at Breguet, a blazer at Stefano Ricci and an oil painting or two at Galerie Michael. Then head for the restaurant, 208 Rodeo, where you can have fries ($11) with your bottle of Dom Perignon 2008 ($475).
14. Tam O’Shanter, 2980 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles
In 1790 or so, Scottish poet Robert Burns composed an epic poem about a hard-drinking farmer. About 140 years later, aspiring L.A. cartoonist Walt Disney found a neighborhood restaurant with the same name —Tam O’Shanter — and became a regular. The Tam was (and is) full of flourishes executed in 1922 by studio designers and carpenters, with fireplaces, Scottish tartans and, of course, medieval weapons. Yorkshire pudding doesn’t taste the same without a medieval weapon handy.
13. Eataly, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
Eataly, which opened in Century City in 2017, is slick, not quaint or kitsch, so I liked it less. But it contains multitudes — market, bakery, butcher shop, fish market, cooking school and a handful of restaurants. Bakers pummel dough behind a window. Pizza makers banter in Italian near the Rossopomodoro restaurant’s ovens. I want to believe it’s about the next Napoli versus Roma football match, but it’s probably about their screenplays.
12. Figaro Bistrot, 1802 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles
Figaro has been seducing Los Feliz’s see-and-be-seen crowd since it succeeded the beloved Onyx Café in the late 1990s. Inside, there’s a zinc bar and dining room with Parisian antiques. Outside, you might eat at a snug sidewalk table for two, surrounded by au courant Angelenos and servers who do Gallic nonchalance as well as anyone. A light, flaky croissant is $3.75. I want to believe my fellow diners are talking about Carla Bruni’s last album, but no, probably screenplays again.
10. Rose Tree Cottage, 801 S. Pasadena Ave., Pasadena
Grab scones (baked on-site and splendidly soft) or a sausage roll. Or go big and book a weekend formal tea with service by co-owner and British expat Edmund Fry, who wields his plummy accent like a well-sharpened blade. Ask him how he tutored Meghan Markle before her first tea with the queen. (It’s true.) Fry has been in business since 1978. For now, tea is served in the garden, but the tea room is expected to reopen in May or June. Shop inventory includes: fresh lemon curd, Cadbury chocolates, Ty-Phoo teabags, a pith helmet (made in India) and house-made meat pies. Mary Fry, Edmund’s wife and co-owner, said their customers are mostly anglophiles, “but since the pandemic, there have been lots of expats. Because they can’t go home.”
9. Hogwarts Castle, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood, 100 Universal City Plaza
This is thirdhand Britain, by way of J.K. Rowling’s fertile brain and Universal’s impressive execution. Once the latest controversy over the royal family dies down, Hogwarts will again be the most read-about (if imaginary) castle on Earth. Besides the castle, the park (reopened April 16) includes its hamlet of Hogsmeade, which means British snacks, Butterbeer and Potter merch in vast quantities.
8. Château Marmont, 8221 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
This louche, luxurious lodging and celebrity hangout, where John Belushi OD’d in 1982, began life as a Frenchified 1929 apartment building that largely copied the 15th century look of the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley (which still stands). Once inside, raise a glass to Belushi or photographer Helmut Newton, who died in a 2004 car accident at the Marmont. But I’ll be drinking to France’s King Charles VIII, one of 1498’s leading celebrities, who bumped his head on a doorway in the Château d’Amboise and dropped dead. Age 28. Most implausible celebrity death story ever.
7. High Tower elevator, 2178 High Tower Drive, Los Angeles
Only residents can access the five-story elevator disguised as a bell tower on High Tower Drive in Hollywood Heights.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
A five-story elevator disguised as a bell tower takes residents up to their homes in Hollywood Heights. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
The homes in the Hollywood Heights neighborhood may evoke a Mediterranean feel for some. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
Hollywood Heights is a 1920s hillside neighborhood next to the Hollywood Bowl. The feel is Mediterranean and its central landmark — a five-story bell tower at the end of High Tower Drive — looks as if it was smuggled out of an Italian hill town. But it’s not really a bell tower. It’s a five-story elevator in disguise, designed to carry residents from their garages below to their houses above. If you’re not a resident with an elevator key, several blocks of the neighborhood can be reached only by a hillside network of stairways and walkways lined with lush landscaping. It’s a delivery person’s nightmare, but a dream for an urban explorer willing to be quiet while passing near residents’ yards and homes. The cheek-by-jowl houses are full of continental grace notes.
6. Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
The museum plans to begin a phased reopening in mid-May, reuniting us with dancers by Degas, fretting Calais burghers by Rodin, and scores more marvels by Rembrandt, Fragonard, Goya, Degas, Vuillard, Van Gogh, Picasso and company. And a bonus: In the 1990s, the museum redid its sculpture garden to include a curvy pond and landscaping, all designed to evoke the Giverny, France, garden where Claude Monet painted water lilies. My kind of monetization.
5. Ye Olde King’s Head, 116 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
This expat anchor, open since 1974, has a full British menu and a cozy interior where Winston Churchill glowers from above the fireplace. Bass and Newcastle Brown are on tap, Marmite jars and Cadbury chocolates on the shop shelves, along with a book titled “Dull Men of Great Britain” (free honorary membership inside). I asked server Debbie Simoes, who’s been there 34 years, what detail makes her most think of home. “Not the blue sky,” she said glancing up. “Maybe Churchill.”
4. Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market & Restaurant, Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles
Well played, Marcel. This market sells French goods, including cheese, charcuterie, chocolate and snails, along with treats from all over the Continent. Fish market too. And M. Marcel’s open-air restaurant serves onion soup gooier than the love letters of Abelard and Heloise (before the castration). If we wake one day to find that Monsieur Marcel has taken over the Farmers Market — with all respect to Du-par’s, I could live with that.
3. Mission Inn, 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
Behold the pride of Riverside. The inn is known for its Christmas lights and vast success in romanticizing and monetizing California’s mission era. And it’s also Southern California’s answer to Hearst Castle. From the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s, owner Frank Miller brought home ideas and antiques from his travels, adding domes, arches, terraces, a Cloister wing, a Spanish Wing and a Rotunda Wing. If this architecture were music, the inn would be a breakneck classical medley, pounded out on a lobby piano by Richard Nixon (who married Pat here in 1940).
2. Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
First, it’s a museum of classical antiquity — your Greeks, your Romans, your Etruscans and their works — with an amphitheater and a great bookstore. Second, indoors and out, it’s modeled after a Roman country villa that was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The art and grounds (reopened April 21) are as pleasant as can be. But what if they interrupted all that twice a day for a few moments of fake volcano rumbles and panicking actors in togas? When they add that, the villa just might move up in these rankings.
1. Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland, 1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim
Never mind Hogwarts. This is probably the first castle you ever saw, unless your seldom-used last name is Windsor. Disneyland, reopening Friday, put up its 77-foot-high Sleeping Beauty Castle in 1955 (when the park was unveiled). Doing so, the Disney folk drew specific inspiration from Neuschwanstein, the storybook show-castle that Bavarian King Ludwig II built in the 19th century before dying, as kings are wont to do, young and mysteriously. The castle stands 100 feet from the Matterhorn, which in the actual Europe would be 360 miles away in Switzerland. Who has time for that?