In the second part of her California cruise, Jess Baldwin lands in Los Angeles. And much as it is lives up to its stellar promise of La La Land, in its fabled Santa Monica there’s a ‘la la’ of a different kind she discovers – and a curious affinity for brussels sprouts…
LA has to be the one of the most bizarre places I have ever visited. It’s like marmite city. The ‘love it’ camp praise its eccentricity, glamour and promise, whilst the haters rant about its egocentrism, traffic and smog. Whichever camp you sit in, you can’t deny that LA is one of America’s most fascinating cities, largely due to the people it attracts.
Acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles”. As I mull over his words I am watching a skinny man in nothing but a gold leather skirt mount a lamp post, he is stealing the crowds away from the unamused psychic next door, as fishermen in the distance wrestle with a stingray and a (hopefully) wannabe gangster walks past suspiciously in the baking sun in a snowboard helmet. I think I see what Frank means. In fact, the number of illicit conversations we have overheard on the promenade and side streets could be the backbone to a good novel. We’ve had sex, romance, madness and even the odd murder. Strangely, almost all of them were people talking…to themselves. It seems to be a bit of a ‘thang’ in LA. One morning as I pushed my daughter through Tongva Park, I met a man who was not impressed at all with my ‘evil ass’ and even less impressed that I had ‘stolen his chickens’. And that was 9am.
I am not even in ‘real LA’, but in its relaxed little sister, Santa Monica. Yet despite its surreal goings on, this curious town feels almost familiar, probably as I, like many Brits, grew up with its’ golden shores on Baywatch, with Pamela bouncing her way down the beach, ominous looking life ring in hand. Strangely enough, I don’t recall these colourful extras in the background.
You see, following a week of mountain hikes and coastal trails in San Diego, this urban circus had left us all in a state of discombobulation. Bless baby Rosie, she had just got her head around people wearing sunglasses and here she is watching a very excitable black man in a leather thong circle his ghetto blaster with a giant python. This was going to be an education trip, I could tell.
Having over-indulged on lobster benedict and American sized portions of fries at our last hotel, we were craving something quick and healthy after our long drive and headed for local healthy hot spot, Flower Child. As we walked in we were greeted not with the standard UK umbrella storage, but with a ‘yoga mat park’, I stared down at my untoned thighs and battered Converse and wondered if I could pass as a yogi. Either way, the bright and trendy eatery proved the perfect asylum and the intriguing menu scattered with delights such as toasted mulberries, ancient grains, hemp seed and queso blanco instantly cleansed our over-indulged souls. We looked at each other in pleasant surprise as we devoured our bowls of goodness, me opting for the ‘Forbidden Rice’ with black pearl barley and bok choi amidst other treats and Sam choosing ‘Mother Earth’, a grainy concoction with juicy sweet potato – dishes which, I hasten to add, we re-ordered throughout our time in La La Land.
Having settled in to our compact hotel room (as well as one can with 10 suitcases and a small human in tow) we headed out to Pacific Pier to watch the sunset, like moths to a flame. No matter what day it is, come sunset the city descends on the wooden walkway which has appeared in everything from Hannah Montana to Grand Theft Auto – rather reflective of the crowd really. Ironically, the pier which today houses the west coast’s only amusement park, was originally built to transport the city’s sewage!
Despite its shit start in life it has become the ‘go to’ place for fun for tourists and locals alike. I spent three years living in Brighton and didn’t step foot on the tourist-rammed pier, yet this one was like a magnet. In the mornings we would walk to the very end and sip coffee as the fishermen cast their hooks and the local celebrity seal arrived to wave hello. It was silent and empty. Just us staring out aimlessly at the Pacific as the city awoke. In the afternoons it was a circus, with roller-coasters, painters, magicians, singers and, yes, the man in the gold leather skirt wrapped around a lamp post. And in the evening, once the sun had set, the crowds evaporated, and it became ours once again.
As the sun melted down in to the ocean, leaving the sky a wash of coral we headed to steak restaurant, Boa, amidst fears that carnivorous Sam would turn anaemic before dawn following his lunchtime veg injection. The dimly-lit pricey haunt served up a mean USDA kobe rib-eye, impressed with their fare we booked up at Sushi Roku, their sister restaurant located over the road. The smart but unpretentious restaurant prides itself on giving certain dishes an innovative twist by incorporating ingredients from other climes, like spices from India and jalapenos from Latin America.
What’s more, where San Diego managed the unthinkable, making brussels sprouts appetising, here they have outdone themselves once again. Adding sprouts to sushi. And those at Sushi Roku became my favourite; light, crispy chips tossed in truffle oil and salt. We also loved the red snapper sushi and their melty toro. The crab dynamite with baked curry mayonnaise was a little too off piste for us, however the baked lobster in creamy miso was a winner. And those sprouts…mmmm. Like many of the local restaurants they have a great happy hour offering which soon tempted us back for more.
The next day, having restrained myself all holiday, I hit Third Street Promenade – the main shopping street. Yet, thanks to a post baby identity crisis I couldn’t find a single thing that I wanted to buy…until I reached ‘The Original Farmers Market’. Home to over 40 restaurants and countless food merchants and gourmet grocers you can buy and try everything from chocolate and cheese to – you’d better believe it – sprouts. The buzzy affair has been pulling in the crowds for over 80 years and sees Mexican and Japanese restaurants mingle next to hot dogs and a Brazilian BBQ – it even plays home to LA’s first pizzeria.
That evening we headed south of the pier to the infamous Muscle Beach. Frequented by famous bodybuilders, the outdoor gym has been running since the 1930s and was Arne’s old playground. Rosie was hypnotized by the hunky silhouettes swinging against the crimson sky and slender figures dancing across the 7ft high poles as the sun once again melted in to the Pacific. Sam on the other hand was a little distracted by the flexible waifs contorting themselves in to complex yoga moves whist balancing on their boyfriend’s shoulders – let’s see if they are still managing floating trees and suspended happy baby poses after childbirth, hmpf.
Having had my body confidence squashed like a Big Mac, I finally succumbed to a good old comfort eating session. Plan Check is just minutes from the pier and promises modern American comfort food and, boy, did it deliver. Famous for their southern fried chicken our order was easy. The smoky fried jidori chicken came in cuddled in a cushiony bap with duck breast ham, pickles and spicy green pimento cheese. We also had a side of sweet potato waffle fries with a sweet peach ketchup – well, it had been an emotionally tiring sunset after all. It was just what the doctor ordered and I waddled my bouncy booty and childbearing hips back to the hotel with pride…and a doggie bag! Arnie, I’ll be back.
The next morning, before hitting the Pacific Coast Highway destined for a sedate few days in Santa Barbara, we took a walk along the beach. Despite being one of the most famous beaches in the world it was all ours. In the distance the flashing lights of the funfair awoke once again and the joggers glided by, yet all was silent and the beach was empty. It’s a strange feeling when you find solace in La La Land. I thought of Frank, maybe the world had tipped the wrong way, and all of the loose bits had tumbled back off again. Or maybe, like the sun, its colourful characters were just waiting to rise once more.
For more information about Santa Monica, including details of hotels, where to shop, and things to see and do, visit www.santamonica.com.
Photos by the author and courtesy of santamonica.com