On a Cloudy Day in LA

October 20, 2010

When I got a chance to go to Los Angeles in October for work, I was totally stoked. This was a few weeks after they hit the 113 º temperature record and I was ready for some sun, beach time, and a break from the rainy, getting-chillier-by-the-day Seattle weather.

When my boyfriend dropped me off at the airport in Seattle’s first true fall downpour, I kissed him goodbye a little bit too eagerly. Hours later soaking up the sun in an old friend’s car on the way to Santa Monica, I was in heaven. She’d had a late night so we kept it mellow: got caught up, walked down to the Santa Monica pier, and back along the Third Street Promenade — sometimes called the street of broken dreams because of all the bad street performers. I’ll agree it was quite a mixed bag.

There were singers, dancers, musicians, and comedians of all types. Some memorable characters included an old woman dressed like a gypsy who just danced around and a guy carrying snakes wearing nothing but a loin cloth. My favorite though was a man who had a serious knack for stacking. He closed out his performance by taking several bowls, spoons, and a teapot on his foot and then kicking them up in the air to land perfectly stacked on top of his head.

We finished the night off with dinner at Barney’s Beanery, a low key sports bar with beer and food menus that are truly overwhelming. At our table of 3 we had a southern style BBQ ribs dinner with all the fixings, a classic deli reuben, and chilaquiles, my favorite Mexican breakfast dish. While I was spoiled for options, the bar food classics looked much tastier then my sub-par chilaquiles.

The next day I got up early to get downtown before traffic and fortunately was able to check into my room at the Omni Hotel at 7:30 am. It was another beautiful day, but I had work to do — primarily on a windowless trade show floor. We were staying in the heart of downtown, which I hadn’t heard great of things about. People told me “No one walks there, even if you are going a few blocks, you take a cab” and “Don’t walk around there at night.” Coming from pedestrian friendly Seattle, were I walk every where at any time including to and from work downtown, that made me a little nervous.

Los Angeles Convention Center

My first impression of downtown was the convention center, which is located right near the Staples Center and the new LA Live. The Staples Center with both concerts and sporting events going on brought quite a diverse crowd every night. LA Live is a huge plaza with enormous stores, restaurants, bowling, and vast television screens that make you feel like like you’re in Times Square. It was glitzy and big and a little weird. We ended up going to Wolfgang Puck for dinner, which was fine of course, but I was starting to wonder if there was anything “authentic” about downtown.

That was until the next night when we headed over to Little Tokyo by foot. Yes, we actually walked and at night! It was easy to tell when we were getting close since the language changed from English to Japanese characters on all of the shop signs and there was a sushi restaurant every other door. However, we had a particular sushi place in mind that was recommended to us by a local. When we reached the unassuming blue sign outside, I was surprised.

Sushi Gen

Sushi Gen was definitely not one of those trendy sushi joints with the dim lights, modern art, and lounge music. When we walked in it was bright with a wooden bar and sushi chefs wearing matching blue uniforms and little white hats like sailors. There was a little bit of a wait, but it was definitely worth it. The place was very authentic (I think we were the only white people there). I ordered the sashimi dinner and it was delicious — arguably the best sashimi I’ve ever had and very filling. My adventurous dinner companions just asked the waitress to have the chef be creative and make them up a plate of whatever he wanted. It was pretty entertaining to watch them figure out what each thing was, particularly when the waitress set down a sushi roll with a raw quail egg resting on top. They said it was good — though I had my doubts. The bill was pretty spendy, but fortunately the meal went on our VP’s credit card.

The next night after the trade show floor closed we were all hankering for some of that famous California Mexican food. Since we couldn’t find any open taco trucks and wanted to sit down after standing all day anyhow, we hit up a restaurant called Yxta that was somewhat nearby and had good reviews on urbanspoon. We took a cab this time though after seeing that the address was 601 South Central. The area was not the best, but once inside the ambiance completely changed. It had a hip vibe with lots of art on the walls and neat details like the white wing-like light fixtures. We were sat immediately and ordered a round of the house margaritas, empanadas, and stuffed zuchini flowers to start.

The drinks were very refreshing and potent (I think they run a scratch bar), the salsas were very fresh and spicy, and the empanadas were meaty and delicious. The zuchini flowers were a special and I wouldn’t order them again since they were a little bland and just tasted like deep fried cheese. Don’t get me wrong. Fried cheese is good at sports bars, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. For dinner I ordered the camarones al ajillo, which sounded essentially like shrimp a la mojo de ajo — one of my favorites. This plate was a little bit less saucy than I’m used to, but it was light and well done and just what I was in the mood for.

The following day wrapped up my work obligations and after being insides all week I was looking forward to meeting up with some family down in Long Beach and working on my tan. However, each morning on my way to the convention center I’d noticed that the fog was really hanging out, making it very cool and grey until late in the afternoon. I’d hoped this trend would change the next day, but when I woke up I had no such luck, especially since I’d forgotten to pack a coat in my suitcase. And what were we going to do in LA on a cold, cloudy day anyway?

We changed gears from the beach and decided to check out the cultural side of downtown LA near my hotel. We started at the Walt Disney Concert Hall where the philharmonic orchestra rehearses and performs. The structure is named after Walt Disney, because his wife, Lillian, was the person who initiated the project, one of its primary benefactors, and also the inspiration for many of its details. It was designed by Frank Gehry and is quite astonishing. As a Seattlite, I am familiar with Gehry’s work on the Experience Music Project (EMP), which is supposed to look like a smashed guitar. I’m not sure I see the resemblance, but with Gehry I think you either love it or hate it, but you can never call it boring.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

The exterior of the building is overwhelming with grandstanding fluid shapes, created by thousands of stainless steel sheets. The technique is similar to the EMP, but much classier and with a cool toned, modern feeling. Once inside, the interior has a contrasting warmth due to the bright floral carpet (inspired by Lillian’s garden) and the douglas fir support columns in the shape of abstract trees. Every area of the building is illuminated primarily by natural light (which meant is was a little bit dim inside that day).

In front of the Lillian Disney Memorial Fountain

The garden on the third level was one of my favorite parts — composed of native plants selected so that something is blooming no matter the season. Since the garden is 30 feet above street level they had to create deep beds of soil and hand selected full grown trees from random homes, parks, and houses in the area (so they wouldn’t grow too heavy for the support structure). The focal point of the garden is a rose shaped fountain named in memory of Lillian Disney and is made up of a thousands of broken pieces of blue and white Delft china.

The crowning achievement of the building, however, is the douglas fir pipe organ in the concert hall. I had never heard of a wooden grand organ and thought it was really incredible due to the acoustical challenge and of course the aesthetically pleasing result. I also liked that all areas of the building except for the concert hall are open to the public and tours are free. The city of LA was the other primary benefactor and it’s nice that anyone can look around the lobby or have a relaxing lunch in the garden.

Our next stop that day was MOCA or the Museum of Contemporary Art. We lucked out and got free entry, since it was a special day at the museum, and also because a tour started just after we walked in. Although the museum is relatively small, or at least the part they had open that day, the caliber of the artists was excellent. I mean I like art, but I’m no expert so it was nice that they had a lot of work there by well known artists. We started with the some of the earliest modern artists from Europe: Mondrian and Giacometti. Then we moved on to American artists like Pollack. There was also some great documentary style photographs of America in the 1960’s. In the middle it got a little weird, though, with a series of collage like sculptures with random objects (i.e. shoes and fake chickens). Fortunately our tour finished off with some interesting work by pop and graphic artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein.

The next day we hoped to make it to the beach and again were greeted with cool temps and grey skies. We started our day with a fabulous brunch at the Coffee Cup Cafe in Long Beach, which had a nice back patio and delicious food. I ordered the breakfast trio, which came with sample portion of hominy soup, an avocado egg scramble, and stuffed french toast. Since I had to get to the airport later that day, we decided to continue our cultural theme by visiting the Getty Museum.

Central Garden with Getty Museum in the Background

The Getty is part art museum, part garden, and part research and conservation institute. The building itself could be considered a work of art with all of the thought that was put into it. The travertine stone is lovely, but to me the white square sections that make up most of the complex look a bit dated with their 1980’s style of modernism.

Me being a huge dork

The surrounding gardens are very unique. Designed by an artist rather than a gardener, the plants are quite interesting but aren’t necessarily the best for the climate or things you’d actually see growing together in nature. A long stream leads down the hillside pathway to the central pond, where the stream turns into a fountain and an azalea maze seems to float on top of the water. One of the most interesting features of the garden are the bougainvillea arbors or umbrellas, which are constructed of old railroad ties and offer a lot of shade — though we didn’t need any that day we. You typically also have a great view of the whole city all the way out to the ocean from here, but unfortunately all we could see were clouds and the highway below since it was so foggy.

Vicent Van Gogh’s Irises

The several buildings or galleries that actually make up the complex are absolutely packed with art — both old and new. I suppose you could say the Getty is the Louvre of LA (though that might be overstating it). We only went through one permanent gallery to see Van Gogh’s Irises and some landscape paintings from the Romantic period, but there were easily 5 others we could have visited. I think the most interesting exhibit we visited was called “Engaged Observers.” It featured documentary photography covering human stories from the 1960’s to the present including: southern segregation, the Vietnam War, human migration, female self-image, and the plight of Seattle’s street kids in the 1980’s.

The last topic was obviously of interest to me. It was strange to see images of such young kids doing heroin, picking up ‘clients,’ and carrying guns. I know those same things still happen today (fortunately heroin went somewhat out of vogue with grunge), but it was weird to think these things were going on when I was growing up less than 30 miles from downtown Seattle watching Fraggle Rock. With those images fresh in my mind, I made my way to LAX and headed home, leaving the grey skies of LA for the grey skies of Seattle.

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