Escape from L.A.
Published: April 2009
By David A. Keeps
Pasadena is shaking off its sleepy image as new influences (J.Lo) mix with old (Greene & Greene). <b>David A. Keeps</b> discovers how the city has retooled its identity without paving over its past
Forty years ago, the surfer-boy duo Jan and Dean released a song about a southern California grandmother with a muscle car and a need for speed. "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," a ditty that got to number three on the pop charts, characterized this small city 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles as a sleepy hamlet filled with blue-haired seniors. These days, however, you're just as likely to see a blue-rinsed pompadour on a tattooed Art Center student prowling for sixties collectibles at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Unlike plastic, fantastic Los Angeles, where your ride is your calling card, Pasadena is so slow-paced and well-placed that you won't even need wheels.
Much of Pasadena's allure comes from a new appreciation of its oldest charms. As one of the first snowbird settlements in the United States, established in the late 1800's, this temperate city in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains attracted vacationing moguls, who became patrons of the area's burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement. Railroad magnate Henry Huntington, chewing-gum tycoon William Wrigley Jr., and David Gamble of Procter & Gamble endowed the city with landmark buildings, classical gardens, and noteworthy museums. After years of being preserved in amber, Pasadena, best known for its annual Tournament of Roses, is suddenly a model of civic reinvention. Its earliest commercial district has been revamped as Old Pasadena, a shopping and entertainment destination that outclasses all of Los Angeles's self-proclaimed villages. At any of the 500 restaurants in town, the servers are waiting on you, not waiting for a casting agent. And with the year-old Metro Gold Line, which connects Pasadena to Hollywood, the Valley, and downtown Los Angeles, in about 30 minutes, it's easier than ever for art lovers and Antiques Roadshow addicts to explore.
WHERE TO STAY
Once home to some of the grandest hotels in southern California, Pasadena now has just one luxury compound, the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa (1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave.; 800/241-3333 or 626/ 568-3900; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $310). The 1906 structure, located in a posh residential neighborhood, still maintains touches of old-world elegance. Along with four magnificent gardens, there's an Olympic-sized pool and three purple tennis courts. Don't miss the covered bridge decorated with 40 Frank Moore murals of California landmarks. The main wing is slated for a renova-tion (to be completed in 2005), but rooms in the Lanai Building offer terraces, and the cottages have Spanish colonial interiors. • The more intimate Bissell House (201 Orange Grove Ave., S. Pasadena; 800/441-3530 or 626/441-3535; www.bissellhouse.com; doubles from $150), a Victorian B&B, was formerly the winter mansion of the vacuum-cleaner manufacturer. There's a shady front porch, a sunny pool, and six 1887 rooms decorated with all the frills and flowers you'd expect from that era. • In the center of the city, the Westin Pasadena (191 N. Los Robles Ave.; 800/937-8461 or 626/792-2727; www.westin.com; doubles from $139) is within walking distance of museums, the Pasadena Playhouse, shopping, and the Paseo Colorado, the city's new single-scene mall-and-apartment complex. The hotel has 350 comfortably generic rooms and suites with cherrywood furniture; many have window banquettes, so you can take in both city and mountain views.
WHERE TO EAT
With its shabby chic-meets-Havana interior, Madre's (897 Granite Dr.; 626/744-0900; dinner for two $110) may be the most attractive restaurant in Pasadena—hardly surprising since it's owned by newlywed J.Lo. The kitchen serves up ceviche and paella valenciana as well as mojo-marinated Cuban beef. • Ignoring the 1980's nightclub décor at Xiomara (69 N. Raymond Ave.; 626/796-2520; dinner for two $100) is easy after a couple of cane-juice mojitos, followed by innovative Latin dishes (duck ropa vieja; lamb cooked in a crust-sealed casserole). • As its name suggests, Maison Akira (713 E. Green St.; 626/796-9501; dinner for two $100) is French with a Japanese twist. Chef Akira Hirose combines Asian and Provençal techniques for his halibut in a plum wine-and-ginger sauce, and his signature miso-marinated sea bass. • For fiery chiles, the classic Thai dishes (green papaya salad, spicy curries) at Saladang Song (383 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; 626/793-5200; dinner for two $50) shouldn't be missed. Ask for a table on the front patio, where you'll be surrounded by an enormous steel screen. • Need a foie gras fix?Bistro 45 (45 S. Mentor Ave.; 626/795-2478; dinner for two $100) will fit the bill with stellar goose liver, escargots, and bouillabaisse in an intimate Art Deco setting. • The scotch-and-sirloin set flocks to the Parkway Grill (510 S. Arroyo Pkwy.; 626/795-1001; dinner for two $110) for lobster-filled cocoa crêpes and to the wood-paneled Arroyo Chop House (536 S. Arroyo Pkwy.; 626/577-7463; dinner for two $100) for wet-aged beef. • Hidden away in a 1909 cottage, the Raymond Restaurant (1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; 626/441-3136; dinner for two $90) changes its four-course menu (beef medallions with port, roast duckling) weekly, but the chocolate soufflé and midday tea with finger sandwiches, pastries, and sherry are enduring classics. • Tea addicts can also get their fix with one of the 300 different brews at the Pasadena outpost of L.A.'s Chado Tea Room (79 N. Raymond Ave.; 626/431-2832; pots from $2.75).
WHERE TO SHOP
Pasadena is a mall without walls, a hub for retail therapy. Along Colorado Boulevard and South Lake Avenue, the main streets for giving your credit card a workout, you'll find every brand from Banana Republic to Betsey Johnson in converted turn-of-the-20th-century warehouses and gleaming modern boutiques. But the real discoveries are saved for bibliophiles. If books are your passion, visit the Playhouse District to browse the stacks at Vroman's Bookstore (695 E. Colorado Blvd.; 626/449-5320), whose well-edited selection makes chain stores look like airport newsstands. • For old, used, and rare books, there are Cliff's Books (630 E. Colorado Blvd.; 626/449-9541) and Book Alley (611 E. Colorado Blvd.; 626/683-8083), which is housed in a historic bank building. • In the alleys and side streets of Old Pasadena, dozens of antiques emporiums and vintage shops await. Johnson Motors, Inc. (7 Mills Place; 626/796-5666) specializes in motorcycle memorabilia, but also sells vintage-inspired logo tees and jackets and puts on regular exhibitions by local artists such as painter-illustrator Tim Biskup. • The real finds at Red Dress Shoppe (18 E. Holly St.; 626/744-1292) are fab fifties sundresses and floral skirts. • Old Focals (45 W. Green St.; 626/793-7073) is a cottage-like eyeglass shop with a huge selection of retropolitan frames. • Want to splurge?Head to San Marino, a suburb just south of Pasadena, for Cartier watches at Asanti (2670 Mission St.; 626/403-0033) and handmade ostrich and crocodile bags at the San Marino Gallery (2640 Mission St.; 626/441-9007).
DESIGNED FOR LIVING
Pasadena is home to outposts of two of Los Angeles's most stylish furnishing shops. Fitzsu Society (65 W. Green St.; 626/564-1908; www.fitzsu.com) is an airy white box-shaped space featuring items from Alessi and inverted glass vases by Christian Tortu. • Rm. 107 (174 S. DeLacey Ave.; 626/432-4867), a warehouse turned loft, carries mid-century pieces by Paul McCobb, vintage Brazilian chairs, and streamlined furniture designs by Lawson-Fenning, the owners of a sister store on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. • For the more budget-conscious, Funnel (2540 E. Colorado Blvd.; 626/395-0141) has a continuous rotation of reasonably priced retro furniture.
If you can't find what you're hunting for at the Rose Bowl Flea Market (see below), don't despair: Pasadena is filled with antiques shops. Novotny's Antique Gallery (60 N. Lake Ave.; 626/577-9660; www.novotnysantiques.com), an indoor bazaar, sells Victorian silver, Steuben glass, and early-20th-century furniture. • The Pasadena Antique Center & Annex (444 and 480 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; 626/449-7706; www.pasadenaantiquecenter.com) has nearly 150 booths carrying pottery and glass, fifties home furnishings, and Americana. • Antiques & Objects (446 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; 626/796-8224) focuses onAmerican pottery, as well as Craftsman, Deco, and Native American collectibles.
ART AND ARCHITECTURE
Built by Charles and Henry Greene in 1908, the Gamble House (4 Westmoreland Place; 626/793-3334; www.gamblehouse.org) integrates handcrafted design with Japanese aesthetics and indoor-outdoor Western living. California's best-preserved Arts and Crafts structure sits in the Arroyo Seco gorge, which can be crossed via the Colorado Street Bridge, known for its 100-year-old streetlamps. • To see Greene & Greene's legacy, Beaux-Arts mansions, and the more modest houses in the Bungalow Heaven district, take one of 10 self-guided tours mapped out by the Pasadena Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/307-7977; www.pasadenacal.com). • Another Pasadena landmark is the Pacific Asia Museum (46 N. Los Robles Ave.; 626/449-2742; www.pacificasiamuseum.org), the only institution in southern California devoted to Asian art. The collection includes more than 14,000 pieces, such as ceramic and jade items housed in a replica of a Chinese palace with a carp pond. • The walls of the remarkably serene Frank Gehry-designed Norton Simon Museum (411 W. Colorado Blvd.; 626/449-6840; www.nortonsimon.org) are lined with Impressionist and Cubist works, and the garden is filled with Henry Moore bronzes. • The Pasadena Museum of California Art (490 E. Union St.; 626/568-3665; www.pmcaonline.org), unveiled in 2002, is a curvaceous space that features rotating shows of painting, sculpture, and photography. • Literary buffs can find a Canterbury Tales manuscript and first edition Gutenberg Bible at the Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino; 626/405-2100; www.huntington.org). The vast art collection spans four galleries; in one, Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence's Pinkie eyeball each other across the room. The 150-acre grounds are devoted to 15 gardens with exotic specimens from around the world.
David A. Keeps is L. A. correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
The average daytime temperature in Pasadena year-round
Cost of three-year construction of the Metro Gold Line from L.A. to Pasadena
The number of feet of chicken wire used on a typical Rose Parade float
Richard Tyler DESIGNER AND SOUTH PASADENA RESIDENT
TAKE A WALK
"My favorite route is up Orange Grove Boulevard, nicknamed Millionaires' Row, with its Victorian, French, and Italian houses, then down Grand Ave., which runs along the Arroyo Seco."
"I often take my wife, Lisa, and our son, Edward, to Julienne [2649 Mission St., San Marino; 626/441-2299; lunch for two $35], a food shop that serves breakfast and lunch. I recently bought turn-of-the-century dress forms for my new store in New York at Mark Jager Antiques [1040 Mission St.; 626/799-2640], which is nearby. We also look for books and games at the Dinosaur Farm [1510 Mission St.; 626/441-2767], a very sophisticated store for kids."
"I'm trying to stay healthy, so I've become addicted to the Italian chopped salad at Wild Thyme Café & Bakery [805 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; 626/799-4169; lunch for two $20] and the pear-and-blue cheese salad at Firefly Bistro [1009 El Centro St.; 626/441-2443; lunch for two $40]."
"When my wife can't find me on the weekends, I am usually at Mediterraneo Home & Garden [979 E. Colorado Blvd.; 626/585-0777], where I spend hours looking for things such as cast-iron angels or marble wings from the 1800's."
Surrounded by easy-commute communities with an abundance of attractions, Pasadena is a great base for the day-tripper. In the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Pasadena, is SIERRA MADRE, a charming small town with the largest blooming plant in the world, a wisteria vine that is the center of a yearly festival (626/355-5111; www.ci.sierra-madre.ca.us). • In MONROVIA (www.ci.monrovia.ca.us), about 10 minutes by car from Pasadena, the Old Town's Myrtle Avenue, which dates to the 1890's, is a leisurely stroll down memory lane, with sweet shops and antiques stores. • SANTA ANITA PARK (285 W. Huntington Dr.; 626/574-7223), the famous racetrack, lies just a 15-minute drive east of Pasadena, in Arcadia. The track has a tram tour that celebrates Seabiscuit, the Thoroughbred that won the Handicap there in 1940. • At the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden (301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; 626/821-3222; www.arboretum.org), you'll find a less pedigreed, but no less thrilling, attraction for pop-culture fanatics. Near the park's tropical forest is a 19th-century structure on a lagoon that served as the seaplane-arrivals building for TV's Fantasy Island.
Hunters and gatherers from around the world make a pilgrimage to Pasadena on the second Sunday of every month to hit the Rose Bowl Flea Market (1001 Rose Bowl Dr.; 323/560-7469; www.rgcshows.com/rosebowl.asp), one of the largest, most exhausting shopping experiences in the United States. We asked Adamo DiGregorio, a stylist for the Los Angeles Times, for some tips on how to navigate the market: "Arrive between five-thirty and seven a.m.—you'll pay twenty dollars, the maximum fee, to get in early, but the best items are sold long before the lollygaggers arrive." • "Dealers expect to haggle. Never ask how much; always say, 'Will you take...?'" • "Work backward. Start at the point farthest from the entrance and shop along the outer perimeters first. That's where you'll find new dealers—and the most unusual merchandise."