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.