How Technology Has Uncovered Los Angeles’ Best-kept Secret Spots
It’s Sunday morning in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Along a winding stretch of Mulholland Drive between Malibu and Kardashian Country, packs of cyclists, Harley crews, and a Mustang car club rolling a dozen deep are all vying for space on this two-lane ribbon of blacktop. They are here to improve their times, to practice their S curves, and to perhaps be documented doing so against a classic canyon backdrop by Victory Jon, a photographer who has set up shop on the shoulder and who sells his pictures on the Internet. (HIGHWAYPHOTOS.NET, a banner screams.) But later, when they are finished, many will end up where I am going: a tiny roadside restaurant called the Old Place.
You might think it was an Old West movie set, built in the Disney spirit to look the right amount of ramshackle. Large antlers hang above the front door. Inside, ponytailed Malibu tweens in soccer uniforms mix with eccentric locals and canyon hipsters, ombré dye jobs peeking out from under felt hats. Customers crowd a 30-foot antique saloon bar or, if they’ve secured a reservation months before, into one of five wooden booths separated by doors salvaged from the Santa Barbara Mission. Moody paintings of Native American figures hang on the walls. As if on cue, overhead speakers begin to play the Oklahoma country-blues singer J. J. Cale’s rambling road song “Call Me the Breeze.” Left: Diners at Night + Market Song, in Silver Lake. Right: Night + Market Song chef Kris Yenbamroong. Dylan + Jeni
But while its owner, Morgan Runyon, used to be an art director—he is renowned in the surfing world for helping make the Runman films, a cult series of 1980s surf movies shot with a Super 8 camera—nothing about the Old Place’s atmosphere is staged. Morgan’s father, Tom Runyon—a fiction writer and bon vivant whose uncle, the coal baron Carmen Runyon, gave Runyon Canyon in Hollywood its name—opened the restaurant in 1970 in a building dating back to the early 1900s that had been a general store and post office. For decades he served only two entrées—grilled steaks and steamed clams—to a cast of regulars that included Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, and sometimes Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Though Tom was not himself an actor, another regular, Sam Peckinpah, cast him as a bad guy in The Getaway. The portraits were painted by Morgan’s mom, Barbara, for years the restaurant’s only waitress. When Dolly Parton sang here one night, the story goes, she was accompanied on the upright piano by Bob Dylan.
In other words, the Old Place is the kind of establishment that it is a cliché to say doesn’t exist in L.A., one with original character and “real history,” as the website advertises. And for a long time, not many people knew that it did. Then, a few years ago, something changed. Malibu locals began to encounter a wait list. The crowds were attributed in part to a new menu, updated by Morgan after Tom passed away, and in part to a new wave of reviews. “The Internet has been very good to us,” Morgan told me one Friday night at the start of the dinner rush. Because the surf was good that afternoon, he had arrived a few minutes late, eyes bloodshot from the salt water. “What I’ve realized is that our restaurant is a very visceral experience,” he said. “You can’t order a steak online. People want to smell the smoke, to hear the wood creak.”
There is another key reason more travelers are visiting the Old Place and other far-flung spots in Los Angeles: thanks to navigation and car-hailing apps like Waze and Uber, we can find them. With no knowledge of the terrain and only Waze to guide me, I drove here from Venice, up the Pacific Coast Highway, through the sandstone outcrops of Malibu Canyon, past the old M.A.S.H. set and Paramount Ranch. Other routes were taken just as blindly by a group of German bikers on Ducatis and Triumphs and a young Japanese couple, conspicuous in deconstructed denim and what looked to be vintage Comme des Garçons, iPhones in hand. One of the RTH clothing stores in West Hollywood. Dylan + Jeni
If the navigability afforded by such apps has altered the way we get around everywhere, it is a downright game changer in L.A., a sprawling metropolis so vast only longtime residents could previously traverse it with confidence. Over two decades of visiting family here, I acquired merely basic knowledge of the freeways and an appreciation for Bette Davis’s tongue-in-cheek advice to starlets hoping to get into Hollywood: “Take Fountain.” Now, however, since relocating from New York City a few months ago, I can set out in my car without the faintest inkling of how to get where I’m going and trust that I will not only arrive but skirt traffic to boot. It almost feels like cheating.
The “Waze effect” may be a testament to the power of algorithms, but it is also a testament to the force of nature that is L.A. traffic. Angelenos are as intimate with their navigation app of choice as they once were with their dogeared, spiral-bound Thomas Guide. More than 2 million people use Waze in L.A., and so profound is its impact on the city that the rerouting of traffic through formerly quiet surface streets is the subject of heated debate, with so-called traffic NIMBYs decrying the new commuter flow. Updates to the app make headlines in the Los Angeles Times. Left: The shop-and-restaurant lined Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Right: Clockwise from right: Inside the Old Place, a classic restaurant in the Santa Monica hills. Dylan + Jeni
For newcomers and visitors, at least, there is no downside: technology has knitted together L.A.’s cities-within-cities and unlocked their secrets. A visitor who five years ago might have stayed in a hotel on the Sunset Strip and ventured only as far as West Hollywood for dinner can today book an Airbnb in Echo Park or a beach lodge in Venice and voyage to Koreatown for bulgogi on a whim without incurring a $50 cab fare.
Mass transit will soon be a far more viable way to get around the city, too. In November, residents voted to support a permanent sales tax, Measure M, that will provide $120 billion for transportation projects. Construction is already under way to connect the Metro system to LAX. Last summer, the Expo line was extended to Santa Monica, bringing light rail to the Pacific Ocean for the first time in more than 60 years. Sunday ridership on the line has since more than doubled, L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, told me, “meaning Angelenos and visitors alike are using the Metro even more to explore Santa Monica, Downtown, and everything in between.” And though weekday ridership has also increased, by some 13,000 people, parking lots along the line remain at about 50 percent capacity—a sign that residents are ready to move away from car dependency. “Most riders are getting to the station by foot, bike, or transit, or being dropped off,” Garcetti said, “challenging the stereotype of L.A. as a place where people are only interested in getting behind the wheel.”
A transportation revolution is not only changing tourism in L.A. It is also fueling an explosion of new cultural institutions and development across the city—just as an influx of millennials has brought the city’s population to more than 4 million, the largest increase among California’s cities last year. In Venice (part of “Silicon Beach,” in tech circles), five years after Google, Buzzfeed, and Snapchat all opened offices there, the main drag, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, more closely resembles New York’s SoHo than the derelict beach community it once anchored. On the east side, a creative class priced out of Brooklyn and Oakland is snatching up the Craftsmans and Victorians in Highland Park, Atwater, and Mount Washington, bringing a demand for cold-brew coffee, small galleries, and vintage stores. Left: The Broad museum, a contemporary art showcase in the Downtown Arts District. Right: Isa Genzken’s 30-foot-tall sculpture of a rose in the courtyard of Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel. Dylan + Jeni
Nowhere has the growth been more dramatic than in Downtown, where a burgeoning underground art scene was joined in 2014 by the Ace Hotel; in 2015 by the sprawling new Broad museum, jam-packed with classic works by the likes of Cy Twombly, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari; and last spring by Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, a massive outpost of the blue-chip international gallery. The building boom continues. A Park Hyatt will go up in Ocean-wide Plaza, the $1 billion mixed-use complex under construction by a Beijing-based developer near the Staples Center. Another Chinese company, the Greenland Group, is building its own $1 billion project, Metropolis, down the street. Herzog & de Meuron and the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels have both recently proposed larger-scale developments for the arts district.
I had come to Downtown, again via Waze, to meet the Broad’s founding director and chief curator, Joanne Heyler. The line to get in snaked around the building, underscoring an announcement the museum had made 10 days earlier: in its inaugural year, the Broad attracted 820,000 visitors, nearly triple its pre-opening projections. On the first floor, another line formed at the entrance to a comprehensive exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work. I sat down with Heyler at a long table in a private conference room. “I think L.A.’s moment might go down on record as the longest moment ever,” Heyler joked. And yet, she said, “it really is a city that I think has yet to be completely defined and is going to be in the distant future a quintessential twenty-first-century city.”
This feeling about L.A.—that the city is not overburdened with history, that there is much more yet to come—has famously exerted a pull on Ruscha, Baldessari, and David Hockney, and it continues to draw young artists, as do the more practical concerns of cheaper housing than in New York or San Francisco, larger studio spaces, and good weather. Similar virtues— reasonable rent, bar-none produce— are now cited by the young chefs who are growing a distinctive culinary movement with diverse ingredients and casual experimentation. Theirs are arguably some of the most exciting restaurants in the country, in no small part because they’re easier to reach in a sprawling city that’s more accessible than ever.
When a New Yorker thinks of L.A. restaurants, she is likely to think of Sqirl, in Silver Lake, whose chef, Jessica Koslow, has elevated toast and rice bowls to dishes worthy of René Redzepi’s praise, or of Gjelina and its offshoot, Gjusta, in Venice, where vegetables are roasted to perfection and, as a friend recently put it, “everyone looks like Lauren Hutton.” But there is a whole other world of cooking in L.A.—often Asian-influenced, and not always plant-based—to be explored, provided you can locate it. A collaborative mural serves as a backdrop for the garden of the Downtown gallery Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel. Dylan + Jeni
Take Bestia, in a Downtown loft on East Seventh Place, half a block from the Los Angeles River. Chef Ori Menashe, who was born in L.A. but lived for 14 years in Israel, and pastry chef Genevieve Gergis, also from L.A., a married couple, opened this Mediterranean restaurant, where Menashe serves things like panroasted chicken gizzards, lamb heart, sea urchin with chiles, and house made speck that he prepares and ages himself. When I visited him one Friday morning, he invited me to the parking lot out back where a delivery truck had just arrived after traveling all night from northern California. Menashe hopped aboard and began cutting open boxes, inspecting and biting into heirloom tomatoes, figs, and a finger lime, which he cracked open to reveal tiny self-contained beads of juice that chefs call “lime caviar.” “The produce in L.A. is incredible,” he said.
Another reason the city’s food scene is flourishing now, Gergis adds, is that our collective palate has evolved to revere the spices, flavors, and pungent sauces of the Hispanic and Asian communities that have been a staple here for decades. “There are a lot of different cultures here that were for a long time underappreciated and weren’t noticed in mainstream cuisine,” she said.
Certainly this more open sensibility is a prerequisite for the success of Guerrilla Tacos, a truck that on Mondays is parked in front of the Blue Bottle Coffee on Mateo Street, not far from Bestia. There, for $5, you might try a taco filled with rib eye, mushroom escabeche, arbol-chile salsa, and parsley, prepared by Wes Avila, whom the Los Angeles Times food critic and local kingmaker Jonathan Gold describes as “one of the city’s most interesting culinary minds.” Translated into tacos, this means Avila may combine sujuk, a beef sausage you find in Armenian recipes, with poached egg, mint, Mexican oregano, and sumac onions. “There’s no old-guard way of doing things,” Avila says. “It really is the Wild West. Anything goes.” Brunch at chef Travis Lett’s popular Venice restaurant Gjusta. Dylan + Jeni
On Thursdays, Guerrilla Tacos is usually parked on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, 10 blocks west of another of L.A.’s most exciting restaurants, Night + Market Song. Inside, pleasantly idiosyncratic décor—a poster of Cindy Crawford in denim cutoffs is framed by a string of chili-pepper lights—belies the complex northern Thai food made here by chef Kris Yenbamroong, who was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2016. Yenbamroong started Night + Market Song as a pop-up in his parents’ more standard Thai restaurant in West Hollywood, eventually took over the place, then opened this second location. At first, he adhered to his northern Thai concept, preparing larb, grilled pork collar, and warm blood soup with spices he personally transported from Chiang Mai in a suitcase. Then he decided that “it’s okay to not be the Indiana Jones of dining” and added a chicken sandwich to the menu. “If it comes down to one thing,” Yenbamroong said when asked to define today’s restaurant scene in L.A., “I think it’s a sense of freedom.”
Case in point: Kwang Uh, a Noma alum from Seoul who is pushing the possibilities of fermentation in a 19-seat space next to a 7-Eleven in an East Hollywood strip mall. Though his café, Baroo, was named one of America’s best new restaurants last year by Bon Appétit, no plaque indicates the distinction. There isn’t even a sign on the storefront bearing the restaurant’s name. There are, however, scores of plastic storage bins and jars in which cabbage, berries, roots, pineapple, and melon rinds sit fermenting, waiting to be arranged alongside elaborately rendered versions of kimchi fried rice and bibimbap. But “it’s not Korean food,” Uh insisted one afternoon over elderflower kombucha. “It just happened.” Beef tartare and yam in kefir at Destroyer, in Culver City. Dylan + Jeni
Crisscrossing the city in pursuit of good food can feel like traveling the unofficial Jonathan Gold Trail. So one morning, I accompanied the man himself on his second visit to Destroyer, a restaurant in Culver City. Named after a comet, the place turned out to be what I now recognize as pure L.A.: though the chef, Jordan Kahn, has worked at the French Laundry, Per Se, and Alinea, he chose to open a neighborhood café on an unremarkable block. Its design is minimalist and nonchalant, with only a handful of tables, but the food is wildly intricate and determined. Gold, unmistakable in a pink button down and suspenders, was spotted right away. Our order thus arrived swiftly: beef tartare with smoked-egg cream and pickled mushrooms, hidden under an ornate layer of sliced radishes and a salad of caramelized eggplant, spelt, kale, green peanuts, and almond ricotta. “I’ve lived here almost all my life, and so much of it is acquiring a mental map of the city,” Gold told me. “In a way, I sort of do it through food. I don’t have every exit on every freeway, but it’s close. There’s mind-blowing stuff if you will drive those extra four exits.”
The Details: What to Do in Los Angeles, California
Ace Hotel Since it opened in the 1927 United Artists building three years ago, the property has become a hub for all things Downtown L.A., including the booming arts district. Doubles from $345.
Line Hotel Among the many reasons to stay in Koreatown are Olympic Spa’s body scrub, Gwang Yang’s bar-none bulgogi, and this elegant hotel from the Sydell Group. Doubles from $249.
Palihouse Santa Monica A Mediterranean-style boutique hotel within walking distance of the Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Pier. Doubles from $315.
Rose Hotel A fashion photographer and his business partner converted a storied Venice building into a hipster hotel. Doubles from $450.
Restaurants & Cafés
Animal The first restaurant in Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s mini empire is the opposite of plant-based. Try the melted P’tit Basque cheese, pig’s ears with chile, or biscuits with foie gras and sausage gravy. West Hollywood; entrées $13–$39.
Baroo On the vanguard of the fermentation revolution, Noma alum Kwang Uh serves highly original takes on kimchi fried rice and a gruel-and-beets dish called noorook. East Hollywood; entrées $9–$15.
Bestia Mediterranean flavors marry well at this arts-district institution. Choose from among perfect pizzas, spaghetti with sea urchin, and pan-roasted chicken gizzards. Downtown; entrées $28–$75.
Destroyer Easily L.A.’s most delicious new lunch hangout. Chef Jordan Kahn, formerly of Red Medicine, will blow your mind with a beef tartare you may mistake for a radish tart. Culver City; entrées $9–$24.
Guerrilla Tacos A roving taco truck serving tostadas with ahi poke and a roasted-sweet potato taco with almond-chile sauce and feta. Entrées $7–$10.
Night + Market Song Northern-Thai street food in the heart of Silver Lake. If you can’t do blood soup, go for the crispy rice salad and Chiang Rai–style fried-chicken sandwich. Entrées $9–$15.
Old Place Bob Dylan reportedly once accompanied Dolly Parton on the upright piano at this 1970s steak-and-clams roadhouse. Agoura Hills; entrées $15–$48.
Sqirl Chef Jessica Koslow elevated the rice bowl and toast with jam into the new L.A. cooking. The weekend line outside the Silver Lake café is formidable, but the brunch is worth the wait. Entrées $8–$16.
Galleries & Shops
The Broad Millennials love Eli Broad’s blockbuster new museum, and it’s easy to see why—rooms and rooms of Jeff Koons pieces. Downtown.
Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel Maria Lassnig’s abstractions were the most recent subject at the blue-chip gallery’s massive Downtown complex.
Mollusk Surf Shop San Francisco’s venerable Outer Sunset surf shop has two locations in L.A. Both stock the best in boards, wet suits, and serapes. Venice and Silver Lake.
Night Gallery This champion of young artists moved to a 6,200-square-foot Downtown warehouse and brought the underground scene with it.
RTH A pair of stylish shops on La Cienega carry reworked denim and Native American beaded jewelry. West Hollywood.
Tortoise General Store You will want to replace all your kitchenware with the gorgeous ceramics, enamel pots, and copper canisters found at this sanctuary of contemporary wabi-sabi Japanese design. Venice.