WELCOME to LA. Embrace the pain!” jokes leading man Scoot McNairy in the touching 2007 indie flick In Search Of A Midnight Kiss. McNairy’s character is a failed, lonely screenwriter trying to woo a failed, lonely actress (Sarah Simmonds) on a New Year’s Eve date. His poignant words echo around the famous Orpheum Theatre, a 1926 music hall gem which the couple have snuck into.
The film – a brilliant sleeper hit – deliberately avoids the obvious glitz of Beverly Hills and concentrates its energies on the unexplored historic nooks and crannies of this most misunderstood of American cities.
In Search Of A Midnight Kiss is just one example of LA’s newfound pride in its past. No longer does the city simply bulldoze or abandon its old buildings – now it’s realising that they can be beautiful focal points that speak of different eras, and act as counterpoints to Hollywood’s rampant obsession with the new and the young, which is expressed in everything from plastic surgery to food fads and new cars.
There’s so much more to Los Angeles than that. Most visitors bypass downtown, but it’s one of LA’s most exciting districts today. As our star cross’d lovers explore the area in In Search Of A Midnight Kiss, they weave between dilipated old office blocks and art deco theatres, and past the Beaux Arts facades of the financial buildings on Spring Street – once known as the Wall Street of the West.
The pair pause at the locked doors of the former Los Angeles Stock Exchange and wonder why downtown is such a desert while the rest of the city is so rich. Well, slowly but surely, life is returning to these central streets – with hip joints like The Standard occupying the former Standard Oil company HQ. Its rooftop bar is one of the coolest places to drink mojitos in town, while the Stock Exchange itself is now a slightly tacky nightclub.
Pasadena is the serene old aunt of greater LA, a well-to-do district off most tourist radars, with clipped lawns and clean streets. But its architectural history will have fans of American buildings salivating.
The 1908 Gamble House is the icing on the cake – a wonderous Hansel and Gretel dream lodge which looks so striking it was used as the Doc’s house in Back To The Future. Nearby is the Blacker House, another villa built in splendid style for summering East Coast industrialists by the same architects at the Gamble House, Pasadena’s most famous sons Greene & Greene.
Just up the road is the Rose Bowl, dating from 1922 and one of the most beautiful sports stadiums in the world – venue for two Olympics, five NFL Superbowls, and one World Cup Football Final.
Pass through Pasadena’s charming little city centre on your way to the Huntington, a botanical gardens and cultural centre set up by grumpy industrialist and property tycoon Henry Huntington. Huntington – who made cartfulls of cash developing the famous Pacific Electric Streetcar network – wasn’t fond of entertaining, but he did gift his mansion and all the art in it to the nation on his death.
The Hollywood Sign is a masterpiece in inadvertantly creating an icon that people fall in love with. The most instantly recognisable signature of LA and a byword for movie glamour, the sign – perched atop a mountain and made of flimsy material – was only supposed to advertise some houses for sale. But its striking design made it a hit. It was threatened with removal and was worn away and broken down in the bad old days, but now it’s fully repaired and proudly looking over a reinvigorated Hollywood again, a great mark of a city reborn.
Unless you put the hiking boots on, you can only really see The Hollywood Sign from a distance. For a closer look at the movies, take a tour round the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. You’ll see sound stages dating from the 1920s which have been the home of TV shows like ER and the sets for movies like Rebel Without A Cause, Titanic and Ocean’s Eleven. The deserted street sets are eerie and breath-taking in equal measure.
Like every great actress, the City of Angels has had a bit of work done over the years. What was once desert is now the second largest city in the US. History is hidden everywhere you look in LA.
You shouldn’t miss the sights that don’t scream out at you from afar. The suprisingly impressive Four Level Interchange is a monument to motoring – the first free-flowing multi-level freeway junction in the world, built at the end of the 1940s. It’s a fitting tribute to a city that went car crazy – and has recently seen the error of its maniacal ways.
People used to get around on Henry Huntington’s streetcars, like the surviving examples up in San Francisco. That was until General Motors and Standard Oil broke up the streetcars and lobbied for freeways to be cut across town – the story of the Great American Streetcar Scandal is explored in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But take one of the newish Metro light rail or subway lines and you’ll be travelling along the same routes that those handsome streetcars took back in the 1930s.
And for one final treat – you can’t miss The Theme Building at LAX. Once you’ve checked in for your flight and dumped your bags, turn 180 degrees and walk back out of the terminal until you see a building which looks like it should be in the Jetsons. This 1962 pavillion perched on four delicate legs like a UFO is one of the most important 60s statements anywhere in the entire United States. It’s a remarkable thing; a real jaw-dropping fantasy of what the future was supposed to look like. And its opening date is no coincidence: it came at the very highpoint of US optimism, pride and power. After laying unloved and empty for so long, there’s now a new restaurant up in the Theme Building, called Encounters. For a final Mad Men style dinner of chicken, biscuits and booze, it’s the ideal finale to a trip round vintage LA.
LA: eat, drink stay
WHERE TO STAY
Langham Huntington Pasadena
Henry Huntington bought this hotel because he rather liked the idea of guests not staying in his own house. He put them out here instead. Begun in 1906, the castle-like hotel is about as historic as American lodgings get. A particular highlight is the back lawn and the terrace overlooking it, from where you can sip fine Sonoma Pinot Noirs and watch the evening light fade over the San Gabriel Mountains. There's also a rather nice pool and a free shuttle service into central Pasadena; handy if you're not driving.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Dating from the 1980s (a veritable ice age ago in restaurant years), The Ivy serves up delicious retro comfort food that veers between Mediterreanean and Mexican. Mesquite grilled swordfish is delcious, ditto guacamole with home made tortillas, luscious crab cakes, and the fries are crisp and dream-like. Oh and if it's celebrities you want – stars who lunch here include Ben Affleck, Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Lindsay Lohan and Tom Cruise. The restaurant even featured in the Danny Devito movie Get Shorty.
113 N. Robertson Boulevard, Beverly Hills
WHERE TO DRINK
Chateau Marmont Bar, Hunter S Thomson, Howard Hughes and Jim Morrison holed up at this den of debauchery. John Belushi died here – and it's only a short walk down the road to the piece of pavement where River Phoenix met his maker outside the nearby Viper Room on Halloween night in 1993. Truly, the 86 year-old Chateau is a monument to mayhem. Where better to sip a Marmont Mai Tai and tuck in to sublime fried chicken on Sunday nights.
HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways, American Airlinesm United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic all fly direct from London Heathrow to Los Angeles International (LAX).