Tourist in Your Own Town


JOEL STEIN TAKES A HOME TOWN TOUR OF L.A. THROUGH A NEWBIE'S EYES AND CAN'T BELIEVE HOW MUCH HE LIKES IT.

I'd never really seen the Ivy before. Sure, I'd eaten at the snooty, overpriced restaurant. But with tables full of trophy wives, and celebrities walking by pretending that they didn't want to be photographed even thought they'd come to paparazzi ground zero, it was hard to focus. I was always too busy wondering: "Why did I move to Los Angeles?" But my wife's parents are in town from Hoosick Falls, New York--a town so small, there weren't enough people to stop someone from naming it Hoosick Falls--for the full L.A. experience. Which means hitting all the tourist spots I always avoid.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But, here at the Ivy, Ken and Hope are pointing out something I'd never registered: It's kind of homey The menu covers are the same fabric as the curtains in their living room, and Hope says at the Good will back home, she'd spotted silver-plated pots just like the ones holding flowers on our table. "It's funny it's a celebrity place, because it's not slick. It seems down-to-earth," Hope says. Plus, I note, the little disc of warm, molassesy brown bread is good, and my Pimm's Cup is jammedwith huge pieces of apple, cucumber, mint, and lime.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The whole week is kind of like this. Desperate for something to do downtown, we decide to hit Olvera Street. The pedestrian-only shopping boulevard tries to preserve a touch of 19th-century Mexico, but what it really preserves are booths that sell Scarface T-shirts and James Dean posters. I'd never made it far enough down the street to know this, but tucked away toward the back is Mr. Churro, where for $3 they'll fry you up a fresh dough stick filled with caramel or custard.

Of course, we have to hit the Hollywood sign, which I've hated since I moved here because it's ugly, isn't even the original version, and draws tourists who ask you how to drive to a place that clearly has no road. But because Ken and Hope want to take a closer look, I get talked into going. And it somehow works its charm on me, drawing attention to how beautiful the hills are up there.

Key and Hope don't watch much television, but even they had heard enough about Rodeo Drive--epicenter of the materialistic, vacuous, striving side of L.A.--to want to see it. Cruising around with Ken, who went to architecture school, I notice some pretty cool buildings: Rem Koolhaas did the Prada store, Richard Meier the Paley Center for Media, and Frank Llyod Wright the Anderton Court Shops. Even in flashy Beverly Hills, Ken makes L.A.'s mishmash of designs seem cool and American and somehow legitimate. Which, maybe for the first time, makes me feel proud to live here.

On my in-laws' last night, we drive to the Chateau Marmont, hangout of celebrities doing interviews or hoping someone will ask them to do an interview. We eat at the Bar Marmont, where chef Carolynn Spence, formerly of New York's Spotted Pig, greets us at the door before ducking back into the kitchen to send out some of the best small plates in the city: prunes wrapped in bacon; light, melty cheese puffs; and a salty pistachio crumble.

As we leave, Ken and Hope point out that since we entered, a velvet rope and a bouncer have appeared outside the door. Hope cannot understand how a public restaurant can have a guy choosing who gets in. It seems perfectly normal to me, but all I can say is that L.A. is only obnoxious on the surface and awfully nice on the interior. And that's exactly the way I like it.

 
A SMART STRATEGY 
How to turn potential tourist traps into an insider experience 
 
                                  THE FAVE          WHY LOCALS AVOID 
                                                           IT 
 
SAN FRANCISCO            The Tonga Room             Goopy, 
onlyinsanfrancisco. … 

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