Stumbling upon Atlantis in San Gabriel

August 25, 2012

Giant sea serpents. Pink whales. Dragons and lighthouses and pirate ships. Just about everyone who walks into this whimsical park gasps with a delight usually reserved for Disneyland. Master concrete artist Benjamin Dominguez created the park, known as La Laguna de San Gabriel, at the city’s behest in 1965. There have been a few outrageous attempts to raze it, but a non-profit group stepped in, and now it is perhaps the only playground in the state listed on the Register of Historic Places. After a year and a half of renovations, it has finally reopened to the public. The boys and I checked it out this week and it still inspires the same wide-eyed wonder, though the metal rocket ship and other sweet retro playground structures are gone.

Theo, a huge dinosaur fan, cried when we left and asks almost daily when we are going back to “Monster Park.” Soon, mi hijo, soon.

A couple of tips: Go early or later in the day, as there is very little shade. Since it’s a hefty drive from just about anywhere in L.A., turn your visit into a day trip, or at least consider having breakfast or lunch out. The park is near the San Gabriel Mission and many well-regarded eateries, including the Golden Deli Vietnamese restaurant and Twohey’s, an old-school breakfast-all-day diner. Also, GO NOW because there seems to be a Phase 2 construction in the works, and that means this fabulous place could be off limits again.

This Tuesday, Aug. 28, is the official Grand Re-opening. There will be food trucks, bocce games, music, and all those wondrous sea creatures on hand to help celebrate.

Last chance for Grand Performances

August 21, 2012

This is the final week (til next year) for downtown’s free outdoor music series, a must-do event for any card-carrying Angeleno. The California Plaza setting (at the top of Bunker Hill) is not just your basic urban park: framed by soaring skyscrapers, it is super-clean, with lots of amphitheater-type seating (mostly concrete slabs) and sleek water features. The crowd is a mix of Financial District workers and tourists who have stumbled off the Angel’s Flight funicular. There is plenty of space for kids to run around, but lunch-hour folks can also pretty easily find quiet spaces to eat and enjoy the music.

This Friday’s Lunchbox noon set features He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister, whose sound is described as combining the earnestness of folk, the rawness of blues, the theatrics of cabaret and the hip shake of a rock-a-billy. At 8 PM, El Gavachillo y Banda Viento de Oro (a side project of Ozomatli bassist Wil-Dog Abers) takes the stage.

Places that stay cool when it’s scorching outside

August 9, 2012

There aren’t many places in L.A. that get generous with their thermostats even in summer. That’s fine most of the time, but when it’s triple-digit weather, it’s disappointing to walk into a restaurant or store and find that it’s only 10 or 20 degrees cooler than outside. Here are a few non-beach places that tend to be overly generous with their A/C — something I think we all desperately need this week. They’re mostly kid-friendly and lingering is encouraged.

* MTA Cafeteria next to Union Station. Olvera Street is a great destination but the outdoor stalls don’t lend itself to August’s heat. Skip the taquerias, and head to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s cool and sleek cafeteria. Enter from the outdoor courtyard just off Union Station’s lobby. The food isn’t life-changing, but it’s inexpensive and can be enjoyed without perspiration. A short walk away is the small but charming Chinese American Museum, which is also very generous with its A/C.

* Annenberg Space for Photography. L.A.’s only photography museum is fantastically inviting even without the lure of air-conditioning. The floors are fashioned out of recycled tires and a “kitchen” serves as a community gathering space with chairs, art magazines and citrus water. The current exhibit, “Who Shot Rock & Roll,” features 166 prints by Diane Arbus, Annie Liebowitz, Henry Diltz and other iconic photographers. Park in the same underground parking garage as CAA agents, and you barely have to brave the outdoors during your visit.

* Libraries. Most libraries are cool and comfortable even in summer, but two stand out. The Central Library downtown has leather chairs overlooking its beautiful atrium and plenty of room to spread out, while the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills is perhaps the most refined spot in the entire city to cool off and feed your mind. Its collection of books, newspaper articles, and photographs about film is the best around, and anyone may access it with a proper ID and a respect for the industry that drives this town. Closed Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and it’s best to leave the kids at home.

* Ferndell in Griffith Park. For those who prefer to cool off naturally, Ferndell is for you. Near the park’s western entrance off Los Feliz Boulevard, this short trail loops around a creek with dozens of waterfalls and is entirely shaded by a canopy of sycamores and pines. You can stay hydrated with a house-brewed iced tea from nearby Trails Cafe. The seating is outside on picnic tables or tree stumps, but the surroundings are so pleasant you might forget all about the heat.

The blackberry blossom when summertime came…

July 24, 2012

Simi Valley’s Underwood Farms is a rite of passage for most L.A. kids. With its acres of produce, pull wagons and fun outdoor playground and petting zoo, it’s an easy way to show them that strawberries and squash do not begin in a place called Ralph’s. Not everyone knows that the farm has a quieter little sister a few miles away in Somis, one whose pockets start spilling over with raspberries and blackberries right about now. Unlike the main farm, the Somis location only grows blueberries (whose season ended in June), raspberries and blackberries, but here are a few reasons why we like it as much or more than its big sister in Moorpark:

* It’s free. The Moorpark location charges $3-5 per person. Worth it, but some days you just don’t want to pay for entertainment.
* It’s an easy walk to the berry fields from the parking lot. This means a lot to parents who have pulled their kids in wagons across the Moorpark fields.
* It’s usually pretty quiet. Not a field-trip bus in sight when we arrived on a weekday in July.

Last time we went, I watched my picky younger son eat raspberries for the first time ever. There was just something about pulling them fresh off the vine that made them seem less suspicious. Afterward, we ate a picnic lunch, then the kids fed the chickens (25 cents a handful for feed) and played in the shady sandbox. Next time, we’ll check out the alpaca farm directly across the street.

Madrona Marsh: a thousand shades of green

July 19, 2012

At first glance, Madrona Marsh in Torrance may seem a little pathetic as far as nature preserves go. The dry-as-dust path near the entrance gates leads you past views of sterile office buildings and sounds of cars motoring past, most of them on their way to Plaza del Amo mall across the street.

But give it a chance. Keep walking south toward the trees and in a few minutes you will find yourself surrounded by cottonwoods, wild grapevines, bramble bushes, and a thousand shades of green. This marsh is one of the last remaining wetlands in Southern California. In other words, this is what the South Bay used to look like before Macy’s and Chevron showed up. Despite development’s best efforts, it has somehow managed to thrive thanks to the efforts of some determined preservationists and the city of Torrance.

Madrona Marsh is home to some of the biggest ducks you will ever see, and your children will laugh their heads off when the ducks come charging through the soupy green muck hoping you’ve brought them some grub. Egrets and blue herons also stop by from time to time. Before entering the marsh, stop in the slick nature center for maps, updated wildlife sightings, and the chance to view some pretty cool reptiles. The center runs all kinds of nature hikes throughout the year; it’s almost worth a drive across town in rush hour to experience them. If you don’t want to do that, any weekend morning will suffice for a uniquely peaceful respite from routine.

Peaceful Dining in L.A.

July 15, 2012

One of the biggest challenges of writing a book about Peaceful Places in Los Angeles is finding restaurants that qualify. If a place has good food, it usually means the dining room is always hopping and the challenge of getting a reservation is anything but peaceful unless your last name is DiCaprio or Spielberg. If the food is mediocre, you really don’t want to go there in the first place, no matter how pretty the candlelight or leafy the atmosphere.

I did find a handful of restaurants quiet enough to make the cut for my book. Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon with its creekside patio and thoughtful vegan-friendly menu is one. Sofi on W. 3rd Street, a hidden Greek oasis of bougainvillea-draped walls, moussaka and flaming cheese, is another. And I recently discovered the plant-filled patio at Hatfield’s on Melrose. The restaurant’s bustling open kitchen is fascinating, but sometimes you just want to enjoy the wonderful food in an intimate setting, and this small space provides it.

DineLA Restaurant Week starts tomorrow with 250 restaurants participating, from Lucques to Lawry’s Prime Rib. It’s a great time to try new places and seek out that rare combination of tranquility and delicious food. If things are not as peaceful as you’d like, at least your wallet isn’t empty and you get credit for expanding your Los Angeles culinary boundaries. Bon appetit.

Only in L.A.: Hollywood Bowl Rehearsals

July 10, 2012

Hollywood Bowl season is in full swing here in L.A. and there is nothing that showcases the city’s personality better than the bench seats at dusk. They are filled with all walks of Angelenos, often enjoying a glass of wine and a picnic dinner. Just about everyone seems to be soaking up the pre-show view of the mountains and the wonder of being so close to a stage that has hosted the Beatles and so many other great performers.

A lesser-known (but cheaper and just as enjoyable) way to experience the Hollywood Bowl starts this week. It’s not widely known, but anyone can sit in on the Philharmonic’s weekday rehearsals at the Bowl. It’s free (as is parking) and you’ll likely get a seat that goes for $75 and up in the evening. The first-tier Garden box seats are reserved for Friends of the Philharmonic, but walk-ins have access to the Terrace box seats on back. The musicians may stop mid-piece and be partially blocked from audience view by shade curtains, but you will still get to experience top-shelf music under near-perfect skies with fewer than 100 other people.

A tip: It’s always a good idea to call the Bowl box office early in the week to confirm that rehearsals are on. They are usually Tuesday and Thursday from about 9:30 a.m. to noon, but sometimes the schedule changes or a Friday rehearsal is added.

The rehearsals never lose their only-in-L.A. charm or the giddy feeling that you’re in on a very cool secret while the rest of the city is working or stuck in traffic.

Smoothies and Connect Four in La Canada-Flintridge

June 28, 2012

They had us at Hungry, Hungry Hippo. There it sat, beckoning on the coffee table next to a cozy leather couch. The Smoothie Stop is a real find — a La Canada-Flintridge strip-mall space that friendly owners have turned into a living room complete with Wii, magazines, and dozens of table games that you probably haven’t played for decades. Cool Lime, Blueberry Cream and fresh-squeezed orange lemonade are a few of the tasty drinks on the menu. Plus, hot and cold tea, soft pretzels, homemade cookies, and all the Battleship games you can handle.

Four generations at the Huntington

June 25, 2012

The Japanese garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has always been a peaceful place, and its recent renovation hasn’t changed that. I highlighted the garden in my book, Peaceful Places: Los Angeles, as the spot to seek out when the desert garden or galleries get a bit too thick with admirers.

I wondered if the $6.8-million expansion would affect the garden’s gentle tranquility, but instead it has only enhanced it by adding more space. A ceremonial teahouse surrounded by a traditional garden now sits above the winding paths and original Japanese House, and there are more waterfalls and bonsai trees dotting the landscape. The raked-gravel rock and sand garden and viewing stones (stones found in nature and untouched by man) still provide quiet retreats off the busier Central Garden.

On a recent visit with my parents, kids, and 85-year-old neighbor, we all somehow managed to find our niches without anyone having to compromise. My dad reveled in the Visions of Empire railroad exhibit, Theo loved the bamboo forest, and my mom and neighbor marveled at the camellia forest and Australian Kangaroo paws. Jack divided his glee between the children’s garden and the Conservatory’s cloud forest.

And I stole a few moments of contemplation on a bench in front of the rock and sand garden, as lovely as ever.

Ah, the Jacarandas…

June 4, 2012

I still remember the first time I drove down a Los Angeles street with the jacaranda trees in full spring bloom. The endless lavender canopy lifted my mood for the rest of the day and left me giddy about the approach of summer. It’s most fun to let the jacarandas take you by surprise, as you turn down a street lined with them on your way to a dentist appointment or errand, but a few places in L.A. are worth a special detour, like the street in Claremont pictured above. One of the best places to sit and relax under the jacarandas is the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, where the trees complement dozens of abstract sculptures placed around a sprawling lawn.

Enjoy them now, because their blooms are as fleeting as an actor’s career.