Near the end of my second night in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Los Feliz, I had my first celebrity sighting.
A talented but disgruntled actor friend of mine had taken me on a crawl of his favourite watering holes, the initial stop being a faux-Chinese, faux-dive called Good Luck Bar, where I made like a local and downed PBR while drinking in tales of Hollywood woe. Our evening kicked up a notch, however, after we sloshed over to a true L.A. landmark: the Dresden Lounge, immortalized as a hangout for frustrated thesps in the 1996 comedy Swingers.
Our waitress had taken a break to sing with Marty and Elayne – an old-school toupee-clad jazz duo – when Michael Cera, the soft-spoken Canadian actor from Arrested Development, arrived with his entourage (known as "friends" anywhere outside L.A.).
It's always that way: You fly across the continent and the only Hollywood celeb you spy is the one you've also spotted brunching back home. Or, to put it philosophically: Que Cera, Cera.
My Superbad star sighting wasn't the only thing pedestrian about my short sojourn, however. Getting around by foot was, indeed, the theme of the trip.
On my only other visit to Los Angeles, I wasted at least 50 per cent of my holiday sitting in snarled traffic, getting an ankle cramp from the constant accelerator-to-brake tap dance. Not a fan of the apparent local custom of drinking and driving, I remained stone sober and lost a small fortune in valet parking. This did not endear Tinseltown to me. This time, I vowed to try to be more carefree by going car-free.
Los Feliz, a perennially popular neighbourhood where both stars and second camera operators reside, made that easy. The New York Times once called it "eminently walkable," and it really is a great place to be footloose and fancy-free.
Vermont and Hillhurst Avenues, the two main parallel arteries of trendy shopping, eclectic restaurants and quirky cabarets, are just a few blocks apart. They lead north from Sunset Boulevard up to Griffith Park, one of the biggest municipal green spaces in North America – and the perfect spot for a morning run, or an enjoyable afternoon hike that will take you from the Greek Theatre to the lovingly restored Griffith Observatory. From there, you can gaze up into the heavens in the planetarium, or down at more earthbound star systems thanks to spectacular views of downtown L.A.
Walkability, it turns out, isn't as rare in Los Angeles as one thinks. While going entirely car-free would be difficult for any extended period of time, the feet-first attitude is catching on, creating hipster-friendly 'hoods as it spreads. Franklin Village, part of the larger Los Feliz district and one of the city's most recently recognized neighbourhoods, touts "the fact that so much is located [within] walking distance is a blessing" on its website. (The website LAist described it as "how Los Angeles does New York.") Even Echo Park, which borders downtown, offers historic walking tours and beautiful views from the Baxter Steps. Silver Lake, which begs to be explored on foot, also throws another stereotype for a loop: The vibe is more bohemian than Botox. Full of cafés and arty boutiques, it's a series of what have been called "micro-neighbourhoods."
But Morgan, a crew member on NBC's Parks and Recreation whose cozy bungalow I rented for a couple of days through Airbnb (there are few hotels), swears by her 'hood. Professionals ultimately outnumber hipsters in Los Feliz, and she's never felt unsafe walking around the streets at night.
Another plus: While Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie call Los Feliz home now, and Frank Lloyd Wright built Hollyhock House for oil heiress Aline Barnsdale there 100 years ago, the area sustains a healthy mix of income levels.
On Hillhurst Avenue, comfort food is available both dressed up and down. At the just-opened hot spot Mess Hall, I ate an incredible pork chop with Tabasco butter and cheddar cheese grits for $26. The next day I downed an equally enjoyable lunch for less than $5 at a place semi-accurately named Best Fish Taco in Ensenada. (The fish tacos are indeed the best, but Ensenada is in Mexico.)
Likewise, friendly vintage shops and high-end boutiques co-exist side by side on Vermont, where I quickly got a big chunk of my Christmas shopping done: Nirvana and Bowie T-shirts at La La Ling for the kids, and a selection of graphic novels for older picturebook fans at Skylight Books.
You know you're in a good neighbourhood when not only are the indie bookstores expanding, but local cinemas thrive. After a day of walking, the Vista, by the corner of Sunset and Hillhurst, is the place to rest: The classic Hollywood single-screen theatre had its seating cut in half about a decade ago, leading to a luxurious amount of legroom.
If you prefer your culture on stage rather than screen, performers practising their skills between film and TV gigs make for a lively cabaret scene. Rockwell: Table & Stage on Vermont hosts a series of film-themed concerts called For the Record. When I was there, Anderson Davis – who spent months in Toronto with South Pacific – directed and starred in Scorcese: The Concert, a mix of short scenes from the filmmaker's famous movies and songs from their soundtracks.
While there was always a subway at Vermont and Sunset able to whisk me away to other parts of L.A., I never felt a compelling reason to hop aboard – especially with such friendly locals. Even at Bar Covell, a hip wine bar with dauntingly gorgeous clientele, it didn't take long for someone to engage a tired traveller.
Sean, a self-described "real Lebowski," entertainingly humble-bragged about his lack of work ethic, while his makeup artist friend Carla outlined the best nearby purveyors of smoothies and vegan goods. The secret to Los Feliz, she said, is that the folks who live there are "people with a conscience, real people in the midst of the smoke and mirrors."
As I sipped the perfect glass of Napa wine (recommended by the bartender after he sized me up), her words rang true. I felt Zen and Lebowskian. Que syrah, syrah.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO EAT
Messhall In 1940, Cecil B. DeMille bought what was then Willard's Chicken Inn and transformed it into a Brown Derby. As of this fall, it's a farm-to-table joint serving twists on American comfort food. The Hog Chop slathered in tabasco butter is the talking point, but the killer app is the steak-tartar taco. 4500 Los Feliz Blvd; 323-660-MESS; messhallkitchen.com
Edendale Strictly speaking, this gastropub is, in Los Angeles real estate lingo, "Los Feliz adjacent." But sneaking a block or two into Silver Lake is worth it to sit on this one-time firehall's spacious patios or at its stylish bar. Recommended: the pork belly tacos with spicy kimchee and sunflower sprouts, and the company of chatty screenwriters. 2838 Rowena Ave; 323-666-2000; theedendale.com
Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada L.A. foodies know price ain't nothin' but a number – the $1.75 fish tacos and $2.50 camarones abrigados (sort of a shrimp taquito) here are excellent. Buy half a dozen so you can try out all six types of homemade salsa at the condiment bar, and briefly admire the painted surfboards on the wall. 1650 N Hillhurst Ave; bestfishtacoinensenada.com
The Covell With 120 bottles of wine available by the glass, the bartenders encourage their cool and classy clientele to order by adjective rather than grape – then they'll have you try a few that fit the bill, before you choose. A private room called Sidebar is entered through a secret bookcase near a wall of skeleton keys. 4628 Hollywood Blvd; 323-660-4400; barcovell.com
WHAT TO SEE
Griffith Park Free public talks on astronomy and space in a room called the "Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon" the first Friday of every month. 213 East Observatory Road; 213-473-0800; griffithobservatory.org
Hollyhock House The architecturally inclined will want to check out this house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in what he called the California Romanza style for an oil heiress in the 1921. Currently under restoration, it reopens for full tours in mid-2013. Barnsdall Art Park; 323-644-6249; hollyhockhouse.net
Vista Theatre End your day exploring Los Feliz in classic Hollywood style – with a movie at this 1923 single-screen Egyptian-themed movie theatre revered by locals for its high-quality projection and unparalleled legroom. 4473 Sunset Dr; 323-660-6639
WHERE TO SHOP
Co-op 28 A welcoming store dedicated to "handmade and indie designs" offers free Bazooka bubble gum to customers. With hipster T-shirts, funky dishtowels and adorable children's clothing – as well as a vintage section in the back – there's a great gift for just about anyone. 1728 N Vermont Ave; 323-669-2828; facebook.com/Coop28handmade
Weltenbuerger Store On a strip where vintage rules, this boutique stands out with avant-garde fashion with a European and Japanese aesthetic. L.A. designers Ermie and Myrrh's handmade jewellery, as well as German style from Hui Hui and Boessert-Schorn. 1764 N Vermont Ave; 510-843-3000; weltenbuerger.org/us
New High (M)Art Birkenstocks, incense and thumb pianos, as well as knitting supplies sold under the label: Wool and the Gang. No photography or cellphones allowed in this eccentric shop that seems more like an art gallery or cultish church. 1720 N. Vermont Ave; 323-638-0271; newhighmart.com
Undesigned Carol Young's studio and boutique showcases her simple, original eco-friendly designs made out of soy or recycled cotton. Also carries Olsen Haus vegan shoes and doodads like pottery, candles and cards. 1953 ½ Hillhurst Ave; 323-663-0088; undesigned.com
Skylight Books While other independent book stores have shut down in recent years, this charming neighbourhood shop has expanded, adding an annex down the street that specializes in art books and graphic novels. Easy to lose an hour or three hopping between the two stores. 1818 N Vermont Ave; 323-660-1175; skylightbooks.com
WHERE TO STAY
Los Feliz Lodge is the closest thing to a boutique hotel in the neighbourhood. It's a selection of bungalows and villas originally built in the 1920s. Now, they're modern, eco-friendly accommodations with full kitchens available for rent. 1509 N Hoover Street; 323-660-4150; losfelizlodge.com
Sunset Tower Hotel If you're for luxury, you'll have to stay a couple neighbourhoods away in West Hollywood. Sunset Tower Hotel is a landmark – an art deco gem that once counted John Wayne as a resident, and where Graydon Carter now throws his annual Vanity Fair Oscar party. Rooms from $199 (U.S.). 8358 West Sunset Boulevard; 323-654-7100; sunsettowerhotel.com