We’d spent one weekend exploring Los Angeles’ west side last year and wanted to return for longer to explore its… Hmm, what to call it? Its central neighborhoods? When I was living in Los Angeles, in the Fairfax district, I would have called Echo Park and Silverlake “the east” in error. I’ve learned that “East LA” should really be reserved for that which sits east of the LA River. In order to best avoid the minefield that lies in naming sections of Los Angeles, perhaps I should just say that this is the “not West Los Angeles-travelogue.”
In truth, it was our intention to make it a Silverlake-centric trip. We based ourselves there, finding a house one block off of Sunset Junction.
We rented a three-bedroom house, from which we had a lovely view of the Hollywood Hills. In the mornings, it was a short stroll to breakfast or coffee (always coffee, usually at Intelligentsia). And on a couple of the days, when the kids slept in the afternoon, it was a short walk to shops like Mohawk General Store, Clare Vivier, Mollusk, Shinola, and Sweet William.
We pictured ourselves hiring a babysitter for a few of the evenings and then simply walking to dinners out—you could have an entire vacation’s worth of great meals in that neighborhood—and we arranged for a sitter to come for three nights! But we found ourselves taking that chance to drive and do more exploring.
Here are the highlights, (in typically long travelogue fashion)…
The Sunset Junction, a stretch where Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards meet in Silverake that used to house a street fair, seemed to firmly establish itself as a core destination by 2008 when the New York Times called it “an appealing mix of low-key restaurants and eclectic shops that draw artsy part-timers, including second-unit directors, studio musicians and writers. In other words, creative types with long mornings and limited incomes.” It holds special fascination because it feels so walkable despite being in the midst of these giant intersections!
We spent our first day exploring in our new neighborhood (bougainvillea everywhere!) and then visiting family nearby, in Orange County.
My friend’s favorite, Cafe Stella, opens a bit late for our crew, so we grabbed breakfast at the diner-esque Sunset Junction Coffee Shop.
There’s also a wonderful Cheese Shop, a charming florist, a music shop (where a couple of times I heard a trombone being played in the afternoon), a Moroccan tea salon called Casbah, a vegan spot called Flore, and more.
On the following day, after another local coffee run (during which the neighbors gave Hudson flowers), we headed out for breakfast at the much-lauded Sqirl—a preserves company that turned itself into a breakfast mecca.
Rumor has it that you have to show up early for any hope of a seat. And in my experience, everyone keeps very loose day-time schedules during the week (all of those industry-folk, I suppose) and so you’re just as likely to find crowds on a Monday morning as you are on a Sunday.
We got lucky. Sure, the line was out the door, but seating was ample and we were able to just send an emissary (I volunteered) to order (and people-watch) at the counter.
It was wonderful—and perhaps my favorite meal of the trip. We had the friendliest service: when we told one of the servers it was our first time, she told us all of her favorite dishes and then heaved a sigh of delight “I’m SO excited for you.” At the time, I thought it was such an LA-moment: the kind that makes you think about how Steve Martin’s LA Story holds up nearly 24 years later. Alas, she was just particularly friendly; we actually found much more too-cool-for-school attitude elsewhere in our visit.
But as a consequence of her enthusiasm, we ordered our family of four (sort of three-and-a-half, really) enough for a family of six: their classic Sorrel Pesto Rice bowl with preserved Meyer lemon, house-made hot sauce, black radish, feta and a poached egg; a wonderful take on Red Flannel Hash with smoked beets, potatoes, scallion, horseradish, jack cheese and a fried egg; incredibly decadent French toast, wherein brioche is stuffed with jam and baked in the style of “pain perdu” and served with crème fraîche (we added maple syrup); brioche toast with a seasonal jam that I can’t recall; a side of thick, wonderful bacon; and a rhubarb lemonade. Hudson wanted “all the sweet stuff.”
Mark Bittman just wrote about Sqirl and gives the recipe for that hash.
We had intended to stay away from our old ‘hood in deference to trying all new things, but that didn’t last long. We made a detour to Third Avenue to see some of our favorite shops; I got a blowout at DryBar; we stopped for coconut cupcakes at Joan’s on Third (my favorite still, despite the arrival of Magnolia and Sprinkles); and Hudson finally got to ride the trolley at the Grove.
The trolley, if you’ve never been on it, is a completely over-the-top addition to an already over-the-top outdoor mall. The conductors are super-friendly and will patiently wait for all manners of stroller folding, and you’ll spend far more time on it than you could have possibly done had you walked the same stretch, and your kids will love it. (Though you wouldn’t know it from Hudson’s very intense, “I’m thinking very hard about this”-face.)
We also wanted to see what had changed at the Original Farmer’s Market on Fairfax—a collection of food stalls that opened back in 1934. If you visit, I recommend seeking out Loteria immediately, and then either eating there or at least spending most of your time at the restaurants and food stalls in the section surrounding it. When the the Mexican eatery moved in back in 2002, its tacos were so praised that it seemed to up the game of the food on that end of the market in particular. (And apparently that food stall has now spawned an empire.)
I walked over to Mohawk General Store that afternoon. It was as lovely as everyone had promised—and reminded me a bit of Steven Alan: perfectly curated and very expensive. (Those moccasins in the men’s section were over $600, and that wasn’t unusal.) I will say that this sticker shock followed me throughout the trip: I’d been grabbing shopping recommendations off blogs and Pinterest in the week leading up to the trip and I was surprised at how expensive the places all were. Is everyone else buying $100 t-shirts these days? Is that the new normal?
Actually, and I definitely don’t want to be a Debbie Downer here—I found myself oscillating between feeling like all of these shops were so awesome and so quintessentially Angeleno (a little boho, a little modern… lots of succulents and linen… ) and so… all the same? I couldn’t decide if that’s just because I tend to confine myself to a set of sources who have similar aesthetics and that’s where all the shopping recommendations come from or because I was on a sort of LA tour of ‘what hipsters like’ and had self-selected for homogeneity. Or are these indeed just the trendsetters and that’s why I’m seeing these selections all over? Probably that, right? (Don’t get me wrong: I love the natural wood and the cacti, too!)
After returning from some shopping, we had a little more playtime in the apartment and then a babysitter came by. One night they grabbed dinner at a taqueria on Sunset, which was perfect for Hudson’s recent obsession with taco-loving dragons.
By the way, people ask me about finding sitters on vacation and here’s how this happened: I asked everyone I knew. I posted to Facebook to ask for trusted suggestions, wrote emails to online friends who live in the city, and finally a friend who used to live in LA was able to ask her friend and pass along some recommendations. It wasn’t simple. But it was so worth it!
As for us, we decided to drive up toward the Griffith Observatory to see the sunset from the Hollywood Hills. There was some real-estate and landscaping distraction, but eventually we found some parking near the top. The observatory itself is closed on Mondays, but you can still go up for the view—just be sure to allow some time for traffic as a lot of people tend to have this same plan.
And it was clear why.
We stayed at the top, watching the lights come on across the city’s grid and the day-hikers heading home, until it was almost dark and then drove down the hill and back through West Hollywood to A.O.C. for dinner.
Suzanne Goin’s small plates restaurant A.O.C. was always our celebratory restaurant. Most memorably, we walked there just after getting engaged and celebrated the day after our wedding. They’ve moved further west (which meant crossing our drawn line in the sand) and into a larger space. If you go, I’d suggest requesting a seat in the outdoor patio.
On Tuesday, we branched out and walked the other direction along Sunset to Dinosaur coffee—an independent cafe serving SF’s Four Barrel coffees that opened last December (by, interestingly enough, the folks who came up with Cards Against Humanity).
It’s in the Solutions Audio Visual Service Center (with that wall famously featured on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 album) so we stopped for some photos and then walked back to the car so we could hit up another highly recommended breakfast spot: Proof in Atwater Village.
The menu and cases are filled with a mix of sweet and savory seasonal items, but we kept it pretty simple: croissants and a yogurt parfait. Na Young Ma’s pastry is legendary.
The space was packed but the line moved quickly, and there was enough table turnover that it wasn’t a problem for us to nab something curbside with the strollers. (And while we were sitting there, we ran into Shoko!)
Before leaving Glendale Boulevard (where Kate’s recommendation, Individual Medley was sadly still closed), Hudson and I ducked into Pampered Birds to check out the Macaws. The loudest store ever! Hudson was fascinated.
Tucked in the southeast corner of Griffith park, off the Los Feliz entrance, there’s a miniature train and a stable of ponies to ride. We took a couple of spins in the train while Skyler took a brief nap in the stroller, and then we all walked over to the ponies. Based on his or her age and size, a child can ride a small, medium, or large pony. As we watched, (we realized later) most of the kids were on the small ones, which went pretty slow. We signed Hudson up for the medium and before we knew it, it just took off! I couldn’t believe it—what a shock!
You can see it here.
Hudson said he had fun… “a little bit bumpy” were his words, and asked to do it again. But after a second time around, he basically bee-lined it to the grass and laid down. (The adrenaline surge leaving his body, perhaps? I know we felt it!)
I remembered going to a cute picnic spot in Griffith Park called The Trails when we lived in Los Angeles, and assumed it must be nearby. Of course it’s not at all—Griffith park is huge!—but it was a quick drive away and seemed like an appropriate stop after our morning of horseback riding.
It’s completely charming, the homemade Almond milk was a huge hit, and Hudson was able to play with some other kids and jump around on hay bales while Skyler slowly ate an avocado sandwich in the shade.
It was fun to imagine what living in LA might be like as a family, and so we followed lunch by driving over to Echo Park lake with the intention of checking out the playground and the cafe at the boathouse. Aron ended up taking Hudson on the pedal boats while Skyler and I relaxed in the shade.
Growing up in the ’80s, Aron and I both remember Echo Park seeming like this really dangerous place. People were always talking about gang wars and violence and bodies in the lake. Of course that’s all changed now—and had been doing as much since the mid-90s. (Though I still wasn’t too keen on the water from the giant fountain drifting about in the wind… thinking about it ending up in our mouths. Fountains are gross.)
The boathouse is home to a little cafe called Square One that serves pastries and coffee and a full brunch-style menu during the day. It looked really great: french toast, bacon cheese grits, grass-fed burgers and frozen chocolate bananas.
Skyler fell asleep on the way back to the house, which wasn’t unusual: she would usually take a short nap on-the-go in the mornings and then a longer one around 3pm or so, when Hudson had an hour of quiet time, too—and he would routinely fall asleep during that hour on this trip. We tuckered them out!
That afternoon, Aron and Hudson grabbed tacos at Yuca’s—a much appreciated recommendation—and then I went out again to walk further down Sunset—past a farmer’s market that goes until 7pm on Sunset and Edgecliff—to Clare Vivier. Even though the LA-based accessories brand is sold all over the country now, her flagship in Silverlake is still worth a visit.
I came back just in time for some sweet squeezes before the babysitter returned for another night out.
Part Two coming next week…
Update: all of these locations are mapped on the Pinterest Guide to Los Angeles.