Three Perfect Days: Bogotá
Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Chris Sorenson | Hemispheres, January 2019
Five hundred years ago, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the gold-rich, mountainous area that's now Bogotá, they thought they'd found El Dorado. Today, Colombia is still defined by its natural bounty—albeit neither the kind that lured the Spaniards nor the kind that attracted American law enforcement in the 1980s. Instead, what strikes visitors is the kaleidoscopic population of nearly 50 million people, all united by a welcoming spirit. What's more, the landscape is among the world's most biodiverse—diving from the roof of the Andes through grassland, swamp, and jungle to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts—yielding perhaps the best cuisine in Latin America. The locus of all this is the 8,660-foot-high capital, whose 10 million residents infuse modern energy and inventiveness into a centuries-old colonial setting. El Dorado? Maybe not, but after a few days here you'll surely agree Bogotá has entered its golden age.
A harpist performs at the Teatro Nacional Cristóbal Colón
Sampling Bogotá's culinary and architectural delights
The courtyard at Casa Legado
It's gray and damp on my first morning in Bogotá. As a former longtime San Francisco resident, I'm accustomed to these conditions, but even if I were to get gloomy, I'd know exactly where to find a cure: among the flower vendors at the Mercado de Paloquemao. All shades of carnation, orchid, and rose—Colombia grows the second-most roses in the world—burst from the makeshift tables set up in the market's parking lot. It's impossible not to feel cheery in the face of all the bright blooms, but I don't have time to stop and smell the, well, you know. I'm here for the food.
I cross the lot to meet Juliana Salazar, a local restaurant consultant and guide for the tour company Foodies who's showing me around. “We're gonna start by eating," she says, “because you never want to go to the market on an empty stomach." Conveniently, a stall at the entrance sells breads called amasijos. I try three: pan de queso, pan de yuca, and a fried, corn-based buñuelo.
Now that I've eaten, it's time to start eating. We begin with the fruits. “The Paloquemao is the only market in Bogotá where you're going to see the variety from the entire country," Salazar says, and she's not kidding: I taste tart, aromatic fruits such as kiwi-like lulo (which is used in a popular juice), gulupa (a variety of passion fruit), and granadilla (“the first fruit we give to a baby," Salazar notes). I'm dazzled, even more so when my guide tells me, “This is not the specialized fruit section—this is just common fruits."
Flowers at the Mercado de Paloquemao
"All shades of carnation, orchid, and rose burst from the makeshift tables set up in the parking lot of the Mercado de Paloquemao."
We continue on, past vendors selling herbs, chocolate, chilies, meat, and the more exotic fruits (cherimoya, mangosteen), to the back of the market, where a counter makes rice-and-pork-filled tamales and lechona, roast pig stuffed with rice. “For a hangover situation, I think it's perfect," Salazar says. I file this away for later, although I'm probably never going to eat again.
After thanking Salazar for helping me stuff my face, I head from Bogotá's culinary center to its political one. A quick drive through downtown delivers me to the Plaza de Bolívar. I walk past a Hells Angels–looking guy who's pulling the strings of a skeleton marionette to the tune of Guns N' Roses's “Patience" and then around a family being swarmed by pigeons (the kids seem entirely too happy about this) to the center of the plaza. The square is fronted by the French Renaissance Palacio Liévano (now city hall) and the Neo-classical Capitol and Palace of Justice, as well as the 200-year-old Catedral Primada. Between the cathedral's towers I can see another church, a distant white ornament at the peak of the towering 10,341-foot Cerro de Monserrate.
"It looks as though Dr. Seuss and Antoni Gaudí combined forces on a cathedral and then dropped it into Yosemite Valley."
I continue around the Capitol building, skirting the Colegio Mayor de San Bartolomé, an imposing Jesuit school that dates to 1604, and then the grounds of the Casa de Nariño, the president's palace. A soldier shoos me off the sidewalk in front of the building—apparently I don't appear very presidential—and as I turn to go I glance up an alley and catch a glimpse of the Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen rising before the misty cordillera. It looks as though Dr. Seuss and Antoni Gaudí combined forces on a candy-striped Gothic cathedral and then dropped it into Yosemite Valley.
The interior of the Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen
I begin to hike up the hill and into the heart of La Candelaria, Bogotá's old town, passing below the dormers and enclosed balconies of the multicolored colonial houses. A light rain begins to fall just as I reach one of the city's most exciting new restaurants, Prudencia. The space, designed by renowned Colombian architect Simón Vélez, is a stunner, boasting a vaulted glass ceiling and walls adorned with line drawings of flowers and fruits and vegetables. The food is tasty too. I dig into house-baked levain bread, followed by lomo de res (beef tenderloin) with roasted sweet potatoes and an oyster-mushroom aioli, and then finish with a slice of fig cheesecake.
Refueled, I proceed to spend a couple of hours ping-ponging up and down the hills of La Candelaria. The neighborhood—its name comes from a Catholic festival that honors Mary and Joseph's presentation of the baby Jesus to God—overflows with historic sites. Here's a golden-balconied house where Simón Bolívar worked during the fight for independence from Spain. There's the house where Bolívar's mistress, Manuela Sáenz, helped El Libertador escape assassination. Farther down the hill is the 19th-century Neoclassical Teatro Nacional Cristóbal Colón opera house. Then there are the lively crowds: people dancing to the rhythms of busking rumba bands, leading alpacas down the street, and selling jewelry and grilled corn and hormigas culonas (“big-a** ants").
Lomo de res at Prudencia
I'm not quite ready to tackle the ants, but it is about time for dinner, so I call a cab to take me north, to the nightlife district of Zona T. I'm unlucky enough to have caught Bogotá's brutal rush hour—it takes nearly an hour of crawling along the hillside on Carrera 1 to travel six miles—but the instant I reach Segundo, any complaints I have melt away. The dining room, around the corner from Segundo's renowned sister restaurant Central Cevichería, is hung with colorful abstract art and looks down through a two-story glass wall onto bustling Calle 85, and the food somehow manages to outshine the space: crudo de res (beef carpaccio) stuffed with mango and chimichurri, squid-ink asparagus tempura, trout in leche de tigre pepper sauce, and a couple of Santísma Trinidads—coffee syrup–spiked Manhattans served in tobacco-smoked glasses. ¡Dios mío!
Getting a little too close to the pigeons in Plaza de Bolívar
I'm feeling a bit woozy after my meal—surely it's from the altitude and has nothing to do with those Latin Manhattans—so I take a car to Casa Legado, a stylish seven-room boutique hotel in a 1950s house on a quiet street in the upscale neighborhood of Quinta Camacho. I cross the Alice in Wonderland black-and-white-tiled floor of the foyer, brushing aside the vines hanging from the ceiling, to find the only rabbit hole I need: the space between my sheets.
Street art in La Candelaria
Running with the dogs and stopping for contemporary art
You haven't had a hangover until you've been un poco crudo at 8,660 feet. My tropically wallpapered room at Casa Legado is charming, but I still wake up feeling compressed, like I spent the night in a coffin with Andre the Giant. To snap out of it, I strap on my sneakers and jog north on Carrera 9, past the chichi Zona Rosa, until I hit Parque El Virrey, where I follow a trail along a canal, dodging scores of dog walkers and their enthusiastic hounds.
The only place that might be more dog-friendly than El Virrey is the parkside Canasto Picnic Bistró. The sunlit patio is hung with wicker picnic baskets, and the tables are taken up by neighborhood residents with, yes, their pups lying underneath. I'm a little sweaty but also in need of food, pronto, so I take a seat, sans four-legged friend, and order an arepa with roast beef, fried egg, and hogao (Colombian creole sauce). As I'm cutting into the arepa, the restaurant's owner, Alejandro Cuéllar, a brash raconteur-chef in the mold of Anthony Bourdain (RIP), stops by. When I tell him I'm enjoying my meal, he offers to take me on a tour of a few of the city's culinary standouts. “Is everyone in Colombia this welcoming?" I ask.
"I ask for a recommendation of something '...not by García Márquez,' the clerk finished my sentence."
“We're very good hosts," Cuéllar replies. “Very serviciales. When people get here, we're really excited to show them that this is an amazing city and an amazing country."
We make a date for tomorrow, because I've got a different kind of hot spot on the menu for the rest of this morning. A few blocks north, in the posh Parque 93 neighborhood, I visit Galería La Cometa (The Kite Gallery), where I see a show of midcentury Colombian photography, including the busted camera Carlos Caicedo used in 1965 to snap a shot of then-President Guillermo León Valencia when the politician got drunk and fell down in a restaurant. (You can probably guess how the camera got broken.) I then continue the art hop with a quick car ride to the charming Chapinero neighborhood and Casas Riegner, perhaps Bogotá's best-known gallery. Here, I catch a show of 27 textile artists, including five Colombians. My favorite works are Olga de Amaral's gold-leaf wall hangings and Conversation Piece, an ongoing knitwork by María Angélica Medina.
Lifelike street art in La Macarena
The artistic stimulation has me starting to feel peckish, so I take a 10-minute walk through Zona G (for Gourmet) to El Chato, where Alvaro Clavijo, an alum of Noma and Per Se, serves refined cuisine focusing on Colombian ingredients. I take a mini tour of the menu, scarfing down grilled chicken hearts, delicate ceviche, and arracacha bread with bone marrow, all of it exquisite.
Looking for a little more local color, I take a 10-minute car ride to the up-and-coming neighborhood of La Macarena, where I stroll up and down hilly streets, past graffitied walls and coffee shops, and stop at Luvina, a bookshop and salon space. The friendly clerk who greets me explains that the store is named after a town in a short story by Juan Rulfo, the Mexican author who pioneered magical realism, the style favored by Colombia's greatest writer, Gabriel García Márquez. I ask for a recommendation of something “... not by García Márquez," the clerk finishes my sentence. He clearly gets that question a lot, and he's ready with a book of travel narratives by Santiago Gamboa, Ciudades al final de la noche. My Spanish is gonna have to get better in a hurry.
The Wall of Diversity at the Museo Nacional
From the bookshop, I wander downhill, along brick-paved Calle 30, lined on either side with brightly colored houses and restaurants, to the Museo Nacional. The museum's highlights include a replica of an excavated 13th-century tomb; the “Wall of Diversity," with works by artists such as Guillermo Wiedemann and Enrique Grau that portray Colombia's ethnic and cultural heterogeneity; and a room that documents the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which plunged the country into years of chaos.
Pouring a shot of chicha at Chichería Demente
From a dark moment in the nation's past, I go to one of the bright stars of its present. All it takes is a knock on an almost entirely unmarked door (and, OK, a reservation made well in advance) for me to enter Leo, which is run by Leonor Espinosa, who was named Best Female Chef on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017. Though the space feels a bit like a restaurant in New York—jazz music, a sculpture of what looks like the Empire State Building—the ciclo-bioma menu is fully engaged with Colombia and its many biomes: Pacific tuna crusted with Santander ants; flan made from tucupí (wild manioc sauce); the giant Amazonian fish pirarucú, served with fermented yuca; local duck on an arepa-flour tortilla. This is where I start to lose track of the courses—did I mention that each one comes with a drink pairing?
To follow up such an insane meal, I need a lunatic nightcap, so I take a car to a quiet street on the edge of Chapinero, where I find Chichería Demente, a cavernous bar and restaurant that specializes in the traditional fermented-corn drink chicha. I've had chicha once before, poured chunkily out of a gasoline jug on a dirt farm in the hills of Panama. This stuff is much better—smooth, funkily sweet, and, most important, served in a clean clay jar. A large mural on the wall depicts a politician crying out “¡Que viva la chicha!" and I raise my drink to him in solidarity.
Going from a golden gallery to a blood-red bar
The stunning gold room at the Museo del Oro
With all the running around on day one, I missed the city's two most famous museums, both right near the Plaza de Bolívar. I start at the Museo del Oro—or, more accurately, the café in the museum's basement, where I knock back a cup of Chemex-brewed black coffee from San Alberto, one of Colombia's best-known growers. It's very strong and bitter—a bit potent for a guy who usually likes a little coffee with my cream, but also exactly what I need to combat the aftereffects of the chicha.
Fully caffeinated, I proceed upstairs and into the galleries. The 55,000-plus-piece collection focuses largely on works the country's pre-Hispanic peoples made with gold and copper alloys. Most impressive is the pitch-black “gold room," where, as a ritual chant of the Muisca people plays, the lights slowly come up to reveal, in wall and floor displays, 3,000 brilliant gold artifacts. El Dorado indeed.
"As a ritual chant plays, the lights slowly come up to reveal 3,000 brilliant gold artifacts."
It's just a five-block walk to another cultural landmark, the Museo Botero. Medellín-born artist Fernando Botero is famous for depicting rounded, voluminous subjects, using their exaggerated bulkiness to question our sense of proportion (and sometimes to poke fun at historical works or political figures). I love them all, but especially the painting of a bloated Mona Lisa and the bulbous bronze sculpture of Leda and the Swan.
The courtyard at the Museo Botero
That powerful cup of coffee is the only thing I've put in my body so far today, and there's a reason: I've been saving space for the lunchtime odyssey Alejandro Cuéllar promised me. I meet him back in Quinta Camacho, at El Pantera, a hole-in-the-wall that he and a couple of partners just opened that makes Mexico City–style street tacos using Colombian ingredients. As we chow down on chicharrón and cochinita pibil tacos, he explains the effect Colombia's incredible biodiversity has on its cuisine.
A patron viewing Fernando Botero's Una Familia
“When I travel, people ask, 'What do you cook in Colombia?'" he tells me. “We do everything. We have all the climates in the world. You can drive an hour and go from cold to completely tropical, so you can have all the ingredients there are, within an hour."
We finish our tacos, and Cuéllar smiles conspiratorially. “What do you say we go and eat a proper meal?" Ten minutes later, we pull up to Mesa Franca, a restaurant that chef Iván Cadena—the former sous chef at Lima's legendary Central—opened two years ago in a 1930s house. We sit in the lovely, sunlit, garden-style dining room and have calamari and veal sweetbreads, red snapper ceviche, yuca fritters with smoked trout, and pork belly in peanut sauce.
I don't think I can eat any more, but Cuéllar insists on one more stop. We walk three blocks uphill and through the blue-tiled entrance of Salvo Patria, where we order a decadent milhoja (mille-feuille) with buffalo-milk ice cream and dulce de leche and another cup of bold Colombian joe. “This is a typical dessert, but it's not usually made this detailed," Cuéllar says. I tell him that I wouldn't use the word typical to describe anything I've consumed today.
"Peering over the railing, I cast my eyes across the glass skyscrapers of the city center and the orange roofs of La Candelaria."
After rolling me out of the restaurant, Cuéllar offers me a ride to my new hotel, the Four Seasons Casa Medina, back in Zona G. Skirting the open-air brick courtyard makes me feel as if I'm walking the passageways of a Spanish castle—but the only royalty I'm interested in right now is my king-size bed. Hasta luego.
The funicular railway and the city below, seen from Cerro de Monserrate
Rejuvenated by the nap, I dial up an Uber. Fifteen minutes later, I'm at the foot of Cerro de Monserrate, the mountain that stands sentinel over the 600-plus-square-mile Bogotá metro area. I take the teleférico up, the cable car climbing through evergreen forest and into the clouds. At the top, it takes only a few steps for me to feel short of breath, but that doesn't stop me from trudging up the stone walkway to the white stucco church at the peak. Peering over the railing, I cast my eyes across the glass skyscrapers of the city center, the orange roofs of La Candelaria, and the shantytowns that sprawl across the hillsides to the east. Right below me, a couple of pilgrims are climbing the footpath from the base of the mountain. I wish I believed in anything enough to do that.
The Red Room's namesake cocktail
Sufficiently humbled, I descend on the teleférico and get a car back to Chapinero. By the time we've fought through the traffic, I'm due for dinner at Villanos en Bermudas. Here, chefs Sergio Meza and Nicolás López work an open kitchen in a room that has the vibe of an expensively catered party at Banksy's house. I recognize Meza, a Mexican with a red afro who looks a bit like a buff, tattooed Sideshow Bob; it turns out he was lunching at El Chato at the same time I was yesterday. “The man can cook," he says of Alvaro Clavijo. “We just f*** around."
The stylish interior at Mesa Franca
Their, um, messing around earned Villanos en Bermudas a No. 40 ranking on the most recent Latin America's 50 Best list. My “salad" is a breakfasty goat's milk yogurt with black beans, strawberries, and savory granola. The house-baked sourdough comes with butter that's been whipped with black garlic. Kimchi and Iberian ham accompany a butternut squash soup. Even my funky pinot noir, from New Zealand's Valli Vineyards, sticks to the elegant-yet-offbeat theme. “That guy's weird," Meza says of the winemaker. “Sometimes he'll just trade the wine for stuff, not even sell it."
I thank the chef and head for a nightcap at another quirkily snazzy spot nearby. The decor at the Red Room adheres to the bar's name aggressively: The carpets and walls and stairs and seat cushions are all the same titular color. I order the eponymous house cocktail, a Scotch and bourbon concoction brought to the table in a red box full of smoke. The whole experience makes me feel like I'm in a jazz bar in a David Lynch movie (Red Velvet?). More than that, though, I feel as if I've stumbled onto a mysterious treasure. It's a sentiment that has suffused my entire journey. I've found gold in these hills—cultural gold—and I'll soon be back for more.
Today, we remember the colleagues, customers and every single victim of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
I know each of us in the United family marks this difficult moment in our own way. Still, we all share a common commitment to honor how our brothers and sisters left us and also celebrate what they gave to us during their lives. We remember their professionalism and heroism. We cherish their camaraderie and friendship. We carry with us the examples they set forth, especially in the heroism and bravery displayed by so many on that terrible day. Above all, we understand a simple truth: While thousands of our fellow human beings lost their lives in New York City, Arlington and Shanksville, the attacks of September 11th were aimed at all people of peace and good will, everywhere. They were attacks on the values that make life worth living, as well as the shared purpose that make us proud of what we do as members of the United family: connecting people and uniting the world.
We may live in times scarred by discord and disagreement, and we know there are those around the world who seek to divide us against one another. But, on this day – above all – we come together, as one. We affirm our core belief that far, far more unites us as citizens and fellow human beings than can ever divide us.
Let us embody that belief as we go about serving our customers and one another – on this day and every day – as we continue to help building a world that's more united. Let that be our memorial to the sisters and brothers we lost, eighteen Septembers ago.
Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Tanveer Badal | Hemispheres September 2019
No one comes to Los Angeles without having at least a little foreknowledge. If you're a film geek (like me), you know where the heist crew had breakfast in Reservoir Dogs and which building was Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. If you're a music geek (like me) you can name the clubs Guns N' Roses welcomed to the jungle and the streets Dr. Dre went rollin' in his '64. If you're from New York or San Francisco (like me), you probably hate LA on principle—for the smog, the Lakers fans, the fame-seeking ethos of Hollywood. And yet, no matter how much you think you know the City of Angels, there's always something more to learn, something real to find. LA County, after all, comprises more than 4,000 square miles and 10 million people (including the largest Mexican and Asian immigrant communities in the U.S.), with a GDP of $700 billion. It's impossible to make an LA guide for everyone, but if you (like me) are a fan of Chinatown and Charles Bukowski, beaches and bowling alleys, Michelin stars and micheladas, here's one for you.
Beaches and speakeasies on the Westside
I'm in Los Angeles, so of course I'm eating breakfast by the pool. More specifically, I'm in the lovely atrium at FIG, the poolside restaurant at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. In the water, a couple of kids are splashing around in unicorn floaties. On the wall above, Muscle Beach's best-known lifter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, flexes in a mural. On my plate is a scramble chock-full of fresh produce—tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, spinach—from Santa Monica's famed farmers market.
The pool may be Hockney-worthy, but these flip-flops were made for walking. Five minutes down Ocean Avenue, I cross a bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway and onto the Santa Monica Pier, passing the Route 66 sign, caricature artists, funnel cake stands, and carnival rides on my way to the end of the pier, where fishermen toss their lines in the water and tourists snap photos of a sea lion barking for scraps. The sharp salt smell of the ocean beckons, so I backtrack to the sand, where I roll up my jeans and watch the surf slide over my feet. I lose my thoughts in the rhythm of the waves, until a big one crashes in. Reverie over.
A prideful lifeguard tower on Venice Beach
Going wheels-up at the Venice Skatepark
I watch the surf slide over my feet, losing my thoughts in the rhythm of the waves, until a big one crashes in.
I keep flippin' and floppin' my way south toward Venice Beach, the epicenter of Southern California's grungy, punky beach culture. Snatches of the Doors leak from surf shops and sunglass stands on the very strip where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek formed the band. Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light? Or just another lost angel… I kill a few minutes watching skaters ollie along the undulating walls of the Venice Skatepark, and then I exit the beach, going a few blocks inland to the Venice Canals. Developer Abbot Kinney built these narrow waterways in 1905 to evoke some other Venice, and while I don't see any gondoliers, the homes lining the canals make for a fun self-guided architecture tour, veering from glass-walled Modernist structures to mosaic-tiled hippie bungalows.
A few more blocks up Venice Boulevard, I reach the town's main drag, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. I'm having lunch at Gjelina, which for more than a decade has offered the sort of farm-fresh cuisine and casual-yet-sceney vibe that the rest of the world thinks is LA. I sit at a distressed-wood table and chow down on California king salmon tataki; grilled peaches with burrata, prosciutto, and chicory greens; and a perfectly cooked black bass with olives and heirloom tomatoes. If this is what people associate with LA, I can see why everyone wants to move here.
My feet are flip-flopped out, so it's a good thing my college buddy Matt, who lives in Hermosa Beach, has loaned me his car—a cobalt Chevy Volt we call the Blue Dragon—to help me navigate this unending city. Fortunately, you don't need to be a Targaryen to ride this dragon, so after retrieving the car from the Fairmont valet, I fly up the 405 to the J. Paul Getty Museum, which stands on a hill above the most heavily trafficked freeway in the U.S. I park and take the tram up, then meander through the Robert Irwin–designed Central Garden, following a trickling waterfall to a reflecting pool and an X-Files-esque azalea labyrinth. The scene is so transporting that it's easy to pass a couple of hours without even entering the galleries. Oops.
No time for regrets, though. The afternoon has begun to wane, so I drive back to the Fairmont and take a seat on my balcony to watch the curtain fall on another day in America. Once night has settled and the lights have come up on the pier, I walk over to the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mallwhere fairy lights twinkle and purple jacarandas bloom above shoppers and buskers singing Justin Timberlake. At the food court, I go up an escalator and tap a code into a black door marked "private." When it opens, I enter Dialogue, an 18-seat tasting-menu hideaway that was one of just 24 restaurants in LA to receive a Michelin star this June. As he passes me the gorgeous plates (21 of them!), chef Dave Beran explains how the Roots' album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin inspired his menu.
"I reached out to Questlove, and he told me they wrote that album over the course of the last year of their manager's life," Beran says. "It's essentially their progression emotionally. You had to experience that album the way they intended it, and that led us to the idea of writing a tasting menu that had to be experienced the way we intended. Just as the seasons look forward and backward, the dishes do as well. Every dish has something in it from the last one and something to look forward to in the next. Your snapper had a ginger mist on it, which went into the ginger-rhubarb foam, which leads to a rhubarb chip with matcha and lilac pudding, followed by a cucumber-lilac soda. None of our dishes are intended to be complete thoughts as much as completing each other's thoughts." Food for thought, indeed.
The landmark Venice Sign at sunset
After dinner, I'm buying Matt a drink as a thanks for lending me the Blue Dragon. I take a cab to Abbot Kinney and meet him at the restaurant Scopa Italian Roots, where we tell the maître d' we have a reservation at Old Lightning. He promptly confiscates our phones and leads us around to the side of the building, through an unmarked door, and into LA's premier bourbon bar. The glass case along the wall taunts us with shelf after shelf of nigh-impossible-to-find vintage bottles. Matt leers covetously at a collection of limited-edition Willett, while I pine for the Pappy. I tell the bartender, Jesús, that I love the wheated flavor profile of the Van Winkles but can't shell out $3,000 for a flight. He brings me a more affordable sampler: a delectably corn-sweet Old Taylor 6-year from 1980; an Old Fitzgerald made by a legendary Kentucky warehouse manager who stole from his stores to create his own sought-after blends; and a 101-proof Evan Williams 12-year that's normally available only in the Bluegrass State. "I hope you didn't drive," Matt deadpans, although I think he's just trying to confiscate my Old Fitzgerald. Not a chance, pal.
Artful architecture and swinging nightlife in DTLA
Los Angeles may have an underrated metro system, but the city's true essence is found where the Blue Dragon and I now sit: in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10. I pull up my rush-hour playlist, and Guy Clark sings, If I can just get off of this LA freeway, without getting killed or caught…
Eventually, I reach the center of the city, which the Spanish founded in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles but has in recent years been rebranded simply as DTLA. I'm starting the morning with a bite at Grand Central Market, a 1917 building that's home to all sorts of hip food stalls. I stop at the G&B Coffee counter and get an almond macadamia latte to sip while I wriggle to the Clark Street Bread stand, where I order avocado toast. It tastes like California.
On the other side of the market, I spot one of LA's signature architectural sights, the Bradbury Building. The interior of this National Historic Landmark, which was built in 1893 and features five floors of ornate iron railings and elevator shafts climbing toward an expansive skylight, looks both stunningly vintage and eerily futuristic. It's little wonder Ridley Scott chose it as the setting for the climactic scene of Blade Runner.
I exit through the side door and gawp at the Pope of Broadway, a soaring mural of Anthony Quinn on the former Victor Clothing Company building across the way, before continuing on through DTLA. This area was once so rundown that it wasn't much of a leap for Scott to imagine that by 2019 it would look like a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but over the last decade it has become the reenergized hub of the city, thanks to places like The Last Bookstore. This temple to the written word is probably best known for its second-floor book tunnel, which tourists and wannabe influencers line up to snap selfies in. I ask a clerk what he thinks is the definitive LA novel, and he points me to John Fante's Ask the Dust, which local literary god Charles Bukowski called "a wild and enormous miracle."
It's a good thing I picked up the reading material, because I'm going to have a wait at my next stop. One of the wonderful, contradictory things about this wonderful, contradictory city is that some of its best restaurants are in run-of-the-mill strip malls. One of these is Sushi Gen, in DTLA's Little Tokyo, where a long line has formed before the doors even open. I take my spot and read for a few minutes—Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets … you sad flower in the sand—before I'm seated at the sushi bar, where a chef slings slices of Tsukiji Market–quality fish (buttery tuna, briney sea bream, sweet shrimp, creamy uni) at me until I wave my napkin in the air like a white flag.
The Pacific Seas bar at Clifton's
The afternoon sun is beating down and bouncing up off the pavement, so I elect to walk off my meal indoors, at The Broad Museum. The four-year-old building, which entrepreneur Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, created to house their 2,000-piece collection, stands like a square of honeycomb next to the flamboyantly curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall next door—a contrast that associate curator Sarah Loyer tells me was very much intentional.
Jeff Koon's "Tulips" at the Broad Museum
"Where the Disney Concert Hall reflects light, our building draws light in," she explains. "The ceiling has 318 individual skylights that light the collection gallery. At peak sun hours we have all natural light." We ride the escalator up to the third-floor gallery, an acre of column-free space where pieces by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, and Kara Walker are on display. I'm particularly struck by Deep Blue, an expansive mixed-media canvas by Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. "It's inspired by the 1965 Watts Rebellion," Loyer notes. "You can see the map of the city grid, and the different dots and colors represent historic losses from that event."
We ride the Broad's escalator up to an acre of column-free space to see pieces by Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama
I thank Loyer for enlightening me and then zip over to the recently restored Hotel Figueroa, which features works from a new artist—often a Southern California woman—every quarter. I valet the Blue Dragon and take a few minutes to peruse Topanga-based painter Sophie Kipner's blind-contour portraits before stretching out on a poolside lounge chair with a Bohemia beer. When I mention to the waitress that something about the pool seems odd, she tells me it's shaped like a coffin. That seems like a bad omen for tonight…
But hey, if I gotta go, there are worse places to have my last meal than Nightshade, Top Chef winner Mei Lin's much-hyped new restaurant in the up-and-coming Arts District. A taxi drops me at a converted warehouse space that's an Instagrammer's dream—blond wood, white brick, mint and emerald green upholstery, and hanging plants—surpassed only by the presentation of the dishes: Hokkaido scallops in a coconut vinaigrette, chicharrón chunks with a bright green coconut and trout roe dipping sauce, prawn toast that tastes like Vietnamese spring rolls, Szechuan hot quail served atop Japanese milk bread (à la Nashville hot chicken). If the atmosphere is heavenly, that last plate is hellish; my eyes start burning upon its arrival, and it takes an extra glass of grüner to cool my mouth after its departure.
Let's keep turning up the heat! Clifton's is a DTLA institution, a Depression-era cafeteria that fed 10,000 people a day, eventually fell into disrepair, and was ultimately reborn as a four-story nightlife bazaar following a 2015 renovation. I climb past the giant trunk of an (admittedly fake) redwood tree to the top-floor Pacific Seas tiki bar, where I sit in a wicker chair under a mermaid statue and sip a Scorpion Bowl (rum, gin, cognac, orgeat, and god knows what else) that is, yes, set on fire by my waitress. Before I get stung, I descend one floor to the Brookdale Ballroom, where dancers in Gatsby-esque getups swing to a New Orleans jazz band. A woman sashays by me in a peacock-feather outfit, but she's gone before I can ask her if this is real or if I've been consumed by the flames of Szechuan pepper and Polynesian mixology.
Hollywood history and Eastside eats
It was all real, and I'm paying for it now. Good thing I know the perfect place for a clean-living kind of breakfast. Sqirl is on the edge of East Hollywood, in an area that's still dotted with 99-cent stores, but the line of part-time models waiting outside betrays its hip quotient. I make my way to the counter, order an Horchoffee (vegan horchata shaken with a double espresso) and a Crispy Disco (brown rice with mint, cilantro, cucumber, scallion, avocado, fried egg, and sausage), and grab a seat at the sideboard. The restaurant's sprightly owner, Jessica Koslow, brings over my food and gives me a playful punch on the knee as she takes the stool next to mine.
"It was a lot of pressure to be this funky place and be like, 'Here's what's happening in Los Angeles,'" the Long Beach native says, recalling the rapturous reviews she received after opening in 2012. However, she does take pride in being an evangelist for SoCal cooking. "There are so many different pockets of LA that [its cuisine] is hard to describe, but if you want a neighborhood restaurant for LA, you're here."
The Angel of Breakfast gives me a hug and waves me back to my food. After devouring the Crispy Disco, I head to The Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. Upon checking in, I rendezvous with Tours by Locals guide Jasmine Jia, who takes me on a winding drive through Griffith Park to the Griffith Observatory. The triple-domed Greek Revival building is one of LA's most recognizable—it can be seen in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land—but Jia tells me it almost didn't get built. The city turned down funding from tycoon Griffith J. Griffith in 1912 because he had infamously shot his wife (who survived) a decade earlier. "There was a sensational trial," Jia says. Griffith re-donated the money when he died in 1919, and the Observatory was completed by the WPA in 1935. Today it's both an interactive astronomy museum and a spot from which you can see the Pacific Ocean, DTLA, Dodger Stadium, and the Hollywood sign.
The soup bowl–size chalices of salty, limey beer are garnished with shrimp, and the straws are even crusted with tamarind candy.
Now, the question every tourist in LA inevitably faces: Should I take a picture with the sign? As we drive over, Jia tells me it was erected as a real estate advertisement in 1923, when it originally read "Hollywoodland." "The land was sold, and the sign should have been taken down," she says, "but it became associated with the movie industry and LA and became a landmark." It was later shortened to Hollywood—better to fit the photo Jia snaps of me from the vista point in Lake Hollywood Park below.
Jia drops me back at the Blue Dragon, and I head to a far less touristed part of the city. Another college buddy of mine, Rob, was born and raised in Cypress Park, his parents among the tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants who settled on the east side of the Los Angeles River, and I've asked him to show me a couple of off-the-radar spots. I cross the concrete riverbed into Boyle Heights and meet him at El Tepeyac Café, an institution that serves old-school Mexican food. Rob points me toward the gargantuan chile verde–slathered Original Hollenbeck burrito, which is stuffed with rice and beans and guacamole and pork and comfort. Next, we zip over to La Chupería, in neighboring Lincoln Heights, where the bartender brings us two micheladas, soup bowl–size chalices of salty, limey beer (a Modelo bottle floats mouth-down in each cup) rimmed with chili sauce and garnished with cucumber, celery, and shrimp. The straws are even crusted with tamarind candy. As we slurp our drinks and watch a replay of the previous night's Dodgers game on the TV, I ask Rob what places like this mean to LA, and if he's worried about them disappearing as the city changes.
The busy lanes at Highland Park Bowl
"Gentrification brings restaurants and nightlife to areas that were overlooked, but now you have these immigrant-run mom-and-pop businesses, which have contributed so much to LA's cultural identity, operating under the threat of extinction," he tells me. "Without culture, LA risks losing its home too."
I thank the homie for the knowledge, and we split up with plans to meet later. I really need to stretch my legs, so I head to Echo Park. A popular walking path circles the lake where Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes snapped compromising photos of Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown, but today it's strangely calm: just a couple of teenagers lazily peddling swan boats and a few kids quacking at the ducks near the shore.
Feeling a little lighter, I get back in the car and cruise up Sunset Boulevard, shopping my way through LA's hippest 'hood, Silver Lake. I browse kid-centric bios of Prince and Bowie at MRKT, whip-stitched watchbands at Dean, and vintage rock 'n' roll tees at Sick City Records. Past the junction with Hollywood Boulevard, I make a pilgrimage to the swirling mural that appeared on the cover of Elliott Smith's Figure 8 album. The storefront has changed tenants several times—it's now a well-regarded Filipino restaurant—but most of the artwork remains, serving as a shrine where fans of the deceased songwriter still leave remembrances.
Echo Park Lake
We order frozen White Russians and 'Dead Flowers' comes on. I'm pretty sure we're in a Big Lebowski dream sequence.
Nostalgia makes me hungry. Dinner is at Majordomo, superstar chef David Chang's first California restaurant. I'm joined by Rob and Matt (who has come to reclaim the Blue Dragon) at a table beneath a skylit warehouse ceiling, and we go in on silky tofu topped with uni and avocado, dungeness crab mafaldine pasta, and a pot of boneless chuck short rib onto which our waiter slices a hunk of raclette. "Has anyone ever asked you to carve it straight into their mouth?" Matt asks. "All the time," the waiter replies.
We continue the impromptu reunion at another one of Rob's favorite spots, Highland Park Bowl. A diverse young crowd rolls strikes inside the 92-year-old bowling alley, LA's oldest, which is decorated with league championship banners from decades gone by. We order a round of frozen White Russians, a cocktail the bar calls The Dude Abides, and as we lace up our shoes, the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" comes on. I'm pretty sure we're in a Big Lebowski dream sequence, but I don't see any purple jumpsuits, and the only thing that's nihilistic is the score of our game.
I hug my friends goodbye and hail a ride back to the Roosevelt, where I slip into a robe and look out the window of my suite. Hollywood Boulevard is asleep; the only stars sparkling are the ones embedded in the sidewalk. Good night, stars. Good night, moon. Good night, Los Angeles. I'll see you soon.