Three Perfect Days: Chicago
Story by Jacqueline Detwiler | Photography by Lucy Hewett | Hemispheres July 2019
A spiked riot of original architecture. A vintage boulevard where everyone speaks Spanish. The wellspring of the blues. The birthplace of house music. The way you think about Chicago depends entirely on which part of it you've been to. The city of 2.7 million on Lake Michigan manifests as a collection of neighborhoods, each one a mini ecosystem, with its complementary restaurants and public spaces, denizens and habitats. And then, in the next neighborhood, everything all over again, only this time there's a beach, and the taquerias have been replaced by German beer halls. Like the river that made it, the Windy City is different every time you set foot in it. The first time I visited Chicago, I was in awe of its surreal, hyperambitious restaurants. The second time, I was amazed by its towering, audacious buildings. The third time, a random guy invited me to his housewarming party. This is the story of the fourth time.
Diving into Lake Michigan
Appreciating architecture and cheering in the Cubs
I am pretty sure that if you're good in this life, when you get to the pearly gates, St. Peter hands you a kitten-soft robe from the Art Deco St. Jane hotel and says, “Here you go. This is what we all wear up here." I was set to leave my moody Victorian suite (complete with interior brass stairwell!) and start my day, but I hadn't counted on the heavenly perfection of this garment.
A room at the Art Deco St. Jane Hotel
OK, fine, I'll get coffee. The St. Jane is inside Chicago's Loop, so named for the circuit the elevated subway system (called the L) travels around it. It's about an eight-minute walk to Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture, which locals have nicknamed “The Bean." Across from that, the cheeky Crown Fountain spits water into a reflecting pool at the edge of Millennium Park. I buy a Limitless Salted Caramel Cold Brew from Michigan Avenue's Fairgrounds Coffee and Tea, which offers kombucha, cold brew, and even nitro matcha on tap, then walk across the sinuous BP pedestrian bridge to see Lake Michigan. Its endlessness always shocks me; today it fades into mist at its far edge.
The Chicago River, seen from the St. Jane
But Chicago is not all, or even mostly, the lake. The best way to get acquainted with the city is by river, on the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise. From the top deck of the Chicago's First Lady, downtown's high-rises loom like the cliffs of a Utah canyon. We cross under bridges with just a few feet of leeway, learning how the city came to architecturally dominate the United States. Nancy, the volunteer docent leading the tour, fills in the cracks (OK, chasms) in my architectural education: In high-rises, the term spandrel refers to the space between the window tops on one floor and the sills above; the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 crossed the river because the water was full of wooden boats; yes, Art Deco buildings do kind of look like armchairs. We learn the similarities between Bertrand Goldberg's 1963 Marina City, its lobes like the petals of a hippie's daisy pin, and his 1986 River City, a Brutalist, organic cliff dwelling. We see 150 North Riverside, the ballerina, cantilevered over the river in defiance of God and physics. If I remember even half of what Nancy says, I'll have dinner party factoids for years.
History reminds me of school, which reminds me it's lunchtime. Chicagoans can debate the merits of their favorite pizza for hours: Pequod's is puffy and caramelized; at Gino's East you can order your pie topped with a full-size sausage disc. Lou Malnati's, which operates some 56 locations in the area, is a bit touristy, but it's tasty (and ubiquitous) enough that I'm calling it in their favor. I order the Lou: spinach, garlic, basil, onion, three cheeses, mushrooms, and sliced Roma tomatoes. The classic deep-dish crust, which is yanked up the sides of the pan before going in the oven, is lighter and crispier than I remembered, the flavor deeper and more buttery. I'm a thin-crust girl at heart, but I could (unfortunately) eat a lot of these. I have to stop myself, though; I've got a game to catch.
At 105 years old, Wrigley Field is one of the last remaining prewar ballparks in the country. (The only one that's older is Boston's Fenway, at 107.) It's a true neighborhood park, with skybox-style bleacher seats topping some of the surrounding apartment buildings—but I'm headed to the cheap seats. On the way in, I pass a little boy and his sister playing an elaborate game of catch/dodgeball against one of the stadium's walls, a lemonade stand sitting forgotten behind them. I'm peckish, so I head to the Garrett Popcorn kiosk and buy the local fave, a mix of caramel and cheese, and head to my seat.
I don't quite get my Ferris Bueller moment—the only ball to make it into my section is caught by a guy a few rows over—but I do get to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch, following comedian Roy Wood Jr., who leads the chorus from the jumbotron. There are so many stats on the oldschool scoreboard it's almost impossible to find the score. Who's winning? Oh, the Cubs. Whew.
Comedians at iO Theater
The game ends (Cubs 6, Cardinals 5) with just enough time for me to cab down to iO Theater, on a leftover patch of land between Old Town and Ranch Triangle, to experience Chicago's storied improv scene. For this show, Whirled News Tonight, audience members are supposed to cut out their favorite articles from the day's newspapers and tack them to bulletin boards while the lights are up. I select a story about hard times falling on Canada's maple syrup industry, then sit back and order some wings and nachos, which seem in keeping with the day's theme. When the show begins, the troupe turns the article I chose into a family meeting: “We've got to get millennials interested in maple syrup," the father says in a ridiculous Canadian accent. They settle on putting the syrup in vape pens, and the audience is in tears anytime anyone says “Sooorry?"
Afterward, the comics mill around with friends and family, rehashing moments of exhilaration and terror. Surely one of these people will be the next Amy Poehler or Stephen Colbert (both iO alums). I'd stay to chat but I have one more stop before bed: The Aviary, the ultimate shrine to cocktail-making from obsessive chef-cum-scientist Grant Achatz. Inside a monochromatic sanctuary, Achatz's chosen bartenders toil on the other side of a floor-to-ceiling fence. The cocktails they produce with their tweezers and smoking guns and sous vide baths fizz and steam and melt. My favorite is the Jungle Bird: rum, pineapple and lime juices, and Campari layered over a pile of liquid-filled gelatinous balls that pop in your mouth. “That one'll get you," says the host as I wobble out. “All those little balls are full of rum!"
The Lou pizza at Lou Malnati's
A South Side history lesson and a Fulton Market food tour
I'm back in the robe, and while there are many museums here worth getting out of it for—the Field Museum, with its titanosaur; the Art Institute of Chicago, with American Gothic—none is as deeply necessary as the Stony Island Arts Bank. The museum is an extension of the physical art of local creator Theaster Gates, who is trained in both ceramics and urban planning. Gates, whose Rebuild Foundation invests in the cultural redevelopment of underserved neighborhoods, found out the city was planning to demolish a beautiful South Side bank from the 1920s and convinced the government to sell it to him for $1. He refurbished it, creating a cultural space and museum dedicated to the experiences of black people.
Hans Haacke's Gift Horse on the roof of The Art Institute of Chicago
Everything here is free and open to the public, including film screenings, live music, and DJ sets. An exhibition of Rob Pruitt's Barack Obama paintings—quotidian portraits of the 44th president painted in white on red and blue canvases—fills the downstairs. The research library of Johnson Publishing, which was once the largest African-American-owned publishing company in the country and the creator of Jet and Ebony magazines, spans two floors and contains a comprehensive history of black culture in the United States. Inside the library, you can watch an archivist digitizing the collection of records belonging to Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of Chicago house music. There's more, all of it powerful, but nothing screams the museum's mission more than its Neoclassical facade, sitting alone on this long, desolate street. Where are the lines of patrons? Where are the passersby? I want to tell everyone about this place.
I get my chance in a cab, telling the driver, who has a lot of DJ friends, about the Frankie Knuckles collection. He's so excited to visit that he has me spell the museum's name for him. “You gotta listen to house," he says, by way of a solution to just about everything. “The house music crowd doesn't talk about killing. They just talk about partying and dancing and positive things."
Cabra at The Hoxton
Speaking of partying and dancing and positive things, could my driver drop me off at The Hoxton, Chicago, in Fulton Market, so I can check in? The hip London-based mini-chain has a knack for anointing the just-hit-it-big neighborhood in every city it touches. Decked out in Mid-Century Modern furniture, with a window framing the tracks of the L, the lobby looks like a place where that absurd party from the Leonardo DiCaprio version of The Great Gatsby could break out at any moment.
Beloved Chicago chef Stephanie Izard has bestowed her latest restaurant, Cabra, a Peruvian cevicheria, on the Hoxton's rooftop. And, wouldn't you know it, here she is in the lobby, wearing her hair piled on top of her head the way she did while becoming the first woman to win Top Chef. Izard is insanely busy, overseeing four restaurants in Fulton Market, but as a de facto ambassador for the district, she has agreed to give me a tour. “When you're trying to pick where to open a restaurant, you pick a neighborhood and you determine what your restaurant is going to be from there, because the neighborhoods are so different," she says. “The day [my partner and I] came down to look at Fulton Market 10 years ago, none of this was here. It was kind of barren and empty and warehousey, and he was like, 'All right, use your imagination and give this space a chance.'" Now, Izard says, the nabe has come up so much that it's turned into “the restaurant epicenter of the city." She might be a little biased.“I take the elevator up to Cabra, a breezy oasis decorated with carved llamas and bottles of pisco."
Or maybe she isn't. At our first stop, JP Graziano Grocery, we order a juicy Italian sandwich called the Mr. G to split, and I realize I am (oops) starving. The sandwich is rich and salty, with sharp provolone, hot soppressata, prosciutto, salami, basil, artichokes, and lettuce, on soft bread with zingy Italian spices and condiments. Izard introduces me to Jim Graziano, the founder's great-grandson, who turned his family's 82-year-old meat and grocery business into a sandwich shop in 2007 in anticipation of Fulton Market's rise. “When I grew up, this neighborhood was all wholesale markets. At 2 p.m. you could shoot a cannon down Randolph Street and not hit anything," he says, as the theme from The Godfather plays over the restaurant's speakers. “I was just like, 'This building is so cool, and this corner is right in the middle of everything.' I saw an opportunity." Izard says she has about 25 plants at home, and her 3-year-old son, Ernie, is going through a flower phase, so our next stop is Asrai Garden, which smells of forest floor and palo santo. I ogle the jewelry and candles while Izard pulls together a bouquet of bright red ranunculus, baby pink wax flowers, and what looks like lavender candytuft. The cashier wraps it all in black paper. “I feel like I'm in a wedding!" Izard says, gamely marching down the aisle and out the door.
Chef Stephanie Izard
On our way back to the hotel, we stop where balloons mark the spring reopening of Baobing, Izard's Taiwanese street food takeout window, which is connected to her restaurant Duck Duck Goat. Izard wants to take a picture with the fans who waited in line, but first she orders me the Jian Bing Thing, an ice cream bar wrapped in a custard-coated crepe, with cilantro, hoisin caramel, and sweet and crunchy chili oil. It's the most unexpected flavor combination I've ever experienced (and I drank a cocktail made out of Campari, pineapple juice, and rum balls last night).
Izard has to get ready for her evening, but I have one more shop to visit—the men's clothing store Independence, which carries sophisticated floral shirts and vintage denim. After much convincing, it earned the right to import shirts from a Japanese brand called Kapital. My fiancé salivates over these things, and I'm always on the lookout for gifts.
For dinner, I take the elevator to the roof and Izard's Cabra, a breezy oasis decorated with leggy plants, carved llamas, bottles of pisco, and a rolling door leading to a pool. Looking at the menu, I immediately realize I don't know a lot about Peruvian food. What is choclo? Huancaina? Tiraditos? A friendly waiter comes to my rescue: Choclo is giant Peruvian corn. Huancaina is a sauce made of yellow peppers and cheese. Tiraditos are ceviches with sliced, rather than cubed, fish. I order a funky hamachi tiradito with parmesan leche de tigre (citrus marinade, basically), trout roe, and marcona almond slivers; and a hirame tiradito topped with pickled ramp and crab salad that I'd take home if they'd sell it to me (they won't). I also get huancaina dip with salmon ceviche, sweet-potato chips, duck-fat crackers, and a gin cocktail whimsically named Alpaca My Bags.
After a few more Alpacas at the bar, I swear I'm starting to hallucinate a full beach out by the pool. I end up talking to two women who work nearby; they were late to an evening exercise class and decided to say screw it and get dinner. They're on their way to see some live music at Bassment, a chichi underground venue in River North. Do I want to come?
I do, and in minutes I'm sitting on an old leather couch, watching a woman with a voice like a barrel of buttered rum belt out a cover of Stevie Wonder's “I Wish." “I wish those days could come back once more," she sings. And I wish I didn't have to go to bed.
Bursting Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square
Shopping in Logan Square and eating hummus in Lincoln Park
Studio Gang's artful wooden pavilion at the Lincoln Park Zoo
Last night was a late one, and a warm spring day in Chicago must not be taken for granted, so I grab some tea (Hoxton is based in the U.K., after all) from the room and head up to the pool for a pre-brunch dip.
It might seem impossible to find a place cooler than the Hoxton, but lo, it exists. It's a part of town called Logan Square, just a 22-minute ride northwest from Fulton Market on the L's blue line. The minute I disembark I see the signs: Tattoos? Check. Bearded dads in flannel carrying BabyBjörns? Check. A man in a floral button-down shirt on a skateboard carrying a case of Tecate? Triple check.
I'm meeting my college roommate, Michelle, who lives in Chicago these days, for brunch. Thanks in part to weddings, we see each other about once a year nowadays, but before 2016 it had been almost a decade. Unembarrassed, we long-hug in front of the height of hipster cool, Longman & Eagle, a contemporary take on ye olde public house. Inside, the wood-floored (and ceilinged!) dining room is decorated with jars of arrows, raw brick, and rusty factory lights. They've repurposed an old Statesman by Wurlitzer jukebox as a bussing station. Above us? Their own budget inn.
Any millennial worth her high-waisted sailor pants knows the thing to order in a place like this is the avocado toast. It's a good choice—spread with smoked salmon ricotta, sliced avocado, and caviar, it's more complex than the standard lemon-and-red-pepper-flake mash. Michelle, who is a maniac, orders Nutella-banana French toast and, reasoning that this place is also a beloved whiskey bar, a What's in a Name? cocktail, which is made from Dark Matter Coffee's Unicorn Blood espresso blend, Mr. Black cold brew coffee liqueur, George Dickel white, and cherry bitters. I get a mimosa. We tell lots and lots of old stories, absolutely none of which will be printed here.
The krembo dessert at Galit
After brunch, we wander over to Wolfbait & B-girls, a female-owned and-operated shop that sells wares from Chicago artists and artisans. The name comes from a 1950s guidebook: “Wolfbait" was a term for girls who moved to Chicago looking for success; “B-girls," for B-movie, B-side, or just bad girls, was what they sometimes became instead. We poke around the T-shirts with saucy slogans, coral rings, and candles. Michelle lifts up a studded leather bandanna and nods approvingly. I'm not sure I could pull that off, so I settle on a delicate necklace of the city's four-star flag and a candle in an old beer can. Now all I need is a $3,000-a-month loft to put this in.
Michelle recommends City Lit, a bookstore around the corner that has a cozy reading area in front of a fireplace in the back. Among the latest nonfiction sits An American Summer by Alex Kotlowitz, which chronicles one season's worth of life in areas of Chicago that are afflicted with gun violence. It's a tough topic, but we agree that these stories are the most important kind.
I buy the book, and we proceed to wander down North Kedzie Boulevard admiring the greystones—majestic Romanesque homes that look like New York City's brownstones, only they're (usually) made out of Indiana-quarried limestone. After about a mile, we reach The 606, an elevated biking and running trail grafted onto the old Bloomingdale train line. We stroll east, looking for chef Rick Bayless's 1,000-square-foot backyard garden, which Stephanie Izard told me was visible from the trail. We don't see it (turns out we should have kept going all the way into Bucktown), but we do see plenty of cyclists, rooftop hangouts, and grills. If there's one thing you can say about Chicagoans, it's that they appreciate a nice day.
“Galit is too new to have been seriously reviewed, but if it doesn't win any awards I'll say my hat."
At the Western L stop, we exit the park, making plans to meet later. I get on the train, heading back to Logan Square for happy hour at Lost Lake, which was named Best American Cocktail Bar last year by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. Marked by a stylized metal icon of a fish and a pink neon sign that says “Tiki," Lost Lake feels like your favorite bar from your gap year. There's a fish tank with a skull in it. Over the bar, pink lights shine out of loose-slatted fishing barrels. The cocktail names sound like stanzas from a poem, and I order From Pine to Palm/Like Ceremonies of a Pleasant Nature, both because I love fino sherry and because it has palo santo and pandan in it. Like all tiki drinks, it's sweet, silly, and comes with way too many garnishes, all of which I attempt to put in my hair.
Neighborhood Watch: PilsenThere's no Hoxton hotel in Pilsen yet, but it wouldn't be surprising if the company were scouting. The neighborhood, a longtime Latin community, has hit on the perfect blend of vintage shops, unfussy Mexican restaurants, museums, and hip bars to be intriguing to visitors, locals, and residents alike. Start at the National Museum of Mexican Art, where you can see a collection of 10,000 pieces of folk art, photographs, sculptures, and paintings for free. At Pilsen Vintage, grab some old Latin and house records thoughtfully curated by Charly Garcia of local DJ collective Sonorama, then stop into Taqueria Los Comales for a couple of ridiculously cheap tacos al pastor. Finish up with a draft cocktail and a nationally recognized band at Thalia Hall, which is run by the folks behind Longman & Eagle.
Afterward, I take a cab over to Lincoln Park, home of the very old (151 years) Lincoln Park Zoo and the very new Galit, the first restaurant that chef Zachary Engel has helmed since winning the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef as chef de cuisine at New Orleans's Shaya in 2017. The Middle Eastern spot is too new to have been seriously reviewed yet, but if it doesn't win any awards I'll eat my hat. I'd rather not, though, because the server just dropped off the airiest hummus I've ever had, topped with mushrooms, greens, and gribenes—crispy bits of chicken skin that are having a culinary moment. Next, fluffy, brick-oven-baked pita bread with little bowls of yogurt cheese, housemade pickles, tomato-and-pepper spread, and little tangy onions with coriander and crumbles of oiled feta. The falafel is actually moist, served over funky fermented mango labneh. A chicken thigh comes crispy-skinned under a caramelized coat of harissa.
Dessert is a classic Israeli children's treat called krembo—a sesame shortbread cookie topped with rose-infused marshmallow and a chocolate shell—plus adults-only anise-flavored arak, which comes with a tiny glass of ice and a tiny glass of water and makes my mouth go numb. I regret that I have but one stomach to fill, but I ask my waiter to pack up the leftovers so I can bring them to my friend.
Kayaking the Lincoln Park Lagoon
Michelle lives right down the street from Galit, and I walk over to her apartment so I can meet her cats. From her window, I can see The Wiener's Circle, a hot dog shop notorious for its sassy, expletive-spouting employees. Michelle tells me how her whole floor had a block party in the hall on that one winter day when it was 23 below and no one was allowed to go outside. “It's a good thing you've got these big ol' windows, then," I say, looking out at a beautiful evening. The sun is just beginning to set, painting the sky a dreamy mix of lavender and peach. There are people walking their dogs, following a pink path of fallen cherry blossoms. We see friends laughing as they wait for restaurant tables, and we hear saxophones wailing from the open doors of blues bars. The entire world in microcosm. Should we go back out? We must.
Where to Stay
St. JaneShaped like an Art Deco Champagne bottle, the St. Jane is housed in the historic Carbide & Carbon Building and contains two levels of opulent rooms: Contemporary Victorian respites with marble showers and tasseled closet pulls live in the Champagne bottle's shoulders, while suites that look like Gothic-Victorian artist parlors live in the neck, making up a hotel-within-a-hotel called the Tower at St. Jane. From $189, stjanehotel.com
The Hoxton, ChicagoWith free Wi-Fi, a fireplace, and that amazing window looking out on the L, the sprawling Hoxton lobby is always full of people—especially at happy hour. When you're ready to call it a night, take a shower with the hotel's signature Blank products (which your correspondent now uses at home) and check out the curated book collections in the rooms, each of which contains 10 books chosen by a local luminary. From $129, thehoxton.com
Around the web
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.