As we drove down the stunning Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, breaking up the journey with a night in Morro Bay, I wondered why New York gets all the credit? If you’re heading to the States to soak in some majestic architecture, thought-provoking arts and culture, and vivacious gay nightlife, why doesn’t LA spring to mind as quickly as its East Coast counterpart?
Now granted, in sprawling Los Angeles, you need to pick your neighbourhoods and how you want to explore them with greater finesse than in compact Manhattan with its comprehensive subway system, but this is offset by LA’s consistently warm and sunny climate.
Picking where to base ourselves is easy, as West Hollywood (WeHo) is a central location with lots going on, a great vibe, and the heart of the city’s rainbow community.
Our Kiwi neighbours had suggested staying at Short Stories Hotel (shortstorieshotels.com), and we couldn’t have been happier with their recommendation. Short Stories is quintessentially LA, with that breezy outdoors-in aesthetic the city’s lack of a winter can afford. The hotel’s restaurant has a wealth of outdoor seating in a large private courtyard – their small pool is surrounded by plants. The rooms are clean and modern yet extremely comfortable, and we instantly feel like we should be pitching scripts to studios and getting vitamin injections – because we’re just so LA!
If you’re hoping to rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty, your best bet is hanging out at Canter’s Deli (cantersdeli.com), which sits just a couple of blocks up from the hotel. It’s an LA institution as the most celebrated Jewish deli on the west coast. It’s open 24/7 with flustered interns from CBS studios flying in to retrieve orders as long as your arm.
However, like many tourists, the closest we will actually come to Tom Cruise is Universal Studios (universalstudioshollywood.com). An Uber ride there takes us down Hollywood Boulevard, past the iconic Chinese Theatre, and on the way back, it’s just a short detour to visit the Griffith Observatory, with its panoramic views over the dusky skyline.
Universal Studios is less about thrill rides and more focused on the love of film and television. Broken into ‘lands,’ the recently opened Super Nintendo World is a sensory overload of colour and video game sounds. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter features grand veneers of Hogwarts with in-character actors lining its cobbled streets. We enjoy getting an overpriced beer at Moe’s Tavern in Simpsons-themed Springfield before taking the unmissable Studio Tour, which takes you through sets, fires and floods, with a genuinely funny guide.
We are yearning to sample LA’s gay nightlife, and one venue is particularly intriguing: The Abbey (theabbeyweho.com). Opened in 1991, The Abbey has consistently appeared at the top of ‘World’s Best Gay Bar’ lists since the early naughties and has now expanded into an 18,000-square-foot venue with a restaurant, large dance floors, and sister bar The Chapel next door. I have contacted The Abbey, hoping to get a few quotes from management about their enduring success, but instead they insist on showing us. We have no idea when we arrive that they have reserved us a velvet-roped booth, which has its own platform for a go-go dancer and is ours for the evening! What this experience shows us is the bar’s diversity. The dancers represent a variety of races and genders, and while the WeHo gay scene has a reputation for only embracing botoxed faces and washboard abs (neither of which we possess), on the dance floor we find everyone friendly, especially the statuesque Latin man who immediately comes on to my partner right in front of me. Like many in the club that night, he is partaking in The Abbey’s bright-blue take on a Long Island Iced Tea called Adios, Motherfucker!
I had made the mistake of booking a late-night show at the world-famous Comedy Store (thecomedystore.com) that same night. We miss it because, despite having arrived before 8pm, it’s 2.30am when we (literally) fall out of our booth at The Abbey and realise that it is time to go home!
In an attempt to nourish our remaining brain cells, we acquaint ourselves with Los Angeles cultural centres the next day. Architectural wonder The Getty (getty.edu) is a hub of fine art, unique gardens, and spectacular views that is free to enter with pre-booked tickets. Ten minutes from there, the Geffen Playhouse (geffenplayhouse.org) is a boutique non-profit theatre named after gay entertainment industry magnate and billionaire David Geffen. A playwriting hub, as much as it is a theatre, the Geffen offers development opportunities and education programs to aspiring playwrights. Located on the edge of Beverly Hills, this intimate theatre attracts some big names to star in its little productions. As express goes to print, Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern is just finishing up a run playing Ava Gardner in The Secret Conversation, which she also wrote.
The Arts District:
Outside of the Geffen, LA’s Arts District is the centre of West Coast theatre, with a buzzing neighbourhood of craft breweries, art markets, and independent eateries surrounding it. People often complain that stretched-out cities like LA have no heart, but here we find its soul.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall (laphil.com) is a building that has to be seen to be believed, with waves of stainless steel sweeping around its exterior. It is the winter home of the LA Philharmonic (they play the Hollywood Bowl in the summer) and is as inspiring inside as it is out, where its wavy aesthetic is continued. We are lucky enough to catch a show, and each note the orchestra plays fills every inch of the auditorium. These renowned acoustics do not fail to impress.
Anchoring the concert hall’s ground floor is asterid by Ray Garcia (astride.com), a restaurant that opened in April last year and had been awarded a Michelin star by December. The dark, sultry ambiance is complimented by the bright, colourful dishes from the authentically Californian menu, influenced by the chef’s Mexican heritage. This is a meal to take your time over, not rush between shows.
While I’m sure art aficionados will assure you that you need hours to explore The Broad’s (thebroad.org) two fabulous floors, we really enjoyed taking in a touch of Keith Haring, a splash of Cindy Sherman, and a pinch of Andy Warhol in between theatre shows. We just had time to catch Kusama’s installation, Infinity Mirrored Room, a trippy take on our never-ending universe.
Which brings us to our final LA recommendation, the jewel that really weighted the question of ‘whether New York deserves its crown?’ Center Theatre Group (centertheatregroup.org) is a collection of theatres: the Ahmanson and Mark Taper Forum, which stand shoulder to shoulder, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre across town. Their 2022/23 season focused on women-identifying, non-binary, and BIPOC playwrights, an initiative that CTG intends to continue into next year. We check out Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Cottage’s Clyde’s, a play that examines life after being released from incarceration, told from the perspective of a diner’s kitchen staff, and 2:22 – A Ghost Story, which brings out a cast of Hollywood heavy hitters (Constance Wu, Anna Camp, and Adam Rothenberg) for a truly LA theatre experience. CTG just debuted A Transparent Musical – based on the ground-breaking TV show – which explores transition at the intersection of Jewish and queer identities!
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Article | Oliver Hall.