“I’m not a Westside girl,” my born-and-raised L.A. friend said to me recently. I had mentioned how much Venice had changed in the couple years since I had last visited Los Angeles, its sleazy stoner image having been reinvented into something much more charming. And when I told her my afternoon spent at Café del Rey in Marina del Rey was like a breath of fresh air (literally), she was aghast. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/JonRawlinson)
Because Los Angelenos continue to stick to their respective areas, parts of the city’s Westside may be overlooked by travelers with refined palate. With restaurants like Spago, Urasawa, and Matsuhisa, Beverly Hills has long eclipsed Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and Marina del Rey as the more famous, wealthier step-sister. Boutique hotels like the minute but hugely plush Luxe Rodeo Drive (left) as well as five-star choices like the newly renovated Beverly Wilshire make the area accessible to travelers looking for a taste of the good life.
Santa Monica, too, makes contributions to L.A.’s increasingly stellar dining line-up in the form of standbys like Valentino, one of the country’s 101 Best Restaurants, and the modern, seasonally driven Melisse, among others. The area’s casual dining is great, as well. True to its name, Nook peeks out of a strip mall off Santa Monica Boulevard but its elevated comfort food speaks confidently. Then there’s Real Food Daily’s original location, which still pumps out unbelievably fresh vegan food that even carnivores tuck into. Food coma? Shutters on the Beach is a stylish hotel that allows travelers to be beach bums without giving up the cushy city life.
Venice’s newly turned leaf doesn’t mean that the area is without its quirkiness. Like a Brooklyn neighborhood but with more sunshine, yuppies and hipsters alike zip around on bicycles, dropping in for a cup of Intelligentsia coffee and breezing through independent boutiques along Abbott Kinney Boulevard. The Venice Beach House’s lush, vine-covered exterior gives a sense of the historic inn’s hominess. It’s definitely not the hotel you’d expect to find in L.A.
A bit slicker is Hotel Erwin, but it also plays into Venice’s indie-cool image — see: the “Dogtown, Sweet” suite. The dining scene is dominated by Gjelina, a neighborhood bistro with a rustic interior and menu, and it’s rumored the lauded restaurant’s team is “taking over Abbott Kinney” with another restaurant on the street. Meanwhile, relative newcomer The Tasting Kitchen made it onto Alan Richman’s 2011 GQ list for its calibration of European influences.
Heading further south of Venice, you suddenly remember that you’re in Southern California, the sky is blue, the sea sparkles, and the palm trees sway. For those of us who don’t own a boat, there’s now a reason to go to Marina del Rey — the recently re-imagined Café del Rey. The soaring ceilings and picture windows offer a dreamy view of the marina and the inevitably spectacular sunset. It’s an unexpected location to find creative Mediterranean-accented dishes like a subtly deconstructed Nicoise “salad” of yellowfin crudo that’s been through a ricer to remove the tuna’s acids (above right).
Riffing off the coastal Cinque Terre towns, chef Daniel Roberts makes all of the pasta and mozzarella in-house and his care with the ingredients show. The food is a refreshing antithesis of the heavy Southern-leaning comfort food from places like Gjelina. A five-course tasting menu and a few too many “market fresh” cocktails (or off-the-menu homemade vodka limoncellos) might call for a leisurely stroll around Fisherman’s Village and a poolside nap at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. The best part? Easy access — you’re a hop, skip, and a jump from LAX.