Let’s get the obvious out of the way: I live in New York, which means I’m required to throw some serious shade at Los Angeles, or they revoke my NY citizenship (I’m pretty sure that’s how it works; haven’t actually checked the city charter). But here’s a little secret between us: I love L.A., and I’m always thrilled when I get to travel there. This city checks all of my boxes: it’s incredibly diverse, it’s exciting, it’s got beautiful beaches and sunny weather, it’s got more to see and do than I could possibly fit into a short trip, and it’s a foodie’s paradise. I know, don’t tell the folks back east. Here’s what I like to do when I’m in Los Angeles.
One of the first things I do when I “hop off the plane at LAX,” to quote the inimitable Miley Cyrus, is eat. Actually, scratch that: food is my second stop, after I rent my car. See, the L.A. area is sprawling, and you’ll be missing out on some seriously delicious meals (as well as tons to see and do) if you just stick to the urban core. The northeastern suburbs that comprise what is known as the “San Gabriel Valley,” for instance, offer some of the tastiest and most plentiful options for Chinese food this side of the Pacific. Each region of this vast metro offers its own distinct flavors. Here’s where I like to go:
Markets and Food Halls
I try to hit up a market or food hall in every town I visit, and L.A. has plenty of both. Downtown’s Grand Central Market has been hosting an eclectic array of food vendors since 1917 (which feels like a thousand years in a city as new and ever-changing as L.A.). Slightly less old, but no less interesting, is the L.A. Farmers Market in the funky Fairfax neighborhood. The market, located on a former oil field, has been attracting hungry Angelinos and tourists alike since 1934.
Of course, I also love the market’s younger, trendier sibling: the food hall. And L.A. has some great ones. Topanga Social in Canoga Park is one of the city’s newest food halls, but it has already made big waves in the L.A. food scene. Essentially, it’s the food court for the Westfield Shopping Mall. If only every mall had a food court like this! Here you’ll find outposts and offshoots of some of L.A.’s most beloved restaurants, including Glendale’s award-winning Armenian restaurant Mini Kabob, Dtown Pizzeria (Detroit-style pies), and craft burger spot Amboy. Citizen Public Market is another food hall favorite, located in a former publishing house in Culver City. Citizen boasts a trendy bar, a sausage company, a traditional Chinese noodle shop, and a spot serving authentic Nigerian food, just to name a few.
Ethnic Eats Galore
One of L.A.’s greatest strengths is its incredible diversity: people flock here from all parts of the country and world, often in pursuit of a dream. The combination of all those cultures has led to an amazing food scene, with different areas specializing in different cuisines. As I mentioned earlier, the San Gabriel Valley offers some of the best Chinese food you are likely to eat without booking a trans-Pacific flight. Specifically, restaurants like Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Rosemead (known for its award-winning dim sum), Huge Tree Pastry in Monterey Park (a Taiwanese Bakery), Bistro Na’s in Temple City (a Michelin-starred restaurant that gives you the opportunity to dine like royalty on “Imperial Chinese cuisine”) are not to be missed.
L.A. also happens to be one of the best places in the U.S. for me to connect with my Japanese roots. “Little Tokyo” is a downtown-adjacent neighborhood that’s worthy of an epic food crawl, and I certainly did some damage there. My favorite stops included Murakai Market for pre-made bento boxes, Marugame Monzo for handmade udon noodles, (big) Tokyo import Rakkan Ramen for some delicious vegan ramen options, and Fugetsu-Do Bakery Shop, which has been family-owned since 1903. My brother Naveen turned me on to this one (look him up if you’re ever in L.A. and need the world’s best skincare!), so of course I have to give him a shout-out.
The north-central suburb of Glendale is the hub of L.A.’s large Armenian and Persian communities and is a must-visit for lovers of those cuisines. Zengyalov Hatz gets its name from the traditional Armenian flatbread that the restaurant specializes in. Made with 15 different herbs, this flatbread packs some serious botanical flavor. Just a couple blocks away, Raffi’s Place has been the go-to spot for L.A.’s Persian community for decades, with their grilled kabobs drawing huge crowds.
Honestly, I could make this entire article about L.A.’s legendary ethnic eats. I could talk about the Thai food in Thai Town, the legendary Korean food in – you guessed it – Koreatown, the Vietnamese food in Orange County’s Garden Grove, or the mouth-watering Mexican food that you’ll find pretty much all over. But we’ve got so much more to cover! More specifically, it’s time for a shopping spree.
When most people think of L.A. shopping, they picture the glitz and glam of Rodeo Drive. And while I love to window shop there (hey, a girl can dream), you’ll more likely find me scouring the area for bargains. Luckily, there are many to be found. Here are some of my favorite shopping destinations in Los Angeles:
The Fashion District
If you’re anywhere near downtown Los Angeles – aka DTLA – you have to hit up the Fashion District for some fun and funky bargains. More specifically, you should check out Santee Alley. This bustling alley between Santee Street and Maple Street is filled with over 150 open-air shops selling everything from colorful outfits, to handbags, to perfume, to electronics, to those souvenirs you’ve been meaning to buy for the folks back home.
Not far from the Fashion District, Olvera Street (aka “Calle Olvera”) is the historic hub of Los Angeles’ massive Mexican-American community. One of the oldest streets in Los Angeles, Olvera Street has been an open-air Mexican marketplace since 1930. Here you’ll find traditional Mexican clothes and handcrafts, as well as flowers, candles, and – usually – plenty of street musicians and traditional dancers. You’ll also find some really good Mexican food at the many restaurants and cafes along this festive, brick-lined street. I recommend grabbing an outdoor table and soaking it all in. I was lucky enough to be here for Dia De Los Muertos, when the street comes alive with face painting, theatrical performances, ofrendas (altars honoring deceased loved ones), and centuries-old cleansing ceremonies.
Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade isn’t just a shopper’s paradise: it’s one of the liveliest spots in Greater Los Angeles. Think block after block of high-end shops, eclectic restaurants, and crowded bars. It’s got big chain stores like Urban Outfitters, Rolex, and H&M, as well as one-off shops like Sand n’ Surf–a breezy skater/surfer boutique that helps you snag that SoCal look (I always try to rock the local style when I’m in a new city, and this shop really came through for me). Best of all, Third Street Promenade is pedestrian-only, meaning this is one of the few places where you can go for a stroll without having to contend with L.A.’s notorious traffic.
When most people think of L.A. nightlife, they think of the see-and-be-seen clubs that dot Hollywood like countless flashbulbs–places where you’re likely to spot movie stars gliding past the velvet rope. Luckily for more average folks like yours truly, L.A. nightlife is much more than that. A city this big and diverse has a scene for everyone. This is what I got into when the lights went down.
Normally, I like to mention the tried-and-true spots, but there is a new DTLA club that I just have to turn you on to. Level 8 is a massive dining and late-night entertainment complex consisting of 8 different venues. Just to name a couple: Golden Hour is a rooftop pool complete with dancers, tropical drinks and stunning views of the city; Mr. Wanderlust is a sophisticated piano bar and jazz lounge that plays host to the occasional burlesque dancer; Mother of Pearl is a champagne and raw bar helmed by Michelin starred chef Joshua Gil; while Sinners y Santos is a cathedral-like nightclub complete with stained glass windows. Bonus points if you read all that in your best Stefon voice!
The Baked Potato
I had a blast at Level 8, but it left my head spinning, so let’s tone it down a bit for this next one. The Baked Potato is an intimate Studio City lounge that has played host to L.A.’s best jazz musicians since 1970. If you’ve had your fill of the Hollywood scene, this is the perfect retreat. And yes, they do actually serve (massive, loaded) baked potatoes! This laidback, retro spot is your grandma’s jazz club and that’s why I love it.
Griffith Park Observatory
One of L.A.’s top tourist attractions, Griffith Park Observatory has starred in several great movies, including Rebel Without a Cause and – much more recently – La La Land. While many people visit this famed observatory during the day, I highly recommend going at night. For one, you can look up into the night sky, for free, through the observatory’s gigantic telescope. And when you’re done looking up, don’t forget to look out at the lights of the city spread before you like so many glittering stars. The observatory closes at 10 p.m., making it the perfect place to begin your night out in L.A.
Back to Cali…
I started this guide with a lyric from The Mamas & the Papas, and ended it with a Notorious B.I.G. lyric…sounds about right for me! As usual, I feel like I barely scratched the surface with this guide. I could have written several more pages on food alone, not to mention all the museums I didn’t get a chance to visit this time. Luckily, I have family here (love you, Naveen!) and I am sure it is just a matter of time until I’m “Back to Cali.”
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