The Margins of Metropolis

Discovering the delights and cultural character of Los Angeles’ coastal neighbors

Photo by Edizen StowellThe Boardwalk.

There are few places on Earth I have been where the city streets themselves are entertainment enough. Paris. New York. There the citizens perform their city for you as they move through it. You might find it in New Orleans, if you catch a pomaded dandy with a boutonniere in the lapel of his white linen suit, an ivory-topped walking stick, handmade shoes and a diamond sparkling in a front tooth. Not Barcelona or London or San Francisco.

You’d hardly expect Los Angeles, where almost no one walks, to have this quality, and it doesn’t. But right next door, Venice Beach has it in abundance. You can sit in the Sidewalk Café on the Boardwalk watching fire-eaters, musclemen, tattooed unicyclists, classical pianists, apostles of ganja, mystics and old rockers in a living-tapestry Cirque du Soleil performance by the addled, the infirm and, now and then, the glamorous. It’s the ’60s in aspic, with some original cast members stepping from their retirement homes and missions barefoot and in flowing robes, a joint between their fingers.

We drove across the desert from Las Vegas, checked into the beachfront Hotel Erwin and walked the Boardwalk into the more groomed and sedate Santa Monica. There, at the new Broad Stage, we saw an energetic and hilarious production of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the London Globe. Tom Hanks was in the row behind, laughing louder than anyone. Los Angeles may have been conceived as a continuous suburb, but it is replete nevertheless with world-class exhibitions and galleries, superb theater productions and some of the best live music to be found anywhere. Culture here is more proximate, more spontaneous, more a natural outgrowth of the city than we are accustomed to in Las Vegas.

The following day we visited the Getty Villa in Malibu, modeled with expensive precision on the Pompeii estate of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and intended as a riposte to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. Here you can feel the airiness and sensuality of this departed Roman aristocratic life, marvel at the beautiful antiquities exhibited there and examine in detail one of the bizarre things done by an American billionaire to display his largesse. You can then walk on Malibu Beach as the sun goes down, have chowder and striped bass at Gladstone’s seafood restaurant, declared by a London friend of mine to be his favorite restaurant in the world, then drink late at the tiny Chez Jay in Santa Monica, where Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe also once drank and whose owner has for decades withstood the blandishments and pressures of developers.

Malibu and Santa Monica are each alluring in their ways, but if you would like an antidote to the silent developments and managed electronic frenzy of desert-floor Las Vegas, you can find it in concentrated form on Venice Beach, with its sea breezes, its color and cacophony, its spontaneous self-expression and its vibrant and defiant individualism.

Coastal Comforts

Hotel Erwin.


Almost an enlarged diner in appearance, but with excellent food and Pacific waves crashing onto the beach just below. 17300 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, 310-454-3474,

Chez Jay

Intimate, wonderfully anachronistic bar peopled by, among others, the young and glamorous who have come all the way to this coast hoping to catch the Hollywood brass ring. 1657 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, 310-395-1741,

The Getty Villa

Grandiose in concept but exquisite in detail, with varied and beautiful artifacts that really give a sense of how life was lived in the ancient world. Call in advance for free tickets (closed Tuesdays); parking $15. 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, 710-440-7300,

Hotel Erwin

Sea views, rooftop bar, cool, relaxed atmosphere, pop ’60s decor, right in the heart of the Venice Boardwalk. 1697 Pacific Ave., Venice Beach, 888-797-1651,

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