The lovely and talented Claire Bea and her retinue of admirers are heading out to Los Angeles next week for some adventures I am not yet allowed to discuss in this space. I wish I were going, too, but could not make it work; instead, I offer this list of five essential experiences for the first time visitor. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section.
It goes without saying, no visit to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. Tell them I sent you.
1. Drive Sunset Boulevard. Los Angeles was arguably the first major American city constructed to serve the automobile. The boulevards run east to west, from downtown to the ocean, and the best way to take in Los Angeles is simply to drive across it. Sunset is the most scenic route, if you're willing to put up with occasional traffic bottlenecks. Start downtown — have breakfast at The Pantry first — and take your time, stopping at whatever catches your attention along the way. Beverly Hills is approximately halfway, so you can have lunch there and do some shopping. Continue west through Bel Air, Brentwood, Westwood, Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, and you can have cocktails in Malibu at sunset.
2. See a movie. I know; why would you travel 2,500 miles to spend two hours in a darkened movie theater? Trust me on this one. Movies are better in Los Angeles. For one thing, it simply feels different to watch a movie in a city where it's the way everyone makes their living. But in a good theater in Los Angeles, the sound is better, the projection is better, and the choice of films is better than in the average East Coast multiplex. The ArcLight Hollywood is the true state of the art, but the big movie palaces in Westwood are great, too, and even the multiplexes in Santa Monica are better than their East Coast counterparts.
3. Shop Amoeba Music. This may be a generational thing, but I miss record stores. Maine has Bull Moose, which is still a magic place to spend an afternoon, but Amoeba Music takes up a full city block. You'll find things there you never knew existed. I can't walk in there without setting rules for myself: I bring in a set amount of cash, and that's all I'm allowed to spend, and I have to set a time limit.
4. Visit the Getty Villa. This takes some advance planning, because you have to book tickets (free) ahead of time. But it's worth doing, because it's simply breathtaking. The giant complex in Westwood is worth a visit as well, but if you only have time for one, the Villa is the place to go. If you go to the Westwood center, go late in the day to see the sunset over the hills; you can have a glass of wine on the patio, or have dinner at the Getty's restaurant, which has spectacular views.
5. Go to the taping of a live television show. I am not a fan of studio tours, which don't show you much and give you little sense of a TV or film studio as being a place where people are actually working. You get a much better sense of "the business we call show" by being a member of a live studio audience. It almost doesn't matter which show. Several websites offer free tickets, or you can just see who's handing them out along the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Since one of these items (I can't say which) is already on the Bea-Fithian agenda, I'll add a bonus sixth:
6. Have cocktails at Musso & Frank's. The Musso & Frank Grill has been a Hollywood institution since 1919. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Orson Welles — they all ate here. (Of course, the last time I was there, I sat across a room from Ron Jeremy. But that's kind of my point.) More important, they drank here. The Musso & Frank martini (or gimlet, my preference) is a work of art, served in a chilled glass with a carafe of the extra serving next to it. The menu, which I've heard is changing, is like time travel; it's the only place I've ever seen Welsh rarebit served. I recommend it.