Three Perfect Days: Porto
Story by Chris Wright | Photography by Natalia Horinkova | Hemispheres April 2019
To the extent that Porto has an established global profile, it's as the gateway to the Douro Valley wine region, the home of port. But in recent years, travelers have begun to discover that Portugal's second city has so much more to offer. Sure, there's the exquisite architecture, the stunning views, the winding alleys, the Michelin-starred meals. More than all that, though, there's the communal feeling that befits a city with a population of just over 235,000. Porto has been named the top city in Europe by the European Best Destinations organization three times since 2012 and now draws 1.6 million visitors each year, but as you walk through the UNESCO-designated neighborhood of Ribeira, you can still go into a mom-and-pop café and help yourself to a cheap beer from the fridge—proving that, here at least, you can be the best while still being yourself.
The Ribeira neighborhood, a UNESCO World Heritage Site along the Douro
Sampling seafood, sipping port, and enjoying the views
I'm eating eggs on the deck of the Torel Avantgarde hotel, looking down on the lazy boat traffic on the Douro River and beyond to the tumbling orange rooftops of Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto's sister city across the water. Or I would be if a seagull hadn't plonked itself two inches from my face. The bird is regarding my omelet with a severe expression—whether out of envy or avian solidarity, I'm not sure. I toss a bit of granary bread over the rail, narrowly missing a nun picking cabbages in the garden next door, and the gull follows.
A boat carrying port barrels on the Douro
This won't be the only time I find myself occupying a scenic lookout. Porto and Gaia rise sharply on either side of the Douro, creating a kind of amphitheater, with each opposing district the star of the show. If you go 10 minutes here without encountering a commanding view of bell towers, palaces, and blue- tiled row houses—all tilting toward the shimmering River of Gold—then you're not paying attention.
The Douro doesn't only serve as a centerpiece for sightseers, however. Dotting the Gaia waterfront are a dozen or so rustic buildings bearing names that will be familiar to anyone who ever raided his granny's drink cabinet: Sandeman, Cockburn's, Taylor's. Snaking east into the Douro Valley wine region, the river is the source of Porto's main con- tribution to humankind: port. It also played a role in the Voyages of Discovery in the 15th century and the acquisition of wealth that followed.
“If you go 10 minutes here without encountering a view, then you're not paying attention."
My plan today is to explore Porto's seats of power— commerce, religion, wine— starting with a tour of the nearby Palácio da Bolsa, a Neoclassical edifice whose interior is a succession of lavish halls, culminating in the Arab Room, a huge, mosque- like chamber embellished with a riot of gold and blue detailing. While the design had less to do with Islam than with the projection of power, it did not go down well with church leaders. “It was meant to be a provocation," my guide tells me. “They were saying, 'We are rich, and we do what we want.'"
The opulent Arab room at the Palacio de Bolsa
Compared to the Igreja de São Francisco next door, the Arab Room is a paragon of moderation. The gothic exterior of the building, which dates to the 14th century, does not prepare you for what's inside. The Voyagers brought a great deal of gold home with them, and it seems the bulk of it was applied to the inte- rior of this church. It's like the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, with a few suffering saints thrown in. I head into the gloomy crypt, where I encounter eerily lifelike effigies, artworks with titles like Our Lady of the Good Death, and, in the darkest recesses, a window in the floor, beyond which is a mass of human bones and skulls. Lunch time!
I cross the iron-arched Dom Luís I bridge and enter Gaia, climbing up-up-up to The Blini, which was opened in 2016 by Michelin-starred chef José Cordeiro. The eatery's wraparound windows offer me my first glimpse of Porto from afar. Directly across the river are the houses lining Praça Ribeira, no two alike in color, size, or shape. This is a signature feature of Porto—the city is a captivating shamble of mismatched elements, with its crown the Baroque Clérigos Tower, which still dominates the skyline 250-odd years after it was built.
The emphasis at Blini is on seafood, with a few contemporary flourishes like “lime air" foam. The waiter asks if I'd like to do the chef's choice, and I say sure. It's a great lunch, a big lunch, a parade of courses that includes oysters with lemon butter, tuna tartare with popadam, butterfish soup topped by a huge puff pastry, and baked seabass with pumpkin puree. Between the soup and the seabass I ask my waiter if I can take a quick breather. He smiles and looks at his watch: “You have two minutes!"
“You never know whether your ascent will lead to a point of interest or someone's front door, but that's half the fun."
From here, I waddle down to the Porto Cálem port house for a tour and a tasting. Along with the musty-smelling cellars and the rows of oak barrels are a number of modern doodads, including a 5-D cinema and a guess-the-aroma sniffing station (I get one out of 12: vanilla). In the sipping room, my guide grows contemplative. “A good wine speaks to you," he says. “This is not a fairy tale. You need to close your eyes to understand the message." I'm a bit concerned about closing my eyes and not opening them again, so I sip up and head out.
A highlight of any trip to Porto is Ribeira, a squiggle of alleys lined with gorgeous old buildings, some dating to the Middle Ages. This neighborhood is not glammed-up—you're more likely to come across a physiotherapist's office than you are a fridge-magnet emporium. Look up on Rua da Reboleira and you'll see medieval battlements, but also laundry flapping in the breeze. Riverside Praça Ribeira is the most picturesque spot, with its colorful jumble of houses, but I get more joy out of roaming the alleys behind, which are so narrow at times you can touch both sides. This walk is not for the faint of knee, and it's a bit of a crapshoot; you never know whether a grueling ascent will lead you to a point of historical interest or someone's front door, but that's half the fun.
The Mercado Municipal in Matosinhos
I have time for one more religious edifice before dinner, so I march upward to the granddaddy of them all: the 12th century cathedral, the Sé do Porto, a hulking mish-mash of Gothic, Baroque, and Romanesque designs whose defining feature is a brood- ing, muscular solidity, as if it were built to withstand attack. The square outside, which affords (you guessed it) wonderful views, is also overlooked by the magnificent Paço Episcopal, home to the men who wore the gold-thread vestments and bejeweled miters displayed in the church next door.
From here, I head west, pausing to look at a bunch of straight-back chairs stuck to the wall outside Armazém, a funky indoor market with a clutter of stalls selling everything from patterned tiles to a vintage Vespa. There is also a bar, where I chat with the friendly bartender, who warns me not to drink too much: “We've had a few people who bought things they didn't want."
The dining room an Antiqvvm
After another precipitous trudge, I arrive at the Michelin-starred restaurant Antiqvvm, which occupies a lovely old villa near the cultivated Crystal Palace gardens. The views up here are exquisite, but you forget about that when the food arrives. My tasting menu involves a flurry of artfully presented dishes whose ingredients include scallops, shrimp, brill, pike, squid, oyster leaves, plankton, parsnip, caviar, fennel, roasted celery, and Iberian pork, all washed down with a succession of wonderful wines. Hic.
Seafood fish at Antiqvvm
I make my way back to the Torel Avantgarde, intent on collapsing onto my bed, but cannot resist having a quick nightcap on the balcony. It's a moonless night, and I have trouble distinguishing the river from the hillside from the sky.I try to focus on a cluster of lights dancing on the water, but before long these too are gone.
The view from Alves de Sousa Vineyard
Porto is renowned for its Baroque landmarks, but if your architectural tastes run more toward the modern, don't miss Serralves, a cultural institution set in lush, landscaped gardens in the city's western suburbs. Among the highlights are the Museu de Serralves, a contemporary art museum that was designed by Pritzker Prize–winner Álvaro Siza and opened in 1999, and the bubblegum-pink Casa de Serralves (pictured at right), a former count's villa that was completed in 1944 and is one of the few Streamline Moderne– style buildings in Portugal.
Driving through Douro Valley and listening to fado
If there's anything that can shake the piety of Porto residents, it's pride in their beloved Douro Valley. “God created Earth," they say, “but man made the Douro." I'll be driving out to the UNESCO World Heritage region this morning, but first I have to pack up and head over to Gaia, home to the second hotel of my stay.
A luxurious, resort-like property, The Yeatman occupies a hillside overlooking the port houses, its terraced design echoing the sculpted hillsides of the Douro. I sit outside for a while, nibbling on pastries and looking down at the muddled rooftops, then head out to meet Miguel, the Tours By Locals guide who will be driving me today. “Get ready," he says with a smile. “You're about to see one of the most beautiful things in your life."
Fishing in the Douro Pinhao
We make our way along a series of ever-narrowing roads, emerging into a landscape that doesn't quite seem real. First, the perspectives are all off, the lines of the terraced slopes meeting at odd angles, creating a geometric jumble that would do Escher proud. The vines, lit by the morning sun, appear as a Pointillist fluorescence of red, gold, and green. Now and then, the terraces dip into a misty valley, their muted colors somehow lovelier than before. Even Miguel, who up until now has been delivering a running commentary on historical treaties and grape varieties, falls silent.
A Dionysian repose at the Yeatman
A half hour later we arrive at Amarante, a pretty town on the banks of the Tâmega River. The centerpiece is the 16th-century Igreja de São Gonçalo, named after the town's patron saint. As a miracle worker, Gonçalo is said to have had a knack for fertility and virility. (The hands and feet of an effigy in the church have been worn smooth by centuries of hopeful rub- bing.) Outside, an old lady presides over a stall selling the town's signature confection: doces fálicos, anatomical cakes that, according to Miguel, “are given by young men to young women to signal their intent." Indeed.
Another scenic drive brings us to our second stop, the Alves de Sousa vineyard. We are greeted in the main building by a young man named Tiago, a fifth-generation winemaker who leads us to a window overlooking a dappled valley. Below, wisps of bonfire smoke rise through the mist (as if the place needed any more atmosphere). “You can see why we don't need paintings on the walls," Tiago says.
From here, we climb into a 4x4 and head along a narrow, rutted path. To our right is a steep, probably lethal drop, but Tiago seems unconcerned, pointing this way and that while discussing soil acidity, sun variation, and olive trees. “They were planted to mark the boundaries between vineyards," he says. “But it's been so long that people now argue over who owns the olives." It's a good line, but I'm too concerned with staying alive to laugh.
Finally, we stop at a high rocky patch they call Abandonado because the family long ago gave up trying to grow anything on it. In 2004, Tiago badgered his dad into letting him give the disused plot one last try and planted a variety of grapes that has produced some of the winery's best bottles. “It has so much character, full of love," the young man says, sip- ping a glass back at home base. “The wine from Abandonado is very special."
“The terraced slopes create a geometric jumble that would do Escher proud"
Lunch is at DOC, Michelin-starred chef Rui Paula's restaurant in nearby Folgosa. On a riverside dock, we eat crab, confit of duck leg, and Abade de Priscos, a traditional crème caramel pudding served with bacon. While much of Paula's food derives from his grandmother's recipes, he likes to throw in the odd subversive element, which he puts down to the vagaries of memory rather than new-fangled theory. “Memory is the basis for everything I do," he says. “A meal, a journey, a book—if something is beauti- ful, I put it in my head."
Our last activity of the day is a boat ride along the Douro, an hour-long trip that takes us past a patchwork of fiery red terraces and small wine houses, interspersed with the green puffs of olive trees. It's a glorious spectacle. I wonder what it would taste like.
We arrive back at the Yeatman an hour or so before dinner, leaving me with just enough time for the wine-bath spa treatment I've booked. The wine extract is supposed to relax the muscles and hydrate the skin, but, given that there's a stranger behind me massaging my head and I'm clad in nothing but a flimsy pouch, I'm just happy for its water-clouding qualities.
I'm dining tonight at the hotel's Michelin-starred The Restaurant, a gastronomic experience that starts with my napkin being deposited onto my lap with tongs and ends with a glass of prized 1955 Croft port. In between, seated before yet another panoramic window, I am served a multicourse menu that includes oysters with jalapeño foam, cockles in xarém (corn-flour mash), veal with Jerusalem artichoke, and suckling pig. The highlight for me is the chicken oysters served with crispy skin. “I'll never look at a chicken the same way," I tell the waiter, who smiles politely at the sentiment.
I end the night in the hotel lounge, serenaded by a young woman singing fado, the mournful Portuguese folk music whose dominant themes are love and loss. She clutches her hands before her chest, crooning about souls who sailed away, the golden leaves of home, stuff like that—but otherwise she seems perfectly happy. I suppose you'd have to be: As Miguel put it on our boat ride earlier, “This is where we live."
Browsing a beautiful bookstore and witnessing the power of the sea
I check out of the Yeatman and head into town for one last bout of sightseeing, which begins in the exquisite lobby of the Infante Sagres, the grande dame of Porto's hotels. From here, I go in search of breakfast, passing the broad Avenida dos Aliados, which is dominated by the 230-foot clock tower of the Câmara Municipal. This area is littered with majestic buildings—the Teatro São João, the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, the São Bento railway station—but I'm most interested in the Majestic Café, which promises to feed my body as well as my soul.
Which is not to say that the soul goes hungry. The Majestic opened in 1921, and beyond its Art Nouveau doorway you enter a beguiling world of carved wood, burnished mirrors, white-coated waiters, and smiling cherubs. I sit at a marble-topped table and orderrabanadas, a rich and creamy spin on French toast, and a super-sweet bombón coffee.
The Hogwarts-esque Livraria Lello
Buzzing with sugar, I could probably sprint to my next destination, but instead I hop on a rickety old tram, which judders toward the Livraria Lello, yet another local institution that routinely makes “most beautiful" lists. Dating back to 1906, the Lello is still the heart of the city's cultural scene, despite the hordes of Instagrammers who descend on the place today, bent on snapping the stained-glass roof, elaborate carvings, and swirling double-sided stairway. (It's so popular that there's now a €5 entry fee.) A young J.K. Rowling used to spend a lot of time here, and it's impossible not to see Hogwarts at every turn.
From here, it's a short walk to Rua de Cedofeita, a funky shopping street full of dining options such as Dream Pills (a pharmacy-themed candy store) and the Pop Cereal Café. Just up from here is Rua de Miguel Bombarda, a buzzy strip where the walls are adorned with graffiti and every other shopfront is an independent gallery. Also nearby is the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, with a collection ranging from 17th-century ceramics to 20th-century portraits to, um, a life-size sculpture of a horse with a wooden leg and a pair of silvery underpants hanging off its rear end.
A stairway from the ultra-hip Mini Bar
My next stop is Restaurante Tripeiro, for a bowl of tripas à moda do Porto, the city's sig- nature dish. The tradition is said to date back to the Age of Discovery, when intrepid explorers sailed away with the choice cuts of meat and those who stayed behind got everything else. Ever since, locals have been known throughout Portugal as tripeiros, or “tripe eaters"—although the name doesn't begin to cap- ture the meal I receive at my small alfresco table. At one point, the chef comes out and I ask him what's in the bowl. “White beans, chorizo, chicken, tripe, and the end of the cow." I ask him which end and he looks at me: “Both." As I chew, an old guy walking by looks at my bowl, smiles, and says, “Bon appetit!"
The Mini Bar's shrimp ceviche
I decide to burn off the offal with a stroll along the Atlantic coast, so I take a cab to Matosinhos, a fishing town a few miles north of the city, then walk south, dodging the massive waves battering the sea wall. At the end of one broad beach I find Lais de Guia, a small bar with a sea- front patio, where I stand and watch the churning water. My walk ends at Foz do Douro, a colorful district dotted with bars and restaurants. Here, next to a squat fort, I join a crowd of locals watching as the waves engulf a nearby lighthouse. “Nature has put on a show for you," one of them says.
Chef Jose Avillez
Damp, I catch another cab back into town for a pre-prandial Negroni at the Royal Cocktail Club, a hip, low-lit bar just around the corner from my hotel. Dinner tonight is at the equally fashionable Mini Bar, the latest venture from José Avillez, who is best-known for his Michelin-starred Belcanto, in Lisbon. Seated in the corner of the red-hued dining area, chill-out music ringing in my ears, I inspect the menu, which lists a starter called Ferrero Rocher (like the chocolate). I ask the waiter about it, and he says, “We try to play with the senses. Nothing is as it seems." Out of curiosity, I order it, along with a tuna tartare temaki cone, roasted chicken with avocado cream, fish and chips with kimchi yogurt, and shrimp ceviche. After the onslaught of food I've received during my time here, I'm relieved that these are all small plates. I'm also happy to find that the playfulness of the menu doesn't come at the expense of taste. Everything—even the chocolate starter, which is actually made of foie gras—is delicious.
I end the night at Bonaparte Downtown, a lively, quirky bar filled to the rafters with bric-a-brac: tennis rackets, cowbells, creepy dolls, vintage walkie-talkies, a black-and-white photo of a chimp eating soup with a spoon. It's a fantastic place, but it's also late, and there's a large, comfortable bed waiting for me nearby. But then, just as I stand to leave, I hear the opening beats of The Clash's punk anthem, “Should I Stay or Should I Go."
The rest is a bit of a blur.
Where to stay
Located just west of the city center, this new boutique hotel places a premium on spectacle. Just off the bar is the Flower Room, which contains a profusion of dangling artificial blossoms, and each of the 47 guest rooms is decorated in the style of a famous artist (Poppy portraits for Andy Warhol, muted classicism for Leonardo da Vinci). If that's not enough visual stimulation for you, book a room with a balcony overlooking the Douro.From $215, torelavantgarde.com
This Gaia hotel has 109 river-facing rooms, each with its own terrace or balcony. Named after a local port-producing family, The Yeatman boasts a formidable cellar, and its rooms contain subtle wine-related details. (Or not so subtle: The bed in the Presidential Suite is fashioned from a huge barrel.) Despite the luxurious spa, Michelin- starred restaurant, and elegant public spaces, the hotel's biggest selling point is its refreshingly unstuffy approach to service.From $290, the-yeatman-hotel.com
Situated in the center of Porto, this 85-room hotel opened in 1951 and immediately set the standard for luxury in the city. A recent renovation introduced a few mod flourishes—most visibly in the adjoining Vogue Café, with its “fashion fusion" food and super-stylish décor— but the old grace and glamour remain in the elaborate ironwork, stained-glass windows, gold-hued dining room, and marvelously rickety vintage elevator.From $220, infantesagres.com
Around the web
Today, we remember the colleagues, customers and every single victim of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
I know each of us in the United family marks this difficult moment in our own way. Still, we all share a common commitment to honor how our brothers and sisters left us and also celebrate what they gave to us during their lives. We remember their professionalism and heroism. We cherish their camaraderie and friendship. We carry with us the examples they set forth, especially in the heroism and bravery displayed by so many on that terrible day. Above all, we understand a simple truth: While thousands of our fellow human beings lost their lives in New York City, Arlington and Shanksville, the attacks of September 11th were aimed at all people of peace and good will, everywhere. They were attacks on the values that make life worth living, as well as the shared purpose that make us proud of what we do as members of the United family: connecting people and uniting the world.
We may live in times scarred by discord and disagreement, and we know there are those around the world who seek to divide us against one another. But, on this day – above all – we come together, as one. We affirm our core belief that far, far more unites us as citizens and fellow human beings than can ever divide us.
Let us embody that belief as we go about serving our customers and one another – on this day and every day – as we continue to help building a world that's more united. Let that be our memorial to the sisters and brothers we lost, eighteen Septembers ago.
Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Tanveer Badal | Hemispheres September 2019
No one comes to Los Angeles without having at least a little foreknowledge. If you're a film geek (like me), you know where the heist crew had breakfast in Reservoir Dogs and which building was Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. If you're a music geek (like me) you can name the clubs Guns N' Roses welcomed to the jungle and the streets Dr. Dre went rollin' in his '64. If you're from New York or San Francisco (like me), you probably hate LA on principle—for the smog, the Lakers fans, the fame-seeking ethos of Hollywood. And yet, no matter how much you think you know the City of Angels, there's always something more to learn, something real to find. LA County, after all, comprises more than 4,000 square miles and 10 million people (including the largest Mexican and Asian immigrant communities in the U.S.), with a GDP of $700 billion. It's impossible to make an LA guide for everyone, but if you (like me) are a fan of Chinatown and Charles Bukowski, beaches and bowling alleys, Michelin stars and micheladas, here's one for you.
Beaches and speakeasies on the Westside
I'm in Los Angeles, so of course I'm eating breakfast by the pool. More specifically, I'm in the lovely atrium at FIG, the poolside restaurant at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. In the water, a couple of kids are splashing around in unicorn floaties. On the wall above, Muscle Beach's best-known lifter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, flexes in a mural. On my plate is a scramble chock-full of fresh produce—tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, spinach—from Santa Monica's famed farmers market.
The pool may be Hockney-worthy, but these flip-flops were made for walking. Five minutes down Ocean Avenue, I cross a bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway and onto the Santa Monica Pier, passing the Route 66 sign, caricature artists, funnel cake stands, and carnival rides on my way to the end of the pier, where fishermen toss their lines in the water and tourists snap photos of a sea lion barking for scraps. The sharp salt smell of the ocean beckons, so I backtrack to the sand, where I roll up my jeans and watch the surf slide over my feet. I lose my thoughts in the rhythm of the waves, until a big one crashes in. Reverie over.
A prideful lifeguard tower on Venice Beach
Going wheels-up at the Venice Skatepark
I watch the surf slide over my feet, losing my thoughts in the rhythm of the waves, until a big one crashes in.
I keep flippin' and floppin' my way south toward Venice Beach, the epicenter of Southern California's grungy, punky beach culture. Snatches of the Doors leak from surf shops and sunglass stands on the very strip where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek formed the band. Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light? Or just another lost angel… I kill a few minutes watching skaters ollie along the undulating walls of the Venice Skatepark, and then I exit the beach, going a few blocks inland to the Venice Canals. Developer Abbot Kinney built these narrow waterways in 1905 to evoke some other Venice, and while I don't see any gondoliers, the homes lining the canals make for a fun self-guided architecture tour, veering from glass-walled Modernist structures to mosaic-tiled hippie bungalows.
A few more blocks up Venice Boulevard, I reach the town's main drag, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. I'm having lunch at Gjelina, which for more than a decade has offered the sort of farm-fresh cuisine and casual-yet-sceney vibe that the rest of the world thinks is LA. I sit at a distressed-wood table and chow down on California king salmon tataki; grilled peaches with burrata, prosciutto, and chicory greens; and a perfectly cooked black bass with olives and heirloom tomatoes. If this is what people associate with LA, I can see why everyone wants to move here.
My feet are flip-flopped out, so it's a good thing my college buddy Matt, who lives in Hermosa Beach, has loaned me his car—a cobalt Chevy Volt we call the Blue Dragon—to help me navigate this unending city. Fortunately, you don't need to be a Targaryen to ride this dragon, so after retrieving the car from the Fairmont valet, I fly up the 405 to the J. Paul Getty Museum, which stands on a hill above the most heavily trafficked freeway in the U.S. I park and take the tram up, then meander through the Robert Irwin–designed Central Garden, following a trickling waterfall to a reflecting pool and an X-Files-esque azalea labyrinth. The scene is so transporting that it's easy to pass a couple of hours without even entering the galleries. Oops.
No time for regrets, though. The afternoon has begun to wane, so I drive back to the Fairmont and take a seat on my balcony to watch the curtain fall on another day in America. Once night has settled and the lights have come up on the pier, I walk over to the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mallwhere fairy lights twinkle and purple jacarandas bloom above shoppers and buskers singing Justin Timberlake. At the food court, I go up an escalator and tap a code into a black door marked "private." When it opens, I enter Dialogue, an 18-seat tasting-menu hideaway that was one of just 24 restaurants in LA to receive a Michelin star this June. As he passes me the gorgeous plates (21 of them!), chef Dave Beran explains how the Roots' album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin inspired his menu.
"I reached out to Questlove, and he told me they wrote that album over the course of the last year of their manager's life," Beran says. "It's essentially their progression emotionally. You had to experience that album the way they intended it, and that led us to the idea of writing a tasting menu that had to be experienced the way we intended. Just as the seasons look forward and backward, the dishes do as well. Every dish has something in it from the last one and something to look forward to in the next. Your snapper had a ginger mist on it, which went into the ginger-rhubarb foam, which leads to a rhubarb chip with matcha and lilac pudding, followed by a cucumber-lilac soda. None of our dishes are intended to be complete thoughts as much as completing each other's thoughts." Food for thought, indeed.
The landmark Venice Sign at sunset
After dinner, I'm buying Matt a drink as a thanks for lending me the Blue Dragon. I take a cab to Abbot Kinney and meet him at the restaurant Scopa Italian Roots, where we tell the maître d' we have a reservation at Old Lightning. He promptly confiscates our phones and leads us around to the side of the building, through an unmarked door, and into LA's premier bourbon bar. The glass case along the wall taunts us with shelf after shelf of nigh-impossible-to-find vintage bottles. Matt leers covetously at a collection of limited-edition Willett, while I pine for the Pappy. I tell the bartender, Jesús, that I love the wheated flavor profile of the Van Winkles but can't shell out $3,000 for a flight. He brings me a more affordable sampler: a delectably corn-sweet Old Taylor 6-year from 1980; an Old Fitzgerald made by a legendary Kentucky warehouse manager who stole from his stores to create his own sought-after blends; and a 101-proof Evan Williams 12-year that's normally available only in the Bluegrass State. "I hope you didn't drive," Matt deadpans, although I think he's just trying to confiscate my Old Fitzgerald. Not a chance, pal.
Artful architecture and swinging nightlife in DTLA
Los Angeles may have an underrated metro system, but the city's true essence is found where the Blue Dragon and I now sit: in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10. I pull up my rush-hour playlist, and Guy Clark sings, If I can just get off of this LA freeway, without getting killed or caught…
Eventually, I reach the center of the city, which the Spanish founded in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles but has in recent years been rebranded simply as DTLA. I'm starting the morning with a bite at Grand Central Market, a 1917 building that's home to all sorts of hip food stalls. I stop at the G&B Coffee counter and get an almond macadamia latte to sip while I wriggle to the Clark Street Bread stand, where I order avocado toast. It tastes like California.
On the other side of the market, I spot one of LA's signature architectural sights, the Bradbury Building. The interior of this National Historic Landmark, which was built in 1893 and features five floors of ornate iron railings and elevator shafts climbing toward an expansive skylight, looks both stunningly vintage and eerily futuristic. It's little wonder Ridley Scott chose it as the setting for the climactic scene of Blade Runner.
I exit through the side door and gawp at the Pope of Broadway, a soaring mural of Anthony Quinn on the former Victor Clothing Company building across the way, before continuing on through DTLA. This area was once so rundown that it wasn't much of a leap for Scott to imagine that by 2019 it would look like a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but over the last decade it has become the reenergized hub of the city, thanks to places like The Last Bookstore. This temple to the written word is probably best known for its second-floor book tunnel, which tourists and wannabe influencers line up to snap selfies in. I ask a clerk what he thinks is the definitive LA novel, and he points me to John Fante's Ask the Dust, which local literary god Charles Bukowski called "a wild and enormous miracle."
It's a good thing I picked up the reading material, because I'm going to have a wait at my next stop. One of the wonderful, contradictory things about this wonderful, contradictory city is that some of its best restaurants are in run-of-the-mill strip malls. One of these is Sushi Gen, in DTLA's Little Tokyo, where a long line has formed before the doors even open. I take my spot and read for a few minutes—Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets … you sad flower in the sand—before I'm seated at the sushi bar, where a chef slings slices of Tsukiji Market–quality fish (buttery tuna, briney sea bream, sweet shrimp, creamy uni) at me until I wave my napkin in the air like a white flag.
The Pacific Seas bar at Clifton's
The afternoon sun is beating down and bouncing up off the pavement, so I elect to walk off my meal indoors, at The Broad Museum. The four-year-old building, which entrepreneur Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, created to house their 2,000-piece collection, stands like a square of honeycomb next to the flamboyantly curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall next door—a contrast that associate curator Sarah Loyer tells me was very much intentional.
Jeff Koon's "Tulips" at the Broad Museum
"Where the Disney Concert Hall reflects light, our building draws light in," she explains. "The ceiling has 318 individual skylights that light the collection gallery. At peak sun hours we have all natural light." We ride the escalator up to the third-floor gallery, an acre of column-free space where pieces by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, and Kara Walker are on display. I'm particularly struck by Deep Blue, an expansive mixed-media canvas by Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. "It's inspired by the 1965 Watts Rebellion," Loyer notes. "You can see the map of the city grid, and the different dots and colors represent historic losses from that event."
We ride the Broad's escalator up to an acre of column-free space to see pieces by Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama
I thank Loyer for enlightening me and then zip over to the recently restored Hotel Figueroa, which features works from a new artist—often a Southern California woman—every quarter. I valet the Blue Dragon and take a few minutes to peruse Topanga-based painter Sophie Kipner's blind-contour portraits before stretching out on a poolside lounge chair with a Bohemia beer. When I mention to the waitress that something about the pool seems odd, she tells me it's shaped like a coffin. That seems like a bad omen for tonight…
But hey, if I gotta go, there are worse places to have my last meal than Nightshade, Top Chef winner Mei Lin's much-hyped new restaurant in the up-and-coming Arts District. A taxi drops me at a converted warehouse space that's an Instagrammer's dream—blond wood, white brick, mint and emerald green upholstery, and hanging plants—surpassed only by the presentation of the dishes: Hokkaido scallops in a coconut vinaigrette, chicharrón chunks with a bright green coconut and trout roe dipping sauce, prawn toast that tastes like Vietnamese spring rolls, Szechuan hot quail served atop Japanese milk bread (à la Nashville hot chicken). If the atmosphere is heavenly, that last plate is hellish; my eyes start burning upon its arrival, and it takes an extra glass of grüner to cool my mouth after its departure.
Let's keep turning up the heat! Clifton's is a DTLA institution, a Depression-era cafeteria that fed 10,000 people a day, eventually fell into disrepair, and was ultimately reborn as a four-story nightlife bazaar following a 2015 renovation. I climb past the giant trunk of an (admittedly fake) redwood tree to the top-floor Pacific Seas tiki bar, where I sit in a wicker chair under a mermaid statue and sip a Scorpion Bowl (rum, gin, cognac, orgeat, and god knows what else) that is, yes, set on fire by my waitress. Before I get stung, I descend one floor to the Brookdale Ballroom, where dancers in Gatsby-esque getups swing to a New Orleans jazz band. A woman sashays by me in a peacock-feather outfit, but she's gone before I can ask her if this is real or if I've been consumed by the flames of Szechuan pepper and Polynesian mixology.
Hollywood history and Eastside eats
It was all real, and I'm paying for it now. Good thing I know the perfect place for a clean-living kind of breakfast. Sqirl is on the edge of East Hollywood, in an area that's still dotted with 99-cent stores, but the line of part-time models waiting outside betrays its hip quotient. I make my way to the counter, order an Horchoffee (vegan horchata shaken with a double espresso) and a Crispy Disco (brown rice with mint, cilantro, cucumber, scallion, avocado, fried egg, and sausage), and grab a seat at the sideboard. The restaurant's sprightly owner, Jessica Koslow, brings over my food and gives me a playful punch on the knee as she takes the stool next to mine.
"It was a lot of pressure to be this funky place and be like, 'Here's what's happening in Los Angeles,'" the Long Beach native says, recalling the rapturous reviews she received after opening in 2012. However, she does take pride in being an evangelist for SoCal cooking. "There are so many different pockets of LA that [its cuisine] is hard to describe, but if you want a neighborhood restaurant for LA, you're here."
The Angel of Breakfast gives me a hug and waves me back to my food. After devouring the Crispy Disco, I head to The Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. Upon checking in, I rendezvous with Tours by Locals guide Jasmine Jia, who takes me on a winding drive through Griffith Park to the Griffith Observatory. The triple-domed Greek Revival building is one of LA's most recognizable—it can be seen in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land—but Jia tells me it almost didn't get built. The city turned down funding from tycoon Griffith J. Griffith in 1912 because he had infamously shot his wife (who survived) a decade earlier. "There was a sensational trial," Jia says. Griffith re-donated the money when he died in 1919, and the Observatory was completed by the WPA in 1935. Today it's both an interactive astronomy museum and a spot from which you can see the Pacific Ocean, DTLA, Dodger Stadium, and the Hollywood sign.
The soup bowl–size chalices of salty, limey beer are garnished with shrimp, and the straws are even crusted with tamarind candy.
Now, the question every tourist in LA inevitably faces: Should I take a picture with the sign? As we drive over, Jia tells me it was erected as a real estate advertisement in 1923, when it originally read "Hollywoodland." "The land was sold, and the sign should have been taken down," she says, "but it became associated with the movie industry and LA and became a landmark." It was later shortened to Hollywood—better to fit the photo Jia snaps of me from the vista point in Lake Hollywood Park below.
Jia drops me back at the Blue Dragon, and I head to a far less touristed part of the city. Another college buddy of mine, Rob, was born and raised in Cypress Park, his parents among the tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants who settled on the east side of the Los Angeles River, and I've asked him to show me a couple of off-the-radar spots. I cross the concrete riverbed into Boyle Heights and meet him at El Tepeyac Café, an institution that serves old-school Mexican food. Rob points me toward the gargantuan chile verde–slathered Original Hollenbeck burrito, which is stuffed with rice and beans and guacamole and pork and comfort. Next, we zip over to La Chupería, in neighboring Lincoln Heights, where the bartender brings us two micheladas, soup bowl–size chalices of salty, limey beer (a Modelo bottle floats mouth-down in each cup) rimmed with chili sauce and garnished with cucumber, celery, and shrimp. The straws are even crusted with tamarind candy. As we slurp our drinks and watch a replay of the previous night's Dodgers game on the TV, I ask Rob what places like this mean to LA, and if he's worried about them disappearing as the city changes.
The busy lanes at Highland Park Bowl
"Gentrification brings restaurants and nightlife to areas that were overlooked, but now you have these immigrant-run mom-and-pop businesses, which have contributed so much to LA's cultural identity, operating under the threat of extinction," he tells me. "Without culture, LA risks losing its home too."
I thank the homie for the knowledge, and we split up with plans to meet later. I really need to stretch my legs, so I head to Echo Park. A popular walking path circles the lake where Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes snapped compromising photos of Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown, but today it's strangely calm: just a couple of teenagers lazily peddling swan boats and a few kids quacking at the ducks near the shore.
Feeling a little lighter, I get back in the car and cruise up Sunset Boulevard, shopping my way through LA's hippest 'hood, Silver Lake. I browse kid-centric bios of Prince and Bowie at MRKT, whip-stitched watchbands at Dean, and vintage rock 'n' roll tees at Sick City Records. Past the junction with Hollywood Boulevard, I make a pilgrimage to the swirling mural that appeared on the cover of Elliott Smith's Figure 8 album. The storefront has changed tenants several times—it's now a well-regarded Filipino restaurant—but most of the artwork remains, serving as a shrine where fans of the deceased songwriter still leave remembrances.
Echo Park Lake
We order frozen White Russians and 'Dead Flowers' comes on. I'm pretty sure we're in a Big Lebowski dream sequence.
Nostalgia makes me hungry. Dinner is at Majordomo, superstar chef David Chang's first California restaurant. I'm joined by Rob and Matt (who has come to reclaim the Blue Dragon) at a table beneath a skylit warehouse ceiling, and we go in on silky tofu topped with uni and avocado, dungeness crab mafaldine pasta, and a pot of boneless chuck short rib onto which our waiter slices a hunk of raclette. "Has anyone ever asked you to carve it straight into their mouth?" Matt asks. "All the time," the waiter replies.
We continue the impromptu reunion at another one of Rob's favorite spots, Highland Park Bowl. A diverse young crowd rolls strikes inside the 92-year-old bowling alley, LA's oldest, which is decorated with league championship banners from decades gone by. We order a round of frozen White Russians, a cocktail the bar calls The Dude Abides, and as we lace up our shoes, the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" comes on. I'm pretty sure we're in a Big Lebowski dream sequence, but I don't see any purple jumpsuits, and the only thing that's nihilistic is the score of our game.
I hug my friends goodbye and hail a ride back to the Roosevelt, where I slip into a robe and look out the window of my suite. Hollywood Boulevard is asleep; the only stars sparkling are the ones embedded in the sidewalk. Good night, stars. Good night, moon. Good night, Los Angeles. I'll see you soon.