Classic Beach, but Much More Santa Monica, California

 

Jill Connelly for The New York Times

Santa Monica is best known for its bike path and amusement pier, with its 130-foot Ferris wheel.

February 22, 2008
American Journeys | Santa Monica, California

Classic Beach, but Much More

WITH its classic amusement pier, glittering bay and surfers bobbing on swells, Santa Monica was a perfect setting for "Baywatch." But take a short walk inland, and this city on the edge of Los Angeles reveals itself as more than a stereotypical beach town.

Within its borders, drawings by Picasso and Dubuffet hang in the same art complex as a vast installation by a graffiti crew. A well-preserved Mission-style bungalow sits around the corner from a steel performance space by Frank Gehry. Shops sell goods ranging from vintage Parisian wedding gowns to a whimsical map made entirely out of license plates. There are homegrown coffee bars on nearly every block, with names like Groundwork or the Legal Grind, dispensing caffeine and counsel at the same time.

"The pier, the bike path — they’re the only things most people know about Santa Monica," said Colleen Dunn Bates, editor of "Hometown Santa Monica," an insider’s guide to the city. "And they’re fun. But they don’t reflect everything that the city really offers."

Although it’s surrounded on all sides by districts that are part of the City of Los Angeles — Pacific Palisades, Venice and West Los Angeles — Santa Monica asserts its own identity as an eight-square-mile separate city, and its population of about 96,000 is spread through several distinct neighborhoods. To make the most of time there, enjoy the games and famed carousel of the Santa Monica Pier and then step back from the beach to sample the city’s variety the way Santa Monicans themselves do.

On one recent Saturday, Ren Farrar was luring passers-by to his stand at the open-air Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, close to the beach on Arizona Avenue. By state law, all goods at the market must be grown in California, and much of the produce is picked within 24 hours of its appearance there.

"Care to try a sample?" Mr. Farrar, 37, of Spring Hill Jersey Cheese of Petaluma, shouted as I walked by. Watching intently as I savored a cube of his Old World Portuguese, he observed, "This is mild enough to go with anything, yet firm enough to stand up to the heat."

Down the block, Adams’ Stuff’ N Olives featured feta and anchovy-stuffed olives. Fair Hills Farms offered six kinds of organic apples. Across the street, shoppers dropped dried nectarines, plums and pears into bags. A family strolled by, munching on Cajun spiced almonds and sipping ice-cold lemonade, both produced only a few miles away.

Nate Allen, 30, a personal chef and restaurant consultant from nearby Venice, shops at the market routinely, as do many of the top chefs in the area.

"The greatest thing about this market is that you’re going to get what is absolutely perfect and in season for this region," said Mr. Allen, who flaunts his trade by sporting a seven-inch-long tattoo of a knife on one forearm and a tattooed fork on the other. "For visitors, by the time you get to the last vendor, you’ve got a great picnic for wherever you want to go."

He often takes his own picnic to the Backbone Trail, a 69-mile system that roughly follows the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from Will Rogers State Historic Park just north of Santa Monica to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County. Hikers can take an easy, sage-scented, two-mile loop from the parking lot at Will Rogers up to Inspiration Point, a sensational overlook of Santa Monica Bay from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Point Dume in Malibu.

On a clear day, a hiker can see Catalina Island and the white dots of sails. Behind are the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, and in the distance, the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles. Up there, the muted chattering of birds and the hum of insects are the only sounds.

Back in northern Santa Monica, natural sights give way to architectural ones. Adelaide Drive, at the north end of the city, offers intriguing examples of early-20th-century architecture. Two of the homes designated as city landmarks are the Craftsman-style Isaac Milbank House (No. 236) — designed by the same firm that did Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood — and the stucco Worrel House (No. 710), which was built in the mid-1920s and has been described as a "Pueblo-Revival Maya fantasy."

(Another selection of carefully kept old houses, in styles from Victorian and Craftsman to Spanish colonial revival, await in the Third Street Historic District.)

Some of the city’s best shopping is also on its northern rim, where the 10-block Montana Avenue district is known for upscale clothes, home décor, crafts, jewelry and art. At Every Picture Tells A Story (No. 1311-C) a lithograph of the cover of "Charlotte’s Web" signed by the illustrator, Garth Williams, hangs on a wall, and in the gallery (the store is also a children’s bookstore) original works by Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss and others are $150 to $150,000.

Next door, Rooms & Gardens (No. 1311-A) sells furniture, antiques and accessories like pillows fashioned from an antique Indian sari. The actress Mary Steenburgen, one of the store’s three owners, praised the walkability of the area — not a common commodity in Southern California — when I asked her about the location of her store.

"The thing I love about Montana is that you feel as if you are in a pedestrian city," she said. "It’s fun to look out the window and see people walking by with their dogs, instead of just cars streaming by."

Santa Monica is sunny almost all the time, but visitors who hit a rare rainy day might spend a good portion of it at Bergamot Station, a complex of art galleries that many miss because it’s so hard to find. Built on the site of a former trolley-line stop — hence its name — the complex is on Santa Monica’s east side, next to a freeway on a dead-end street. Inside corrugated tin warehouses, two dozen galleries show contemporary drawings, paintings, photographs, sculpture and mixed-media works.

Sherrie Goldfarb of West Los Angeles and her friend Nancy Recasner of Studio City, Calif., hopped puddles between buildings after one rain this winter. "I wander through here with friends and the variety of work is amazing," said Ms. Goldfarb, 57, a regular at the galleries.

Many boldface names are represented. At Ikon Ltd./Kay Richards, drawings by Dubuffet, Basquiat and Picasso, among others, are on display through March 1. "Rarely Seen," a show of Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs, is running through May 10 at the Peter Fetterman Gallery.

Those who want to sense what Santa Monica was like as a sleepy town of tiny bungalows can visit Ocean Park on the city’s south end, which borders Venice. This funky neighborhood, one of the birthplaces of skateboarding in the late 1960s (part of "Lords of Dogtown" was filmed there), got a makeover in the 1990s; the tiny bungalows now sell for millions.

Artsy Main Street, Ocean Park’s central artery of merchants, restaurants and galleries, manages to merge sneaker stores and used-book shops with Armani Exchange and Patagonia stores. At Varga (No. 2806) apparel and accessories seem jointly inspired by ’40s pin-ups, Barbie dolls and young Hollywood celeb-style. The inventory at Relish, off Main Street at 208 Pier Avenue, ranges from bath salts ($20 to $40) to a pinball baseball game ($110). The Frank Gehry-designed steel boxes of Edgemar (No. 2415-2449 Main Street) house retail tenants and a performance space around an open courtyard.

Appraise your purchases over a martini with a mermaid toothpick at the Galley (No. 2442), a steakhouse with signature décor (think tiki bar with Christmas lights), a soulful juke box and old-salt appeal. No wonder — it opened its thick plank doors in 1934, making it Santa Monica’s oldest restaurant.

As the day wanes, consider watching the jet set (the one with its own jets) fly into the sunset. Opt for dinner next to the runway at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport. Those in the know reserve a window table at the Pan-Asian fusion restaurant Typhoon or the more intimate sushi restaurant the Hump (pilot slang for the Himalayas) upstairs.

But at sunset, the most thrilling view in town is back at the beach, from the top of the solar-powered 130-foot-high Pacific Wheel, the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. Yes, it’s touristy, and yes, it might be crowded, but it is, after all, the city’s iconic symbol.

As my seat on the wheel glided upward one evening, the entire city of Santa Monica, and far beyond, slid into view. Below, the cast and crew of the film "17 Again," starring Matthew Perry and Zac Efron, were shooting on the beach, as they would be all night long. The whole scene was bathed in a deep pink and violet glow.

It felt just fine to act like a tourist for a while.

VISITOR INFORMATION

SANTA MONICA, adjacent to Los Angeles, has 3.5 miles of coastline, all publicly accessible; two miles of this waterfront make up Santa Monica State Beach. The city’s north-south numbered streets run from Second Street, a block from the water, eastward to 26th. The major east-west arteries are San Vicente, Wilshire, Santa Monica, Pico and Ocean Park Boulevards.

The Santa Monica Pier, with rides, games, souvenir shops and a 1922 carousel, is at the foot of Colorado Avenue. The Pacific Wheel, a Ferris wheel at the pier, will be closed May 5 to 22 as a new wheel is installed.

Beach lovers can step onto the sand from Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel at 1700 Ocean Avenue (310-458-6700; www.loewshotels.com; rooms from $349). The 72-room Ambrose (1255 20th Street; 310-315-1555; www.ambrosehotel.com; from $229) feels more like a Mission-style hideaway with stained-glass windows and fireside library.

The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is held on Arizona Avenue from Second to Fourth Streets, on Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Backbone Trail is in Will Rogers State Historic Park (1501 Will Rogers State Park Road, off West Sunset Boulevard, Pacific Palisades; 310-454-8212; www.nps.gov/samo/planyourvisit/backbonetrail.htm), which is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily. Parking is $7. Picnic tables are available at Inspiration Point.

Most galleries at Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Avenue; www.bergamotstation.com) are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. Because Michigan Avenue is bisected by a freeway, the best access to this dead-end section of it is off Cloverfield Avenue.

At the Galley (2442 Main Street; 310-452-1934, www.thegalleyrestaurant.net) a 12-ounce sirloin is $23 and seafood diablo is $24.

Typhoon, at the Santa Monica Airport (3221 Donald Douglas Loop South off Airport Road; 310-390-6565; www.typhoon.biz) offers Pan-Asian fare including Thai river prawns ($21) and stir-fried crickets ($10). Upstairs, the Hump (310-313-0977; www.thehump.biz) serves some of the freshest sushi in town.

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