In the same way that you don’t notice your kids growing up day-to-day, but others exclaim how much the kids have changed when they haven’t seen them in a while — the people living in LA are not as keen to how dramatically the city has transformed over the past few years, like I am, as a visitor a couple times a year. Vacationing in LA this past summer, I was delighted to find that the city had emerged from its unruly phase after the pandemic, and now acts like a nice, well-mannered city.
One obvious difference is the shrinking number of tent encampments. Though they still dot the freeway underpasses and median strips along the side streets, the sprawling bivouacs of campers across the city have vanished. Also, traffic is significantly lighter at all hours as a byproduct of the new remote work culture. Likewise, the streets, beaches, stores and restaurants are less crowded. Around town, very few people sported masks, and generally, people seemed kinder and more relaxed. The tiny cookie shop where last year I was barked at by the masked clerk when I entered because I did not see the sign, “one customer allowed inside at a time,” had a short line inside, and the unmasked clerk was cheerful and buoyant.
For a tourist, these are good changes overall, though some of the pandemic fallout has diminished LA, such as permanent closures of restaurants or businesses and others that still struggled to make a comeback.
A favorite restaurant of mine in the Valley, Sun Café, an oasis off Ventura Blvd near Universal Studios, used to be a thriving spot for vegans in the know. After the parking lot across the street was commandeered by homeless and drug dealers during the pandemic, patrons stopped going to the eatery. The proprietors were forced to sell, and sadly the new owners continue to experience sparse crowds.
Other of the old haunts I frequented when I lived in LA for nearly two decades were back to normal. The WeHo Bistro was again serving their to-die-for garlic truffle fries and the gorgeously colored Aperol Spritz drinks to a full house. Trejos Tacos was back to dishing up their inventive bad-ass street tacos. And the Michelin Plated Restaurant, The Lobster, at Santa Monica Pier, is back to packing in locals and tourists for incredible sunset views and outstanding lobster bisque.
Otherwise, most attractions around town have recovered well. A year ago, when we toured the Peterson Automotive Museum, we had to make reservations, submit to a screening that included taking our temperature, and wear masks. This year, the experience was completely carefree. My son and his cousin, both aged 16, who initially balked at the idea of going to a museum, were marveled by the expansive collection of vehicles. They snapped dozens of pics posed next to one-of-a-kind antique cars along with famous rides like the time-traveling DMC-12 DeLorean of Back to the Future, Scooby Do’s van, and the Honda S2000 from “2 Fast 2 Furious.” As a special treat, we toured the Vault, a vast garage of priceless and historical cars parked end-to-end. We were regaled by the docent’s stories of the bulletproof Mercedes owned by Ferdinand Marcos that could produce an oil slick to escape pursuers, and a 1998 Cadillac De Ville Parade Phaeton, more commonly known as the Popemobile.
Another attraction that rebounded with vigor is Cinespia, arguably the greatest outdoor movie event in LA, or anywhere. With thousands gathering blanket-to-blanket on the lawn of Hollywood Forever Cemetery to see films projected on Rodolph Valentino’s mausoleum, this exciting night of picnicking, music and movies has provided memorable film fan experiences for more than 20 years. My teen tourists where thrilled to see Fight Club under the stars, surrounded by patrons wearing black-eye make-up and dressed in flamboyant fur coats and torn and bloodied button-down shirts and ties, like Brad Pitt’s and Edward Norton’s pugilistic characters in the movie. As with every classic and modern classic film screened at Cinespia, the event featured a photobooth recreation of the set, in this case a boiler-room fighting ring. As a generous perk, the photos are posted for viewing on Cinespia’s site for free.
Of course, no trip to LA is complete without cruising Hollywood Boulevard. Compared to the near-empty streets with shuttered shops during 2021 and 2022, the place was buzzing during our visit. On a lively Saturday night, the strip was best explored in the luxury and grandness of a Ford Expedition, the vehicle that served as our crib on wheels for the week.
The boys loved rolling down the windows and opening the enormous sky roof and cranking up the bass on their Apple Music playlist, aptly named Mosh Pit; and I loved that they could sit in the 3rd row and adjust the stereo to play as loud as they desired on the rear speakers without splitting my eardrums in the driver’s seat.
They had a prime seat to sightsee around Hollywood, and I won Mother of the Year by driving them around town in this impressive ride. At first, I was intimidated to drive such a wide-body vehicle through the streets of LA, but I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to maneuver; plus, when other drivers saw me coming, they would pull to the side to let me pass. It was almost like a parting of the crowd for the guest of honor. It seems when people see a car like this approaching, they show deference, perhaps because of its large size, or perhaps to get a better view to see if there’s a celebrity passenger in the back.
After day after day of tourist-ing and partying into the wee hours of the morning — which for the adults in our group included some curiously strong drinks at the Abbey in WeHo, leading to a search party and a missing person’s report, which is a whole ‘nuther story – we departed LA feeling feted, entertained, and well hosted. Our trip was like a lovely dinner party, with a guest list of people you actually like, good food, enjoyable conversation, and a few antics to make the experience memorable. Our week stay was just the right amount of time too. Los Angeles is again a great place to visit, and in fact, one day, I might just want to live there, again.