L.A. Action? Try Pasadena

By Audrey Davidow
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 2004

By the time Jennifer Lopez opened her much-hyped restaurant, Madre's, in Pasadena a little over a year ago, the residents of Los Angeles's most genteel suburb had already grown accustomed to Hollywood types looking to extend the red carpet. The low-profile community had seen its share of coffee-shop screenwriters pecking at their laptops and independent producers barking into hands-free earpieces long before J. Lo settled in.

But the actress's buzzy arrival boldly announced to everyone what the locals had been hoping to keep under wraps: The elegant home of the Rose Bowl, where white-gloved socialites still take tea and girls in pearls still prep for cotillion, has become a legitimately hip destination.

Thanks to a number of intersecting forces -- an influx of international students at the three local colleges, a flurry of new semi-affordable housing and, most recently, the new $457 million Gold Line subway, which makes the area an easy shot from downtown L.A. -- this formerly conservative burg feels a lot more cosmopolitan and lively these days.

Best of all, it's not -- as is so often the case in Hollywood -- a matter of the old skulking off to make room for the new. Pasadena is still a place to revel in some of the country's best examples of 1920s craftsman architecture, top-rate museums and the rarefied hush of old money. It's just that now, an afternoon spent strolling through railway tycoon Henry Huntington's library and botanical gardens or taking tea at the Ritz Carlton can be capped off with a sake cocktail at a chic wine bar or an oxygen blast facial at a high-tech spa. There are still helmet-haired matrons to be found here, but these days the "Little Old Lady From Pasadena" is more likely to be wearing Gucci or Calvin Klein.

Start your explorations in Old Pasadena, the formerly scruffy downtown. The 22-block enclave bordering Colorado Boulevard has a new sheen: More than 120 shops and 80-some restaurants have taken up residence in the historic storefronts here.

One of the newest arrivals is Z Med Spa (1167 S. Fair Oaks Ave.), a futuristic pampering zone where adventurous clients are oxygenized, moisturized and detoxified in a fiberglass pod known as the DynaMed. It's one of the first spas in the country to offer the treatment, and although it may all seem eerily "Sleeper"-esque, it's a far cry from the shabby consignment shop that previously occupied this red-brick warehouse space.

Though such retail giants as Banana Republic, Gap and J. Crew maintain a solid presence, style-setters in search of more unusual finds have plenty of other options. Elisa B. (12 Douglas Alley), a closet-size boutique off Colorado Boulevard, carries merchandise made by young local designers -- cashmere T-shirts, flirty chiffon tops and as-low-as-you-can-go jeans -- that you won't find anywhere else in town. Owner Elisa Bruley hunts down labels obscure enough to lure the likes of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Salma Hayek out of Beverly Hills.

Down the road at Paseo Colorado, a rambling three-block collection of high-end shops and restaurants (don't dare call it a mall), B. Luu (340 E. Colorado Blvd.) stocks such hip designers as Frankie B. and Katayone Adeli. A few blocks away, at Lather (106 W. Colorado Blvd.), a modern-day apothecary filled with handmade soaps and bath bombs, you can create your own personalized potions from the extensive collection of essential oils.

As for dining, locals tired of the same old brunches look to Saladang Song (383 S. Fair Oaks Ave), a popular Thai spot, for a different kind of breakfast. Under an umbrella on the cafe's terrace, try pearly rice soup with ginger and chicken, or shimmering tofu in sweet syrup, . During lunch and dinner, when lines snake out the door, grilled calamari, fish cakes steamed in a banana leaf or one of a huge assortment of noodle soups are a good bet.

Retro enough to seem cool and authentic enough to actually be so, local landmark Pie 'n Burger (913 E. California Blvd.), in the South Lake Avenue business district just down the road, is another favorite hangout. It's been serving up great, messy hamburgers wrapped in waxed paper and soft drinks mixed from syrup and soda water for more than 40 years. In the unlikely event you have room for pie after your burger -- or if you want to take it home for later -- try the coconut or peach.

Another hot dining spot, Restaurant Halie (1030 E. Green St.), offers elegant meals in a romantic red-walled dining room, which occasionally doubles as an art gallery. A tony crowd of art directors, production executives and old-school Pasadenans come for the crispy shrimp cakes and seared foie gras.

Then, of course, there's Madre's (897 Granite Dr.), Jennifer Lopez's take on white-gloved elegance. The cream-on-cream dining room, which the diva built as a homage to her mother's kitchen, is illuminated with enough candles to fill a church. Locals line up for upscale takes on down-home Latin classics and the opportunity to do a little star-gazing, L.A.-style.

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