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.

Until recently, there wasn't much on tap in the way of nightlife, save a few sports bars and a Hooters. Locals looking for adventure had to trek to Hollywood or the West Side for a night on the town. Now, there's Bodega (260 E. Colorado Blvd.), a sleek new wine bar in the Paseo Colorado, with an eclectic, generously priced wine list and an even more generous girl-to-guy ratio. The indoor-outdoor cafe feels more Barcelona than suburban mall, with low lights, tall tables and a sexy red lounge off to the side.

But to focus only on the new and trendy would be a big mistake. Pasadena still ranks as one of the few places around L.A. with a palpable sense of history, a generally glitz-free environment more concerned with Rose Bowl coronations than Oscar nominees.

Many of the city's older destinations are currently undergoing that Los Angeles rite of passage: the facelift.

The red-domed City Hall (100 N. Garfield Ave.), a baroque-style landmark built in 1926, will undergo an $80 million restoration beginning in May. The 1909 Gamble House (4 Westmoreland Place), a first-rate example of craftsman architecture, is in the midst of a $3.5 million sprucing up. And a little more than a year ago, the Norton Simon Museum (411 W. Colorado Blvd.), home to one of the largest private art collections in the country, completed a $6.5 million renovation, including skylighted galleries designed by Frank Gehry and a Giverny-inspired sculpture garden complete with a water lily pond, waterfalls and a lemon-scented grove of eucalyptus trees. The museum recently tapped Hollywood power-chef Joachim Splichal to take over the garden cafe, which is scheduled to reopen this spring.

For a relatively small city of 135,000 people, Pasadena has an impressive concentration of museums, including the Armory Center for the Arts (145 N. Raymond Ave.), known for edgy works by up-and-coming artists, and the Pacific Asia Museum (46 N. Los Robles Ave.), a trove of more than 12,000 treasures from Buddhist sculptures to Chinese jade carvings.

To visit them, hop on a Pasadena ARTS bus, which travels through Old Pasadena, the Playhouse District and the South Lake Avenue shopping area, and keep your eyes peeled for the extensive public art collection of abstract, figurative and whimsical creations. For 50 cents, you can hitch a ride at any of the convenient stops along the way and step off whenever you like; the buses run every 12 minutes, seven days a week.

The newest entry on the Pasadena museum circuit is the industrial-chic Pasadena Museum of California Art (490 E. Union St.), which opened in 2002. Devoted to art, architecture and design from 1850 to the present, the $5 million museum is housed in a three-story plaster-and-limestone building a block off Colorado Boulevard. Inside, exposed pipes and concrete floors provide the backdrop for a stack of loft-like galleries, tied together by an undulating, Gaudi-curved staircase. With rotating exhibits that range from architectural photography to fingernail cuttings as art, the museum plays to all kinds of crowds.

If flea market finds are more your style, you've come to the right place. If you're here on the second Sunday of the month, don't miss the Rose Bowl Flea Market (1001 Rose Bowl Dr.), with more than 2,000 vendors and a million items on sale. Billed as the country's biggest swap meet, it's a regular haunt for hip homeowners in search of everything from Fiestaware to Bakelite. Now in its 35th year, it remains one of the city's most popular weekend activities -- a cool reason to head to Pasadena, long before there were many others.

For more information, contact the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-307-7977, www.pasadenacal.com.

Audrey Davidow is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company