Lounging on the veranda of the art deco landmark Georgian Hotel, I'm watching women with large sunglasses stroll down Santa Monica's palm-lined Ocean Avenue when I overhear a screenwriter eagerly pitching her idea for a movie. This spot, where urban glamour crashes gorgeously into nature's awesome domain, is the California I pictured as a kid.
Tony restaurants and hotels line one side of the broad avenue just two blocks from Santa Monica's popular Third Street Promenade, while Palisades Park, running atop sandstone bluffs, drops straight down to the sandy beach on the other. The Santa Monica Pier blinks and whirs and stretches into the ocean. From my perch overlooking the blue Pacific, I feel as though I'm sitting on Los Angeles' front porch and taking in all the action.
Even though I've lived in L.A. for more than a decade, I have never, until today, actually stopped to take a stroll through Palisades Park, where twisted Australian tea trees creep along the ground near a cream-colored statue of St. Monica. Benches with views of the sparkling Pacific are sprinkled among patches of grass and towering palms. There are no bikini-clad roller-skaters, but there are plenty of people out enjoying this peaceful strip at the edge of the metropolis.
Although this is my first daytime visit to the park, I have spent plenty of time on Ocean Avenue after the sun sets. That's when the locals show up for the stylish, sophisticated dining scene at Boa Steakhouse or for a cocktail by the pool at the super-trendy Viceroy Santa Monica. Chic new restaurants sprout up all the time, keeping things fresh. Sushi spot Tengu arrived in January with its Zen crunch rolls (tempura-style spicy albacore rolls) and to-die-for macadamia-nut tortes. The latest addition, Abode Restaurant & Lounge, features biodynamic wines and chef Dominique Crenn, who worked as the first female executive chef in Indonesia before moving to Los Angeles. "I love it here," she says. "I can walk out of the restaurant and the ocean is right there. I feel integrated in nature."
Of course, not all of Ocean Avenue is this up-to-the-moment and posh. There are still a few places that remind us of a time when Santa Monica was more lazy beach town than "it" crowd hangout. Sure, Ivy at the Shore has always attracted its share of celebrities for grilled vegetable salads in a tropical beach-bungalow setting. But down the street, the dive bar and steakhouse, Chez Jay, remains unchanged since it opened in 1959. Sawdust and peanuts still cover the floor of this tiny shack, with its red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, and co-owner Jay Fiondella, a raconteur and former balloonist and treasure hunter, still holds court. "I'm happy to still be here," he says. "This is becoming restaurant row."
Across the street is another throwback. At the Hotel California, where anyone who checks in with a surfboard gets a 10 percent discount, you still can find a room by the ocean for less than $200. Bring your own pink champagne on ice.
Take I-10 west to the Fourth St. exit. Turn left on Fourth, go right on Pico Blvd., and take a right on Ocean Ave.
WHAT TO DO
Carlyle Design Shop for unusual imports like an antique Tibetan monastery cabinet. INFO: 1541 Ocean; 310/395-6667.
Santa Monica Pier Ride the carousel, play arcade games, or visit the aquarium. INFO: Carousel closed Tue; aquarium closed Mon, $5, free ages 12 and under; Ocean at Colorado Ave.; 310/458-8900.
WHERE TO EAT
Abode Restaurant & Lounge Local, sustainable food and decor. INFO: $$$$; 1541 Ocean Ave.; 310/394-3463.
Boa Steakhouse Japanese Wagyu to organic New York strip. INFO: $$$$; 101 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310/899-4466.
Chez Jay So dark, you can barely see your beer. INFO: $$; 1657 Ocean; 310/395-1741.
Ivy at the Shore The restaurant grows most of its own veggies. INFO: $$$; 1535 Ocean; 310/393-3113.
Ocean Ave. Seafood Finish up a day at the beach with the oyster and wine sampler. INFO: $$$; 1401 Ocean; 310/394-5669.
Tengu Try the special Mizore roll and a sake flight. INFO: $$$; 1541 Ocean; 310/587-2222.
Georgian Hotel Ghosts supposedly haunt the speakeasy of this recently renovated blue beauty, built in 1933. INFO: From $250; 800/538-8147.
The Hotel California A small, family-friendly hotel decorated with painted surfboards, climbing vines, and a relaxed attitude. INFO: From $199; 866/571-0000.
Viceroy Santa Monica For the hip and well-heeled; enjoy a meal inspired by the chef's global travels at the hotel's restaurant, Whist ( $$$$). INFO: From $429 through Aug 25, from $400 after Aug 25; 866/891-0947.