Silver Lake secrets

Sunset Junction has become the place where independent-minded Angelenos like to hang out
David Lansing

This is how it begins: a struggling young clothing designer, unable to handle the rent on pricey Melrose Avenue, sets up shop on nearby Sunset Boulevard in a mixed-use district called Sunset Junction. On one side is a Mexican restaurant specializing in roasted goat; on the other side sits a tattoo parlor. The clothing shop does well. Then someone buys the landmark building containing the old Sanborn House restaurant, smack in the center of Sunset Junction. Upscale tenants―a cheese shop, an antiques store, a little French bistro that serves some nice wines by the glass―soon follow. People start hanging out. They say, "Hey, I'll meet you at Café Stella. In Silver Lake." After lunch, they walk around. They see the neighborhood's potential. They think about starting businesses of their own.

A club opens, bringing nightlife, followed by a couple more cafes. Sidewalk tables at cool little joints like Madame Matisse let diners nibble on beet-and-apple salads while watching hipsters―as rumpled as disheveled bedsheets―trawl for vintage fedoras in boutiques with names like Pull My Daisy.

Before long, someone has opened a record store selling hip-hop, reggae, jazz, and soul. Two turntables and a mixer in the window catch eyes, while an outside speaker sends sound up and down the boulevard. People can't help bobbing their heads as they walk by.

Travel planner

Suddenly everyone's buying property, converting transmission shops into restaurants, carnicerias into dance clubs, and botanicas into gift shops selling handmade jewelry and masks from Venice―the one in Italy. Housing prices soar. Getting your kids enrolled in one of the local preschools becomes the hot topic.

The New Melrose?

That pretty much describes today's Sunset Junction in Silver Lake, a historic neighborhood between Griffith Park and Dodger Stadium. In the '30s and '40s, Silver Lake was a minor movie colony to the many directors and actors―Gloria Swanson, among them―who worked at the numerous nearby film studios. The neighborhood went south in the '50s, but its cheap rents and proximity to the nightlife along Sunset Boulevard made it a popular haunt for artists and musicians like Tom Waits, who moved here in the early '70s and found inspiration in what he called the neighborhood's "dive-bar chic."

Today Waits's oh-so-cool visage, promoting his new album, stares out from a bus-stop bench near the appropriately named Den of Antiquity, a Sanford-and-Son-meets-Rodeo-Drive shop full of oddities. The shop is housed in a blood-red building that was once the site of the Sanborn House, and Den owner Barry Walker, whose tired eyes and croaky voice recall Waits's, says that L.A.'s favorite minstrel of the American night used to perform on this very spot. "I met Waits," says Walker, as he muscles a 1910 Arts and Crafts desk out in front of the store he's owned for four years. Back then, Waits told him, the neighborhood was fairly rough. "Now people call us the new Melrose," Walker says.

That might be a bit of an overstatement, but spend a lazy weekend afternoon on the five-block stretch of Sunset Boulevard between Sanborn and Maltman Avenues and you'll find plenty of shops and restaurants to choose from. The success of a few modest spots like Casbah Café, with its Chinese paper umbrellas buried in large flower pots facing Hyperion Avenue, has lured pricier eateries like Tantra, where you can sup on fine Indian cuisine and, on Saturday evenings, partake in "afterlife sessions and open-minds socials" in the lounge.

The San Antonio Meat Market, where neighborhood shoppers come to find special cuts of beef like cow tongue and other carnitas, still operates next door to Walker's Den of Antiquity, but new neighbors like the film production company upstairs make one wonder how long it will be before the Mexican butcher shop, and its clients, are forced to find a new location. "A lot of people from the west side―Santa Monica, Venice―are coming to Silver Lake and opening little shops," says Walker. "The neighborhood is changing fast."