The city of Oz

Home to the Munchkins, Culver City shines for theater and dining

Kirk Douglas Theatre

Historic Culver sign for the newly christened Kirk Douglas Theatre

Ann Summa

Culver City is cool. Who knew? While other Southern California cities ― such as Santa Monica and Pasadena ― have earned major attention for their restored historic districts, Culver City has engaged in a stealthy campaign of civic improvement, transforming its downtown into a first-rate spot to spend a day or evening shopping, dining, and enjoying theater.

Culver City has long had stellar show-business credentials. It was home to MGM, perhaps the most golden movie studio of Hollywood's golden years. Today MGM is Sony Pictures Entertainment (tours $24, reservations required; 10202 Washington Blvd.; www.sonypicturesstudios.com/tours or 323/520-8687), which offers guided two-hour walking tours that highlight movie and TV memories and current hits.

Not far away, an equally important landmark has just been restored: the Culver Hotel (46 rooms from $99; 9400 Culver Blvd.; 310/838-7963), where The Wizard of Oz cast members stayed during filming at MGM.

There's more news: The neon-lit Culver Theater, in the center of downtown, has just reopened as the 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre (9820 Washington; www.kirkdouglastheatre.com or 213/628-2772), the new venue for the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Center Theatre Group. "The Douglas is everything I've ever wanted a theater experience to be," CTG artistic director Gordon Davidson says of his new digs.

Main Street, a short strip between Venice and Culver Boulevards, is home to antiques shops, cafes, and a scrapbooking store.

As for dining possibilities, they run the gamut from homey to chic. The Double Dutch Dinette ($$; lunch and dinner daily; 9806 Washington; 310/280-0991) and S & W Country Diner ($; breakfast and lunch daily; 9748 Washington; 310/204-5136) belong to the first category.

In the latter is Beacon ($$$; lunch Mon-Sat, dinner Tue-Sun; 3280 Helms Ave.; 310/838-7500), a sleek Asian restaurant in the old Helms Bakery complex. In between are San Gennaro Pasta Cafe and Bar ($$$; lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily; 9543 Culver; 310/836-0400) and the Grand Casino Bakery & Café ($; pastries and sandwiches daily; 3826 Main; 310/202-6969). In an Oz-ian category all its own is Munchkins Restaurant at the Culver Hotel ($$; lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily; 9400 Culver; 310/838-7963).

The roads to Oz

Surrounded by Los Angeles, most of Culver City lies east of I-405 and south of I-10. For more information, contact the Culver City Chamber of Commerce ( www.culvercity.org or 310/287-3850).

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