The city of Oz

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

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).