Whit Cook shares his favorite hot spots on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles:

As a New Yorker, I think of Los Angeles as being very spread out. Then again, every city in America is spread out compared to Manhattan. For the most part, I actually like its spread, and even the driving sometimes, too—sans traffic. It’s no surprise, though, that I find myself craving the walkability of New York whenever I’m visiting its West Coast counterpart. After all, life is much easier and more enjoyable when everything you need is within walking distance. So, you can imagine my delight when I recently happened upon this exact combination, an easy to navigate neighborhood that still has a plethora of options and that diverse LA vibe:  East meets West Third.

I was fortunate enough to visit LA’s West Third Street neighborhood this fall and can say from first-hand experience over three packed days of activities that this neighborhood is one of these aforementioned rarities. Its relative oblivion in the city of angels isn’t much of a mystery; after all, West Third Street sounds more like an address than a neighborhood. See, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu—they all have a certain cache. West Third Street, on the other hand, is that place everyone has been to but few recognize as a destination. Yet this very walkable neighborhood near downtown LA has everything you could need, is centrally located (with close proximity to other desirable neighborhoods) and is still managing to fly somewhat under the radar—despite a number of famous eateries, shops and one very hip hotel.

With over 100 destination shops, acclaimed restaurants, and independent specialty stores, West Third Street is the most walkable dining and shopping district in Los Angeles. Comprised of six connecting blocks between La Cienega and Fairfax, this neighborhood is just moments from The Grove, the original Farmer’s Market, the Beverly Center, and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). With public valet service and street parking available every day, it’s a prime mid-city resource for men, women, children and pets. Trendy clothing, accessories and optical boutiques, top beauty bars and fitness studios, chic home furnishing stores, premier art finds, local craft specialties, and some of the best bars and restaurants in the city can all be found in LA’s West Third Street hood.

As described by local business owner, Paul C. Witt of WITTMORE, “West Third Street is a not just a walkable dining & shopping district, but it’s also a community. What makes it so unique is the vision behind each of these independent business owners and then the level of personal customer service they deliver, which elevates the overall experience. That personal connection is still important to locals and tourists traveling from around the world.”

Stay

Full disclosure:  there are only a couple hotels located in the West Third Street vicinity, but fret not, The Orlando has enough appeal to go toe-to-toe with any accommodations you could find elsewhere in LA. This boutique, family-owned hotel has been welcoming guests to West LA for over three decades and yet it still feels like the trendy new digs. Originally opened in 1984 as The Beverly Plaza Hotel, The Orlando has been a constant in a neighborhood that is slowly evolving into one of the trendier urban destinations in the city. The convenient and friendly hotel is known for hosting entertainment and retail business travelers during the week and savvy LA visitors on the weekends. In fact, classifying it as a boutique hotel might be a bit misleading with its 95 stylish rooms and prominent location on the corner of West Third and Orlando. The hotel—the only one actually located right on West Third Street—encourages visitors to enjoy LA like a local by getting out and exploring the less touristy side of the city.

The Orlando Hotel (Photo: The Orlando Hotel) 
The Orlando Hotel (Photo: The Orlando Hotel) 

“I opened the hotel with my father over three decades ago and it’s been part of our family ever since,” says owner Ken Pressberg.  “As the neighborhood transformed into the lively destination that it is today, we’ve found that travelers are looking for a unique city experience when they visit Los Angeles.  The West Third Street neighborhood gives our guests an opportunity to live like a local and embrace the individuality of all of the independent businesses that make this area so special.”

And then there is Cleo, the adjacent restaurant next door that’s accessible from the hotel lobby. I love hotels with fun restaurants. The food doesn’t even have to be exemplary so long as it’s decent and the space draws a nice crowd, oozing with the kind of energy that hotel bars and restaurants are revered for. In the Orlando’s case it has both. In partnership with sbe Hospitality, with a separate entrance facing West Third Street, the celebrity-friendly eatery is known for shareable Mediterranean plates. Under the direction of Chef Danny Elmaleh, Cleo marries old Hollywood glamour with relaxed Mediterranean charm. More on that to come.

Play

It’s easy to think of the Pacific Ocean and the many beaches along its coastline as the primary playground for LA’s 4 million people. And maybe it is. But the hiking terrain around Los Angeles proper is no small consolation. In fact, many people prefer the trails and endless exercise options over the sand and water along the coastline.

No one in LA is more of a trail junkie than Danny Roman, owner of Bikes and Hikes LA. On a cool, slightly overcast Saturday morning, I met Danny along with a small group at the base of Runyon Canyon for what turned out to be a glorious trek in nature, right smack in the middle of LA. Runyon, a popular little patch of parkland in the heart of Hollywood, has both an easy paved path and a surprisingly rugged trail along its outer border that offers some stretches of intense workouts. The park itself is very popular with dog owners and has several off-leash areas for the canines, so if you’ve got a dog this is a great place for a quick hike.

Locals and tourists will typically begin their hike up Runyon by passing through the large gate at the top of North Fuller Avenue. We opted to meet Danny at a more unlikely rendezvous, Wattles Mansion and secret Buddhist garden, where we started our 25-minute ascent through a hidden trail to the summit. We eventually merged with the more pedestrian and people-laden trail, providing ample opportunity for people watching (i.e. celebrity spotting). We did not see any for sure, but it was still fun checking out all the different Angelenos getting their exercise fix in before brunch.

Runyon Canyon (Photo: City of Los Angeles Dept of Recreation and Parks

Danny sees LA’s year-round warm weather and hidden trails as the perfect setting for combining two of locals’ favorite things:  boosting health and avoiding traffic.

“You are not stuck in traffic…you are traffic. I started Bikes and Hikes LA so I could provide locals and visitors with unique experiences that were healthy, sustainable and got people from out behind metal and glass, and up close and personal with the city that I love so much. We take that responsibility very serious and make every experience we host a memorable one.”

Of course, not everyone appreciates the allure of exercising in nature. Some are just as happy to get their heart rate up and endorphins flowing in the cool confines of an exercise studio. LA certainly has no shortage of these outposts, either, from yoga to zumba to pilates. For me, Bunda—which is strategically located across the street from the famous lunch spot Toast (at West Third and Harper)—proved to be just what the doctor ordered after an indulgent night of wining and dining. Their one-hour course that has you toggling between plank poses and weight exercises on the floor, to two-stepping and crossovers on the Stairmaster, was harder than I imagined but the perfect amount of exercise.  Bar Method, down the street, is also popular. Their signature method uses your own body weight, the ballet barre and a few props to create a transformative workout that results in long, lean and sculpted muscles. Or so they say.

Bunda on West Third West (Photo: Facebook)

And of course there is always just good ol’ shopping if that is your version of “play.” And West Third has no shortage. MUD Australia, Gogosha Eyewear, WITTMORE, Le Labo, and Alchemy were among the myriad boutique shops we visited. While admittedly not much of a shopper myself—especially for clothes—I found the collection of men’s apparel at WITTMORE to be very cool and storefront-worthy. MUD Australia, which specializes in handmade porcelain homeware (think salad bowls and serving trays) with a color palette that seems to go on forever, seemed right at home on West Third. Porcelain essentially begins as mud and all their products are handmade in Australia, hence the name. Owner Shelley Simpson points out that “the Australian lifestyle is very similar to the West Coast lifestyle—relaxed, outdoors and healthy with splashes of color,” and the Mud Australia range embraces this way of life.

Photo: WITTMORE

“We really liked the West Third Street area since there’s a great concentration of thoughtful, independent retail; across food, fashion and design,” says MUD General Manager, Tess Lloyd.  “It’s also a fairly central neighborhood for locals and tourists to visit.  We’ve also found that there’s definitely a population of young professionals who live nearby and MUD gives them a unique option for building a collection of durable, design-forward tableware.”

Photo: MUDD Australia

After a quick vitamin B12 shot at Alchemy 43—an aesthetics bar specializing in microtreatments—it was time to throw in a wild card. While amply flamboyant—started by none other than an “LA Housewife”—this next stop had a great cause behind its reality TV namesake. Focused on the rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming of dogs to loving homes, The Vanderpump Dog Rescue Center’s flagship location resides right on West Third Street. The Vanderpump Dog Foundation has built a community of dedicated dog activists that are working to find forever homes for homeless animals across the city, working with shelters across Los Angeles to help relieve overpopulation. Despite the hifalutin nature of their storefront, the underlying cause is one I could not be a bigger fan of. Kudos to Lisa Vanderpump for using her celebrity for such a good cause. And there is no doubt she simply leant her name on this one—her hard work and determination in building this foundation through some good ol’ fashion sweat equity are well documented.

Photo: The Vanderpump Dog Foundation

Eat Gourmet

Toast Bakery Café—located at West Third and South Harper Street—is the perfect combination of trendy Los Angeles eatery and laidback hangout spot for brunch. Even if you haven’t been to Toast, it certainly may seem familiar to you. Why? Because it’s been featured on countless television shows, from Entourage to The Hills to Rachel Zoe:  it’s one of Los Angeles’s biggest “it” spots!  While traditional in many aspects of its cuisine—eggs and pancakes for breakfast; salads, soups and sandwiches for lunch—Toast’s cuisine is actually Israeli inspired.  For breakfast, the Shakshuka—a slow roasted stew of tomatoes, peppers and garlic topped with two eggs and a basket of bread—is a classic Israeli meal to start the day. Meanwhile, nothing screams Israeli cuisine in the midday more than their Mediterranean Tower—an assortment of dips, spreads, jams, tuna, feta cheese, olive tapenade and various breads to dip and spread on to your heart’s delight.

Down the street a little ways at 8048 West Third Street is Jaffa, another Israeli/Mediterranean restaurant with a beautiful open-air atmosphere that flows out onto the street. The menu is healthy yet decadent with things like fresh hummus (made daily), cauliflower with turmeric and tahini, and roasted chinook salmon—not to mention all sorts of fresh breads, stews and salads if you really want to get involved.

“We come from the South Bay, Manhattan Beach area of Los Angeles and my partner, Chef Anne Conness, and I were lucky enough to be part of the food renaissance of that area, largely based on building a relationship with the surrounding community,” explains Jaffa co-owner Nancy Vrankovic.  “When we look for a place to open a restaurant—and we took two years to plan for Jaffa—we look for places that are easy for neighbors to walk to and come together; places surrounded by independent retailers; a location that can build a neighborhood Happy Hour following; basically an ideal gathering spot for the community.”

Shakshuka made with feta cheese & organic eggs (Photo: Jaffa Facebook)

A few blocks up, The Little Next Door shares the same sophisticated fine dining qualities as its older sibling The Little Door but has a more casual, grab-and-go quality to it. The brasserie offers eat-in or take-away dining options made from local, organic, farm fresh foods. Little Next Door is known for its baked goods and extensive wine shop, offering services from catering to delivery.

The Blending Lab—a winery specializing in unique wine blends with a tasting room right on West Third Street—provided a well deserved hiatus from the day’s walking tour. Made locally in LA, with grapes sourced from notable vineyards in Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, the Blending Lab is quite literal in meaning. Their “lab” towards the back of the shop (more like a long wooden dinner table) allows customers to see first-hand what blending different varietals can achieve. You can also enjoy tasting flights, wines by the glass or simply purchase a bottle to take home at the main wine bar in the front of the shop.

Yardbird, which opened its first location in Miami, is pure bliss if you like old fashioned southern comfort food. It’s also a great spot to start your Saturday night. With a cocktail list made entirely of bourbon mixes and the bar touting an impressive 75 different types of bourbon, there’s no question that they give favor to the bourbon-inclined.  As for the edible menu, leave behind all notions of fitting into that bikini or speedo for your beach debut, because honestly you will find anything but food that fits into any trendy fad diets.  Just comfy classics, with a Yardbird twist.

Yardbird’s famous Fried Chicken
“Yardbird Classic:” American whiskey, blackberry, cardamom, lemon, bitters, club soda

The fried chicken—often a self-proclaimed “real” Southerner’s test of what constitutes a quality restaurant—is brined for 27 hours before being covered in a cayenne pepper flour and fried up.  Yardbird gives this recipe its own interpretation with adjoining cheddar waffles and hot sauce-infused Tupelo honey. Their homemade buttermilk biscuits were recently featured in Southern Living, to whom McInnis says he doesn’t recollect a day of his childhood without eating biscuits.  That’s probably why Yardbird biscuits come hot out of the oven every 30 minutes, with honey butter and local seasonal jams, in what I can’t help but describe as adorable miniature jars.

To say the Zuma group’s Inko Nito is one of the hottest new chains in LA is an understatement. Designed by Studio MAI to be a flagship for the company, the West Third Street location is hot meets hot. There’s a bit of lush greenery hanging around and some bold neon signage out front, but mostly this is the kind of place to hang out with too many friends and too many skewers, cocktail in hand.

As for the food, LA’s newest robatayaki spot—the final restaurant destination of my trip—features plenty of those flame-licked protein skewers, but also swings into dishes like a Dungeness crab tartare, panko-fried chicken, and a tight collection of sides like soups and salads. And the beer, wine, sake and spirits? Don’t worry, they have their own menu.

Cleo Outside (Photo: Cleo)
Photo: Opentable

Finally, the aforementioned Cleo, located within The Orlando Hotel—where I dined a couple times on my trip—offers a warm, social setting for dining on shareable dishes that combine local and modern Mediterranean flavors. Unlike some restaurants that use the term “Mediterranean” as a catch-all phrase and follow it up with a smorgasbord of average dishes that parade a few Mediterranean ingredients but are essentially Americanized, this food was truly authentic and true to the region. Babaganoush, Sesame Crusted Spanakopita, Spanish Grilled Octopus, Potato and Sauerkraut Latkes, Lamb Shawarma and Moroccan Fried Chicken are some of the delectable dishes that await you at Cleo.  A wonderful vibe, with tons of energy, only adds to the experience.

It may not be as well known as Rodeo Drive or Melrose Avenue, but West Third Street holds its own when it comes to hip boutiques and topnotch eateries. One of the city’s hottest shopping districts, this spirited street has a loyal following among twenty- and thirty-something locals and A-list celebrities. Next time you’re in town, take a pass on the over-hyped neighborhoods—those ones that come with the attitude, traffic and price gouging, and frankly don’t showcase the best parts of the city. Instead, experience LA like a local—with great restaurants, fitness studios, indie shops and the like. Trust me, West Third Street is a must-visit area next time you’re in town.

Restaurants: Cleo, Yardbird, Toast, Little Next Door, Inko Nito, Jaffa

Shops: MUD Australia, Gogosha Eyewear, Le Labo, WITTMORE, NFP, Pyrrha, Blending Lab

Fitness: Bunda, Bar Method, Runyon Canyon

Hotels: The Orlando Hotel