Monday’s Neighborhood: Silver Lake, Los Angeles
Nestled quietly just northwest of Downtown and right outside of Chavez Ravine from Dodger Stadium, Silver Lake is one of those non-glamorous, mostly middle class neighborhoods that nearly every major city has, but nobody ever envisions flashy, expansive Los Angeles to have. Los Angeles doesn’t do subtlety. Somehow, Silver Lake has powered along to become one of the city’s most pleasant places to live. It has also become one of the premier neighborhoods for dining. All the while, Silver Lake has remained nothing but subtle, appreciating its steep hilly solitude, just outside of the chaos that is the nation’s second most populated metropolis.
Directions in Los Angeles must always be provided in reference to its beloved freeways, or at least that’s how I studied the city when living there. Silver Lake resides between “the” 101, “the” 2 and “the” 5, also known as the Hollywood Freeway, the Glendale Freeway and the Golden State Freeway. Similar residential communities Los Feliz and Atwater Village, both excellent destinations too for dining purposes, resides to Silver Lake’s northeast and northwest respectively. Silver Lake Boulevard and Subset Boulevard are the primary thoroughfares. Sunset runs somewhat parallel to 101 in a slanted-weaving north-south trajectory. Silver Lake Boulevard is the main exit from 101 that leads to the main commercial stretch near…yes, the Silver Lake Reservoir.
There is no fishing or swimming in Silver Lake. In fact, the fence in some areas along its perimeter must be at least 20 feet tall. On sunny days (as in every day in Los Angeles) the dirt path around the lake is filled with joggers and walkers, the Los Angeles equivalent of the Central Park Reservoir in Manhattan or Green Lake in Seattle. The winding, hilly streets of the neighborhood are some of the steepest in Los Angeles, sometimes seeming like Nob Hill and Lombard Street combined in one. It is essentially like the Hollywood Hills without the grandeur, mega estates, and privacy. Areas of Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and Marin County come to mind when comparing Silver Lake. Its most resident was Walt Disney, back in the mid 20th century.
Silver Lake’s dining and drinking scene happens to be as eclectic as the neighborhood itself: running from the country’s premier tiki bar to L.A.’s best coffee cafe to excellent Cuban and Vietnamese. And an ice cream shop where the flavors can be popcorn or avocado (or both in one).
LA Mill is the heart of Silver Lake, on Silver Lake Boulevard right by the reservoir. It’s a Los Angeles style French all day cafe that is equally adept at superb pastries, sandwiches, and a few entrees consulted on by Providence’s Michael Cimarusti, as it is with serving as a to go spot for an assortment of teas, a bar with a superb wine list from a master sommelier, and of course, top tier coffee drinks from beans roasted by LA Mill. Instead of looking like just another cafe or coffee shop, LA Mill seems more like a grand Gustav Klimt designed parlor. If only the Valrhona chocolate liquid center lollipops were still sold…
Around LA Mill you’ll find the restaurant Reservoir, the red hot L&E Oyster Bar, along with several vintage boutiques and dive bars. Taking Silver Lake in its entirety or mile or so, you’ll come upon Glendale Boulevard. Near this intersection, you can create the perfect night out with a wine from Silver Lake Wine, an innovative take on Vietnamese cuisine from Ginger Grass, and then bring your lederhosen for a liter of Spaten at the Red Lion Tavern. Be sure to sit in the rear beer garden.
The other direction from LA Mill along Silver Lake Boulevard leads you to Sunset Boulevard, yes, that road that eventually leads you through the heart of Hollywood to the estates of Westwood and Bel-Air. This is the other side of Sunset. Where the two main streets intersect, challenge culinary mash-up preconceptions you’ve had before and tandoori naan pizzas at Cowboys & Turbans, yes it’s a real place. Lunch here must be at Cafe Tropical, a Cuban cafe-restaurant with excellent pork and cheese oozing Cubanos, excellent guava pastries, and powerful café con leche. The new gastropub Black Hogg is here with its popcorn bacon and the city’s new, definitive lamb burger. Aroma, a nearby more formal Italian spot, is an excellent dinner choice too. Sunset then winds its way for a mile or so with few culinary stops other than the decent fish taco shack El 7 Mares.
The area of Sunset arriving to Santa Monica Boulevard is now the most dense commercial stretch of Silver Lake. The others range from slightly gritty to pleasantly eclectic and suburban, here it is now starting to be a Portlandia-fashionista area, anchored by the Sunset Junction with Intelligentsia’s coffee bar and the Cheese Store of Silver Lake. Across the way, the chic crowds gather for lunch every day of superb salads, flanksteak, and cookies at Forage, then get some excellent hazelnut gelato at Pazzo Gelato. Backtracking a bit on Sunset, grab a terrific burger and a “good” microbrew at Good Microbrewery and Pub. Or if kale salads sound great, cleanse the system at Cru, a 100% gluten free and vegan restaurant.
Further up Sunset nearing the Hollywood-Los Feliz border, Malo crafts some of the city’s more expensive, more exciting tacos, along with terrific cocktails. Even better for cocktails is the nearby Tiki Ti, quite possibly the country’s premier tiki cocktail bar. Since 1961 when Ray Buhen founded the bar, Tiki Ti has been a pilgrimage for cocktail aficionados, de-bunking the usual syrupy tiki drink myth. Outside, Tiki Ti looks like another dive bar on a deserted stretch of Sunset. Inside, it is one of the biggest trips you’ll have stepping into a room, full of every knick-knack, voodoo doll, license plate, cascading waterfall, and then some of everything else in the tropical garage sale. The drink to get is Ray’s Mistake, everything you wish a mai tai to be. The Ooga Booga and the Blood & Sand should be the picks if you want the real show. Seemingly a liter of dark rum goes into the latter as the crowd chants the drink’s name while the bartender pours. For the former, the crowd chants “Toro, Toro!” while the tequila flows and a bull strolls along the bar. There is no menu, there is almost always a line out the door after 8 pm, and there is really nothing in the world quite like Tiki Ti.
The last two clusters to point out in Silver Lake stretch the neighborhood boundaries a bit. To the north from Sunset, take Hyperion towards Los Feliz and enjoy one of the country’s premier wine bar-casual restaurants at Barbrix, or excellent pizzas at Tomato Pie Pizza Joint. South of Sunset by the Los Angeles Community College, a one block stretch of Heliotrope by Melrose features a real gothic meets hipster vibe amidst its shops. Here, you’ll find Tai Kim’s bizarre ice cream creations at Scoops that work 80% of the time upon my calculations, along with terrific coffee next door at Cafecito Organico.
A perfect espresso and some brown bread ice cream, the perfect, intriguing way to finish a tour of this very unique neighborhood.