My City: Mickey Rapkin’s L.A.

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I came to think of Los Angeles as the magic place—a city where beautiful people from our movie screens and television sets ran wild. Or at least ran errands.

There was Marisa Tomei at the Echo Park Craft Fair on a Saturday morning. There was “Sulu” from the new Star Trek films weightlifting at my neighborhood gym.

I once was introduced to Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, at a fancy Hollywood party. He told me I had a great name.

“It sounds like a Jewish gangster,” he said. I dined out on that story for months.

After a decade in New York City working as a journalist, I had moved west in 2013 to write movies. Los Angeles was a company town and, man, was the company good. (Matthew Weiner!)

I wasn’t alone. The Style section of the New York Times chronicled a mass creative exodus from Brooklyn to L.A.’s east side. Though John Lennon, it’s said, once referred to my adopted home as “just a big parking lot,” L.A. was apparently now “irresistible to the culturally attuned.”

French inspired fare and rooftop views at Perch, in the revived downtown district (Photograph by Dylan + Jeni, National Geographic)
French inspired fare and rooftop views at Perch, in L.A.’s revived downtown district (Photograph by Dylan + Jeni)

I was so convinced of my screenwriter mission that I bought a two-bedroom house with an apricot tree in the backyard.

I literally had roots in L.A., but after six months I still wasn’t sure I belonged here. My complaints were hardly original. Early dinners, nobody walks.

When the novelty of a good celebrity sighting wore off, what were you left with? Strip malls and doughnut shops.

I went to the artist Jenny Yurshansky’s exhibition “Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory” at nearby Pitzer College, where she used 130 species of invasive plants as a way to talk about immigration. I left feeling like a non-native plant myself. There were a million cars on the road, but nobody was in a rush to get anywhere. Where was the urgency?

I have a theory about why L.A. is the No Worries capital of the world—and why that just might be a blessing for anyone as tightly wound as I am.

By the time Angelenos wake up, the rest of the world has already had a full day. Anything terrible that was going to happen probably happened while you were asleep.

Namaste. New Yorkers like to believe they live in the center of the universe. But once you leave, the world opens up in surprising ways. Slowly, Los Angeles’s secrets began to reveal themselves.

This is a city that likes a good story. Nowhere more so than downtown.

With some regularity I started going to The Varnish, a speakeasy hidden inside Cole’s, one of two sandwich shops that claim to be the birthplace of the French dip (the other is Philippe’s). As one legend has it, the French dip was invented to appease a customer with sore gums who found his sandwich’s French roll too crusty; dipping it in beef jus made it easier to chew. Who knows if this is true, but it sounds true. Which in Hollywood, you’ll quickly realize, is the same thing.

On Sunday nights, I walk clear through Cole’s toward an unmarked wooden door at the back of the eatery. It’s less a door than a time machine, opening to reveal a secret windowless bar lit low and (yeah, I said it) romantic. Pick your favorite spirit and let a bartender mix a serious cocktail while a bass player entertains the tiny crowd. What makes the drinks so good? It starts with hand-cut ice.

Multicultural Grand Central Market (Photograph by Dylan + Jeni, National Geographic)
Multicultural Grand Central Market (Photograph by Dylan + Jeni)

Now I admit there is something twee about a world that is so curated. (Bespoke ice!) But I also appreciate the irony.

This town famous for exporting mind-numbing action sequels around the world has a culinary movement firmly about authenticity and buying hyper-local. That’s what makes the Grand Central Market so electric.

Over the past two years, its owner, Adele Yellin—a petite, 60-something firecracker—has transformed a century-old downtown food court into a culinary destination, a place where longtime pupusa vendors coexist with such upstart foodie operations as Eggslut and G&B Coffee (home of the iced almond/macadamia milk latte).

In a city obsessed with the perfect hamburger, there is no better fix for my $12.50 than Belcampo Meat Co., an organic California farm that operates a lunch counter out of the market. Belcampo’s patties, a handsome butcher told me, are made with trims from the house’s best cuts. Remember to bring a towelette to wipe the juice off your fingers. Better yet, just lick them.

For a while I thought nobody in L.A. ever really worked. (I still don’t, but that’s another conversation.) With no reason to rush, you can get to know the entrepreneur brave enough to open an 800-square-foot café that stakes its reputation on one thing: toast.

At tiny Sqirl, wedged between beauty shops and bodegas on the edge of hip Silver Lake, the lunchtime line stretches out the door and around the corner, with people waiting for owner Jessica Koslow to slather house-made wild blackberry and Meyer lemon jam all the way to the edge of a thick slice of brioche. For $4.50, it tastes like an elementary-school snow day. We’re all just nuts trying to get a Sqirl.

Lunch at Silver Lake's Sqirl, known for its jam-topped brioche toast (Photograph by Dylan + Jeni, National Geographic)
Lunch at Silver Lake’s Sqirl, known for its jam-topped brioche toast (Photograph by Dylan + Jeni)

The thing is, in L.A. we crave authenticity not only in food but in our experiences. It turns out that writing movies is more stressful than I imagined. I began seeking solace in an unexpected place: a Korean bath. These oases are hidden along Wilshire Boulevard, but I am partial to Natura Spa, a budget-friendly escape in the basement of a former department store in Koreatown.

Fifteen dollars gets you entry to a steam room, sauna, and soaking tubs. The lights are dim. The conversation (if any) never rises above a hum. If you go, a tip: Move from the dry heat of the sauna to the wet heat of the steam room before plunging into an icy bath. And let the folds of your brain relax.

Even as I write this, I know how L.A. it sounds. A hippie trip to a subterranean spa? Brioche toast? And I’m not ready to call myself an Angeleno. I miss New York like a phantom limb; there’s an attitude forever embedded in my DNA despite my zip code.

But I breathe a little easier here despite the smog. I eat a little better. I have come to appreciate Los Angeles for a million reasons and also for one: Did I mention the light? Damn, it’s gorgeous. Sometimes that light makes you see how lonely you are. Or how successful other people are. Or even how famous they are. But on a good day, that light can also make you feel hopeful.

Mickey Rapkin is the author of Pitch Perfect, which inspired the hit film franchise. This story appeared in the November 2015 issue of Traveler magazine.

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