For many people, especially those who don’t live in and around Los Angeles, the idea of Sunset Boulevard conjures up the iconic Billy Wilder film of that name, or the fictional nightclub at 77 Sunset Strip, where one of the most popular TV series of the early 1960s was set, or images of historic Hollywood landmarks: the Chateau Marmont hotel, whose poolside bar is prime territory for movie-star sighting, and where several recent films (Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars”) were shot; the Laugh Factory, where some of the country’s greatest comedians, from Richard Pryor and Jerry Seinfeld to Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, have performed. But for Los Angeles residents, those two words — Sunset Boulevard — are more likely to seem like shorthand for their shared obsession: traffic.
Mention the street, which begins at the Pacific Coast and stretches for nearly 22 miles, ending up in downtown Los Angeles, and Angelenos will tell you what times of day it can be traveled and when it should be avoided; they’ll whip out their phones, consult their GPS, and give you advice on the shortcuts to take around Sunset and its bumper-to-bumper crawls.
But for someone like myself, who lives on the East Coast and often visits Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard means something different: food. Sunset Boulevard surprised me, a native New Yorker, as a less-heralded version of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, one of the great eating streets, lined with restaurants that reflect the diverse ethnic and cultural enclaves it crosses. Sunset, too, is a food lover’s paradise. From the classic American fare at Mel’s Drive-In to the Thai restaurants and Mexican taquerias that grow more numerous as one approaches downtown, Sunset offers a variety of places that can tempt us to forget about our original destination, pull off the road — and eat.
The first time I noticed this, I was staying in Hollywood and driving to a bookstore event in the hipster enclave of Silver Lake. And I wanted to stop on every other block and sample the restaurants that, like so many of my favorite spots in Los Angeles, are located in the unassuming strip malls that dot the landscape of Southern California.
So on a visit last spring, I decided to do just that. The ground rules were simple. I’d take the recommendations of friends and take chances, pausing at spots that looked interesting. The only other stipulation was that these restaurants had to be on Sunset, a rule I broke only once to meet a friend for lunch at a cafe a few steps from the intersection of Sunset and Vine.
From the Pacific Coast to the edge of West Hollywood, Calif., Sunset winds through patches of trees, past mansions and manicured lawns. As West Hollywood disappears in the rearview mirror, Sunset morphs into the trendy neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Echo Park, and finally disappears in the shadows of Chavez Ravine, the location of Dodger Stadium and once home to generations of Mexican-Americans.
I decided to start in West Hollywood (at the high end, so to speak) with the most expensive restaurant that I; my husband, Howie; and our son, Bruno, would visit. As we headed east into Hollywood, I was feeling very Southern California sitting in the back of the S.U.V. next to my infant grandson and tapping away at my phone to find the nearest appealing-sounding place. I remembered seeing the Church Key on “Best New Restaurant,” a reality show on Bravo. What had lodged in my mind were the rolling carts of high-end dim sum.
The waitress at the Church Key gracefully acknowledged that yes, in February they had been on the show and lost, and indeed the spacious restaurant (whose manager came over to ask if we were enjoying our dinner) had the vibe of an establishment still trying to make things right; everyone we encountered was extremely solicitous and eager to please. In fact, the food was excellent.
From the small-plates menu we chose a delicious pork belly, a duck cassoulet and potato pirogies. The first rolling cart brought complex and interesting variations on sushi. But I’d return just for the cocktail — the Smokin’ Chola, an ingenious combination of mezcal and horchata, the Mexican rice drink — with which we began the meal, and for the astonishing hot brioche doughnuts with which we ended it. One hallmark of having eaten well is that when the bill came we all agreed that, though hardly inexpensive, our dinner wasn’t nearly as costly as we had imagined.
The next day, heading east and slightly down the scale from fine dining toward strip malls, we had lunch at the popular Hungry Cat in Hollywood (half a block off Sunset), an attractive and convenient place to meet a friend working just a few blocks away. Located down a short passageway, between a Walgreens drugstore and an empty office space, the place was a bit of a challenge to find. We chose from a midday menu mostly composed of shellfish; we had chorizo and clams, mussels with pork belly, a crab cake sandwich and an excellent lobster roll. Burgers are also available for the seafood-averse. The Hungry Cat, which has other branches in the area, is best known for its lavish seafood platter with selections from the raw bar.
Sunset has any number of amazing breakfast spots, and I’ve watched locals make the difficult choice based on proximity and a phone call (especially necessary on weekends) to determine the length of the wait, which at some places can last more than an hour. I’ve long been a fan of the Griddle Cafe, with its comfortable booths and generous servings: eggs Benedict atop potato skins, and gargantuan pancakes, most notably the red velvet pancake topped with swirls of cream cheese icing. But on this visit, the Griddle Cafe was edged out (just slightly) for me by the Brite Spot Diner, with its funky ’70s décor (seats upholstered in dark-red plastic, Formica tabletops) and fascinating clientele, some of whom seem to have been drawn there, after dancing in nearby clubs all night, by the promise of a dish called “the Hangover”: eggs, chicken andouille sausage, home fries, cheese and habanero pesto.
Partly because the Brite Spot is only a few blocks from Echo Park Lake, where I planned to walk off at least some of the calories, I feasted on their marvelous chicken and waffles, which features an extraordinarily crispy chicken breast (coated with cornflake crumbs and almonds) atop waffles slathered with butter and syrup. I’ve been there only for breakfast, not the hour when I’m most likely to order pie, but the appealing homemade pastries in the old-fashioned glass case always make me want to return later in the day — after that long walk, of course.
In my opinion, Sunset really gets good, from a food-lover’s point of view, as you approach Silver Lake, where the boulevard begins to feel like a less crowded version of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and where you can browse the cheeses and fine wines at the Cheese Store of Silver Lake or have your caffeine brewed to order at Intelligentsia Coffee.
As the address numbers get down around 5000, one finds some of the best Thai restaurants in Los Angeles. The most popular (and a reliable standby) is the excellent Jitlada, where I always order the spicy, crispy whole sea bass and the house special Morning Glory salad and try at least one of the southern Thai specialties, rarely found elsewhere: lemon curries, black squid soup, and a vegetable dish whose principal ingredient is wild tea leaves. The servers are understanding and accommodating if you make your limited tolerance for spiciness clear, but be warned. Some dishes, a fiery beef curry among them, are delicious, but pure pain.
On this trip we decided to light out for new (Thai) territory, forgoing Jitlada for some of the other excellent spots in the near vicinity. Of all the places we visited, the one that made me feel most like a Los Angeles insider was Siam Sunset, partly because it was the most difficult to find. Its entrance is inside the courtyard of a motel, America’s Best Value Inn, and the simple place is populated almost entirely by Thai customers who come especially for the marvelous breakfasts. Siam Sunset serves by far the best duck congee I’ve ever had, but for many customers the draw is the Hai Nan Chicken Rice. The soft, unctuous, boiled chicken is served over rice, garnished with fresh cucumber and doused with a flavorful gravy made of soy sauce, chile, garlic, ginger and vinegar.
Farther down Sunset is another Thai standout, Night & Market, which has proved so popular with customers, chefs and movie stars (Gwyneth Paltrow and Lena Dunham are regulars) that there are now two branches: one in West Hollywood, one in Silver Lake. The place is decorated (bright colors, beaded curtains, folksy knickknacks and movie-star posters) to resemble a simple cafe one might find by the side of the road or in a small city in Thailand; in an interview, the chef Kris Yenbamroong said the décor has been compared to that of a teenager’s bedroom and a G.I. bar in Bangkok. The emphasis is on Thai street food: fresh, authentic, unusual.
Here, too, the waiters are understanding if you ask them to keep the spice level low, though some dishes — the catfish tamale (catfish and pork baked in a banana leaf) and larblanna (chopped pork meat, liver and blood) — refuse to be toned down. It hardly mattered; everything was delicious, the batter-fried octopus, the rice noodles with chicken and broccoli, the roast pork shoulder. By the end of the meal, I wanted to start all over and to return, this time eating dishes I hadn’t tried, some of which contained ingredients exotic enough (steamed mashed water bugs, fermented pork sausage) to require a group of daredevil eaters, prepared with the spirit of adventure and a degree of mental resolve.
As Sunset approaches downtown, the area begins to resemble an older Los Angeles, where the vibrant Mexican community thrived before being moved for the construction of Dodger Stadium. The boulevard is lined with small Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants, bodegas and piñata stores. A Mexican friend had recommended Guisados, a taqueria that turned out to be among my favorites.
Over the years, after numerous trips to Mexico, I’ve flattered myself into thinking that I’m something of a taco connoisseur. And the tacos at Guisados were among the best I can remember. What made it all the more satisfying was the fact that a sampler plate of mini tacos (taquitos) eliminated the need to choose from among the many appealing varieties on offer. Among them was steak picado, a flank steak with green peppers and bacon; bistek en salsa roja, beef with red bell peppers and tomatoes; chile de arbol, avocado and black beans; mole poblano, chicken breast in mole; tinga de pollo, shredded chicken with tomatoes, cabbage and chipotle chile; chicharrón, pork rinds simmered in green chile sauce; and cochinita pibil, shredded pork in a sweet, red achiote gravy. The agua fresca (fresh fruit waters) and the homemade horchata were also delicious.
After a week of eating my way up and down Sunset, I refused to go anywhere near a bathroom scale. Back home in New York, I was happy, certainly full, but ever so slightly dissatisfied. All I wanted was to return to Los Angeles, to start from the other end of Sunset, and to try all the places — that Salvadoran pupusa restaurant, that South Indian spot, that hip cafe — that I didn’t have the time or the appetite to sample, this time around.