But beyond the pricey boutiques is an entirely different side to the city — one with businesses with far deeper roots. Kramer’s Pipe & Tobacco Shop, on South Santa Monica Boulevard (a.k.a. “Little Santa Monica”) between Camden and Rodeo Drives, is one such business. Marsha Kramer Keller, an actress and the current proprietor, took over the store when her parents died.
“It was opened by my father in 1949,” she told me as I rummaged through a charmingly cluttered collection of old postcards, Dominican cigars and bric-a-brac, which included a big cardboard cutout of George Burns. (“He didn’t shop here,” Ms. Kramer Keller said. “He had all his cigars shipped to him directly.”)
I picked up a smooth Flor de Las Antillas cigar for $7.50 and a handful of postcards for 25 cents apiece, and asked Ms. Kramer Keller about growing up in Beverly Hills. “You know, it was nice,” she said, after some thought. “There was a knitting store over there, a bike store over there. It was a neighborhood, you know?”
Exiting the tobacconist, I passed the Heegaard Building, a handsome Spanish Colonial Revival building on the corner of Rodeo Drive and South Santa Monica Boulevard built in 1924. Some film aficionados may recognize it as the store that Julia Roberts gets thrown out of in “Pretty Woman”; those with more old-school tastes will be interested to know that the building once counted Billy Wilder and Jack Nicholson as tenants in its offices.
Hungry for a quick snack, I stopped by the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, a 50-year-old institution that can only be described as a dairy wonderland. I bought a substantial chunk of Mimolette ($10), which was wonderfully nutty, with a distinctive bright orange hue.
There’s no shortage of good food in Beverly Hills, and much of it can be had for a reasonable price — if you’re willing to be a bit flexible. Travelers looking for deals should target the many restaurant happy hours. At Frida Mexican Cuisine, there’s a daily happy hour from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. I enjoyed a $7 glass of fruity and tannic sangria as well as a quesadilla stuffed with tender chunks of steak ($10.95, down from $18.95).
Porta Via has another good happy hour in its bar area, Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. I washed down a kale salad ($9) with an American Kolsch golden ale ($4). Thomas Keller’s Bouchon is an option as well, but you have to sit at the bar — sadly forfeiting the best part of the restaurant, which is the terrace. A $4 Kronenbourg and $9 charcuterie plate made this worthwhile, however.
But sometimes you just want to kick back in an old-fashioned deli. Nate ’n Al, opened in 1945, is still slinging slabs of fatty pastrami ($12.75 for a half sandwich; $16.75 for full) in a fabulously retro environment. I added a piping-hot bowl of matzo ball soup for another $5.50.
The biggest bang for your buck, though, may come in the form of a sushi lunch. Sasabune, in a strip mall on Olympic Boulevard, prides itself in its authenticity. A sign in the waiting area warns patrons: “No California roll, no spicy tuna roll.” Those are fighting words to some, but for the quality of the sushi experience it delivers, Sasabune serves up a fantastic bargain.
Lunchgoers can select a chirashi bowl ($25, fish over warm sushi rice) or a seven-piece nigiri set ($35). I opted for the nigiri, which also included an albacore sashimi salad, a hand-roll of my choice (yellowtail), miso soup and dessert. The fish was sweet and tender, and the rice, vital to the success of any sushi meal, was perfect: warm and with a good balance of sweetness and vinegary tang. If you’re looking to treat yourself on a budget, this is the way to do it.
Another indulgence I allowed myself — one I figured I had earned as a 10-year resident of Los Angeles — was a celebrity bus tour. I’d only previously stared at the tourist-packed Starline and TMZ buses hurtling down the street, wondering why anyone would pay $51.50 for the TMZ tour, or even the $49 for the Starline.
Instead, I found a Groupon for a company called Hollywood Tours LA and, combining that with another discount code I found online, paid $19.20 for my tour, plus $3 in fees. After meeting in Hollywood and checking in at a run-down old office, I embarked on my tour with about a dozen other people, with Dan, our veteran tour guide, driving the van and leading the way.
“And this is the 101 freeway,” he said. “But after 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, it’s free parking!” Cue the rimshot. Dan was full of lines he’d clearly repeated dozens of times, but he managed to say them with enough energy that they eventually became funny. We headed up Mulholland Drive, stopping briefly to take pictures of the Hollywood sign, and drove by houses owned by Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lopez.
We eventually headed down out of the hills, passing Sylvester Stallone’s enormous home, and as Coldwater Canyon Avenue became Beverly Drive, moved into the heart of Beverly Hills. Dan did have a few interesting pieces of information: “Do you know how I know we’re in Beverly Hills? The trees on the left match the trees on the right. Different streets are assigned different trees, and if the name of the street changes, so does the tree.” (While that’s not uniform citywide, it is part of the official plan for the city.) The tour ended pretty quickly thereafter — it clocked in at around 80 minutes for a tour that’s advertised as two hours long. But for $20, I didn’t complain.
You could spend that same amount, as I did, at a concert at the Greystone Mansion, an estate built with oil money by the Doheny family roughly 90 years ago. After a rousing performance by the Firebird Balalaika Ensemble, a park ranger conducted a brief tour of the mansion. The concert schedule is irregular and it’s difficult to purchase tickets online (I paid cash at the door), but it’s worth the effort to go. Even if there isn’t a performance, access to the beautiful grounds is free.
Over four days within the confines of this city of 35,000, I was never at a loss for fun and interesting activities. A box of juicy mulberries for $5 from the weekly Sunday farmer’s market? Check. (There was a $5 kids’ petting zoo, too.) Free lawn bowling lessons (on weekends and by appointment) in Roxbury Park from Bill Wolff, a patient local volunteer? You bet. A $6.50 matinee at the Music Hall movie theater, opened in 1938? Absolutely.
Or, for a truly big score, check out the bike share program. While it’s not as cheap as some other cities’ programs — $7 per hour if you pay as you go — it does come with one incredible perk. For a limited time, users can get a free bike helmet, eliminating one of the thornier issues of bike sharing. I simply signed up for the program through its phone app and marched into the Beverly Hills Visitor Center, where a helpful volunteer gave me my helmet.
And then I was off on a leisurely ride among the stately homes, up and down the gently curving residential streets north of Santa Monica Boulevard. Coasting between rows of palm trees on Bedford Drive on a sunny, breezy day was something anyone, no matter his net worth, could thoroughly enjoy.