Every morning at 6am, a line forms outside the Dominque Ansel bakery in Spring St, Manhattan. The hundreds of people who queue up around the block are all here for the same thing. The cronut – a half croissant, half donut – represents the latest in a long line of things New Yorkers like to obsess about. The bakery opens at 8am; by 8.30am, almost all of the three hundred and fifty cronuts made that day are gone. Ansel himself – a pastry chef with top credentials – spent two months perfecting the recipe, discarding ten incarnations of the gooey concoction before finally settling on The One. With a shelf life of four to six hours, he recommends eating it straight out of the oven. Which, of course, is nearly impossible to do. The damn thing has become so popular people are starting to pay others to line up for them – a friend witnessed a well-dressed middle-aged guy offer two ladies at the front of the line $100 each if they bought him a cronut. This sort of thing goes on in New York all the time.
It's not, thankfully, the same on the West Coast, where no one has even heard of a French bakery. The less-pretentious vibe suits me just fine. Los Angeles in particular, where things are so thoroughly unpretentious – at least in the part of town where one goes when one isn’t a celebrity – that it's almost refreshing.
The city has recently engaged in an energetic process of updating its public transportation system, keen re-establish itself as a pedestrian-friendly metropolis where it’s possible to get from point A to point B without driving or being driven. The metro, for the most part, achieves this successfully: it's fast, reliable, and relatively clean. (By "relatively" I mean compared to the New York City subway, which, on a good day, looks and smells like a junkie's bathroom.) The problem is that everything in LA is spread out, so even if there's a metro stop somewhere close to where you need to go, chances are you will still have to catch a cab or bus, or, if you're feeling brave, walk. Weirdly, there's no metro line that extends to Santa Monica – it goes as far west as Culver City and just stops. So to get to Santa Monica using just public transportation you have to catch the metro and two buses, a journey which took me roughly two hours from downtown LA. (LA's buses seem to have been last updated sometime in the '70s. The seats are so worn down and hard you can feel every bump, making it impossible to nap, read, or even relax. This would be okay if there was something pleasant to gaze at out the window, but, as this is LA, there isn’t.)
I stayed at two hotels. The first was the Figueroa Hotel in downtown LA, more motel than hotel, but comfortable enough. Once you get past smaller things, like the fact the wallpaper is stapled to the wall, you can really get into the mood of the place. Its Moroccan-theme, while certainly tacky at first, grows on you. It’s best at night, when the bar is open, the pool lights are on and everyone is kicking back with a Margarita.
If you want to stay closer to the action, the Beverly Garland in North Hollywood is within "walking distance" of Universal Studios – while it is possible to walk, the hotel offers a free shuttle for to the studio and the nearby metro station, an admission that the walk is perhaps a little too long and unpleasant. This is a Holiday Inn, but what it lacks in butlers and gold-plated doorknobs it makes up for in clean, spacious rooms, friendly service and a great pool. (Free poolside movies every night! Mostly for kids, but hey, who says you can’t sit on your balcony and watch Tangled.) The on-site restaurant, Tula’s, while performing below average on the buffet breakfast, excels at dinner service – order the steak, and don't leave without trying the cookie dessert. I don't know what's in it but I contemplated going back the next night just to have it again.
Food was a recurring theme on this trip. On my first night in San Francisco I went to a place called Salt House, a refurbished printing press in the SoMA district downtown. It's known for its poutine – a gluttonous Canadian invention consisting of fries smothered in brown gravy and melted cheese – which is served with mozzarella curds and short rib gravy. After a haze of equally indulgent appetizers and entrees – standouts included a poached egg with beef strips, bread and tomatoes and burrata with beans and black walnut vinaigrette – I was once again reacquainted with dessert, this time a gooey marshmallow and cream combo served in a tiny pot that I could easily have consumed two of, had my dining partner not convinced me that this would raise eyebrows.
Across town, citizen reviewers describe Sauce as "upscale comfort". It doesn't look like much from the outside, a low-lit space tucked away in Belden Place, but that usually bodes well for a restaurant – it means that unlike the places around the San Francisco Embarcadero, it's not spilling over with hungry tourists. Pretty much everything on the menu here is good, so my advice is to order a sample platter (Portobello mushroom fries, mini pot pies and deviled eggs with bacon), go for the chicken, steak or salmon at entrée time, and return to a sampler for dessert – peanut butter cakes, cinnamon sugar doughnuts, cookie dough bon-bons and ice cream…this time I told my dining partner to get stuffed and ate her share too.
I stayed at the Huntington Hotel, a boutique luxury establishment perched on top of Nob Hill. This time there really were gold-plated doorknobs and butlers with little white gloves, and it felt good. I even succumbed to the temptation of the on-site spa, where a lovely lady massaged me for an hour in a candle-lit room to the soothing sounds of Enya. True luxury is rare, so I enjoyed it while I could. (What this really means is that I spent unusually long periods of time in my room, reading in the bath, playing with the air-conditioner and staring out the window to Grace Cathedral and Huntington Park below.)
Recognising in myself a certain longing for the pretentiousness I'd scoffed so readily at just the week before, and obviously not finding enough of it in San Francisco, I spent a night in the Napa Valley, the wine region even locals regard as snooty and overpriced compared to the less-touristy Sonoma. Here, maybe, I would find people willing to line up for a food/beverage/service. Old, rich people love wine tasting, don't they? Surely there'd be scores of them roaming around Napa in fancy cars, on the hunt for overpriced coffee.
Sadly, Napa is just a sweet little town with magnificent views and beautiful resorts. (I admit perhaps the brunch I had at that one café in town was a little expensive and it was full when we arrived, meaning we had to wait for at least two minutes before a table cleared up and even then it was outside, in the sun, when we specifically requested inside, out of the sun, and even thought the waitress was apologetic and sweet, she did forget our order the first time, even if she did return almost immediately to ask us what we wanted again.)
The Andaz Napa resort too was, despite its large rooms, plush furnishings and charming outside terrace with live entertainment, fire pits and delicious mini doughnuts, disappointingly unpretentious. Everyone was just too nice. Even when I demanded a new hairdryer be brought up to my room, because the one I had was not working, someone was dispatched immediately, meaning I only had to wait a few moments suffering extremely wet hair before the situation was remedied.
At the airport, waiting for my flight back to New York, I did the only thing I could think of to ease my distress: I tried to get on the cronut pre-order list. After failing – twice – I realised paying a scalper to get one for me wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
I missed you, New York.
About Invisible Cities
Laura Parker is a freelance journalist living in New York. Born in Europe, she moved to Australia when she was seven years old, and, motivated by an early fascination with archaeology and Indiana Jones films, set about becoming a world-renowned adventurer. That hasn't quite happened yet, but she's working on it.Follow Invisible Cities on twitter @lauraannaparker or visit lauraannaparker.com