Social distance and people-watch at these 10 places in L.A. - Los Angeles Times
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10 highly specific places to people-watch while social distancing in L.A.

illustration of people reflected in the lens of sunglasses
(Lively Scout / For The Times)
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If the plan is to debut a new you in ’22, why not start by reminding yourself of all the options? Think of these public places as a Greater L.A. field guide to all the ways that a person might look and behave.

Or think of this as city-bathing — the urbanite’s answer to the “forest-bathing” that got popular in Japan some years ago. I’ve put together a list of 10 likely spots, all outdoors (except for spacious Union Station) because of COVID, and none in malls or theme parks because you’ve been there and done that.

These are places — very specific places, often down to a particular table — where you might keep six feet of distance and still catch Greater Los Angeles being its best urban self, whatever that means for you. They’re in no particular order.

Are there risks whenever you leave home these days? Does the landscape seem to be changing daily? Yes and yes. So, using the freshest information and your best judgment, you might want to wait a month or two or six until you try these spots. Who says a new you needs to happen right away?

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Christine Akande sips on a glass of wine and the view from Ray’s is seen in a double exposure.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Whenever you do this, enjoy the tide of people washing past. You might just find yourself bubbly with “collective effervescence.” That, French sociologist Émile Durkheim said, is what happens every once in a while when many people in one place find their thoughts and actions harmonizing in a joyous way.

On the other hand, if you catch yourself thinking that “Hell is other people,” remember who wrote that. It was Jean-Paul Sartre, who at the time was spending hours and hours in the 1940s hanging out with his existentialist buddies at Café de Flore in Paris.

On this search, I looked for vitality, variety and unpredictability as well as a comfortable place to sit, safety, and when possible, more locals than tourists. At the beginning of this assignment a few weeks ago, I was mostly maskless. However, by the end of last month, I was mostly masked — and glad for the collective experiences.

1. Table 61, Ray’s, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Museum people are always fun to look at. And the Los Angeles County Museum of Art occupies a sweet spot on Wilshire Boulevard, just west of the La Brea Tar Pits, just east of the recently opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, with the 202 streetlights of Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” installation to advertise itself. Unfortunately, there’s no streetlight-adjacent seating except for a low wall. So the nearest perches for people-watching are Ray’s (LACMA’s fancy restaurant) and Stark Bar (next to Ray’s). The two stand side by side in the museum’s Smidt Welcome Plaza and remain open as LACMA’s major reconstruction continues elsewhere on campus (to be completed in 2024).

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My choice is Ray’s Table 61, a two-top with a good view of the approach walkway and a pair of selfie settings near the museum ticket office. Consider the polpette al forno (an $18 marriage of meatballs, ciabatta, tomato sauce and melted cheese).

Pro tip: Sometimes Stark’s places its two elevated bar tables on the Wilshire/"Urban Light” side of its patio. When that happens, grab a stool at one of those tables and you can watch the endless parade of people posing with the lampposts.

Also, on hot days, I’m guessing there will be abundant lounging nearby among the 50 chairs scattered in the Walt Disney Co. Piazza beneath the Academy Museum’s theaters. And moving-picture people might be even more interesting to look at than art people. However, on the cool, blustery day of my last visit, just one man was sprawled on a chair in the otherwise empty piazza.

Ray’s, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-6180, patinagroup.com/rays-and-stark-bar

In a double exposure, Leah Barnum, left, and D.A. Jones eat at Hennessey's Tavern and the pier is seen.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

J & F Ice Cream Shop and flags that decorate Mariachi Plaza de Los Angeles in Boyle Heights is seen in a double exposure.
J & F Ice Cream Shop and flags that decorate Mariachi Plaza de Los Angeles in Boyle Heights is seen in a double exposure.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

2. Table 514, Hennessey’s Tavern, Hermosa Beach

Pier Avenue, the pedestrian block that connects Hermosa Beach to its pier, is a deep dive into beach culture. It gets rowdy on weekends and remains semi-gritty through the week as surfers, runners, dog walkers, anglers, aimless stragglers and volleyballers pass on the Strand, a pedestrian-and-bike path that runs along the coast from Torrance north to Pacific Palisades. There are tourists here, of course, but not as many as you find around the Santa Monica Pier.

Your base of operations is the patio of Hennessey’s Tavern (one of several in California and Nevada), which goes back to the 1970s. You want Table 514 at the northwest corner of the patio. That puts the pedestrian portion of Pier Avenue in front of you — “all the action,” server Amie Hungerford told me. To the west, the Strand’s foot and bike traffic passes a few feet from your table. Beyond it you’ll see the pier and volleyball courts. Hennessey’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (along with plenty of booze). For breakfast, I recommend the Irish oatmeal, which comes with half a grapefruit.

Pro tip: The Lighthouse Cafe, famed for its live jazz, is one of several bars on this block. Just around the corner in Beatnik Alley you’ll find a two-story mural by Timothy Robert Smith that includes a 1980s Linda Ronstadt and a 1950s Miles Davis. The Hermosa Cyclery, about 100 steps away, rents bikes and such. For a quieter perch than Hennessey’s on the same block, try Café Bonaparte, which specializes in breakfast and lunch. For a more upscale setting, try one of the 10 picnic tables on the patio of Vista, a stylish dinner-only restaurant and bar (seafood a specialty) that opened in October.

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Hennessey’s Tavern, 8 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach, (310) 372-5759, hennesseystavern.com

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3. J & F Ice Cream Shop, Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights

If Los Angeles has a Mexican heart, this public plaza (and subway stop) must be a ventricle. Maybe both ventricles. It’s surrounded by intriguing retail — from the mariachi supply and music stores to the Espacio 1839 boutique and radio station — and tempting casual places to eat and drink, including the East Side Luv bar and its killer mural. (There are great murals all around the square.) To the west, there’s the historic Boyle Hotel, once a hangout for wayward musicians, now the ground-floor site of a La Monarca Bakery & Cafe and the Libros Schmibros Lending Library. Within the plaza rises a bandstand, the better to encourage the many musicians who hang out here, hoping to book gigs. My favorite spot is the northwest corner, near Boyle Avenue, in front of the J & F ice cream shop. I don’t try for the tree-shaded wooden benches. (They’re for the old guys who play cards.) I take one of the umbrella-shaded black mesh four-top tables near J & F’s door, not far from the statue of Mexican singer Lucha Reyes. And then I get a banana smoothie.

Pro tip: The best time? “We have a farmers market on Sundays so that’s when more people come. Around 6 p.m.,” said Minnie Villa, owner of J & F for the last 11 years. (And there’s usually some live music on Sundays.)

J & F Ice Cream Shop, 1703 Mariachia Plaza, Los Angeles, (323) 264-8649, instagram.com/jandficecreamshop

Table 53 and the view from the entrance of Traxx inside Union Station is seen in a double exposure.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

An open-air picnic tables in front of Horse Thief BBQ and the view of Angels Flight is seen in a double exposure.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

4. Traxx, Union Station, downtown Los Angeles

This Mission Moderne behemoth might be my favorite building in Southern California, but exactly where to sit is a tough call. To settle into one of the Grand Waiting Room’s beloved 286 built-in mahogany chairs, you need a ticket for a train leaving in the next two hours. (So I’m leaving those seats out of this.) That turns our attention to Traxx bar, on your right as you enter the station from Alameda Street. It has a corner table whose high stools have a nice view down the corridor through the waiting room, but I prefer the corner tables in front of Traxx restaurant, on your left. Those tables might be lower but they’re close to the waiting room, and you feel more surrounded by the station. My first choice is two-top table 53, to the right as you enter the restaurant area, followed by table 42, to the left. Enoch Gonzalez, who has worked more than nine years at Traxx, also thinks 53 is the best perch.

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Pro tip: Bear in mind that there’s another intriguing option next door. The station’s cavernous old Fred Harvey restaurant, a design marvel in its own right, has been reborn yet again. After reopening as Imperial Western Beer Co., then shutting down during the early months of COVID in 2020, the vast space is now reopened and rebranded as Homebound Brew Haus, now with a stronger emphasis on sports, bratwurst and pretzels. Since November, it’s been open daily from 3 to 10 p.m.

Traxx, Union Station, 800 Alameda St., Los Angeles, (323) 470-7094, traxxunion.com

5. Grand Central Market, downtown Los Angeles

There are hundreds of seats in the cavernous market, but at the moment, I’m inclined to get as close to open sky as I can. For some people, that will mean the market’s sidewalk seats along Broadway, near the counters of Eggslut, the Juice, Villa Moreliana and the Donut Man. My choice is in back, on the Hill Street side of the market. In the open air there, in front of Horse Thief BBQ, you’ll find a bunch of outdoor picnic tables shaded by four jacaranda trees. I always thought those tables were reserved for barbecue customers, but no, they’re fair game for anyone with food from a market eatery. Head for the four picnic tables that are lined up end-to-end, closest to the barbecue joint’s counter.

Pro tip: Besides the flow of folks in and out of the market, you’ll also have a view of the one-block Angels Flight, which claims to be the world’s shortest railway (one-way fare is $1).

Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 359-6007, grandcentralmarket.com

6. Beverly Cañon Gardens, Beverly Hills

This park is so small and genteel, you might mistake it for private property. But it’s public, and those six sets of chairs and tables around the central fountain are up for grabs. Sit north of the fountain, which puts you closer to the takeaway snack counter of neighboring Sweet Beverly. To your south stands the Maybourne Beverly Hills Hotel (formerly the Montage) and its white-tablecloth Terrace restaurant. You can also shoot a selfie at the pink sign that reads “Beverly Hills Is Beautiful.”

Pro tip: If you’re compulsive about selfies with signs, you may want to walk a few blocks to the Insta-icon Beverly Hills sign at Beverly Gardens Park at North Santa Monica Boulevard and North Cañon Drive.

Beverly-Cañon Gardens, 241 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, lovebeverlyhills.com

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7. Wurstküche, downtown L.A.'s Arts District

Here among the adapted factories, newfangled lofts, urban grit and rotten parking of the Arts District, you join the bohemian Angelenos in their element. Also, you can eat excellent bratwurst at Wurstküche (or, if you prefer, something vegetarian and organic from Kreation Organic Juicery next door). Wurstküche has several sidewalk tables on Traction. I grabbed the two-top directly across the street from Pie Hole (a dessert option?). Just upstairs from Pie Hole is the American Hotel, a creative haven that has served multiple generations.

Pro tip: In the early 20th century, the American Hotel was a destination for Black travelers. In the late 20th century, it housed Al’s Bar, where Sonic Youth and Nirvana did some hanging out. Also close at hand on Traction Avenue are Loqui for tacos, Groundworks for coffee and Arts District Brewing for suds and ax-throwing.

Wurstküche, 800 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 457-7462, wurstkuche.com

The Astronomers Monument at Griffith Observatory and the edge of the monument is seen in a double exposure.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In a double exposure, layers of people sit at the sidewalk tables at Mi Place.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

8. Astronomers Monument, Griffith Observatory, Griffith Park

This is the tall monument in the middle of the Griffith Observatory’s grassy forecourt. Those faces carved into the concrete are astronomers from history, and the star-shaped base of the monument makes a handy place to sit and soak up the atmosphere. Be warned that the observatory and its cafe are open only Friday through Sunday. (Check the website for updates.) Also, even on days when it’s closed, crowds can be substantial — good for people-watching, bad for parking ($10 hourly on the nearest roadsides). The easiest approach might be a DASH bus from the Greek Theatre‘s spacious parking area.

The monument dates to 1934, when a team of six artists (including George Stanley, the guy who sculpted the Oscar statuette) chiseled the six scientists’ faces. If you sit under Isaac Newton, you’ll be looking straight at the Hollywood sign to the west. From under Copernicus, you’ll see the San Gabriel Mountains to the east. And from under Galileo, you’ll have a straight shot at the observatory’s front door.

Pro tip: The monument makes a great starting point for the roughly 3-mile round-trip hike to the top of Mt. Hollywood and back. Once you’ve checked out the observatory, walk to the north end of the parking lot where the Charlie Turner Trailhead signals the start of your climb.

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Griffith Observatory, 2800 E. Observatory Road, Los Angeles, (213) 473-0800, griffithobservatory.org

9. Table 62, Mi Piace, Old Pasadena

This stretch of Colorado Boulevard was the heart of Pasadena in the 1920s, then faded, then was reenergized in the early ’90s amid a 22-block redevelopment campaign that brought back brick facades and tidied alleys and lured a bevy of national retailers.

To gawk at Old Pasadena‘s walkers and window shoppers, grab a sidewalk table for lunch or dinner at the fancy Italian restaurant Mi Piace. If you can get ahold of table 62, the one nearest to Fair Oaks Avenue, it’s got more adjacent greenery. If you order one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, it will run you more than $40. If you eat what I did (a Margherita pizza, with tap water to drink), two of you can get out for less than $25.

Pro tip: A strong alternative, if you’d rather be farther from cars, is the courtyard of One Colorado, which is one block away and accessible from Colorado via the all-pedestrian Douglas Alley or Miller Alley. (If you take Douglas Alley, be sure to pet the bronze coyote. And no, that’s not code for anything.) There are about 10 tree-shaded tables in the courtyard, open to anyone, including those unwrapping meals from nearby Il Fornaio, Sage Vegan Bistro or Sushi Roku. On some summer nights, management projects movies onto the walls.

Mi Piace, 25 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 795-3131, mipiace.com

10. Rose Bowl Flea Market, Pasadena

The Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena happens only 12 times a year — the second Sunday of every month. (Next show: Feb. 13.) It’s $10 per person for buyers, or $20 for early admission. And it’s a vast production, sometimes drawing as many as 2,500 vendors and 20,000 buyers and browsers. Of the 10 destinations on this list, the flea market is the only one that requires moving, not sitting.

If you hate the idea of paying to shop or you want a market day before February, I get it. Instead, find a farmers market or flea market that’s convenient to you. (Most are outdoors with no admission fee. Here’s a county-by-county list of all the certified farmers markets in California, including more than 115 in L.A. County.)

Pro tip: Got a weakness for outdoor markets? Come summer, if we can beat back COVID, we probably can expect some amazing scenes at the 626 Night Markets in Arcadia (Santa Anita racetrack) and Costa Mesa (OC Fair and Event Center); as well as the Odd Nights at the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. And the outfit that runs the Rose Bowl Flea Market, R.G. Canning Attractions, also runs the Beaumont Outdoor Market (every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday with some holiday exceptions; 50 cents to enter) in Riverside County.

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Rose Bowl Flea Market, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena, (323) 560-7469, rgcshows.com

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