Saturday, April 28, 2007

around town/los angeles: The Fountain Coffee Room.

I finally had breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Fountain Coffee Room, which had been on my To-Do list since I first saw the banana-leaf lined lunch-counter in the Wallpaper* Los Angeles city guide. Perhaps uneasy about the location (Beverly Hills isn't really my town), or the exclusive atmosphere of the hotel (would there be a dresscode?), I continually delayed going until today.
The setting of the Fountain Coffee Room, at the base of a curving stairway on the way out to the swimming pool and spa, seems almost incidental, and adds to the casual atmosphere of the room. The Fountain Room is small, truly just a long black lunch counter, lined with dark green vinyl stools. The fixtures and decor effortlessly evoke the late 1940s, when the Fountain Room opened, without seeming like either a stale museum piece or a plastic re-creation. Water and cream are served from silver pitchers, and coffee is poured into lattice-work porcelain cups, by a waitress in pink uniform and white apron. The understated fixtures are contrasted by the Fountain's signature banana-leaf wallpaper, which evokes an era when Los Angeles could still market itself as a subtropical destination.
Despite its location in the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Fountain Room is a casual spot, where the waitress has time to chat with hotel guests as the chef prepares their waffles. The menu is classic diner food with a few upmarket touches, such as a caviar and sour cream omelet, and brioche french toast, served with mini jars of warm maple syrup. While a coffeeshop with the history and style of the Fountain Coffee Room could easily choose to rest on its reputation, the Fountain continues to offer an impressive, well-prepared menu. So many old Hollywood spots have either been torn down (Schwab's Pharmacy), or been allowed to age gracelessly (Canter's) that it's nice to see one that still retains an aura of understated glamor.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Turkish Delights.

While editing some photos recently I came across a stash of pictures that I'd taken in Istanbul, but had never paid much attention to. Scanning over them, I was reminded of what an amazing city Istanbul is for street-food; in particular, how on crowded streets sweets and desserts seemed to be served out of every window, and sold from stands on every corner.
Walking around Taksim Square I saw a number of people eating tulumba tatlisi, but was too nervous to attempt buying one. When I finally made an attempt to buy one on my third day in Istanbul, I nervously held out some change to the seller, giving him my best 'I have no idea what I'm doing' expression and shrug, to indicate the I didn't know how much to pay. He took some coins, and after studying my face, took some more change from my hand. I realized I was probably being ripped off, but the amount was negligible, and well worth the treat: seeing the browned ridges of the fried dough I had been expecting something like a churro, but found that instead of a dry cinnamon dusting, tulumba tatlisi is infused with a sweet honey like syrup. I ordered another on my last day in Istanbul, this time attempting to look disintererested as I handed the vendor a smaller amount of change than I had given the first vendor. He handed me the tulumba, along with a handful of small change. Pausing in front of a cluster of aqua colored phonebooths, I managed to take a photo of it to commemorate my more successful purchase.
The area around Taksim became particularly beautiful at night; in part because the rubble lined alleys and bland concrete buildings faded into darkness, and in part because of the glowing lights of shops and streetfront restaurants. Ordinary confections like cotton-candy and lollipops seemed to stand out luridly, particularly when piled in heaps or gathered in generous bundles.
This principal seemed to have been taken to an extreme by one vendor I saw at the end of Istaklal Cadessi. He sat within a tiny space between two larger stores, almost hidden by the hundreds of foil-wrapped bars of chocolate stacked around him. He was taking a drag from a cigarette when I passed him, the smoke curling around his head. I liked the look, and asked to take his photo. He sat up in his seat, attempted a dashing smile, and, unfortunately, put his cigarette away.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Living at the northern border of has opened me up to the wonders of Midtown Los Angeles. One of the areas that I've become most fond of is the Fairfax district. The stretch of Fairfax north of Beverly holds an odd fascination, though not much real attraction. The aging kosher bakeries are reflective of the street's history as the former center of the city's Jewish community, while the faded murals and deco storefronts are suggestive of a Hollywood glory that long ago wore away on this street.

But south of Beverly, Fairfax gets interesting. While not in any way a hidden spot, I'm particularly fond of visiting the Farmer's Market. It's a good place for picking up cheap produce, and for finding meals of inconsistent quality. I've had Cajun gumbo, sugary donuts, and many cups of coffee from reluctant servers at the creperie, all prepared in a vaguely carnivalesque atmosphere of foodstands and giant plaster desserts. The Farmer's Market is of course a great spot for people viewing; the crowd is always an odd mix of B-list celebrities, shopper spillover from the Grove, and disinterested employees from the CBS lot breaking for lunch.

Bordeaux and I stopped for coffee at Mani's Bakery on Fairfax last week, down in the quiet residential stretch near Miracle Mile. I'd been to Mani's in Santa Monica, and though the food was good, the cafe itself was somewhat bland, with a cavernous interior reminiscent of an empty garage. Mani's on Fairfax is the opposite extreme, a charming little coffeeshop with barely enough room for a queue to form between the bakery counter and the tables. The menu is brilliant, with six different brewed organic coffees on offer, and a wide range of sparkling, sugar-free pastries. I ordered a cup of black coffee, and Bordeaux and I selected a cranberry walnut scone to split. We grabbed a table outside, on the much less crowded sidewalk patio. We enjoyed our coffee slowly, as we read under the shade of the leafy trees. I was unsure of how the sugar-free pastries would be, but the scone's cranberries added a naturally sweet flavor that balanced perfectly with the mellow Italian roast coffee.

Just beyond LACMA, tucked between the blocks of pale yellow Colonial revival apartments, is Little Ethiopia, my favorite stretch of Fairfax. I used to catch glimpses of it on the way to LACMA on field trips with my art classes, and would always wonder what was hidden in the unassuming Afro-storefronts. I didn't actually effort to explore the neighborhood until after college, when I parked on the street, and blindly walked into the Ethiopian restaurant closest to my parking meter. The decor was quirky, a composite of African exoticism and Ethiopian nationalism in a generic restaurant setting. The food was amazing- varied in textures, flavors and spices. The meal was to be eaten by hand with injera, the strangely delicious sour-spongy bread. I've gone back to Little Ethiopia twice recently, both times to eat at Nyala. Bordeaux, my sister Genevieve and I took my sister Olivia their for dinner when she was in town, in effort to satisfy her desire for interesting ethnic cuisine. We ordered three dishes to share: the vegetarian combo, the doro wat, and the asa tibs. Bordeaux and I each had an Ethiopian beer, selected from a drink menu that included beers from Eritrea to Namibia. The standout dish was doro wat- a peppery, mildly spicy chicken, served with a hard boiled egg (delicious, but hard to eat without utensils). We ordered three dishes, which was more than enough for the three of us, and at around $10 a person for food plus drinks, translated to what must be one of the cheapest, most delicious meals in LA.

Bordeaux and I recently went back to Nyala for lunch with a friend to try out the vegetarian buffet. While no dish was as good as the doro wot, the meal was still delicious- in particular, I liked the slightly bitter greens, and the spicy red lentils of the yemiser wot. After lunch, we had citrusy Ethiopian coffee, which was served through the smoke of a small ember of incense. The mock ceremony of the coffee was fitting of the restaurant, which reminded me a little of restaurants at tourist sites in Southern Africa- the decor caught between an effort for elegance and the desire to evoke a romanticized traditional African past.

Past LACMA, Fairfax quiets down and tapers out, running through the well-kept streets of the Carthay district. Overgrown fig-trees crack the pavement of the sidewalk, and lollipop-shaped topiaries edge manicured lawns, all set out before a glorious array of mid-twentieth century apartments. It's a quiet, subdued ending for one of the strangest, most engaging streets in Los Angeles.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Photographing Hollywood.

One of my goals in returning to Los Angeles was to document the city photographically. It's one of my favorite cities in the world, and as of January this year, I only had three photos of it: a palm tree skyline over Pasadena, the pier at Manhattan Beach, and my friend Kate sipping a mug of coffee in Eagle Rock. Clearly not representative of a city of such importance.

In my desire to photograph Los Angeles, one of the areas that most interested me was Hollywood. It is a place almost synonymous with LA itself in most people's minds, and the site of much mythologization. Yet, though Hollywood has a glamorized history and image, Tinseltown has lost a lot of its glitter. Over the past few decades, it's been on a steady decline. Despite recent efforts at revitalization, the neighborhood is still mostly rundown, grimy, and overrun with tourists.

It's not easy photographing Hollywood. Between the mob of unruly Midwesterners, the overblown scale of the street, and the glare from the smmogy white sky, taking the town's portrait is a sizable challenge. It's easy to focus in on the picturesque elements of the city: the charming 1920s architectural details, or the sparkling sheen of recent commercial development; or alternatively, to photograph the grime: the homeless people sleeping in doorways, the rundown businesses, or the glut of tourist tack.

My goal has been to photograph in the space between the two ends, to locate the faded edges of glamor on the dirty street, and produce composite images of the town's own projection of itself, the touristic vision, and the lived experience of those working to support it. I definitely wouldn't say that I've achieved this goal, but I'm working on it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Top 5.

I've spent an inordinate amount of time over the last few days attempting to come up with a list of my Top 5 future travel destinations, eschewing all personal responsibilities, as well as most social interaction in effort to finalize the list. Before I offer the list, let me offer a few rules:

1) It can't be a place I'm likely to visit in the near future. These are distant goals, so too soon an accomplishment would seem somehow unsatisfying. Thus, Cambodia, which would ordinarily have made the list, is ineligible, as I will likely be going within the next year.

2) In general, these have to be places of long-standing interest. To go would thus be the fulfillment of a long term dream.

3) They can't all be places in Africa (I can't be that one dimensional).

My list, in reverse order (for mock suspense):

5) Uganda: Gorillas? Meh. Thankfully the country has a lot of other attractions, like soggy wetlands preserves and rain drenched jungles, all stretched out over a ridge of volcanoes from which the Nile drips.

4) Suriname: The smallest country in South America, Suriname has a lot of the elements that make a travel destination ideal for me. The culture is a mix of Dutch, Indonesian, and African influences, kind of like a Caribbean Cape Town (complete with a group called the Boeroes, descendants of the Dutch farmers, like tropical cousins of the Afrikaners I so love). Roughly 80% of the country is uncultivated, and composed of thick rainforest and tropical grassland inhabited by armadillos and anteaters. As an added bonus, the jungles of Suriname were described as the playground of human-ape lovers in Voltaire's Candide.

3) Mali: From the comforts of Southern Africa, dusty, landlocked Mali often seems like the farthest away corner on the continent. I've always been interested in earthen architecture, and in Mali, mud brick building is an art, with some of the most beautiful, unusual buildings in the world.

2) Nepal: Was the thwarted goal of my study-abroad semester (I got nervous about internet news stories about Maoist extremists, and in the end never applied). Hiking and trekking in the Himalayas holds relatively little interest for me (though I'm sure the mountains are beautiful to look at), and if anything, the history of hippie pilgrimage is somewhat off putting. Mainly, I'm curious to visit Kathmandu (a mix of modern capital and ancient mountain kingdom, and supposedly the most polluted city in the world), and I really want to look for rhinos and bears in the tall grasses of Chitwan.

1) Ethiopia: Without a doubt, number one on my list. Among it's many credentials, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, home to hyena feeding villages, and the focus of much Afro-centric mytholigization. It runs the full scale of African landscapes: cities of faded modernist monumentalism, medieval desert cities, and lush subtropical grasslands. I have now had four failed attempts at visiting Ethiopia, further cementing its out-of-reach status.