At the baggage carousels at Los Angeles International Airport on a recent Sunday afternoon, rumpled travelers jockeyed for position to claim luggage and roll it out into the California sunshine.
Over Memorial Day weekend, airport authorities expected 200,000 daily passengers at LAX. The number of departing passengers reaching 100,000 on Sunday alone in what they described as a major travel milestone since the pandemic virtually halted it in 2020.
Several weeks earlier, the final concrete supports had been poured for the 2.25-mile elevated “people mover” airport rail system intended to convey passengers from terminals to car rental facilities and the metro line heading downtown. The $2 billion project, which will ease wait times for rental shuttles and eliminate the need for cab rides to some sections of the city, is slated for completion next year.
Travel has strongly rebounded in L.A., where 82% of residents are vaccinated, even as COVID-19 is again rising. More than 4,200 cases are being reported daily in Los Angeles County, a rate of 293 infections per 100,000 residents. But if you wear a mask on a plane, in a movie theater, or at a Dodgers baseball game, you’ll be part of a tiny minority.
Coronavirus? What coronavirus? In some of the city’s most glamorous places — like the pool deck at Sunset Tower — the steady thrum of agents, power brokers and writers is at prepandemic levels.
But the pandemic remains visible outside those glamorous bubbles: Homelessness in the City of Los Angeles has skyrocketed by 14.2% to more than 41,000, with tent cities and burned-out RVs stretching far past downtown’s skid row, where they have existed for decades. Living in L.A. now means driving past permanent encampments in Venice, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood that are riddled with refuse, drug use and graffiti. The issue is heating up a mayoral race that will conclude in November.
While the pandemic brought change to some formerly pristine enclaves, it didn’t upend much else about the flow of L.A.’s creative energy. The same neighborhoods you know and love — the downtown Arts District, for instance, or the highly walkable Vermont Avenue section of Los Feliz — remain especially vibrant. Their most popular venues, such as Dover Street Market, Soho Warehouse, Verve Coffee Roasters, and Hauser + Wirth gallery, have emerged from the shutdowns better than ever, benefiting from the buzz of local newcomers such as London-based Bike Shed and an outpost of Chicago’s Girl & the Goat restaurant (notwithstanding the latter’s tricky valet line and overloud music). It’s all attracting a mix of downtown tourists and longtime locals.
Want to join them? Here’s everything you need to know about the City of Angels, now that the COVID clouds have parted.
The dining scene
L.A. has had quite a resurgence of culinary expertise in the past year, gaining five new Michelin one-star restaurants and two new two-star dining rooms in the past year. Among them is Hayato, the seven-seat kaiseki spot downtown, and Mélisse, which serves a comforting French menu in an intimate Santa Monica dining room.
The hottest reservation now might be on Rodeo Drive, where Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura has gained fans for its whimsical décor and — against all odds in the fashion scene — warm and friendly service. It serves playful, yet delicate Italian food made with cheeky references to L.A. culture: A spring vegetable appetizer, for instance, is plated to resemble the silver blades of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. Horses, housed in the old British pub known as the Pikey, has gained a glittering following obsessed with the bistro aesthetics and California farm-style food of Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian (of Nashville’s Catbird Seat) and Brittany Ha and Lee Pallerino (both out of Roberta’s in Brooklyn, New York).
Other New Yorkers are moving here, too, like David Bowd and Kevin O'Shea from New York’s Mercer hotel. They’re opening the Aster, a members-only social club, in August. The rooftop will feature Lemon Grove, a restaurant by Sam Talbot whose menu will be free of white sugar and populated primarily with of-the-moment farmers market finds. (How very L.A.)
Even Elon Musk wants to join the fun, having recently filed for permits for a 24-hour diner on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, just blocks away from actor Danny Trejo’s famous donut joint, Trejo’s Donuts. The proposed outdoor seats will have a direct view of two tall LED movie screens, and food will reportedly be delivered to cars.
Culture makes a comeback
There’s always been some truth to LA’s skin-deep reputation for the beautiful and the Botoxed. (Just head to Nobu Malibu or Catch L.A. for that.) But even if that culture has come back, so has this town’s less talked-about preponderance for natural beauty, its world-class health and beauty industry, and its colorful flavors—culinary and otherwise.
If you’re still COVID-wary: Rent a car and drive. California is the car culture capital of the world, after all. Head up the Pacific Coast Highway on a Sunday. If you feel you need a coffee, plan to stop around 10 a.m. at the Malibu Country Mart. Besides offering a solid cup, its parking lot is home to a weekly ad hoc gathering of vintage cars; Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld often show up driving something unexpected, like a 100-year-old steam car or the first-ever Porsche 911.
Then follow the winding Cross Creek Road to Cornell, California, and eat lunch at the Old Place, where an old-time Western facade gives way to a wine bar that has plenty of outdoor tables. The toasted cheese sandwich is especially satisfying: It’s stuffed with Parmesan, goat cheese, mozzarella and blue cheese, and then grilled over an open flame.
Or take the other direction. Start at the Sixth Street Viaduct, which is slated to reopen this summer following more than $588 million in investment — the largest bridge project in the history of Los Angeles. When complete, it’ll snake like the Loch Ness monster over the Los Angeles River, from the Arts District to Boyle Heights, leading you toward State Route 2, where the views from the tiny two-lane Angeles Crest Highway will calm your mind and refresh your senses. Hiking trails abound up there.
If you need a gentle reentry: Visit the Huntington Botanical Gardens, where roses are currently blooming. Or stare at the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art at the intimate Getty Villa — free with an appointment; parking costs $20 — and then cross the street to walk along the beach.
Now take a break from the sun exposure with some art of the indoor variety. Takashi Murakami’s first solo show, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, will run at the Broad until Sept. 25, featuring his 1999 sculptural magic mushrooms, manga-inspired wallpapers, and new virtual reality components that make viewers feel as if they’re inside Murakami’s pop culture mind.
Another option: Get pampered. (L.A. is a capital of wellness, after all.) Newly opened with locations in West Hollywood and Venice, Pause Studio offers IV drips, infrared saunas, cryotherapy, and cold plunge baths. Sound baths, the recent rage that incorporates guided meditation with healing sounds produced by gongs, singing bowls, percussion, chimes, rattles, and tuning forks, can be found at yoga studios and specialty centers throughout the city.
Make time to shop, too. The Rose Bowl Flea Market is the nation’s largest collection of antiques, art, crafts, furniture, jewelry, and ephemera. It happens on the second Sunday of every month. Bring sunscreen, water, and plenty of cash to spend on all the goodies you didn’t know you couldn’t live without. Get there at 7 a.m. to beat the crowds and heat. (If you can’t make the Rose Bowl, the excellent Santa Monica flea market runs every first and fourth Sunday.)
Getting around L.A. has never been a problem as long as you have a drivers license and access to a car. (Uber and Lyft count, too.) What you will have to contend with is traffic, which has rebounded since the pandemic—and then some. At one point during the 2020 lockdowns, you could get from Santa Monica to the Staples Center in less than 15 minutes; that now takes at least an hour.
It will also require some spending. When the national average for gas prices is $4.76 per gallon, expect to pay $6.27 in L.A. In Beverly Hills and downtown, you’ll even see places charging more than $8 per gallon. Plan accordingly.
The lingering COVID etiquette
The city’s lockdown mandate has become a thing of the distant past, and mask rules have been dropped almost everywhere— even at LAX. There is no mask shaming if you decide to cover up, but few people do, except on public transit. (Yes, it exists here.) Then again, much of what’s worth doing in L.A. happens outside, anyway. Consider that your best and most authentic COVID precaution.
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