Explore the heart of the city

Los Angeles Times Travel
June 2, 1996

Imagine a really big playground with loads of fun diversions for kids, some history and culture for parents, and hardly anyone else around. Throw in a taste of luxuriant decadence and a touch of risk and you have the makings of a successful and, if you wish, inexpensive family weekend getaway close to home--exploring the heart of downtown Los Angeles.

Think of it. In one weekend, our 6-year-old daughter Sean was able to ride the city's longest, oldest and highest bargain thrill rides. Those would be the Red Line subway (cost 25 cents), the newly restored Angels Flight railway (25 cents) and the glass elevator to the top of the Bonaventure Hotel (free.) And for a nightly reader of the exploits of Eloise, the mischievous 6-year-old denizen of New York's Plaza Hotel, the capper was instructing the room service waiter to "charge it please, thank you very much."

We live only about 20 minutes' drive from downtown and visit a couple of Saturdays a year, but staying overnight has long been a desire. We made our base the Biltmore Hotel, once the most fashionable address downtown and still a well-preserved institution. We explored on foot; the car stayed in the hotel garage, the parking fee (and Sunday breakfast) included in the $129-a-night weekend package.

The Biltmore doorman played his role well. He nodded knowingly as Sean breathlessly filled him in on her newly lost tooth and progress in first grade and the news that she, S-E-A-N, was now a guest in his hotel. He actually seemed disappointed when he had to turn her over to the bellman who showed us to room 921 on a wing looking out at Pershing Square.

It was clean and good-sized, modern in appointments but solid in the way of some old hotel rooms. The Biltmore opened in 1923 and was elegant enough in its heyday to host the Academy Awards. Renovated more than once--the original ornate lobby on Olive Street is now an airy tea court--the 683-room hotel still does its share of banquets and weddings.

Once unpacked, we headed out into a sunny, breezy day. From the Grand Avenue lobby we climbed Fifth Street alongside the Central Library. The library might be Sean's favorite place in Los Angeles that isn't a swimming pool, beach or bathtub. She balances on the planter walls, tosses coins in the fountains, ogles the ceiling art and operates the touch-activated information computer--all before plopping down with a stack of books in the sunlit children's section.

We detoured in search of lunch up the Bunker Hill Steps that connect the library with the office towers above. A rock-encased stream gurgled down as we climbed, greeted at the top by a Robert Graham sculpture of a woman looking out, as if welcoming explorers who find their way to the mini-city atop the hill.

Weekends are not quite deserted amid the skyscrapers, but we didn't see a single Brooks Brothers or Ann Taylor suit. We made our way to Patinette, the casual Patina offshoot located at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for a relaxed lunch of fresh sandwiches and succulent fruit salads. After lunch Sean's feet needed to pound some pavement so we put off her forced exposure to modern art.

She steered us to the Water Court, a concrete amphitheater of spurting fountains and cascading water falls (and free summer concerts) in the California Plaza complex. For most of a half-hour she played chicken with a kinetic water sculpture that spouts columns of water that dare kids to cross the wet zone without getting drenched. It's one of downtown's most pleasing, and free, attractions on hot days.

We stopped for coffees and ran into friends headed the same place--the free 2 p.m. show in the library's comfortable new 235-seat Mark Taper Auditorium. We've never been disappointed by the monthly musical shows (call 213 228-7250 for schedules). This time it was five string players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic who entertained kids with the Pocahontas theme, and even a round of Bingo the Dog, played on centuries-old Italian instruments--and educated us all about the roles of the violin, viola, cello and bass.

That was followed by an escalator roundtrip deep into the visually stunning new Tom Bradley wing, an hour upstairs in the children's book section for some reading and play on creaky personal computers, then outside to throw pennies in the pools in the Robert F. Maguire III Gardens facing Flower Street.

Ready to explore again, we looked up and found the most interesting target lay across Flower--the mirror-covered Bonaventure Hotel, which looked to Sean like some gleaming urban castle. My knees buckled a few degrees when the elevator burst through the atrium roof and into the afternoon sky, whisking us to the 31st floor, where we had Cokes in the rotating lounge.

For dinner we walked back to the library and Cafe Pinot, another outpost of Joachim Splichal's Patina empire. For a serious food place, it was very child friendly. My wife Judy had schmoozed the hostess earlier, and she saved us the last table in a corner and plied Sean with crayons and attention. Just before curtain time at the Music Center, the packed dining room emptied of all but a half-dozen parties, leaving us to finish our sublime meals in relative quiet.

Sunday morning, our agenda began with Angels Flight, a three-block walk from the hotel. The self-proclaimed world's shortest railway runs between Hill Street and Water Court, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, for a quarter each way. We boarded the restored car named Olivet for the ride up, sitting in front for a clear view of the center turnout where the two cars pass at 3.5 mph, seeming to just miss colliding.

After a quick walk through Grand Central Market, the bazaar of fresh produce and ethnic delicacies that faces on both Hill and Broadway, we descended into the Red Line's Hill Street Station. Clean as a Disneyland ride, the subway still looks new, perhaps because it is so little used. Trains travel four miles between MacArthur Park and Union Station, making three stops in between, but it is a fun novelty in this city of cars.

We rode the whole loop and got off at Union Station for another L.A. history lesson. Before air travel became popular, the station handled 7,000 passengers a day on 66 trains. Now the station is lucky to see that much business in a week, but its huge halls and walled patios still evoke the era of Super Chiefs and felt fedoras.

Finding the door of the depot's long-closed Fred Harvey restaurant unlocked, we walked into a time warp. The booths, counter and cocktail lounge banquettes--even the servers' wooden silver drawers--remain in place, and the 1940s aura in the room is so strong we could almost smell cigar smoke.

Across Alameda Street we soaked up the Sunday afternoon festival air of the historic Plaza, where the city was founded, and walked through the crowds along Olvera Street. We left with a lengthy list of things to do for another downtown trip: Chinatown, the garment and flower districts, Little Tokyo, French dip sandwiches and 9-cent coffee at Phillipes, a surly waiter experience at the Original Pantry.

And somehow we never made it back to MOCA. Next time.

Budget for Three Biltmore Hotel, one night: $ 147.06 Room service: $ 10.95 Lunch, Patinette: $ 25.93 Cokes at Bonaventure: $ 10.83 Dinner, Cafe Pinot: $ 100.68 Lunch, Smeraldi's: $ 39.49 Angel's Flight: $ 1.50 Subway: $ 1.50 FINAL TAB: $ 337.94 Biltmore Hotel, 506 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90071; tel. (800) 245-8673.