Over the years, it has been popular to assert that Los Angeles is a place without a past. This is, of course, false – this is a city whose modern history began way back in the 1700s. Drop in on 5:30pm mass at the old mission church (Spanish only) on Main Street and you'll see – a block or so from Southern California's busiest transit hub, you're now at the heart of the original town site. Crowded into the back of the chapel, bathed in the glow of so many flickering votive candles, you might feel as if you've time traveled, more than just a little.
Not the church-going sort? Just up the street, stop at Philippe's for what they'll tell you is the first French dip sandwich in the world – it's been a local favorite for nearly a century now. (They've got the best cheap coffee in town, too, still a bargain at 45 cents a cup.) Need to catch a train? The aforementioned transit hub is Union Station, completed in 1939 and considered the last truly grand railroad station built in the country – a terrific blend of Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco styles makes it one of the city's most striking buildings.
Really, the first rule of Los Angeles is that the past is usually just around the corner, unless it's staring you directly in the face. With the city currently on what feels like a growth bender, these links to the city's sprawling, many-layered heritage become even more important. They're not just for history nerds, either – spend a little time around here and you'll come to know the truth: Vintage Los Angeles can be the best kind of Los Angeles. Here are six great dates with old LA.
1. Martinis and steaks at Musso & Frank
Opened in 1919 in then-suburban Hollywood, this classic steakhouse known for its red-jacketed career waiters endured the rise and fall – and now, the second coming – of Hollywood Boulevard without missing a beat. A canteen for generations of writers (Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett) and actors (Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo and many more) and still beloved by most anyone who's ever set foot through its doors, Musso's isn't just a place to eat reasonably priced hunks of meat and sip ice cold martinis – it's a history lesson. A very tasty history lesson. ( Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd.)
2. Marty and Elayne at The Dresden
They're more than the almost-nightly house entertainment at this romantic old bar and restaurant in Los Feliz – Marty and Elayne Roberts have been immortalized in film, on television, a Target commercial – there's even a documentary in the works. (That's Los Angeles for you.) Happily, fame hasn't dampened their love of singing the old standards to an eager, multigenerational crowd of followers that laps it right up, along with classic cocktails and piles of prime rib. ( The Dresden Room; 1760 N. Vermont Ave.)
3. Share a pastrami on rye at Langer's
When it comes to Jewish delis on this continent, there are two kinds of people – those that know Langer's serves some of the best pastrami on the planet, and everyone else. Standing sentry at the corner of 7th and Alvarado even as the neighborhood and world changed so dramatically around it, this 1940s-era holdover is famed for its #19 sandwich – pastrami, Swiss, and coleslaw on LA's finest rye bread. Tip: There's free parking in their lot, one block away. Oh, and come before noon to avoid the inevitable lunch rush. ( Langer's; 704 S. Alvarado Ave.)
4. Hang out in some of the country's best historic theaters
Back when Hollywood was all orange groves, big premieres took place in the magnificent movie palaces of Broadway, running through the heart of downtown Los Angeles. During the latter half of the 20th century, when LA sprawled towards the sea and the city's historic center fell out of fashion, saviors including the Los Angeles Conservancy worked tirelessly to prop up these vital links to the past. Two extremely popular annual events are a great way to reconnect with the old theaters – some gloriously restored, some still limping along, for now. In June, the Last Remaining Seats program is a month-long series of film screenings that light up the various marquees. Each winter, Night on Broadway draws tens of thousands of enthusiastic locals to a giant open house and street fair – it's future Los Angeles at its most likeable, right back where it all began. (Broadway bet. 3rd and 10th Sts.)
5. Order a Mai Tai at Tiki-Ti
Just three miles or so from where Tiki culture was invented – because of course it was invented in Hollywood – stands this tiny, cave-like bar that is not only the culture in its near-purest form (if a culture invented by a shrewd restaurateur to sell drinks and apps can be considered pure), but also one of the most magical bars in all of Los Angeles. Open at 4pm each day that it opens (check ahead), there's nothing quite like knocking off whatever it is you're doing a little early in order to down a couple of supremely tasty tropical beverages among a cast of eccentric regulars (that goes for both sides of the bar). If you knew and loved the bar in years past, but hated having to dry clean your clothes afterward, worry not: They're now smoke-free. ( Tiki-Ti; 4427 Sunset Blvd.)
6. Stop in for a plate special at Clifton's Cafeteria
Are you in Los Angeles and in search of a restaurant that features, in no particular order, cheap cocktail specials, blue Jell-O, carved ham dinners, world-class taxidermy, a life-sized fake redwood tree, and the world's longest-burning neon sign? This recently renovated, multi-story cafeteria – the lone remnant of a mini-chain that old-timers claim to have grown up with, even if they didn't – is one of many lures into the quickly revitalizing downtown that aren't just a great link to the past – they're also just plain fun. Whether you go for dinner or just coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie, the food is fine, but even better is the scene – the place always seems to be packed with happy people who can't get enough of the vibe, the one-of-a-kind décor and the fact that something so old seems to fit in so perfectly with the new Los Angeles. ( Clifton's Cafeteria; 648 S. Broadway)
Ready to make the trip? Visit our fare finds to Los Angeles (LAX) from all over the US and Canada.
Above 'Bringing Back Broadway' image via Glenn Primm