Pasadena is a shining example of California’s exuberant and wealthy side
Everyone maintains a cerebral snapshot of Los Angeles, be it the pneumatic bodies and motley performance artists strung along Venice Beach, the totemic lettering on the hillside above Hollywood, or the zip code famously attached to Beverly Hills.
So if the manicured lawns, whispering glades and generally rarefied air of Pasadena tend to be obscured by ultra-Californian icons, it’s not something that disgruntles the well-heeled and supremely well-placed residents here.
Northeast of central Los Angeles, at the base of the San Gabriel mountains, the city of Pasadena remains what its early, phenomenally flush settlers might have envisioned – liberally sprinkled with art galleries and museums, as well as a central strip carpeted with stores and restaurants whose excellence prompts even picky Angelenos living in other parts of the city to motor over here to browse and sluice.
“There is not much in downtown LA, except office buildings, and even restaurants close at 5pm, so a lot of people head for Pasadena,” says software engineer Leah Heiss, who has lived in Pasadena for seven years.
“The great thing about the area is it has tons of culture, ethnic restaurants, art galleries, arboretums and gardens. And you are right next to the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains.”
Pasadena picked up speed early in the 20th century. In 1908, Charles and Henry Greene designed a house for Procter & Gamble’s David and Mary Gamble that remains an outstanding example of the American Arts and Crafts school of architecture. At about the same time, William Wrigley Jr shelled out for a mansion whose graceful lines, exotic wood panelling, marble staircase and crystal light fixtures echoed the Italian Renaissance.
In later years, Norton Simon, one of the founding fathers of Avis, chose Pasadena as the permanent home for his collection of art, which – following his marriage to actress Jennifer Jones in 1971 – had grown to embrace Asian as well as European sculptures and painting.
Most stunning of all is railroad magnate Henry Edwards Huntington’s phenomenal library and clutch of art galleries surrounded by several hundred hectares of gardens. Thousands of visitors come daily to gape at Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible, a Chaucer manuscript, or simply to wander through the gardens, which feature a variety of themes and more than 14,000 different plants.
“As both a historic estate and a cultural institution, The Huntington (huntington.org) has been one of Pasadena's premier attractions and indeed, one of Southern California’s leading destinations for nearly a century,” says communications coordinator Lisa Blackburn. “The Huntington has deep roots linking it to the city’s storied past, and with its unrivalled collections and extensive botanical gardens, it’s one of the ‘must-sees’ for visitors to the Los Angeles area.”
If art and culture are Pasadena’s leitmotif, then the Rose Bowl flea market, held on the second Sunday of every month, is one of its best-known diversions. At this gargantuan mart, several thousand traders hawk everything from antique French movie posters to ethnic clothing and home spas.
Downtown, the flea market’s premise of shopping-as-rollicking-entertainment continues, most prominently at One Colorado (onecolorado.com), an imposing block centred on a brick courtyard that doubles as an outdoor film festival auditorium and is stuffed with the likes of Kate Spade, Gap, Armani and Juicy Couture.
But if there’s a single store that sums up shopping in Pasadena, it’s the literary cornucopia that is Vroman’s (vromansbookstore.com) – staunchly independent, in business since 1894,
its two storeys spread with shelf upon shelf of books valiantly trumpeting that the Kindle is little more than a flash in the pan.
Thanks to come-hither seating, eager staff, and authors like Nick Hornby, Candace Bushnell and Bill Clinton speaking and signing regularly, plus an adjoining coffee bar, the best part of a morning can disappear deliciously here.
“At a time when Internet competition has made brick-and-mortar bookstores somewhat of an endangered species, we’re thriving,” says Allison Hill, Vroman’s president. “We have 85,000 book titles, thousands of gift items, and over 400 free community events each year. Grandparents who shopped here as children bring their grandchildren here – it’s a very special place.”
While Pasadena regards such local institutions as the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a proprietary air, its alma mater could well be the hotel that’s set along leafy avenues away from downtown with a view over the valley. The Langham Huntington (pasadena.langhamhotels.com) is somewhere that Pasadenans consider more of a private club than a regular hostelry.
On top of the accommodation roster are eight private cottages. The hotel’s fitness machinery gets a day-long workout, and spa therapists are booked up weeks in advance. Couples plight their troth in the Japanese garden and kick up their heels beneath the gold-gilt vaulted ceilings of the Viennese and Georgian ballrooms afterward. Broad, soft-carpeted corridors lead to The Royce Wood-Fired Steakhouse, while there is much in the way of grain and grape in The Tap Room.
“I guess you could say that we are the quintessential Southern Californian hotel,” says managing director Steven Parker. “This has been a landmark ever since it opened, and while it continues to espouse the grace and elegance of a bygone era, it’s also a very lively social gathering point for the surrounding community.”
Visitors don’t have to journey far for entertainment. The Pasadena Symphony (pasadenasymphony-pops.org) blends classical with pop, while the Ice House Comedy Club (icehousecomedy.com) has been the proving ground for Steve Martin, the late Robin Williams, and Lily Tomlin amongst others. The Playhouse (pasadenaplayhouse.org) has been in business since 1917, and its productions usually move to Broadway. Pre- or post-show, there are something like 500 restaurants within the city limits, a gallimaufry of global cuisine delivered with the genuine earnestness that California patented long before anywhere else.
Anywhere else, the In-N-Out Burger (in-n-out.com), founded in 1948 and strongly resistant to change ever since, would be regarded as an all-too avoidable curiosity, but Pasadenans point to it with enthusiasm and pride, going into raptures about the simplicity of the menu (hamburger, cheeseburger, double burger, and fries) and a décor that would be retro, except that it’s barely changed in the course
of six decades.
20 From a classic slice of Americana to somewhere with more of a European accent, Café Santorini (cafésantorini.com) spreads from the second floor of a historic brick building onto an open air terrace that’s chock-a-block with diners romping through risotto, pizzas & seared ahi tuna. One of the chief pleasures of dining in Pasadena is the abundance of fresh, high-quality ingredients, either sourced in California or off its coast.
Dorothy Parker may have quipped that Los Angeles was so many suburbs in search of a city, but it’s in Pasadena that Greater LA seems to have found itself a neatly packaged American Dream.