There’s a scene in THE GRADUATE that I’d come to associate with Pasadena: Dustin Hoffman’s aimless Benjamin sits in a scuba suit at the bottom of his parents’ crystal-clear pool in Pasadena, staring up at his waving family who are yelling to him, but all he can hear is his own breathing. A beautiful, boring bubble – that’s how I’d always imagined this town just 12 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Boy, was I wrong. Well, at least about the boring part. Pasadena is indeed gorgeous, with wide streets arched by immense, shady trees, quaint bungalows shadowed by sprawling estates and sweet-smelling orange trees warmed by the Southern California sun. Everything feels like a movie set; in fact, many places are.
Find the big white house where Steve Martin survived a midlife crisis in Father of the Bride across the street from Don Draper’s suburban Colonial – supposedly just a train ride away from the Manhattan offices of Mad Men. Across town, see the spot where Doc Brown built the flux capacitor while touring the Gamble House museum (as in the Arts and Crafts masterpiece/home of David B. Gamble of Procter & Gamble). Peruse the grand courtyards at Pasadena City Hall, also known as Pawnee City Hall on Parks and Recreation. I could go on.
But with eclectic restaurants, a formidable arts scene and the best vintage shopping I’ve found pretty much anywhere, there’s a lot more to this quiet suburb than a pretty face.
Pasadena, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?
Where to Stay
Pasadena feels very “Old Hollywood” without, you know, actually being in Hollywood. I imagine this is how L.A. used to feel, before the smog and sprawl and 24/7 rush hour became the norm. In keeping with the classic California vibe, I stayed at the Langham Huntington, Pasadena (1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave, 626-568-3900, langhamhotels.com). Purchased in 1911 by famed art collector and railroad tycoon Henry Huntington, the terra cotta-roofed castle has played host to bountiful beautiful people over the century – from wealthy East Coasters escaping the snow to movie stars to wounded Army vets recuperating in the stain glass-adorned Georgian Ballroom during World War II.
Walking around the property, it feels like you’ve been transported back in time to when lobby flower arrangements were refreshed daily (purple orchids one day, red roses the next), traditional afternoon tea was a thing (nowadays, reservations are recommended) and families played croquet and badminton together on the back lawn (they have yoga, now, too). I’m told the outdoor pool was California’s first Olympic-size pool, built in the 1920s, but was later shortened after local high school boys began using the bridge that connects both sides of the hotel as a diving board.
Since the Langham Hospitality Group took ownership in 2008, the Huntington has opened new restaurants including the sleek Tap Room, which boasts a coveted porch overlooking the carriage lawn, and The Royce steakhouse, which has teamed with local winemakers for popular monthly wine pairing dinners. Casual dining at The Terrace overlooks the pool and features a bottomless mimosa dim sum brunch on Sundays. In 2014, the award-winning Chuan Spa opened its doors, offering treatments rooted in traditional Chinese medicine like a bamboo stick massage and facials customized for your Chinese element (metal, water, wood, fire, earth).
What to Do
I easily could have spent the entire weekend walking through Pasadena’s palm-lined neighborhoods, gawking at the early California architecture. But in keeping with my vintage California tour, I went vintage shopping instead – starting at the Rose Bowl Flea Market (1001 Rose Bowl Dr., rgcshows.com/rosebowl.aspx). The Rose Bowl is best known for hosting the eponymous college football bowl game each New Year’s Day after the Tournament of Roses parade. But on the second Sunday of every month, it’s also home to more than 2,500 vendors, hawking everything from antique Persian rugs to handmade jewelry.
In her vintage shopping tours, Vartanian customizes her itineraries based on your existing wardrobe or home décor. We’re doing a bit of both, so in addition to the flea market, we hit High Low Vintage (1031 E. Green St., 626-356-0402, highlowvintage.com) – an airy little shop filled with ready-to-wear chiffon cocktail dresses, maxi dresses and funky jewelry, primarily from the ’60s and ’70s. Across town, we wind through two stories of Mid-Century Modern couches, credenzas and gold bar carts at the Pasadena Antique Center (480 Fair Oaks Ave., 626-449-7706, pasadenaantiquecenter.com). Rumor has it, Vartanian tells me, that Mad Men set designers spent hours here finding period-correct furniture for the Sterling Cooper offices.
For a breath of fresh air after all that shopping, head to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, 626-405-2100, huntington.org). Founded in 1919, the museum and gardens sit on the 207-acre estate of the late Henry Huntington (yes, the same as the hotel). His former mansion now houses a tremendous European art collection including British and French masterpieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. The separate library includes works from American and British literature, including the first folio edition of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, dating back to 1623.
The sprawling botanical gardens are segmented by type and include an Australian garden, jungle garden and desert garden. You could spend a full day getting pleasantly lost on the myriad trails, but if you’re pressed for time, make your way to the Japanese Garden on the far west side of the property. Nestled in a grove of pink cherry blossom trees and huge bonsais, the garden path winds along bridges over koi ponds and up a hill, ending in a burbling waterfall overlooked by an authentic pagoda, bamboo forest and serene Zen garden. It’s a straight-up fairytale.
Where to Eat
While the sights may have you feeling nostalgic for a bygone era, Pasadena’s food scene feels very modern, following the Southern California trend of organic, outrageously fresh and produce-heavy dining. One night we start with “responsibly sourced” seafood at Lost at Sea (57 E. Holly St., 626-385-7644, lostatseapas.com) on the outskirts of Old Pasadena, the city’s original commercial center and designated National Register Historic District.
Started by two locals last summer, Lost at Sea is a stark white, industrial-looking space that saves the pizazz for artistic dishes that fuse Mexican flavors with hints of Asian and European cooking. The crudité is a paint palette of market vegetables including fuchsia- and white-swirled watermelon radishes served with smoky, smooth albacore tonnato dip. Mains include spicy seared tuna with sunchoke and hearts of palm in a zippy mole verde sauce, and a juicy ribeye with black bean purée and guajillo chile. For dessert, don’t miss the pot de crème, a butterscotch masterpiece that could convert the biggest caramel lover to cajeta, a Mexican confection of caramelized goat milk.
Also in Old Pasadena, Café Santorini (64 W. Union St., 626-564-4200, cafesantorini.com) features a dizzying Mediterranean menu and charming second-floor patio strung with soft string lights. Mezzes (Mediterranean starters) include tangy, firm halloumi cheese, roasted in the oven and served with Roma tomatoes and olives in a lemon-herb dressing, and simple but satisfying imam bayildi (a Turkish dish of eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes). Shareable main courses include pizzas, pastas, risotto and several different kinds of kebab. Try the lamb souvlaki – skewers of grilled lamb with rice pilaf, hummus, tzatziki and pita – and wash it down with skunky, refreshing Almaza, a Lebanese beer.
Pre- or post- dinner drinks can be found at Magnolia House (492 S. Lake Ave., 626-584-1126, themaghouse.com) in the South Lake Avenue district, the city’s shopping hub. An actual century-old house, this one-time post-Prohibition liquor store now contains a sexy cocktail bar with plush leather armchairs around a fireplace and a brick-walled patio. Try the Lofty Dreams, with Los Angeles-made Loft & Bear vodka sweetened with lemon and pineapple and given a warming allspice afterglow.
Despite what all the uber-fresh, hipster-approved menus around town may suggest, Pasadenans take their greasy Americana food seriously as well. Local legend has it the cheeseburger was invented here when a precocious teenager named Lionel Sternberger experimentally put a piece of cheese on a sizzling hamburger at his father’s roadside stand, the Rite Spot, in 1924. Tenuous evidence aside, Pasadena celebrates this claim to fame during Cheeseburger Week each January.
I celebrate at Pie ‘n Burger (913 E. California Blvd., 626-795-1123, pienburger.com), an old-fashioned soda fountain and diner dating back to 1963. With wood paneling, a Formica countertop and stationary bar chairs, this place still mixes its sodas by hand and flips burgers that were named among the top five in the U.S. by Food Network. Digging into my (very cheesy) burger and thick chocolate malt, I feel transported to a simpler time, when boys with crew cuts took girls in miniskirts here to split a shake and put a dime in the jukebox. Like everything else in this bubble of a town, whatever’s playing is an oldie but a goodie.
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