Five decadent days in LA's hippest enclave. Words by Darren Levin

By Darren Levin, 26/5/2015
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IN a dark room that smells like Lysol about 60 impossibly fit people are clipping themselves into $2200 custom-made exercise bikes. I’m struggling to get my toes into the clasp, when a beautiful woman with an unmovable face offers assistance. “Who do you know?” she asks, as I finally click my foot into place. “What do you mean?” I say. “How did you get into this class,” she probes. “There’s a 45-person waitlist and it usually books out in 14 seconds.” When I tell her I’m a journalist from Australia sent here to immerse myself in the West Hollywood – or WeHo – lifestyle, she immediately opens up. Blonde, toned and in her 50s, she’s the personal assistant of the instructor that’s fiddling with a MacBook as Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ shakes the walls of this tiny room. Only in West Hollywood, does a spin class instructor have a personal assistant, I think. Then again calling SoulCycle a spin class is akin to describing The Fat Duck as a gastro pub.

Described as “church on a bike”, SoulCycle is the latest in the line of fitness cults to transfix LA’s elite (whatever happened to Billy Blanks and Tae Bo?). It’s already been lampooned in the offbeat Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and it’s only a matter of time before it makes its way to Australia, probably Sydney. Former Team USA athlete Angela M Davis is our instructor – and she’s also Oprah’s. Yes, the same Oprah that causes hysteria by putting gifts under people’s seats. While two “models” at the front of the class demonstrate what to do, Angela moves around the room with preacher-like intensity, offering motivational monologues and words of encouragement like Anthony Robbins in a pair of sweat pants. I think I spot one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills here, although it’s impossible to tell because it’s really dark and everyone here looks like a Real Housewife.

“Take ownership of this moment,” Angela commands as a remix of Outkast’s ‘Ms Jackson’ blares – and I mean blares – across the room. When the bass drops the lights pop on and the entire room is doing synchronised lunges (degree of difficulty: 11/10). At one point, the music drops out almost entirely and Angela asks us to close our eyes and imagine our life in its best state. “If you were living in your dream what would you be doing?” she asks, as my legs turn to jelly and I dream about a world with no exercise bikes. “I want you to see yourself living in your dream wide awake.” Again, I contemplate an exercise bike-free existence. As Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ builds to a crescendo Angela reminds us of the importance of good posture, which is the last thing on my mind when I trundle out into the bright yellow reception area after 15 more minutes of relentless speeches and cycling. Posture? I’m just glad to be walking again.

WHILE it started in New York, SoulCycle is one of the most quintessential West Hollywood experiences you can have. Situated in an outdoor mall – among an H&M, a health club and a “food as medicine” juice bar – it’s slotted seamlessly into a community obsessed with the ever-expanding wellness industry and a desire to stay on top of the latest trends, from food to fashion and fitness.

According to Andy Keown from Visit West Hollywood – the tourism body that’s brought me here – it’s the lifestyle that makes WeHo such a drawcard for the 39,000 people that call it home. And also the reason they rarely leave its five square kilometre boundary. Its Australian equivalents are Surry Hills in Sydney or Prahran in Melbourne; cool suburbs that have emerged, for better or worse, from a more sordid and grungy past.

Andy takes particular pride in WeHo’s current status as a “hip enclave”, especially for a city that no one ever deemed “valuable enough to incorporate into greater LA”. It was the LGBT community that sparked WeHo’s resurgence in the ’70s – “It’s a city built on rockers, gays and the Russian community,” Andy proudly says – and some 40 percent of West Hollywood’s population identify as lesbian, gay, bi or transgender today. The Abbey is one of WeHo’s most popular LGBT bars and officially the best place in LA to see a 6’7 transgender performer leading a submissive on a chain. Living up to its name, there’s wall-to-wall religious iconography juxtaposed against exotic dancers defying gravity on poles in the centre of an enormous dance-floor. There’s no “type” of person that goes to The Abbey. Like West Hollywood itself, it’s all about inclusivity, harmless debauchery, and having a good time.

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(Photo: Supplied)

WEST Hollywood is adjacent to Beverly Hills, but has a different sensibility to its old money neighbour. You don’t have to own a Bentley with diamond-crusted rims to have fun in West Hollywood and there’s a good range of budget watering holes and dive bars, especially along The Sunset Strip. Wednesday night is karaoke night at The Den on Sunset, which means its chock full of jovial boozed-up punters belting out Creed’s ‘Higher’ without a trace of irony. It’s the kind of place you might even spot a B-grade celebrity – like, I dunno, Clark Duke from Hot Tub Time Machine – singing ‘Wonderwall’ with his mate. True story.

With its old-world feel and classic Italian menu, Cecconi’s is the point at which hip young WeHo and rich old Beverly Hills meet. Staying on trend seems less of a concern at this popular lunch spot, which has the feel of an LA institution despite only opening in 2010. This is the place you go for a power lunch, or to scoff down a plate of Dungeness crab ravioli that nullifies the 60-minute SoulCycle class you just had. Like most West Hollywood restaurants, you can dine al fresco in a front room complete with a retractable roof, or pull up a stool at a marble-lined bar and order from a dependable list of cocktails made by dependable men with white jackets and moustaches. Absolutely no expense has been spared in the fit-out, with the marble tiles and deco light fittings extending all the way into the bathroom.

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Health on a plate at Cecconi’s. (Photo: Cecconi’s)

At the opposite end of the spectrum is The Church Key, a modern American restaurant famous for pig’s ear Cheetos and liquid nitrogen adult popsicles. As a waitress creates them tableside from an old Pan Am cart, I wonder how long places like The Church Key tend to stick around, before the buzz wears off and people move onto the next best thing. “Restaurants have a shelf life here in WeHo,” explains Chris Arboleda from Visit West Hollywood, recalling a story about a sushi place that closed after six months because it couldn’t sustain its initial burst of popularity. “Big restaurants especially have to be consistently busy,” he says.

Moments later a waiter wheels a dim-sum cart past our table, offering falafel croquettes, tapioca-crusted chicken, sliders and a salami hot pocket that tastes like a pizza doughnut. We take the lot and wash it down with a cocktail – Bacardi, cherry liquor, Aperol, cardamom syrup and pineapple – that tastes like liquid velvet. Cocktails are a form of currency here in WeHo, with bartenders – like baristas in Melbourne – able to make or break a place. “Everyone’s a mixologist in West Hollywood,” jokes Chris. “If you can shake a tin you’re a mixologist.”

One of The Eveleigh’s signature drinks. (Photo: The Eveleigh)

Over at The Eveleigh, they seem to have nabbed all the good ones. Today, their rotating drinks menu is divided between “Bright & Citrusy” and “Spirituous & Aromatic”, depending on your mood. I opt for the former as a perfect LA sunset – the kind you see in the movies; all purples, pinks and burnt-orange hues – works its way across The Eveleigh’s open outdoor roof. The Lucky Louie – white rum, kumquats, fresh lime and ginger – is tart and satisfying, while there is nothing “bright” about the Oaxacan Phoenix, a smokey concoction of bourbon, mescal, celery bitters, agave and Serrano pepper. It’s like licking the walls of a Texan BBQ joint.

And then there’s the food. If you’re ever wondered why every cool restaurant in Australia does shared plates now, look no further than the Eveleigh’s “family style” menu. Like the cocktails, everything is seasonal and seasoned with aromatics from a herb garden that runs along the side of the outdoor bar. Table bread seems like a strange thing to get excited about, but The Eveleigh’s in-house pane di lariano served with “cultured” butter (do they play it opera as part of the fermentation process?) is more than something to bide the time between courses. It’s a must-try dish here, as is the beef heart tartare with fish sauce, cucumber and chives on toast. It’s richer, saltier and more glutinous than your garden-variety tartare and definitely not for the faint of – oh, never mind.

Owned by two LA-based Aussies named Nick, The Eveleigh is emblematic of the evolution of the Sunset Strip. While the ghosts of River Phoenix and ’80s hair metal still loom large over the dive bars and nightclubs that populate this faded precinct – you’re pretty much assured of a Ron Jeremy sighting at The Rainbow, for instance – places like The Eveleigh, The Church Key, Pearls (and its popular $1 oyster night), contemporary art gallery Prism and a Thursday night farmers market are shifting perceptions. John Lennon’s favourite LA haunt The Roxy is still one of the best places in LA to see a band. It’s enjoying a renaissance under the custodianship of Coachella bookers Goldenvoice, who ensure a constant stream of up-and-coming acts like Alabama’s Waxahatchee, who have the place packed out on an ordinary weeknight.

THE Sunset Marquis seems worlds away from the seediness of the Strip – even though its characters literally adorn the walls here, framed for all eternity in pricey limited-edition prints. Pulling up to the hotel is an underwhelming experience – most Angelinos, including half a dozen Uber drivers, have never heard of the place – but once you’re past the non-descript, off-white awnings you start to realise the appeal of this urban oasis, especially for celebrities who value privacy over a viral clip on TMZ.

The Sunset Marquis’ 100 suites start at around $300 per night for a standard room, but for an extra $95 you get a separate lounge and entertaining area, a generous bathroom with double vanities and views out to the same pool comedian Rodney Dangerfield once skinny-dipped in. Ew! There are 52 villas for those who can afford it – a singer that cannot be named has spent six months living in the $7500 per night presidential suite – and a more secluded villa pool that’s open to all residents. With its own bar, Spanish-inspired design and plush white deckchairs, it’s just another element that adds to the Marquis’ resort feel.

The intimate 1200 Bar in the lobby is a great place for a nightcap with 40 of your new best mates. Just ask Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who reportedly met his wife here. There’s nothing fancy about 1200 Bar’s cocktail menu, but if a bartender called Courtney is on shift she’ll make you her own version of coffee tequila with Patron and Kahlua that’s at least 50 percent more potent than the original. If you ask nicely she might even make you a specialty drink with vodka, muddled mint, cucumbers and a dash of “yoga sweat and spa water”. Not really – but who knows in LA?

Poolside at the Sunset Marquis. (Photo: Supplied)

DO not take the Bikes and Hikes tour of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills if you are unfit, hungover and haven’t been on a pushbike since you were 11. Seriously, don’t do it. Best case scenario, you will hold up the entire group as your knowledgeable – and very patient – tour guide Eric prepares you a makeshift Gatorade from a sachet. Worst case scenario you will throw up in a bin outside a Beverly Hills mansion equipped with more CCTV than the Pentagon. Hi mum!

For regular riders, however, a bike tour is a great way to check out the neighbourhood. Did you know, for instance, that the colour of the fire hydrants change between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills? Or that Frank Sinatra shared a crash pad with Marilyn Monroe on the corner of North Doheny Drive and Cynthia Street? Though just outside WeHo city limits, a visit to Greystone Park and Mansion is the undisputed highlight of this 25-kilometre Tour De France-like odyssey – and not just because you leave your bike at the entrance. It’s midday on a Tuesday and only a handful of tourists are here. Eric says it’s because locals think Greystone is a private residence – this is Beverly Hills after all – but its stunning gardens and Instagrammable views of LA make this one of the best free experiences you can have here.

The view from Greystone Mansion. (Photo by beccacantpark/Flickr)

Riding through the streets of Los Angeles can be super stressful, so why not end the day with a vegan burrito bowl (plus obligatory cocktail) and a spa experience that specialises in “red carpet facials”? Gracias Madre in the swish West Hollywood Design District is the kind of restaurant that would be parodied in Portlandia – if Portlandia were set in LA. Everything is grown locally and sustainably sourced; their kale is “massaged”; and they even employ a “beverage director”, who I assume is responsible for the most inventive drinks list I’ve seen all week. When was the last time you tasted tapioca pearls cured in a savoury edamame syrup? Or artichoke liquor paired with mescal and orange bitters? They even have a house margarita served in a long glass with ice cubes made of absinthe that slowly melt and intensify your drink. The creativity carries over into their food menu, with tempeh chorizo and bacon bits made from coconut that taste nothing like the real thing, but are delicious all the same.

The Uno bowl at Gracias Madre. (Photo: Gracias Madre/Facebook)

Kinara Spa is just a short walk past the Peace Elephant mural at the West Hollywood Library and a high-end department store, where a bunch of middle-aged men are lining up to buy the Apple Watch. Sarah Silverman goes here apparently, so I feel like I’m in safe hands – she’s always so relaxed! I talk my way through a $150 custom 50-minute massage, which I’m told is not really a done thing, but I’m eager to find out what my masseuse thinks of the Kardashians (they’re impossible to avoid in LA, she says), the spa’s new-age muzak (it drives her a bit spare), and whether celebrities make for difficult clients (the housewives are fussier, she admits). West Hollywood is about the lifestyle, I think to myself, as she puts a hot compress under my neck and I take ownership of the moment as a certain spin class instructor told me earlier this week. I’m starting to get used to this place.

Darren Levin visited Los Angeles as a guest of Visit West Hollywood.

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STAY

#1 Sunset Marquis (1200 Alta Loma Road)
#2 Mondrian LA (8440 Sunset Boulevard)
#3 The Standard (8300 Sunset Boulevard)
#4 Palihouse (8465 Holloway Drive)

The Standard (Photo: Vxla/Flickr)

EAT

#1 Cecconi’s (8764 Melrose Avenue)
#2 The Church Key (8730 Sunset Boulevard)
#3 The Eveleigh (8752 West Sunset Boulevard)
#4 Gracias Madre (8905 Melrose Avenue)
#5 Tortilla Republic (616 N Robertston Boulevard)
#6 Connie and Ted’s (8171 Santa Monica Boulevard)

The Church Key’s take on tuna tartare. (Photo: The Church Key/Facebook)

DRINK

#1 The Abbey (692 N Robertson Boulevard)
#2 The Den on Sunset (8226 Sunset Boulevard)
#3 The Eveleigh (8752 West Sunset Boulevard)
#4 The Roxy (9009 Sunset Boulevard)
#5 1200 Bar (1200 Alta Loma Road)
#6 Now Boarding (7746 Santa Monica Boulevard)
#7 The Hudson (1114 N Crescent Heights Boulevard)

EXPERIENCE

#1 SoulCycle (8570 Sunset Boulevard)
#2 Bikes and Hikes LA (8743 Santa Monica Boulevard)
#3 Kinara Spa (656 N Robertson Boulevard)

CHECK OUT QANTAS FLIGHTS TO LA HERE.