Los Angeles, like London, often feels like a random coalescence of towns and villages that just happened to merge into each other over time. In both cities, you can travel from a cacophonous local shopping district to a row of pastel-coloured houses in a matter of streets - only in LA, there’s a lot less public transport infrastructure to join the dots (“72 suburbs in search of a city”, as Dorothy Parker once acerbically put it).
Despite their frustrating lack of interconnectedness, there is a lot of love about LA’s various neighbourhoods and it’s Echo Park, where I’ve stayed for most of my six weeks in LA so far, that I’ve grown to love the most. Located just south of Silver Lake, just north of Downtown LA, Echo Park is Dalston if Dalston was dipped in buttery sunshine and sprinkled with datura blossoms. Daily sunshine notwithstanding, the area is a familiar blend of working class families and young creative types living in a slightly shabby area that is teetering right on the brink of full-on gentrification.
Thankfully, Echo Park is avoiding the call of the ubiquitous LA strip mall and instead commercialising in a direction that puts emphasis on independent businesses and community-focused initiatives. The result is a refreshing lack of Starbucks branches and a genuine neighbourhood feel that much of the rest of the city is lacking. In just six short weeks, Echo Park has made me feel at home. Here are some of my favourite local discoveries.
Historically a working class Latino neighbourhood, Echo Park still offers a range of cheap and cheerful food options, especially if you’re happy to eat streetside. Of the many food trucks parked up in the area, Alvarado Street’s famous Taco Zone is by far the best – a recent 2am cab stop there provided the most satisfying post-bar munch I’ve ever mindlessly consumed.
Of course, hipsters cannot live on street meat alone and their arrival in Echo Park has brought an abundance of vegan and/or farm-to-table establishments to the area. The Soul Bowl with sweet potato, garlic polenta and okra at Sage Vegan Bistro will make you question everything you thought you ever knew and hated about vegan food, while Elf Café has found new and delicious ways to serve kale in a town where it felt like every possible variation had been exhausted. Then there are the spots where old Echo Park and new Echo Park meet in the middle like Xoia where Mexican fuses with Vietnamese (think lemongrass pork carnitas banh mi) to surprisingly excellent effect.
If you’re looking for a homely, homecooked vibe, local restaurant The Park offers a comforting and delicious three course menu on Tuesday nights for just fifteen bucks, as well as $5 burgers on Wednesdays. Meanwhile Masa of Echo Park completely dispells the notion that you can’t get good pizza on the West Coast (and Chicago-style deep dish pizza at that).
Start the day with coffee and a breakfast burrito at Chango on Echo Park Avenue, where the benches are lined with a laptop brigade making full use of the free wifi and abundant power sockets. If you take your espresso very seriously indeed, then Fix is a good place to drop four dollars on a cup of locally roasted Verve coffee and enjoy a bagel with a thick smear of cream cheese and jam.
At night you can bar hop along Sunset Boulevard, where LA’s craft beer obsession finds an eastside outlet at Mohawk Bend. With 72 beers on tap in a 10,000 square foot setting, it’s a supersize alternative to nearby El Prado, a teeny tiny nook with a carefully chosen selection of microbrews, wines and artisinal cheese plates to match. Naturally.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Short Stop stays true to its name as a good stop off point for a quick, sweaty dance before you head home via the taco truck. Or kill two birds with one stone at dive bar Gold Room, where you can get a beer, a shot of a tequila, and two free tacos for $4. (Not a typo).
Echo Park is still a residential neighbourhood and therefore hotel options are basically non-existent. Consider staying in nearby Downtown LA, where a host of affordable hotels are popping up all over the place – the Figueroa Hotel offers a secluded Moroccan vibe for less than 150 bucks a night. Or do as I did and explore your AirBnB options – there are lots of cosy rooms, studios and full apartments to be found in the area for reasonable prices.
This area is a goldmine of independent boutiques, although Echo Park Avenue is lined with 99 Cent stores in much the same way that Stoke Newington Road is lined with pound shops. They sell every manner of crap (useful and not-so-useful) that you could ever hope to come across.
For the more discerning shopper there’s a good selection of vintage stores. My favourite is the pastel-hued wonderland that is The Dog Show Boutique, where the glittery unicorn mounted over the door welcomes you to explore a trove of affordable vintage sportswear (I picked up a minty fresh varsity jacket for just $15). For those who prefer their vintage non-stonewashed, both Tavin and Flounce offer a solid selection of pretty dresses, shoes and bags.
If you’re interested in purchases of the edible variety, then Cookbook is your spot. This tiny deli sells an impressive array of locally-sourced fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy, as well as a daily-changing selection of super fresh salads and sandwiches. It’s wincingly expensive, but you can taste your money in every delicious organic mouthful.
Echo Park is that rarest of finds in Los Angeles: a neighbourhood that is truly walkable – and enjoyably so. LA’s year-round sunshine is conducive to outdoor exercise and you may well feel the urge to hike (or maybe just stroll) through the hills of the lush Elysian Park, home of The Los Angeles Dodgers. Alternatively head to Yogagla, where you can try out a wide array of yoga classes in a serene and friendly studio, many of which are taught on a donation-only basis.
If you prefer activity of the cerebral kind then challenge yourself to decipher the emporium of oddities that is 826LA, then attend a reading at Stories Books and Café next door. Or just kick back with a coffee, browse their excellent selection of new and used titles, and breathe in that perfect bookshop smell.