One of the many reasons for living in the Silver Strand has, surprisingly, turned out to be its proximity to Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Abbot Kinney was something of an idealist. When he founded Venice in 1906, he built an extraordinary amusement park on the beach to attract tourists and a charming canal system. Both are long gone. However his dream also included creating affordable housing for a utopian beach community in the form of bungalows to be occupied by creative people including artists, writers, dancers and actors. He built it and they came, along with many Los Angeles residents seeking respite from downtown Los Angeles which was then the center of the city. Venice, in those days, as is the case now, was a place where a great variety of cultural events took place on a regular basis. That spirit remains today in venues like Beyond Baroque, Sparc, the Venice Art Walk, the Venice Garden Tour, the Pacific Resident Theater and the Electric Lodge.
I’ve been strolling down Abbot Kinney Boulevard since the early 1980s, when it was still called Washington Boulevard. It used to be a very low-key shopping and dining destination. The atmosphere was local and there were few tourists, no throngs of pedestrians and parking was easy. There were still artists with studios near by, among them Ed Rusha, Sam Francis, Joe Goode, Ken Price, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Chuck Arnoldi, Peter Alexander, Laddie John Dill, Robert Graham and Elsa Rady. And before them, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Lee Mullican, Artie Richer, John Altoon, Via Celmins and Charles Britten (the photographer who chronicled the Venice art world in the 1950s and 60s). There were writers, Ray Bradbury was one of many. And there were always actors in residence, starting with Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress, who used to stay at the King George Hotel (still there on Rose and Ocean Front Walk) in the early 1900’s when she was performing in Los Angeles. She loved the ocean breezes. Charlie Chaplin and more recently the late Dennis Hopper, Angelica Houston and Julia Roberts were other famous residents. Venice has a long and rich history as a popular location for film shooting beginning in the days of silents with Mary Pickford (1910). Charles and Ray Eames, arguably among the greatest designers of the 20th Century had their studio just off Abbot Kinney (still there). The reason many lived and worked there, then and now, was that Venice was affordable. The downside was that by the 1980s, much of the housing stock was dilapidated. Parts of Venice were infested with gangs and drug dealers and had a high crime rate where drive-by shootings were common. The existing Venice Canals (not part of Kinney’s original canal system) were in a very sad state. Before they were completely renovated in the late 1980s, you could buy a home there for $300,000-$400,000.
How things have changed. Venice has now become a red-hot real estate market. Homes in the Venice Canals and elsewhere sell for millions of dollars. Aspiring creative people can no longer afford to live here. And many who went from aspiring to famous have moved on. As a result of gentrification over the last 15 years, rents on Abbot Kinney have sky-rocketed. As a result, many of the original restaurants, small shops, artists and other creative souls on or near Abbot Kinney Boulevard, have been forced to move. Parking is now extremely difficult. In contrast to the old days, there are now trendy boutiques selling simple cotton T-shirts for $100 and custom-made perfumes for $2500. Restaurants and bars are increasingly high-end and, although the food is good to excellent, they mainly cater to well-off singles under 40 who have no understanding of what high decibel counts will do to their hearing down the line.
What was there and is no longer:
Restaurants: Gone but Not Forgotten:
We used to enjoyed eat at Capri, a modestly priced “grown-up” restaurant with simple, but good food and it was quiet! You could actually hear what your dinner companions were saying. There were several restaurants surrounding the Sculpture Garden, a charming nursery, including an Argentinian place called S0broso, replaced by an eccentric Jamaican restaurant complete with bongo drum players, and then by Lilly’s a wonderful French bistro. There was Massimo’s Gelato shop and restaurant, with superb gelato in many flavors and delicious sandwiches and coffee which you could take out to the back patio. Other favorites were Stroh’s Delicatessan and Jin Patisserie, the latter run by Christie Choo a master pastisserie maker and former Silver Strand homeowner. Her small restaurant on Abbot Kinney served desserts which were works of art, selections of delicate hand-made sandwiches and extraordinary teas. Here, you could also buy the best hand-made chocolates and macaroons in Los Angeles. The restaurant counter showcasing her desserts was designed by the renown architect, Frederick Fisher who also designed Elsa Rady’s studio in Venice and a home on the Silver Strand. Jin has now moved to Culver City.
Shops: also gone but not forgotten: Scentiments with its beautiful fresh flowers and great gift store. Goddess, an extraordinary small store which sold unique beads, beautiful hand-made jewelry and offered classes for bead-makers. There was OK, a place specializing in fine modernist furniture. The owner was passionate about his offerings and reluctant to sell anything. Some places are better gone, including Equator a very strange bookstore offering second-hand books at unbelievably high prices.
There are two bars of long-standing. The Brigg and Rooster Fish, originally both were fairly scary places for outsiders. The Brigg has been completely gentrified and food trucks now station themselves there on First Fridays. The Other Room bar is still popular with singles. Surviving restaurants are Primitivo, Hals, Joe’s and Abbot’s Habit, which keep on serving good food. Axe, having survived a fire, is still here. Shops which remain are Just Tantau, modestly priced gifts, jewelry and clothes (in a reduced space), Sunya Currie Asian inspired furniture, gifts, jewelry and clothing at easy on the pocketbook prices. There is also Bountiful, a great shop if you need just one or a hundred antique cake servers, shabby-chic furniture, glass domes, depression glass and much else.
How did it happen:
I first noticed a change in the mid-1980s when the Abbot Kinney Festival made its debut in September 1984. Soon after, start-up architectural firms began moving in, followed by “vanity” art galleries, spaces occupied by well-off artists promoting their own work. And then came the new restaurants: Wabi-Sabe, a Japanese fusion place, okay if you’ve never eaten in Japan. Shima a high-end and excellent Japanese restaurant for those of us who have eaten in Japan. Hans Rockenwager, an old pro and wonderful chef opened his Three Square Bakery, a great addition serving good comfort food at modest prices in a pleasant setting with a small shop next door offering his fine baked goods. There is Salt Seafood (which replaced Capri), Lemonade, a somewhat upscale take-out/eat-in place, no comparison to Joan’s on Third on Melrose), Intelligentsia (a coffee bar which replaced Scentiments), the Tasting Kitchen, Gjelina and Feed Body and Soul. Many of the newest arrivals are very trendy, catering to Venice strivers with money who seem to be more interested in the latest information on their cell-phones than on what their dinner partners are saying. Fire-Fly remains a wonderful store to shop for gifts. Tortoise is still there and with a second newly opened space).
Bottom-Line: Some of the changes on Abbot Kinney are for the better, some for the worse. I am beginning to see that a nascent trend where a few boutique stores and restaurants who can’t afford Abbot Kinney are starting to move to Main Street or Lincoln and Venice Boulevard. This is good as these areas could use some gentrification.
Tips for exploring Abbot Kinney Boulevard:
1) Avoid the First Friday of the month when all the shops are open and food trucks gather. Very busy and very buzzy. You will have a very difficult time parking.
2) The throngs arrive all day on Friday and Saturday. Again, parking is difficult, so head for a weekday lunch or dinner and take a walk before or after and you will have a lovely time.
3) If you want to have a meal and hear what your companions are saying, look for on-line for restaurants that have patios.
Here is a guide to shopping and eating on Abbot Kinney
Please contribute to this post by adding your own memories of Washington/Abbot Kinney Boulevard and any recommendations about new stores and restaurants. To do so, just leave a comment below.