Santa Monica: La Dolce Vita

In this city getting fit is a social event


It was 7.30am one December morning and I was stretching my limbs in the bright morning sun to the softly spoken instructions of yoga teacher Lauren Eckstrom from ESP Wellness Center. She gently coaxed out more length and deeper breaths until I could almost touch the bright blue skies.

I could feel the ocean breeze on my face and see it ruffle the fronds of the palm trees above. The view was the Pacific ocean lapping onto the Santa Monican coast between the pleasure pier and Venice beach. Scenes from the 1982 Hollywood blockbuster Rocky III were filmed here and I could almost see Rocky Balboa running across the sands.

In this city getting fit is a social event. After all, this is where the 20th century fitness boom was born with the opening of Muscle Beach in the 1930s — an impressively kitted-out, one-hectare alfresco gym. Celebrities such as Kirk Douglas, Steve Reeves and even Mae West trained here. There are ropes, parallel bars and high rings to pump those muscles. With a year-round Mediterranean climate offering 330 days of sunshine every year, why not treat the city as a training room.

Out there with me were hundreds of people pounding the boardwalk, doing t’ai chi, surfing, cycling, power walking their dogs and looking the picture of good health.

I couldn’t help thinking how apt it is that the American pop icon Popeye, famed for using magical spinach to boost his muscle power, was born in a local art studio.

Eating well is the city’s second obsession, yet there is no particular LA cuisine so fusion cooking is the buzz phrase. And there are chefs galore, spread over 400 restaurants in 8.3 square miles (50 per square mile). Many have celebrity status for their ingenuity in producing a healthy fused dining experience.

I bumped into one of them, Josiah Citrin, one Sunday morning at the Main Street farmer’s market. His two-Michelin starred restaurant, Mellise, offers French fusion cooking and he sources his ingredients from the 70 or so local farmers that trade at the market. As do most other restaurants.

Sitting atop the city’s newest shopping mall is a funky place to dine: Zengo. Inside it is dimly lit but has superb alfresco dining with a sensational view over 3rd Street Promenade — similar in ambience to Covent Garden. Its style is Asian fusion such as sea bass served with cucumbers and green apples and lush cocktails such as a lychee bellini.

Just around the corner from the designer packed Santa Monica shopping complex is a delightful “neighbourhood” restaurant, The Wilshire on Wilshire Boulevard.

The casually elegant interior spills out onto a relaxing patio. The affable general manager, Nick Fielding, is a nice Jewish boy from Finchley who trained at Quaglinos and with Terence Conran while in London. The menu is a fusion of American and international influences which they call “New Urban Cuisine”. I loved the miso black cod served with steamed rice and stir fried veg and their Mystic raspberry cocktail.

For a respite from rich gastro dining, the Sushi at Sunset menu at Ocean & Vine is sensational. It is the rooftop restaurant at the beachfront Loews Hotel. It is a wonderful space to enjoy a nibble and a tipple while overlooking the beach. As the skies darkened with hues of orange and reds finally drifting into the ebony of evening, I was perched by a rooftop fire in a comfy cushioned chair, enjoying tuna, avocado with mango pearls and wasabi and salmon miso shiso glaze. The water beyond shimmered at me as if to echo my pleasure.

Breakfast is, of course, the most important meal of the day and I took mine with a slice of Hollywood nostalgia at the Annenberg community centre at its Back on the Beach Café.

This was originally a 110-room mansion with tennis courts where glamorous parties were hosted by William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill frolicked here. The art deco swimming pool (now open to the public) has a marble deck and staircases and worth visiting just to cast an admiring glance over its yesteryear elegance.

I could not choose between the vegan scramble or bagel and lox so settled for a Spanish omelette and while I waited to be served, I donned my sunhat, tickled the sand with my toes and watched the joggers and power walkers as they sped past the backdrop of the sea, mountains and Catalina Island beyond. I felt fitter just watching.

Getting There
Flight: From London Heathrow United Airlines has daily services to Los Angeles and San Francisco. An economy return ticket from London Heathrow to Los Angeles £624 – to Santa Ana, Orange County £626.
STAY: Shore hotel. Rooms from $250 per night.

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