If you have just one day in Los Angeles, how do you spend it?
This was the quandary for my wife Paula and I recently during our first trip to LA - a fly-in, fly-out visit en route to our true destination: Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and a photography-focussed road trip through Arizona.
For us, dining at a themed restaurant chain became the highlight, which just shows that when you’re travelling the best experiences can come in the most unexpected places.
As Australians - and especially being from Queensland, the Sunshine State - we wanted to get at least a glimpse of California’s own beach culture despite our time in LA being extremely limited. As such, we chose to book in advance for a night at the Sheraton Delfina Santa Monica Hotel, ensuring we’d end up back at the coast no matter how we spent our one day of exploration.
Of course there were some must-see destinations for us, among them Beverly Hills and Hollywood - and we ventured off on the Starline Tours CitySightseeing Hop-On, Hop-Off bus to take in as much as we could.
The first stop certainly didn’t disappoint. A couple of delicious burgers washed down with a Beringer Private Reserve chardonnay for madam and a Strand Brewing Co Beach House amber ale for sir at The Blvd restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the primary filming location for the 1990 movie Pretty Woman that made Julia Roberts a super star, was only an entrée in terms of the experience. The main course in our feast on how-the-other-half-live was meandering through the luxury goods stores on nearby Rodeo Drive, home of the shopping scenes in Pretty Woman. Think the likes of Agent Provocateur, Bulgari, Cartier, Chanel, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Georg Jensen, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Guess, Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent. And think price tags often exceeding a thousand greenbacks.
While it is a glamorous shopping district for the famous and other super wealthy types, Rodeo Drive is a tourist mecca also and it’s understandable. Even if wearing comparatively daggy clothes having just landed in the country earlier that same day, you can freely wander in and out of flagship stores of some of the world’s greatest luxury brands. It’s retail eye candy on a mega scale and paradise for fashionistas. A word of warning though: unless your credit card runs deep, it’s probably wise to keep it in your pocket or you could easily blow your full holiday budget in just a transaction or two.
Given our shortness of time I can’t say with any authority whether the shop assistants get all antsy if you ask to try something on without looking like you have a sufficiently large wallet to back it up, as they did with Vivian in Pretty Woman (remember her going back the next day in the film, bags in hand, after Richard Gere’s Edward takes her on a shopping spree: “You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge!”).
I can say from experience they’re not particularly fond of people taking photos inside some stores, though.
Unlike Beverly Hills and in particular Rodeo Drive, however, Hollywood was a disappointment. “Filthy” and “tacky” are two words that fit my recollection of strolling the Walk of Fame, the latter especially true of many wannabe lookalikes pestering tourists with offers to pose for photos with them before demanding an excessive gratuity for the privilege.
To be fair, however, time was getting on, we only managed a brief stop there and - having arrived at Los Angeles International Airport about 6am after a sleepless flight from Brisbane - we were starting to tire. As such I may be judging the place too harshly.
Returning to the coast is a breath of fresh air, though - literally and figuratively.
Watching the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean from the beach at Santa Monica is a beautiful end to the day and the meal that follows on the famous Santa Monica Pier, the end of the iconic Route 66, is a dining experience to top it off perfectly.
With Forrest Gump entrenched among our favourite movies of all time, we couldn’t resist eating at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, part of a chain of more than 30 restaurants. While the seafood was good, it was our waiter Ray who was the star.
An extremely likeable African American aged about 30 with a beaming smile, quick wit and a willingness to engage in conversation, he’s interested in where we’re from and is immediately on the money with a recommendation that we try a Coronarita - a Mexican-themed alcoholic beverage that is a local favourite.
Upon explaining that it is essentially a frozen margarita with a Corona beer tipped upside down in it, he promises that if you stir it a little with your straw, it tastes like lemonade. We order two and discover he’s telling the truth. Dangerous!
Ray wants to know why we’ve chosen to eat at Bubba Gump. Then he turns into the Forrest Gump quiz master.
“I’ve seen the movie 100 times and I hate that movie,” he says, tongue-in-cheek.
He adds, smiling: “I only ask these questions for you guys.”
This time we know he’s lying … we’d heard him dropping a snap pop quiz on another table soon after our arrival. This is all part of his routine, but damn is he good at it!
Ray is working multiple tables, building rapport with each and every one of them and even involving people from one table in conversations with people on other tables. This is not the place to take your sweetheart on an intimate date, but it all adds up to fun, fun, fun.
We quickly receive introductions to a young Brazilian couple who are seated at the table next to us and, amid the banter, they get to witness a glimpse of Paula’s incredible ability to recall virtually every scene and every line of almost every movie that she’s ever watched.
Most tables tend to get one right answer - sometimes two - when faced with Ray’s standard three Forrest Gump trivia questions. Not us.
To Ray’s amazement, Paula rapidly fires back three correct answers. So he keeps asking more, trying to stump her. She stumbles only once, but on that occasion, to my own surprise, I come up with the goods. The quiz ends with a perfect score of 10 from 10.
We end the night with another Ray recommendation - an $8.50 Blue Moon beer and a shot special - and are again thinking the man can do no wrong. Unlike earlier in the day with the lookalikes in Hollywood, on this occasion we’re more than happy to hand over a generous tip - after all, we’ve experienced arguably the most personalised service from arguably the best waiter we’ve ever had.
Bubba Gump is casual dining, but it’s fun and Forrest Gump fans are sure to have a great time. And, if you’re lucky, from your table you may even have views of the beach (the backdrop of Baywatch) or the pier (which Tom Hanks’s character turns around on during his run lasting three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours in the movie).
Memorise those numbers. You might just need them during Ray’s quiz.