Downtown LA Valentine’s Day: A Five Step Guide

 

 

Valentine’s Day is again rapidly approaching, as it does, reminding us all of our sometimes fraught relationship with the holiday and all that it stands for. Nevertheless, a lovers’ escape does wonders, and doesn’t necessarily require a specific date on the calendar.

So whether you opt to fight the crowds for a coveted V-Day reservation, or simply need a little added romance in your life at some chosen point on the February calendar, we recently ran reconnaissance in Downtown LA to assemble a “sweep you off your feet” itinerary, one that will surely result in both of you making embarrassing googly eyes at one another across the breakfast table the next morning.

 

Stay: Hotel Figueroa

Located at the heart of it all, Hotel Figueroa is both Spanish Colonial dreamscape and fascinating feminist landmark. It originally opened in 1926 as a hotel designed specifically for women travelers, owned and operated by women. In fact, Maude Bouldin was the country’s first-ever female managing director in the hotel space.
In 2018, it underwent a $55M renovation, reviving the interior to its current modern splendor, while maintaining distinct elements from before, like the front marquis. A rotating exhibition of art, by mainly female artists, a cozy-yet-spacious hotel bar, live music, and a pool shaped like a coffin—hey, whatever you’re into!—serve as inspiration for exploring something new, and reveling in the romance of the past. 

 

 

Drinks: Faith & Flower

Say it with opulence at Faith and Flower. The sprawling DTLA restaurant and bar feels both 17th Century Versailles and highly effective modern date night destination. We love it for a pre-dinner drink and nibbles, though the food is good enough to make a night of it. Their (limited edition) English Milk Punch is wonderful to share, and looks and tastes the part. Crab toast and foie gras also play well with a “tonight’s just getting started” vibe. 

 

 

Do: The Theater at Ace Hotel

Romance has no calendar, but the The Theater at Ace Hotel does, and if planned correctly, you can organize a date night around a musical act, iconic film, or wild dance party. The interior architecture—an opulent 1920s former movie palace—alone is worth the price of admission. Coming up in February: Bat for Lashes (on Valentine’s Day!), Hannah Gadsby (comedian, world-wide inspiration, February 22), and The Bachelor Live on Stage (reality romance at its worst and best, February 28). 

 

 

Dinner: Veranda at Hotel Figueroa

If you can barely drag yourselves out of the beautifully-appointed room at Hotel Figueroa, good news is you won’t have to go far to indulge in some exceptionally good dining. Veranda is located adjacent to the hotel pool, and the charming, plant-filled space serves popular Mexican/Latin dishes done next-level, thanks to Chef Adrian Garcia, who came to LA by way of Mexico City (and was formerly at Red O). While there is some familiarity to the menu, the food is creatively and thoughtfully prepared: queso fundido with chorizo, a daily rotation of tacos, enchiladas suizas covered in a creamy tomatillo sauce, and zesty Paloma cocktails will significantly fuel you up for a night of passion.

 

 

Breakfast: Grand Central Market 

While nighttime calls for dimly lit abodes and inhibition-dulling libations, the morning after calls for a new kind of intimacy: having breakfast together. Take your special someone on a whirl through the sybaritic pleasures of Grand Central Market, where you’ll find the city’s best local flavors. G&B Coffee is there to properly caffeinate and revive; and for other morning-after favorites, we reco: Knead & Co. Pasta, Eggslut, and La Fruteria for fresh fruit with a kick of spice. There’s even a flower truck, for spontaneously botanical expressions of love. Kiss Kiss.

 

Elote Broccoli and Italo-Japanese Fusion: Where to Go For dineL.A. Restaurant Week

Marco Polo Trattoria

 

Los Angeles is a densely populated wonderland of inventive, surprising, and widely representative cuisines. The late, great food critic Jonathan Gold made it his after-work job to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard one year. He covered ground all the way to Century City, “never made it to the beach,” but the telling of his journey, excavating the lesser-known gems as he ate his way through Central American, soul, and Persian-Jewish cuisines is the stuff of legend. He paints a vivid picture of what we’re dealing with here. In L.A., food is life. It’s also everywhere.

Thus, it’s impossible to try it all. For this reason, we love dineL.A. Restaurant Week, which kicks off this Friday, and goes until January 31 (right, right…that’s two weeks). It makes the intimidating challenge of sampling all those places on your list—or ones you might have never normally considered—considerably little less daunting. Over 400 restaurants participate, often curating a special prix fixe menu for the occasion. Lunches range from $20–$35 and dinners are between $39–$59 per person. 

Since 400 can still feel overwhelming, we’ve highlighted a handful of hot picks across town that you should add to your list, and then quickly tick off. (Browse the full list of participating restaurants, view menus, and make reservations at dineL.A.)

 

Marco Polo Trattoria

Silver Lake
Celeb Chef Casey Lane (formerly of Tasting Kitchen) puts his unique spin on coastal Italian cuisine at the newly opened Silver Lake Pool & Inn. Creamy mozzarella sits in a pool of fresh tomatoes and olive oil for his rendition of the caprese, “so you can take the bread and soak up the sauce afterwards,” he advises. For an appetizer, he scattered mason jars of preserved lemons across the table — the perfect usage for winter lemons — to spread like marmalade over grilled bread from The Larder Baking Co. To wrap it up: soft serve. Swoon. 

 

 

Orsa and Winston

Downtown
Sometimes an odd concept pays off. Italian and Japanese might not seem like a eureka fusion, but Orsa and Winston makes it work, and work well. Think: lots of seafood, like the mussel and scallop chowder; or chilled soba noodles with pesto, uni, and abalone. The man behind it, Josef Centeno, has a firm grip on popular DTLA establishments. He also runs Bar Ama, Baco Mercat, and PYT. Orsa and Winston will be serving a five-course tasting menu for dineL.A.

 

 

Craft

Century City
Craft is an industry go-to brought to L.A. from New York by none other than Top Chef host Tom Colicchio. But don’t let that deter you. It’s also a great place to drink wine, people watch, and sign a network deal. For dineL.A., they’re offering a pretty impressive selection of land and sea entrees—Berkshire pork loin, Ora King salmon—to pair up with their fantastic drinks list. 

 

 

Atrium

Los Feliz
Atrium, the latest brainchild of Jake Laughlin and Beau Milliken (Kettle Black, Sawyer), boasts a gorgeously designed interior loaded with plant life, light wood, high ceilings, and all the beautifully-appointed accoutrement hipsters crave, including scrumptious food. For dineL.A. they’ll be serving up elote-style broccoli, cavatelli with squash-miso broth, glazed pork cheek, and a number of other imaginative and flavor-packed dishes. 

 

 

Maple Block Meat Co.

Culver City
BBQ lovers rejoice, Maple Block’s smoked chicken, pork ribs, and brisket just might hold up to Texas…or Kansas City. Fighting words, we know, but they’re that good. Their side dishes aren’t to be missed either: buttermilk biscuits and mac and cheese with cheddar crumble and chives will leave you feeling adequately gluttonous. dineL.A. specials include a free range half chicken or the brisket and pork spare ribs combo. 

 

 

Here’s Looking at You

Koreatown 
Once reviewed by Gold himself as “spicy, nimble and adept at crossing cultural boundaries; quick to reference street food traditions but with farmers market ingredients,” Here’s Looking at You is a collaboration between Jonathan Whitener (Animal) and Lien Ta, with a fusion focus. Indeed, they draw from Mexican, Vietnamese, and American cuisines for a style that translates to some amazing dishes you’ll see on-menu during dineL.A. week, like the hamachi crudo, brisket tartar, and beef striploin with sarsparilla.

 

L.A.’s Cool New Pinky’s Bar Brings the Retro Miami Style…and There Are Cocktail ‘Guns’

 

 

Los Feliz has just welcomed a stylish new watering hole, courtesy of the gents (Beau Laughlin and Jay Milliken) behind the restaurant just across the hall, Atrium. Behind a pink metal-framed door off Vermont Street, sans sign, is Pinky’s, a dark, windowless space that feels like 1980s Miami, the Amalfi Coast, and the bottom of a hotel swimming pool all at once. 

On the occasion of our first visit, guests lounged casually across intricately tiled seats beneath art deco wall fixtures. Tropical plants dangled from the ceiling, and the color palette adhered to those South Beach favorites: pink, green, and gold.  

 

 

Pinky’s, named after a dancing Floridian flamingo that once lived at Busch Gardens, ticks a lot of boxes. One being an escape from the typical trendy LA sorts of establishments. Boho-modern decor – minimalism, raw wood, hand-woven textures – has been done to death by now, and a new wave of pizzazz is on the rise, winking to the ostentatiousness of the ‘80s, but with better taste. It’s intimate and dark, perfect for both anonymity and letting loose, but it doesn’t shy away from a bit of theatricality, especially when it comes to the cocktails. 

Ah the cocktails! Packed with flavor from fresh ingredients, every drink was its own experience. Beverage director/co-owner Jordan Young labored over his menu, his largest project to date (he also designed the drink menus at Atrium, Sawyer, and Kettle Black), to devise tipples that are fanciful but refreshingly accessible. Nothing costs more than $12.

 

 

One such bev, called Drunk Commitments, employed the use of a metal gun that shot smoke into the cocktail, creating a dome-like bubble. When the bubble popped, it dusted the drink with a hint of smoky cinnamon. A swan spigot, known as the bar mascot, poured shots of mezcal from its metallic beak. Another machine infused the Toki Highball – made with clear Suntory whisky – with next-level effervescence. That was truly one of our favorites of the night. 

Like its namesake, Pinky’s has plenty of story around it already, from its inimitable sense of style, to its cheeky menu, to the people running the show. It has an easy appeal, but in an intimate, slightly exclusive feeling setting. So expect a future mix of craft cocktail connoisseurs, the ‘drink before dinner’ set, and those who just want to get a good selfie at the hippest, most uniquely stylish new spot in Los Angeles.

 

In the Shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Very Well-Designed Weekend in Scottsdale

Above image: Canal Convergence

 

 

In the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright started making regular treks from Wisconsin to Scottsdale, Arizona. The climate suited him, and in winter months, he found it easier to breathe. By 1937, he’d made the desert oasis a permanent winter residence and constructed what would become one of his most well-known masterpieces, Taliesin West. The city built up around him over the following decades, going from vast and empty desert land to a thriving metropolis.

Today, though he’d hardly recognize it, Wright’s legacy lives on there. From the architecture he influenced, to Scottsdale’s longstanding commitment to preservation, sustainability, and art. 

 

Canal Convergence

 

This month, over 200,000 people congregated to witness Canal Convergence, an annual art festival that started as a diversion for when the local canals were drained. It’s since evolved into one of Scottsdale’s most anticipated attractions (though Spring Training still reigns supreme). And like Wright discovered almost a century ago, the weather does provide a breath of fresh air this time of year. 

We joined the crowds to explore the abundance of art, design, and culture that defines this cosmopolitan Southwestern city. Here’s what we did.

 

Cattle Track Arts & Preservation

This hidden gem gives local artists and artisans a supportive space to create, much like a commune without all the living quarters (though there is a van). Owner Mark McDowell, a painter himself, walked us through the historic complex, which dates back to the 1930s. Today, Cattle Track welcomes art talent across several mediums, including painting, photography, ceramics, and even, well…blacksmithing. They also have a gallery space that defies art world conventions: artists can hold shows, sell their works, and keep 100% of the profits. 

 

 

Cosanti 

Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri made a home in Scottsdale after a stint apprenticing for Wright at Taliesin West. Cosanti served as his gallery, studio, and residence, and today the space houses a molten bronze bell casting business. A walk around revealed several earth-formed concrete structures styled to dramatic effect by Soleri’s ecologically-inspired vision. Elaborately designed bronze bells hang throughout, adding an audible sensory experience.

 

 

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

At SMOCA the art begins outside, as James Turrell’s “Skyspace” is seamlessly incorporated into its facade. It’s one of only a handful of Turrell’s completed works in the world (though Kanye West is helping him finish another). Inside, Counter Landscapes: Performative Actions from the 1970s to Now (on view through January) encapsulates the powerful dynamic between artist and environment. Marina Abramovic, Agnes Denes, Antonia Wright, Sarah Cameron Sunde all have works on display.
In one room filled with hanging planters of creosote bush (a local plant with a potent scent), we watched a video work of Wright falling through an icy lake again and again. In another, Sunde uses her own body as a measurement of the rising tides in a video series titled 36.5/A Durational Performance with the Sea. Intense stuff.

 

 

Taliesin West 

A must-see for design aficionados, Taliesin West is Wright’s sprawling desert compound just outside downtown Scottsdale. He, his third wife, and a band of apprentices took to the land in the ‘30s to create what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. He discovered there was in fact water flowing not too far underground, and turned a piece of desert into a working design laboratory. 
Each space holds its own otherworldly vibe: a movie room feels like a bunker with rock walls and uplighting (a technique we have Wright to thank for); a concert hall is specifically shaped to amplify music; a theater is cloaked in red velvet. Wright made space for the things he loved, and his appreciation for the arts ran deep. He once cited Beethoven as the greatest architect, noting he could make a symphony out of only four notes. To that end, Wright famously made every structure in Taliesin West out of materials he found in the desert. Even the color palettes were inspired by the natural landscape (lots of Cherokee Red). He spent the last 20 years of his life here — the most prolific of his career, and is said to be buried somewhere on the grounds. 

 

 

Restaurants

The Mission Old Town

It would be a disservice to head to the Southwest and not partake in some great Latin cuisine – and this is the place to do it. Here, chef Matt Carter reinvents his French culinary training with a menu focused on South American flavors. We loved the tableside guacamole, shrimp tacos, and the Malbec braised short rib. 

 

 

Citizen Public House 

It’s hard to say what to enthuse more about here, the food or the drinks. In a relaxed environment, chef Bernie Kantak and company’s New American marries the inventive with the familiar. For starters, we sampled the crab cakes and the original chopped salad, which has its own Facebook page. The seared scallops are a fan favorite too, as are tipples from the barrel aged cocktail list, like the bourbon-based Rose Garland. 

Zuzu at Hotel Valley Ho

While the hotel itself is reminiscent of yesteryear, it was refreshing to see their on-site restaurant is firmly planted in today. Zuzu had a beautifully curated wine list and plenty of imaginative shared plates, courtesy of Executive Chef Russell LaCasce. The constantly shifting and always delightful dessert menu is worth saving room for.

 

 

Hotels

Hotel Valley Ho

Originally opened in 1956, Hotel Valley Ho has long been a go-to destination for out-of-towners. Back in the day, Hollywood starlets frequented the space for its privacy and charming mid-century design. As they say, everything and nothing has changed. After a couple of ownership shifts, the hotel was recently restored to its original splendor – though many of the interior elements have remained untouched since its inception. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner would be pleased – they had their second wedding reception here. 

The Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows

Hyatt’s boutique arm of hotels (Andaz means “style” in Hindi) are known for paying homage to their surrounding environs. In Scottsdale, the Andaz mirrors the desert, and the artists and architects that have made it what it is today. The property sits on a single level and feels more country club commune than luxury hotel – in the best way. Poolside cabanas come attached to the more coveted suites. Be sure to stop by restaurant Warp and Weft, which features hand-made installations and ceramic dishes from Cattle Track artists. Executive Chef Nate Larson infuses his menu with seasonal Sonoran cuisine, every dish is inventive fresh, and full of Southwestern flavor. 

 

Cannabis Wellness? L.A.’s New Aeon Botanika Will Be a Luxe Marijuana Mecca

 

 

Los Angeles, a veritable mecca of “Mary Jane” and the country’s largest legal pot market, is nothing if not right on top of the latest trends for getting, well, high. There’s an uptick in the (mainstream) market since pot was legalized in L.A. as of January 2018 – the law passed with a victorious 57% majority. So if you’re Cali sober, an active member of the weed-as-wellness congregation, or just looking for a space to buy and smoke your herb that feels more spa, less windowless basement, then we have some very good news. 

Indeed, Aeon Botanika is opening a gorgeous, 7,000-square-foot flagship in the heart of West Hollywood in early 2020, complete with retail shop, dispensary, restaurant, and a Moroccan cannabis lounge. They’re actually one of only five companies to receive a retail and lounge license in WeHo.

Situated just off the Sunset Strip – on Santa Monica Boulevard between N. Alfred and N. Croft Streets – the behemoth boutique will be a destination for “newly elevated, plant-forward wellness experiences.” We can hardly wait. 

 

 

This definitively marks a new era of marijuana retail – it was only a matter of time – that feels more right for L.A.’s posher sensibilities. The Moroccan lounge, for instance, will beckon guests to sample the goods on site with its dramatic vaulted ceilings, skylight, and Mediterranean-inspired decor. 

Co-founders Nicole Fox, a seasoned activist and registered dietician, and Veena Parekh, a restaurant industry veteran (Foreign Cinema, Zuni Cafe), the two women behind the establishment, see cannabis at the forefront of an ever-evolving wellness community. 

“We are in a time when more people are turning to cannabis as a medicine and including it as part of their wellness lifestyle,” offers Fox, who is eager to combine her two passions at Aeon Botanika. “I am beyond grateful to the City of West Hollywood, who have always supported the movement to end the prohibition of this healing plant.” 

 

 

Ferrier Architecture Studio is designing the space, while Keith Greco will handle the interiors. (Some of which are pictured in these advance renderings). Angelenos may know Greco’s work from popular spots like MidCity’s The Little Door, or Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake. 

Aeon Botanika will also feature a full restaurant concept serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner – with a coffee program directed by Ritual Coffee Roasters. Fred Eric of Fred62 will serve as culinary director.

They’ll also offer appointments and sessions with a licensed integrative dietitian, acupuncturist, massage therapist, and a functional medicine physician. And, of course, all the primo chronic your heart desires. 

 

Bourbon + Boots: An Epicurean Weekend in Austin

 

 

Last week was a big one. We all heaved a collective sigh when a whistleblower stood up to White House corruption – could the Republic be spared after all? As the pundits speculated, we were ready do what any self-respecting American would in times like these: drink bourbon. 

Turns out, Texas is the place to find it. Dan Garrison, owner and founder of Garrison Brothers Distillery, hosted us in Austin, as we experienced firsthand the process of making and drinking Texas Straight Bourbon. From red and rural Hye, to weird and wonderful Austin, we sipped, swirled, tasted, and toed the line of political discourse. By week’s end, we found ourselves enthralled with Austin’s charm, Hill Country’s bucolic farmland, and the hospitable (and decidedly un-P.C.) cast of characters we encountered along the way.

Here’s what we did.

 

 

 

Garrison at the Fairmont Austin

We started our journey at the Fairmont Austin, a 1,048-room high-rise located off Red River Street, adjacent to the Sir Swante Palm Neighborhood Park downtown. The hotel’s enormity does not eclipse its charisma, and the space echoed its surroundings with local art, design, and music throughout. Fairmont Austin prides themselves, as Texans do, on imbuing the South Central spirit wherever they can. 
We met the Garrison Brothers at the aptly named restaurant, Garrison (purely a coincidence we were told) run by Chef Jason Purcell – formerly of such temples of gastronomy as Bouchon and Aureole. Over dinner, the gentlemen showed us the bonds bourbon can forge, and the delightfully effervescent cocktails it can anchor. 
The chef’s tasting menu featured items like citrus cured snapper and a creamy foie gras tart, paired with bourbon-based cocktails thoughtfully crafted by Andrew Grenz, the hotel’s beverage majordomo. One table favorite was the “Farrah’s Watching,” a zesty concoction made with – naturally – bourbon, amontillado sherry, corn, lemon, and celery bitters. 
Beyond the name, there was a natural kinship between the two Garrisons. From the wood-paneled walls, to the restaurant’s commitment to “open flame, wafting smoke, and high-quality meats” – all signs pointed to a Texas-born bourbon pairing, and the Garrison Brothers stepped seamlessly into the role. 

 

Garrison Brothers Distillery  

The next day we found out just where this bourbon comes from. On a winding hour plus drive to the Garrison Brothers distillery, we bore witness to America the Beautiful in some of its most rural forms: broad blue skies, cartoonish white clouds, tree-lined hills, and acre upon acre of ranches bearing lone stars, wood-burned signage, and the occasional Trump banner.   
Hye (part of Hill Country) is rapidly becoming a destination for alcoholic beverage production, specifically wine, artisanal beers, and bourbon. The hills are made of limestone, which removes iron from local streams and creeks. Iron is the mortal enemy of any whiskey, which is why Kentucky makes such a great breeding ground for bourbon: the entire central portion of the state sits on a shelf of limestone. 
Garrison realized the opportunity and capitalized on it. In 2007, he released his first run of Garrison Brothers bourbon – 2,000 bottles that sold out almost instantly; it was the first made outside of Kentucky and Tennessee since Prohibition. (Bourbon has to be American-made, but it does not have to be Kentucky-made.) He knew he was on to something. They now bottle some of the finest, richest bourbon on both sides of the Mississippi. We were more than happy to confirm just that.

 

 

Pitchfork Pretty + C.L. Butaud

Once back in East Austin, we made our way to Pitchfork Pretty, a vibrant, upscale eatry embracing the city’s local quirks and newfound cosmopolitan sensibilities. Executive Chef Max Snyder relies on local, seasonal ingredients from the restaurant’s own garden down the road, and the menu offered a unique collection of experimental-meets-down-home classics like habanero vinegar–brined fried chicken and poached quail eggs. 
It was here we also met Randy Hester, purveyor and founder of Texas-based C.L. Butaud wines. Hester was yet another friend of Garrison Brothers (we sensed a theme), and for the night provided a sampling of his 2017 Tempranillo and 2018 Albariño, the latter was aged in whiskey barrels. He’s one of a few attempting to elevate Texas wine culture, and he’s got the chops to do it: he worked at some of the best wineries in Napa, including Cakebread, Realm, and Colgin. While continuing to perfect the craft in a new climate, with new growers, he’s keeping his sales local for now. But we imagine it’s only a matter of time before his labels – some designed by artist Deer Dana – start popping up in the best wine shops around the country.  

 

 

Hillside Farmacy

For brunch the following day, we hit the seriously charming Hillside Farmacy. The building where the restaurant resides was originally built in the 1950s as Hillside Drug Store. It closed in the ‘70s, but the restaurateurs swooped in to revive the space, while maintaining its classic ambiance. 
The design – white-tiled backsplashes, copper-plated bar seats, and antique china cabinets – harkens back to its ‘50s pharmacy roots, but the menu is decidedly modern and fresh. The chef indulged us with a selection of brunch favorites like buttermilk pancakes with blackberry compote, BBQ shrimp with lobster gravy and grits, and a Monte Cristo sandwich we still can’t stop thinking about. 

 

 

HELM Boots 

Brunch, as it does, inevitably led to shopping – and we were fortunate to get acquainted with a local Austin favorite, HELM Boots. Owner Joshua Bingaman sat on a floor cushion in the store on East 11th Street and told us about the inspiration behind creating HELM. A former sneakerhead (he and his brother owned the wildly popular Subterranean Shoe Room in the Mission District in San Francisco), he recalled a pair of his grandfather’s work boots. “The boots, his coveralls, and his Lucky Strikes were what I remember most.”
Much like Garrison Brothers endeavored to transform perceptions about bourbon being exclusive to Kentucky, Bingaman shows there’s more to Texas than cowboy boots. A meld of hiking boot, dress boot, and moccasin, HELM even include a little nod to sneakerheads in their design: the white rim of rubber around the sole. 

 

 

South Congress

Our journey ended at South Congress Cafe, located on one of Austin’s more renowned avenues. Bunkhouse Group’s trendy Hotel St. Cecilia, Guero’s Tacos, the legendary Continental Club, and Allen’s Boots all called this highly trafficked stretch home.
We sipped, yet again, bourbon-based cocktails over crab cakes and beignets, and talked about Austin – how it’s changing, gentrifying, and how the influx of new city dwellers bring their own cultural influence to town. Change is inevitable. And though we may not always agree, there’s common ground to be found at tables like this one – over food, laughter, and of course, Texas Straight Bourbon. 

 

Garrison Brothers Distillery

Artist Karen Hackenberg’s New Book is a Pop Art Take on Environmental Apocalypse

 

 

“Have fun saving the world or you are just going to depress yourself,” once said David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club. This quote makes its way onto the intro pages of artist Karen Hackenberg’s self-titled new book…and fittingly so. 

The world, quite literally, is getting buried in trash. The war on single-use plastics came too late and now we’re scrambling to find a piece of earth that’s still pristine. (Good luck!) Our oceans bear much of the burden. When the aftermath of a day at the beach washes to shore, Hackenberg can’t help but capture it. She organizes the contents, photographs them “with ear to sand” and then replicates the scene on paper and canvas with gouache and oil paints. 

In the book, readers will find these thematic works from multiple series: Floating World, Watershed, and History Painting. Each depicts a shoreline riddled with detritus. In one painting, we see an empty, clear ice sack – on it a polar bear leans on a melting glacier. 

 

 

“I collect this local flotsam as it bobs in on the waves from far and near,” Hackenberg explains, “I pose and photograph it on the beach where it stands. By using ironic beauty and humor in a subtle way, I entice the viewer to take a look closer, counteracting defeatism in the face of the world’s overwhelming ecological crisis.” 

While the underlying message screams doomsday, the images border on the cheerful, thanks to her nouveau Pop Art style. She also demonstrates a clear command of form and content – even titles (like Have an Ice Day for the polar bear ice bag painting) play a distinct role. 

 

 

“My work is influenced by the ideas embodied in Pop Art by artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol,” Hackenberg, who studied at Rhode Island School of Design, writes in the book’s intro, titled The Unshakeable Habit of Noticing, “and by the iridescent light found in the paintings of realist still life painter Janet Fish.” 

Indeed, her deft hand and conceptual cleverness beg for a deeper look, and that’s the whole point. Our planet is unquestionably suffering – a result of industrialization, consumerism, overpopulation, carelessness. All of us, in one form or another, are forced to reckon with it in big (mass extinction) and small (paper straws) ways. Hackenberg, who describes herself as an activist, reckons with it in her work: suffering seen through a beautiful, somewhat humorous lens. Art is pain is art and so on. It forces us to take notice of the devastation around us, but not without giving us some pleasure in doing so. 

 

Sunset Blvd. Staycation: The Mondrian Los Angeles

 

 

The Sunset Strip never fails. Though this particular stretch of WeHo looks more like SoHo these days, what with how the sun ricochets off all the scaffolding. The construction is incessant, but that’s what happens when a place is as steeped in history as this: it builds off its own heat, up and out until you can’t move an inch without seeing a hard hat.

The beauty of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood though – somewhere around N. Olive and La Cienega – is that the streets ooze all that Old Hollywood charm, but with modern amenities. The Mondrian Los Angeles, which just underwent its own $19 million-dollar renovation, pulses in the heart of it all. Even valet is a scene.

 

 

Wanting to check out the makeover, we had the brilliant idea of a doing a day and night of the old and the new on The Strip. 

We checked in early enough to catch some sunlight by the Mondrian pool. There’s a beautiful casita known as Sky Bar wrapped in flora, and a little outdoor restaurant, Ivory on Sunset; the views are miraculously unbothered by all the economic growth. After a dip, we headed up to one of the glorious new suites, which are as spacious and appointed as they get, even for glamour puss Los Angeles. A cartwheel would be appropriate; it’s big enough. There’s also a full wet bar, and floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing us to continue oohing and aahing at the view. 

 

 

Right across the way from the Mondrian we hit The Comedy Store, where the top comedians come to work out material and shock the crowd (luckily, we’re not easily offended). The photographic evidence lines the walls of the foyer: Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard…the legends. Even if you don’t catch someone with a “name” (which is pretty unlikely), the cover and two drink minimum won’t be in vain.

We grabbed a seat close to the stage, but not too close. On any given night Harland Williams (aka the serial killer in Something About Mary) will be there doing crowd work for his entire set. You don’t want to get caught in his line of fire…though it’s truly hilarious when someone else does.

 

 

Before the comedy and after the pool, we did an old school happy hour at The Sunset Trocadero. (It opens at 6pm.) Don’t be tempted by Cabo Cantina, even though the margaritas are decent and come two at a time. It’s a tourist trap. So is the Saddle Ranch Chop House, though that might actually be worth a visit. After all, where else can you ride a mechanical bull in Los Angeles? Nowhere, pretty sure.

The Trocadero, though, feels like it dates back to the birth of The Strip. Wood-lined bar and paneled walls, friendly bartenders, seafood cocktail, filet mignon tips and sashimi toast appetizers. It’s a locals destination – though it once was schmooze central for the likes of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow and Judy Garland. Plus, if you catch the timing right and snag a seat on the patio, you’ll see the sun glisten on those multi-million dollar celebrity homes nestled into the Hollywood Hills, and wonder how the hell someone gets that rich when the rest of LA is moving to Highland Park. Real estate, like The Industry, is everything in this town.

 

 

Speaking of real estate, The Mondrian of course finds itself in the primest of spots for travelers, or in our case, staycationers. After cry-laughing at The Comedy Store, or getting looks and martinis (both slightly dirty) at Chateau Marmont, or riding the bull or doing whatever else Sunset Boulevard can throw at you, plopping into those incredibly comfortable Mondrian beds feels as close as you’ll get to Heaven while still within the borders of the 90069 area code. But not before we raided the mini bar for fancy chocolate-covered almonds. And took a luxurious rain water shower. And got a little nostalgic and tuned in to network TV. The world was our oyster at the Mondrian!

In the morning, we took breakfast by the pool at the Ivory on Sunset, and made one last trip up the Strip for shopping at the lovely Book Soup and then Fred Segal. Though we would strenuously recommend staying in bed and just ordering room service, while taking in the view of all the soon-to-be high rises next door. Because really, what’s more L.A. than that?

 

BlackBook Interview: ‘Russian Doll’ Star Charlie Barnett on Facing Down Demons, the Brilliance of Natasha Lyonne, and Having to Die Over and Over Again

 

Of all the binge-worthy shows coming out on Netflix these days, Russian Doll has risen quickly to the top of everyone’s list. Created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, the series takes us on a wild ride with Nadia (played by Lyonne), who finds herself stuck in some kind of tripped out universe glitch. She keeps dying and coming back to life in a (rather posh) bathroom at her 36th birthday party.

Though this premise has been explored a few times before, it’s evident very early on in Russian Dolls that this is an existential journey that’s entirely new. Nadia is a video game coder (for starters) with bombshell red hair, struggling with addiction, depression, and commitment. But it’s Alan – the inimitable Charlie Barnett (he will also be starring in Tales of the City with Ellen Page) – who throws a wrench into the entire story. He too is stuck in a death loop. Nadia first meets him during episode three in an elevator – in which of course they plummet to their death – but not before he tells her that he’s not worried: he dies all the time.

Amidst all the buzz, we managed to grab some time with Barnett – who is alive and well in Los Angeles – to chat about life after death, so to speak, as well as the bachelorette party that changed his life, judging his own work, procrastination, and how he brought a new dimension to an incredibly complex character.

 

 

You met Natasha Lyonne at a bachelorette party, right?

Yeah, it was actually for Samira Wiley, who plays Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black and Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s one of my best friends; we went to Juilliard together. She was getting married to Lauren Morelli, who was also a creator and writer for OITNB, and now is off doing her own thing. She wanted me to have her bachelorette party; and I’m not sure why she decided that, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

Are you good at throwing parties?

Maybe I am! Because at this point I’ve now thrown a couple of baby showers, as well as bachelorette parties. Like, I guess I got word around town in my friend group that I can do it up.
There were some fails on that vacation. We had a really incredible time, and I can’t go into the details of the strip club, because I know the ladies would be a little upset with me about that. But, um…I took them to an island at one point. I feel like I kind of Fyre Island-ed all the women of OITNB. I rented this island in Miami that was supposed to be a private, beautiful island, super secluded. It turned out this island was covered with trash. It started pouring when we got there.

This sounds a lot like Fyre Fest!

It is! These beautiful talented women were in linens, and beautiful boat hats. We had a couple other friends – one from Wyoming, who is a legitimate cowboy, and Brock Harris who’s from Oklahoma. They were mountain men kind of guys. They built a fort for the ladies, built a fire for them, and we had a campout until the rain passed; it was just beautiful and we had a great time.

And you bonded with Natasha…?

We had a really nice dinner the last day that we were there; and we got to talking about life and our journeys, and through it we really kind of connected. She’s such a fucking powerful and brilliant human being. A woman who’s endured addiction and battled all kinds of fucking shit from this industry and really has risen to find her own voice and put it out there. But to also find a different and new platform to do it in. That goes for Leslye [Headland] and Amy [Poehler] too.
I was so drawn into who Natasha is and the creative beast that she gifts us all with. I was committed from the day she called me. She didn’t talk about the project that much at the party. She called me a little bit later, and I was 100% on board from the get.

It’s an amazing show. When I first started watching it I thought this is a lot like Groundhog Day, but then it takes this magical turn that you’re not expecting. Like you were saying, Lyonne has this really distinct voice – as do the other writers on the show – and it’s not just a woman telling her story. She transcends genres and styles and builds this world, a sort of sci-fi mystical experience.

And even the technical side, to give credit to all the writers – all of them are women, and it’s great that they created this great thing that so many people are resonating with. But [maybe] it doesn’t make a difference that they’re women.
I think what I’m trying to say is technically, being a 28-minute [episode] and then it being a story that flips back and forth and starts in the middle, where a character doesn’t even get introduced until like four episodes in, and it’s still so impactful to the situation and the environment. All of that included is technically new, different, challenging, risky, and they achieved it a-hundred-fold.

 

 

You came in at episode three, and you filmed a lot of those repetitive scenes all at once; even though as viewers, we saw them throughout the entire show. How did you tackle that, or compartmentalize ‘what am I feeling at this point?’

It was really challenging of course, but for me, as much as I have to admit I’m a procrastinator, because anyone from my class will read this and be like, come on Charlie. But I really really, really love breaking down the work and just picking a piece apart and not just from a character’s standpoint, but from a world: the timing, the technical side, the emotional side and background side. I think the biggest thing was just about playing Alan. My world just started to relate and reflect in a certain way; it had some results that I can’t even understand yet. From watching it, there were things I was surprised by. We [as actors] didn’t even know what the surrounding scenes were going to be.
Also, having people like our script coordinator [Melissa Yap-Stewart], who also works on OITNB, she is like an unsung god of this project, because she’s the one who held those memories. This happens, and this beat goes there, and this has to be lost and the flowers are aged this much at this point. All that stuff was her brain, and she did an incredible job. It’s a lot of work and a lot of attention and a lot of people being passionate about the details.

Were they explaining it from a bigger picture, like here’s what’s going on with Alan right now; or were they like, Here’s the script for today and we’re just going to tackle it one bit at a time?

You know, it’s hard to say because my position as an actor and not as a creative is always going to be different. I only got the script when I went to film the first episode – meaning episode three. That elevator scene is like the first thing I filmed. So for me it was a lot more fly by the seat of your pants.
I think everyone’s fascinated by how they built this and I think the genius really comes from their ability to be malleable. That’s the takeaway. Here are these women who knew each other very well, and they’ve all worked together, which has definitely gotta be a point. They were willing to bring challenges and problems to the table, question them and adapt. And they adapted a lot.

What were some of Alan’s traits that you were drawn to when you read the script?

It’s almost like a double-edged sword. I related to so much about him, but I was also terrified of him. I was terrified of living in some of those things – and those are the things I probably related to most.
A lot of the emotional turmoil that he goes through, the interior emotional turmoil, is something I related to wholeheartedly; and that’s something that Natasha and I related off of in that first conversation at that bachelorette party. I’ve had struggles with depression and addiction and suicide and it’s not uncommon for artists – but I’ve also learned later in life that it’s not uncommon for anybody.
So when I started reading the piece, a lot of those things were what made me beam in excitement, in fear – it was a mix – in joy, in a sense of duty and respect. I really feel like, especially being African American too, and gay, I want people to be able to face their demons. I think we as a people can open that conversation more and maybe even save a couple people’s lives. That really drew me in from my own personal experience and the desire to change the conversation.

Doesn’t seem like Alan procrastinates that much.

No! That man is on his shit. I did take that away from him. I have a calendar now. This is how old school I am – I have a dry erase calendar that I put up once a month and write everything in and make it all color coordinated. 

So it’s really interesting what you were saying about facing your demons. Alan has to overcome so much to beat this loop he’s stuck in, he had to look at some of the parts of himself that he didn’t really want to see. I think any human being would relate: in order to progress you have to get introspective and really dig in. Do you feel like Alan overcame?

I think Alan had this belief in the end, it’s not necessarily about changing yourself, it’s about challenging yourself and through these challenges you can change. I hate to have to break it down like that, but I think words and the way you think about how you react or how you act can change the way you can do it.
I think he did, at the end of it, it’s so hard because the end leaves us all in this kind of ‘where are they?’ Do they go on? Are they still stuck? Does it really matter? I almost think the change comes more from a release, him realizing that he can’t control; and that even beyond not controlling, there’s enough people around him in this world that if he’s honest and open with, he can get the help to give him the ladders in life.

 

He doesn’t need to contain himself or hide himself.

Yeah. I was talking to my partner the other day, and we were getting really deep about this, and the idea of what you want to be, what you want to be reflected as, and what you are. I’m still learning in this life, and I don’t know if I’m right in this idea; but it made me realize we all have what we think we identify as, what we want to be. But we ultimately have no control over that! You’re always a reflection of the people around you and your actions, and how you portray yourself. What you wear even, as fickle as that. You’re not in control… you kind of create it and it is received and then reflected back on to you.
You have to at some point let go of those requirements and then you have the freedom to just be you. That’s kind of where Alan got to, where he’s like I don’t have to be this thing for my mother or for Beatrice or even for Nadia. I’m allowed to live and not question myself, my actions, my past, and still push myself…but allow it to evolve without those kind of opinions.

Stop judging yourself in a sense.

Yeah.

Have you watched the whole season?

I haven’t!
Is it hard to watch your own work?
No not at all. Well, I say that so flippantly. I guess I have to admit, it’s not that I have a problem watching myself or judging myself. It’s really that it’s like you experience it as one thing. It’s one story in your mind and then you watch it and it becomes something completely different. And you lose a part of that aspect, you lose a part of that story.
I like to watch things in my house, on my couch, alone. That is my one rule, I don’t like watching it with other people. Other people telling me shit. The first time I’m going to be judging it hardcore. The second time I might actually enjoy it. The third time I’m might get lost in the story. It takes a build.

Would you say you’re a harsh critic of yourself?

Oh, of myself? 150 billion per cent. I’ve only watched up to episode six and I’ve been hard on myself. I’m like come on, why you doing that? What the fuck is that shit? You should’ve followed through on that emotion! But there are so many parts where I get to sit back and I’m like really surprised by myself and really proud and happy. It was an emotional beast, and anyone in my family and any one of my friends will tell you: they’ve seen me that broken, they’ve seen me that crushed. They’ve seen me that sad, and it’s such a weird thing to be like I’m an actor, but I’m really utilizing my own life and my own experience and my own emotions to tap into those. So how much of that do I get to give myself credit for?

You have had the ultimate experience to be this person even if you’re not exactly like him. Do you feel like you were able to evolve the character and contribute ideas as far as where things should go?

I think, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think I brought a lot to it, even in their eyes, that they didn’t see. It was just because of the work I put into it. After procrastinating for so long, when I do finally get to work, I work my fucking ass off.

What was some of the preparation that you did for it?

I’ve been to a lot of psych wards and I’ve done a lot of charity work too – but I’ve been in one myself, and taking a lot of the experience from that and taking a lot of the things I’ve written down over the years and going back into it was really really helpful. And a lot of stigmatizing that goes into it – not trying to fall into those cheap plays and also recognizing what is true and what does resonate.
But on top of that I went into hardcore research about OCD and how it can manifest, and I really wanted to respect that too, because I feel like it’s utilized as a character trait sometimes rather than just, ‘It’s fucking who I am.’

Now that this is all wrapped, what’s next for you?

There’s a lot that I’m really really excited about. I finished shooting Tales of the City with Lauren Morelli. It’s got a great cast: Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Ellen Page. It’s an Armistead Maupin novel; we filmed it in New York with a good week or two in San Francisco.
I also did a movie with Jamie Babbit – director on Russian Doll – and Drew Barrymore who’s producing and also starring, called The Stand-In. It’s going to be really funny.