I came to L.A. with the most open of open minds. As New Yorkers twisted up their faces at the news (“L.A.? You’re moving to L.A.?”) I held my head high with secret knowledge. My secret knowledge was mostly food-based. I knew about Jonathan Gold, one of our nation’s greatest food writers, who, in writing for L.A. Weekly and eventually the L.A. Times, had canvassed the city so thoroughly, so meticulously, his writing archives were like living treasure maps that could keep a food-lover like me endlessly occupied. I knew about L.A. farmer’s markets, how the Santa Monica farmer’s market and the Hollywood Farmer’s market would put the Union Square farmer’s market to shame with its year-round, sparkling produce. I knew, like a sports fan evaluating his new home turf, that while my old team had legendary heroes like Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Eric Ripert, my new team had its own share of superstars: Nancy Silverton, Jose Andres and Susan Feniger, to name a few; also, up-and-comers Ludo Lefebvre, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, and Michael Voltaggio. Plus: L.A.’s Mexican food, Chinese food, Korean food, Thai food, and sushi are the best you can find in the United States. I held all of this secret knowledge aloft in my brain as I boarded the plane from J.F.K. to L.A.X. with my cat under the seat in front of me and a feeling of endless possibility in my chest.
One year later, I’m excited to go back to New York for 3 1/2 months. Do I hate L.A.? I do not. Do I love L.A.? I’m not sure yet.
This is a conversation I have often with friends who’ve made a similar move, east to west. Whereas in New York, everything wonderful is on the surface—you walk down the street and there’s a Julliard-trained trumpet player playing “Summertime,” there’s a statue of Andy Warhol, there’s Fran Lebovitz walking into Bar Pitti, there’s a poster for a revival of a classic musical—in L.A., you have to search for the wonderful bits. They’re there. Mostly on the east side, where you’ll find swoon-worthy croissants at Proof Bakery in Atwater Village, an eclectic selection of books at Skylight in Los Feliz, an addictive shaken milk and coffee drink (the Angeleno) at Intelligentsia Silverlake, movies at the Arclight in Hollywood. Head further west, and you’ll find some wonderful bits too—Jon Brion’s show at Largo (which I’ve seen three times), the rock formations at Matador Beach, the vibrant food at Gjelina and Gjelina Take Away, the arcade on the Santa Monica boardwalk and the oysters across the street. I’m glad I experienced all that.
But the feeling, just the feeling, of being here doesn’t hold a candle to the feeling of being in New York. I acknowledge that this probably has everything to do with me and my character as it does anything objective about the two cities. My friend John had to spend 6 months in New York last year and couldn’t wait to return to L.A. I knew I didn’t share that enthusiasm when, upon arriving back here from Seattle recently, I felt absolutely nothing as we drove along the highway to our apartment. When I take a cab from LaGuardia or J.F.K. into New York City, no matter how many years I’ve been there, I always feel exhilaration as the cab emerges from the Midtown Tunnel into the grid of buildings and cars and people, endless people, walking dogs, walking in clusters, walking alone, but never alone, surrounded as they are by countless others. There’s nothing like it.
Look: I’m sitting outside here in L.A., a gentle breeze blowing, having just driven to the West Hollywood Farmer’s Market for peaches, plums and nectarines. Driving makes life so much more convenient. I can drive to lunch, drive to the grocery store and load up my trunk, I can drive to the San Gabriel valley and eat the best dumplings of my life, and then drive to the Roosevelt Hotel to meet a friend for a drink at the Library Bar. Convenience and comfort are what L.A. does best. Valet parking. Spacious, clean grocery stores. Cushy seats at the movies. Escalators, moving walkways, and $9 car washes. It’s easy living out here.
It’s also much easier to travel. Hop in a car and you can be in Palm Springs in two hours, same for La Jolla, or drive an hour to Disneyland as we did more than we’d like to admit. To explore in New York, you have to combat weather and public transportation. Here, it’s much easier to be an explorer. All you need is a good podcast on your iPod (I’m a devotee, now, of Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing” and Marc Maron’s “WTF”) and a tank full of gas. The rest is up to you.
I’ll even say this: I eat better out here. That doesn’t mean that the food in L.A. is better than the food in New York, though it’s certainly a worthy competitor. (New York ultimately wins because of its 4-star bastions of fine dining.) I mean that for my price-range and interest-level, L.A. has more to offer. From the mouth-numbing food at Jitlada to the pizzas at Mozza to the fresh salads at Forage and Gjelina to the doughnuts at Primo’s, L.A. is kinder to us 30-somethings who don’t have bottomless bank accounts. L.A. excels at exciting everyday food; and that’s pretty much the food I like to eat.
Still, I’d sell my L.A. soul for a good New York bagel piled with cream cheese, smoked salmon, onions, capers and a tomato. Throw in a City Bakery chocolate chip cookie and you’ve already won me back.
Oh, who am I kidding, New York? You had me at “Yo!”
Again, it’s not objective. It’s just that this gay, Jewish, neurotic east coast kid thrives in New York in a way that I don’t necessarily thrive in L.A. The first time that I ever walked into Marie’s Crisis in New York’s West Village, a tiny basement piano bar where people sing show tunes at the top of their lungs, I felt like I’d finally found my people. I thought I knew musical theater, but then I walked across the street to the Mostly Sondheim show at the Duplex Cabaret and found myself severely outmatched by almost every person in there, people who not only knew every lyric to “Gypsy,” but who owned every recording, from Ethel Merman all the way up through Patti Lupone. (The west coast version of this, The Other Side, closed while I was here.)
Sitting at Joe on Waverly Place, I’d meet people: poets, artists, stand-up comedians. I might be working on a play, look up, and see Sam Shepherd sitting across the room working on a play of his own. (That really happened.) At Pearl Oyster Bar, I’d sit at the counter and chat with Rebecca Charles, who’d talk about film and TV, and explain how it came to be that Tony Soprano, when he awoke from his coma, said that the first thing that he wanted to eat was a lobster roll at Pearl. Then I’d mozy over to the Three Lives bookstore to visit Toby, who owns it,
saving time to visit Bonnie Slotnick at her used cookbook store across the street.
I fit into that world in a way that I don’t quite fit in here. Don’t get me wrong: there are people working on plays at coffee shops here too, except they’re almost definitely screenplays. This town is ruled by one industry and one industry only. That’s why this story grows complex because Craig, who, from an early age, has always dreamed of working in Hollywood as a writer and director, is making his dreams come true here. I’ve never seen him happier. And because he’s so happy, I’m happy too.
So the plot thickens. This essay doesn’t have an obvious ending. We’re headed to New York for 3 1/2 months, though, not just for me but for Craig, who’s working on a project back east that’s as exciting as anything he’s doing out here. Life is kind of a mad jumble right now. Nothing’s very clear.
My instincts tell me that we’re not done with New York but we’re not done with L.A. either. Maybe we’re meant to be bi after all: bi-coastal. I could live with that. Fall and spring in New York, winters and summers in L.A.
Even if that doesn’t happen, though, I’m glad for this time I’ve spent in L.A. Not only has it made me ask questions about myself (Who am I outside of New York? Am I better here or there?) it’s made me realize what it is, precisely, that we left behind, both the good and the bad. When I go back, next Friday, I’m going to chew up New York like a starving person parachuted into a Las Vegas buffet. Three months later, I may be bloated and bitter and ready for a lighter way of living, but I suppose that’s the yin-yang nature of a bi-coastal existence.
The point is you can take the food blogger out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the food blogger. Attention Murray’s: have my bagel waiting.