When you get off the Golden State Freeway at Los Feliz Boulevard there is a sign with arrows pointing in two directions. One says Hollywood. The other says Glendale. Neither says Atwater, which is where you are, but then Atwater is a very unassuming part of town. Tell anybody that you are going there and the inevitable response is, "Where?"
You can find out where you are by going into the candy stores. Atwater has two, and the difference between them will tell you just about everything about the past, present and future of one of Los Angeles' most surprising neighborhoods.
Follow the arrow that sends you toward Glendale, and you soon find yourself staring at a sign that says "allen wertz candies." You can't possibly miss it. It has a solid look, which it should, considering that it has been right here for more than 50 years.
Fussy Little Shop
Open the door and you find yourself in a slightly fussy little shop where candy is king. The place is filled with candy in cases, candy in bags, candy in jars. It smells deliciously chocolatey, and if you walk down to the end of the room you can see why.
There they sit--a roomful of women--some dipping chocolates, some wrapping chocolates, some weighing chocolates. It doesn't look much like a factory--the clatter is restrained and there are no high-tech machines--and there's certainly nothing precious about the place, but for some reason you have the sense that time has stopped. It is as if you have somehow wandered into a little town that time forgot and found yourself back in the '50s.
If you buy some of the candy (the English toffee is good), the feeling of unreality intensifies. The prices are modern enough (about $9 a pound), but the kind woman behind the counter will ask you to wait, and then she'll walk back into the factory and bring you out a nice fresh piece of candy. She smiles as you eat it, and you suddenly wonder why nobody has ever written a sit-com about a bunch of little ladies who run a candy factory and delight in passing out sweets.
But then, every place you walk into around here seems like a set for a different situation comedy. Walk into Rancho Los Feliz, with its warren of studio apartments and its swimming pool and its waterfall and its gym, and the dialogue for a television show about the single life in Los Angeles comes trickling through your head. Go next door to Betty's and it's even better.
Betty's is nestled at the foot of Griffith Park, next to a small golf course. It is a piece of small-town America, a place where people gather in the morning to read the paper and call out to each other and watch the steam waft over their coffee.
Fit for Beaver Cleaver
There are window seats covered with linoleum, a picture gallery of families and friends, and a lot of people taking their time over potatoes and eggs or creamed chipped beef on toast. It isn't the greatest food you've ever eaten, but each bite is laden with nostalgia, and it feels fine to sit and think about the past. Betty's is such a perfect piece of the '50s that you know Beaver Cleaver would be happy here, and you keep expecting Dobie Gillis to walk in and order a malt.
But there's another side to this neighborhood, and to see it you've got to make your way over to Glendale Boulevard and into Atwater's other chocolate shop.
Mon Tresor is a spacious shop whose glass cases are filled with Belgian chocolates displayed as elegantly as jewelry. The room is temperature controlled, but even so the proprietors carefully cover the cases in the afternoon to protect their chocolates from any harmful rays of sun.
They put on gloves before they touch the candies and speak of them in hushed and reverent tones. When you make a selection (the chocolates cost $20 a pound and are worth every cent), the owner is very likely to ask how long it will be until you get the little treasures home. You sometimes get the feeling that you are not so much buying chocolates as adopting them.
Walk out the door and it seems totally incongruous that such a high-toned boutique is plunked down in the middle of cut-rate clothing shops and luncheonettes.
Accessible to Freeways
But the proprietors say they planned only to distribute the candies, and they chose this site because it was easily accessible to the freeways. Then so many people began to stop in to buy chocolates that they now plan to add a line of gourmet products.
They have become oddly attached to Atwater, talk of it as a town whose time is coming and speak proudly of their building's recent renovation.