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So Near, Yet So Far Away

Pasadena and environs offer the perfect quick weekend escape.

April 30, 1998|ANNE BEATTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first time I heard anyone mention Pasadena, it was in a negative sense. "Pasadena on that," someone said, effectively vetoing whatever I'd suggested. (I know it sounds hokey, but it was the '70s. We thought paisley polyester was groovy, too.) But since I moved here from Manhattan, I've discovered that that if you "Pasadena" on Pasadena, you're missing out on a great weekend escape.

What I like best about Old Pasadena is that it's half an hour from Hollywood but in a whole 'nother state of mind. It's friendly, clean and safe, and people stroll around. Nobody asks you how your screenplay is coming along. Many of the people there don't even seem to be writing screenplays. Instead, they have real jobs. Yet you can spend the day there and be back home in your own bed in time for the 11 o'clock news--where the top crime stories rarely ever feature Old Pasadena.

How much you can cram into your Pasadena mini-vacation depends on how early you manage to get there. On weekends, there's always a line outside the Old Town Bakery at 166 W. Colorado Blvd., serving breakfast till 1 p.m. But the French toast made with organic egg bread, the ricotta and wild Maine blueberry pancakes and the "Tahitian vanilla bean-infused" waffles served with real maple syrup are worth the wait for an outdoor table in the courtyard by the fountain.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 1, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 16 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Old Pasadena--The coffeehouse pictured on the cover of Thursday's Calendar Weekend is the Equator at 22 Mills Place in Pasadena. The identification was omitted.

If you're anxious to start carbo-loading early, you might visit Merida, at 20 E. Colorado Blvd., tucked away in another courtyard--Pasadena is big on courtyards. This one is framed by a blue-painted staircase that looks as if Stella might have leaned out over it to hear Stanley yelling for her in Tennessee Williams' New Orleans.

But the food at Merida is authentic Mexican, and the prices aren't much more than you'd pay in Yucatan. You can get huevos motulenos for $4.90 (add $1 after 12:01 p.m.) and there's an all-you-can-eat brunch on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for only $9.95. Come back later, if you like, for the incredible chicken mole or the cochinita pibil (pork in banana leaves), a Yucatecan specialty. Even though you might not have the same collection of neon beer clocks on your walls, you'll feel at home here.

Just don't get too comfortable, because now that you've eaten, it's time to ingest a little culture. The Pacific Asia Museum, a short drive or a long walk away at 46 N. Los Robles Ave., is conveniently bite-size. It's open from at 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. In yet another courtyard, designed to summon up the interior garden of a Ming dynasty palace, koi splash peacefully beneath the fragrant wisteria. You may be tempted to emulate the sculpted Buddhas and sink onto one of the low-slung stone benches to contemplate your navel, especially if you did eat all you can eat at brunch.

But the museum, once Grace Nicholson's Treasure House, her home cum antique store, holds some wonderful eccentric treasures. The current special exhibition, running through July 19, focuses on the painters, poets and craftsmen of the Philippines. Carved ivory Santos are made more realistic by the addition of "hair from women who were joining nunneries," the lively docent, Elaine Barchian, tells our group. Then she points out the 18th century miniature of a dark-skinned Madonna known as La Macarena and begs us not to sing.

If the courtyard still beckons, this Sunday the Philippine Arts Council is hosting a reception there from 5 to 8 p.m. Your $25 gets you museum admission, a sampling of Philippine foods such as lumpia, lechon (roast suckling pig) and wine and beer, plus a chance to rub shoulders with Philippine Consul Gen. Josue L. Villa.

In the well-stocked museum store, I discover the perfect souvenir: celadon ceramic boxes from the Philippines. One in the shape of a mango costs $15, while the cocoa bean is $20.

Serious shoppers will be drawn back to Old Town by the siren song of the stores lining Colorado Boulevard: J. Crew, Victoria's Secret, Armani Exchange, Banana Republic, ABS, the Gap and Gap Kids, Crate and Barrel, Esprit, Barnes & Noble--with Pottery Barn opening soon.

Some people complain about the influx of chains, but for me that's the fun of it. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, stepping into a stack of catalogs come to life--even though somehow those J. Crew cotton sweaters never seem to look as good on me as they do on the yummy models posed lounging on weather-beaten Adirondack chairs against the dunes in Nantucket in the catalog.

But not to worry, most of the stores stay open until 9 p.m. on weekends, so there's room to compare catalog fantasy against dressing-room reality later on. Now it's time for another nonessential meal: tea. Head over to the Huntington Library and Gardens, a short drive away at 1151 Oxford Road in neighboring San Marino.

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