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COVER STORY

An Inland Oasis

The Mission Inn has drawn the rich and famous. But Riverside (yes, Riverside) invites the curious to explore not only this landmark but also the city's antiques stores, cafes and museums.

May 27, 1999|ANNE BEATTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're longing for a getaway and just can't face beach traffic, why not head inland instead? Less than an hour's drive from downtown Los Angeles, you could find yourself in the pleasantly quaint environs of downtown Riverside, the Land That Time Forgot. Riverside isn't a mall posing as a small town, it is a small town. And now is the time to go, before it's Gapped, Starbucked, and Banana Republicked.

True, to get there, you have to drive past communities with names out of an old Johnny Carson monologue: West Covina, Azusa, Rancho Cucamonga--and endure toasty summer temperatures. Yet when you reach beautiful downtown Riverside, you realize that the joke is on those who haven't yet discovered this delightfully old-fashioned community.

Time was Riverside was in with the inn crowd, those who flocked to its centerpiece, the Mission Inn, to rub shoulders with everyone from movie stars to future presidents. Bette Davis was married there, twice, and so was Richard Nixon, while the Reagans merely honeymooned.

Though there's more to Riverside than the Mission Inn, the sprawling city block that it occupies, at 3649 Mission Inn Ave., is still the best place to start your walking tour of the tempting museums, inviting cafes and irresistible antique shops that encircle it. And if you get tired, you can always hop on a free trolley for the return trip.

Directly opposite the inn, at 3646 Mission Inn Ave., is an entirely different kind of landmark, one that you could probably find blindfolded: Gram's Mission Bar-B-Que Palace, where most days ribs are sizzlin' on barbecue pits right out on the street. Even if you're not hungry, it's hard to resist the mouthwatering aroma and bargain prices: a beef rib dinner with corn bread, greens and dirty rice is only $11.95, with yummy peach cobbler, $2.50, for dessert.

But if you succumb, be sure to wash up after, as Gram might say. Because right on the corner, at 3720 Main St., now a pedestrians-only thoroughfare, is the Mission Galleria, 18,000 square feet of antiques, gifts and collectibles, where some prices are so low you'll be tempted to pick up the merchandise to make sure your eyes don't deceive you. Antiquing in Riverside is the best cure I know for Montana Avenue-induced sticker shock.

Bakelite bracelets range from $10 to $65, a small tile-top garden table is $35, and a ceramic pumpkin-shaped pie dish with a lid and curved handle is $15. A handsome velvet photo album with shell and brass inlays, bulging with its original photos, could provide instant ancestors for only $65. An oak armoire with what looks like the original '30s shelf paper intact can be snapped up for $350. And plates featuring Mamie and Ike or Jackie and JFK win my vote at $24.95 apiece.

Diagonally across the way at Abbey Antiques, 3641 Main St., a Mary Hartman board game is a steal at $10. A set of wooden kitchen utensils, including the rolling pin, and the rack to hang them on, is $45. So is a genuine matador's hat. And I have fantasies of wearing a $495 genuine Oleg Cassini evening dress--silver cowl-back spangled with more sequins than a Vegas chorus line--to the Oscars, until I learn it's a size 8 and I have a greater chance of being nominated than I do of fitting into it.

Farther up the street, at 3545 Main St., I'm charmed by Ruby Red, where proprietor Kim Whitney deals in "consignment with class." I'm not sure whose definition of class beehive wigs ($35) fall under, but they go with her great collection of cat's-eye glasses, $5 to $8 for reproductions, $10-$18 for the originals. One of her major scores is an original '50s General Electric sunlamp poster display, available with the very sunlamp advertised, only $50 for the set. Somehow I get the feeling it's not priced to sell.

The surrounding area is studded with antiques shops, like chips in a tollhouse cookie. And as with chocolate chip cookies, it's hard to stop after just one or two. So go ahead and explore. Enjoy the serendipity of stumbling on your own secret treasure trove.

As for me, bookstores are my personal black hole--I fall into them and can't get out. Downtowne Bookstore, 3582 Main St., lures me out of the sunshine with two floors of browse-able shelves filled with second-hand books. Down in the basement they have all the issues of National Geographic you wish your mother hadn't made you throw out. Those of us who are no longer teenagers might be cheered to note that their value increases incrementally with age, from $1 to $10 a copy.

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