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Road Trip

Sunday Drive in L.A. Is a Feast for the Eyes

March 21, 2001|JOHN O'DELL

Driving time: approximately 1.5 hours

Difficulty: easy

Distance. 23 miles

The Auto Club's new Car Culture map contains enough sights to fill a dozen Sunday drives.

Highway 1 carved out one drive through parts of Los Angeles that the typical freeway flier rarely sees and spent an informative Sunday afternoon lapping up a little car culture and getting a renewed appreciation of the cultural, ethnic and economic melange of Los Angeles.

We started at the oldest existing McDonald's, at Florence Avenue and Lakewood Boulevard in Downey, snacking on an order of fries while touring the adjacent museum (old menus, photos, uniforms, the original carved doors of McDonald's University, where all managers are trained), then dipped south to Firestone Boulevard and breezed past Johnie's Broiler--a '50s diner, still going strong, that once featured carhop service and still draws car club members and their wheels on weekends.

From there we headed back up to Florence, threading our way east through a part of L.A. where people do walk, hundreds of them strolling the streets and shopping the avenue's stores. No Starbucks here, but you can buy a hulled coconut full of sweet coconut milk or a bag of juicy sliced mangoes and papayas from the vendors who fearlessly wade out into the street at stoplights. And check out the two-story pet warehouse, its exterior painted in a tropical jungle mural, near Alameda Street and Florence.

The route on Florence takes you past one of two remaining Chili Bowl restaurant buildings--a local chain whose circular dining rooms looked like, what else, white ceramic chili bowls--and the turquoise-and-purple Florence Carwash, built 40 years ago when the Space Age style was in full swing.

Past the Harbor Freeway, our route turned south down Vermont Avenue--first four lanes, then six of broad boulevard virtually deserted on a Sunday when the paralleling freeway was jammed.

"What struck me about Vermont in researching this map is that there's a lot of underused infrastructure in this town" that could help traffic move more freely if people would get off the freeways once in a while, says Matt Roth, the Auto Club historian who developed the map.

Along Vermont, economic depression has been the principal agent of preservation--the buildings, like Hattem's Supermarket and spaceship-shaped Stan's Kite restaurant, a prime example of Googie architecture, are still there because nobody has tried to buy them and redevelop the sites. And they are fairly dilapidated because the customer base is gone and they've been closed and ignored for years.

At Century Boulevard, our route turned west again, taking us past a former Big Donut Drive-In, now Kindle's Do-Nuts, and the Century 21 Carwash--another of the Space Age school--with sky-reaching fins done in orange and red.

At La Cienega Boulevard, we headed north again, past a second 20-foot doughnut, this one a familiar L.A. landmark atop Randy's Donuts, and then on to Pann's at the triangular intersection of La Cienega, Centinela Avenue and La Tijera Boulevard in Westchester.

The restaurant, under the same ownership since it was built in 1955, is a classic of the "Coffee Shop Modern" style that used soaring lighted signs and jutting roof lines to increase visibility from far down the road.

"There's a lot more out there" than listed on the Car Culture map, says Roth. "We just wanted to provide a good representation and an understanding of why these places appear the way they do."

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