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Catalina close-up

A choppy boat ride for fish and chips on a pier? It's time to refine our definition of one of L.A.'s favorite retreats. Think boutique hotels and surprisingly good fare.

May 21, 2006|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

There was time for shopping, but -- jewelry stores aside -- most shops offered the usual T-shirts, mugs and seashells. Two places that have great gifts are the Steamer Trunk, at 121 Sumner Ave., and C.C. Gallagher, 523 Crescent Ave.

Restaurants and pubs

EATING and drinking were a large part of my assignment, so I stopped for a drink at Luau Larry's on Crescent Avenue, where the music was loud, and fake parrots, each swilling a beer, were hanging from the ceiling.

I also found a couple of quiet bars for grown-ups, notably at Villa Portofino restaurant, where Sinatra was crooning "Night and Day" as I entered the lounge. Several locals had recommended the reasonably priced place, an attractive space with booths and soft lighting, and I wasn't disappointed with my chicken-filled pasta. I had a great view of the passing scene on Crescent Avenue from my window table.

Two other places I tried that also got accolades from islanders: Armstrong's Seafood Restaurant and Steve's Steakhouse.

There's nothing fancy about the waterfront Armstrong's, but the fish (on my server's recommendation, I had swordfish) is very, very good. The decor? Bare tables, paneled walls, captain's chairs and mounted game fish. The prices? Moderate. Catalina strives to recapture an earlier era, so I wasn't too startled to hear "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" as background music.

Steve's is upstairs overlooking the harbor and Avalon's busy waterfront pedestrian hub, Crescent Avenue. It's a pretty space with vintage island photos and windows overlooking the harbor but also not exorbitantly priced. And there's a civilized bar. I went cholesterol crazy, ordering the Wedge (iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing) and a petite filet with bearnaise sauce. Food and service were excellent.

For fast food, I chose lunches at Flip's Saltwater Bar & Grill and the Buffalo Nickel at Pebbly Beach, a mile outside of Avalon.

Flip's isn't much on decor, but the half-pound burger with fat French fries ($6 at lunch, $7 at dinner) is great, thick and juicy and well-seasoned. Flip's boasts "the only sushi bar between Los Angeles and Hawaii." Owner Flip Savitt operates Cheapo Charters for fishing. Flip's frequently has evening entertainment, which might be stand-up comedy by his wife, Mary.

The Buffalo Nickel, out by the island heliport, has green leatherette booths, plastic plants and good food. Mexican is a specialty, but you'll also find buffalo burgers, buffalo wings and buffalo milk -- a cocktail with vodka, creme de cacao, cream and banana. (The restrooms? "Buffalo heads," of course.) My lunch was a first-rate salad with lots of grilled jumbo shrimp for $8.95.

Another tip sent me to Katie's Kitchen one noon, a hole-in-the-wall in the Metropole Marketplace. Katie's eclectic menu includes subs and Asian food, but I'd been advised to order the $6.50 burrito, stuffed with a choice of meats, beans and rice. It was so big, I could eat only half.

One sunny day, I joined the boating crowd, including divers in wetsuits, for lunch at the casual outdoor Casino Dock Cafe near the casino. The food was reasonable and just OK, but the ambience and views of Avalon and the harbor were the draw.

And it's far from the madding crowd. On summer weekends, Avalon's population may swell from 3,500 to 10,000, turning Crescent Avenue into a sea of sunburned sightseers.

A good choice for upscale dining is Catalina Country Club. It's more festive at lunchtime on the lovely patio, but it wasn't patio weather, so I went for dinner. The dining room was big and formal with high ceilings and lots of tables but few patrons, so I headed for the clubby bar, which has the same menu (entrees $26 to $35), and ate salmon -- very good -- at the bar.

The club is a legacy from the time when chewing gum king William Wrigley Jr., who bought Catalina Island in 1919, owned the Chicago Cubs, brought them here to train and built this as their clubhouse. The bar, which connects to the team's old locker room, houses Cubs memorabilia.

Hotel choices

THINKING about where I would want to stay -- both on a splurge and on a budget -- I narrowed my choices. (See related story, at right.)

Some places didn't make my list but do have some things to recommend them: The hilltop Zane Grey Pueblo has great views but small, outdated rooms. The Best Western Catalina Canyon Resort & Spa seems rundown and the room I was shown was dark, with passe decor. But I did peek into Rooms 110 through 118, where renovation was underway, and saw updated baths and a pretty sand and celery color palette.

And for a budget hotel, there is the beach-close Hermosa Hotel & Catalina Cottages, whose slogan is "Sleep Cheap." Weekend rates for two, in season, start at $50. The catch: small rooms with shared baths and no heat or air-conditioning.

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