Ground-level intelligence on the top restaurants in the country

Everybody loves to publish lists, but few have so much data as OpenTable upon which to draw. So, when that site puts out a list of top spots, it’s definitely worth a look. The latest, “Fit for Foodies,” is the result of 3 million restaurant reviews, which ultimately led to 50 restaurants that are definitely worth your time. Upon quick inspection, I haven’t been to any of them (which probably makes the list even more legit — my palate is disappointingly simple).

What’s pleasantly surprising is that there don’t appear to be many clichés. Rather than go with critic favorites, this list runs down what eaters dig, so if you find yourself in one of the 13 states represented, ditch the guidebook and take a stab at what turns the locals on.

Unsurprisingly, California turned in the greatest presence, with 15 of the spots on the list (30 percent of the total). New York came in with nine (18 percent). After that, it gets interesting. Illinois gives us seven restaurants, Massachusetts and Washington (state) three and Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas responsible for two. Georgia, South Carolina and Maine each posted one.

Click here to see who made the top 50 >>

Exploring forgotten L.A. on a Conservancy walking tour

In the current movie hit (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Tom brings his quasi-girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel) to a park overlooking downtown Los Angeles, and together they admire the grand old buildings standing above the desultory new parking lots. “There’s a lot of beautiful stuff here,” says Tom. “I just wish people would notice it more.”

I almost leapt out of my seat and cheered. Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most incredible, yet most ignored, urban landscapes in America. Built in time of fantastic wealth and artistic productivity, it was more or less abandoned in the late 1940s, and now, an entire city that could compete with Chicago’s Loop, Pittsburgh, or countless other lavish leftovers from the Gilded Age, has been mostly left, largely intact but rotting, to Mexican immigrants. For lots of white Americans, it might as well be off the maps.

I’m always hungry to learn more about the original Los Angeles, but few of the people I meet seem to know anything about it. While there are lots of books about fake palazzos and long-lost Hollywood stars, even the manager at The Traveler’s Bookcase, the city’s most important travel bookshop, was at a loss to provide me with any book of substance about the history of the area.

Thank goodness for the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group that fights to preserve what it can of the downtown district. Because there’s so much worth saving, the group runs popular walking tours of the best bits, usually on weekends when suburbanites can enjoy them.

The Broadway Historic Theatre District tour, held every Saturday at 10 a.m., could blow your mind, even if you don’t care a thing about theatre. Over three hours, our guide Laura Crockett led us through long-forgotten cinemas and stages as we headed down Broadway, which was once the spine of Los Angeles and probably the most important street in the Western United States after the San Francisco quake reduced that city to a B-level burg.

How quickly a society abandons its glories. This is the L.A. that the great names knew. At the Los Angeles Theatre, Charlie Chaplin attended the 1931 premiere of his City Lights. Loew’s State, once the city’s pre-eminent house and where Judy Garland appeared as a child in the Gumm Sisters act, is another church conversion; its keystone above the stage, which once held a gorgeous Buddha-like ornament, has been stripped to a bare niche, likely to avoid offending the congregation.

As we walked, the scales fell from our eyes, and suddenly, Los Angeles revealed itself. As it turned out, it once was a real city with an actual heart — not the car-reliant dystopia we know today — and we were standing in it, among the peeling paint, crumbling iron, and discount stalls serving recent immigrants. Many of the evidence of a thriving civiliza
tion remain, intact but fading.

The spectral Egyptian visage above the stage of the Million Dollar Theatre (1918), once worthy of its name, now presides over a Hispanic church with all the swank of a dusty rec center. On the side of the Tower, for example, I could just make out the old painted signs, nearly sixty years old, advertising newsreels. Atop the marquee of the Morosco (1913), the first serious playhouse in the city, you can still see the globe that advertised its later life as a purveyor of newsreels.

As a bonus — because no truly thorough L.A. architecture tour could neglect it — we also stopped beneath the spectacularly skylit cage elevators of the sublime Bradbury Building (1893), which also happens to be the setting for the final scene of (500) Days of Summer. Not all of L.A. has been left to the spiders, you realize when you set foot in the gleaming, well-tended treasure evocative of the best of the Chicago School. And with proper appreciation and funding, there are scores more jewels waiting to be polished in this city.

There are plenty of tragedies, too. The lobby of the Cameo Theatre, built in 1910, has been turned into a down-at-heel electronics shop. Laura led us behind the grim, bedsheet-like curtain at the back of the store and we found ourselves in the original auditorium. The seats were ripped out, and instead, lining the bolt-pocked sloping floor of the orchestra, were shelves of TVs and video game consoles.

The once-glorious Pantages Downtown, later the showcase for Warner Bros.’ most illustrious premieres, is now obliterated by concrete. Someone filled in the space where the seats once stood to turn the entire orchestra level into a gloomy jewelry mart. “It will never be a theatre again,” lamented Laura. While security guards and vendors eyed our group warily — because of the valuable wares, we were forbidden to take photos here — we peered up at the proscenium and whitewashed decor, still mostly intact over our heads. It’s a small victory, perhaps, that the ornamentation survives even though the original purpose will never again be realized.

“It’s a beautiful city with beautiful buildings, but people have messed up many of them with so-called ‘improvements,'” Laura said.

The tour isn’t really about theatre. It’s about the birth and death of American cities, and it’s about filling in the considerably large blanks that many of us have in our knowledge about the history of the second-most important city in our country.

The tour was done by 1 p.m., early enough to grab lunch at Clifton’s Cafeteria, a weird but satisfyingly kitschy 1935 that’s still dishing out green Jell-o in a dining room kitted up like a Redwoods forest, complete with two-level waterfall.

Admittedly, it would be more fitting of downtown’s current residents to grab a fresh-made taco at the Grand Central Market, by the tour’s starting point. I also dropped into a clothing store geared to poor immigrants — the silent escalators were encrusted with dust and announcements were made only in Spanish — and bought a fantastic pair of plaid summer shorts. The final price, with tax: $3.84.

Symbolically speaking, that’s a long way from the Million Dollar Theatre. It would be long way back, too, but that would be a journey worth taking.

Los Angeles Conservancy Broadway Theatres Walking Tour, Saturdays at 10 AM,, $10, reservations required

Inside Virgin American’s Orange County launch party

Some people say that the Virgin airline brand is the epitome of overindulgence and tackiness. That in pulling away from the legacy carriers they’re backing themselves into a velvet lined, absinthe swigging corner. That the millions and millions of dollars they’re putting into their brand Virgin America is money poorly spent on a shrinking, penny pinching economy.

Virgin America‘s inaugural flight and launch party to Orange County fits those descriptions perfectly.

Picture this scenario: You’re standing on the John Wayne Airport’s tarmac with 4 cameras, 12 batteries, a note pad, three pens and a laptop. Up pulls an Airbus A320, out of which Richard Branson galavants, careening down the steps with shorts and a surfboard, followed by MC Hammer and joined by members of Real Housewives of New York City. People rejoice. Branson dances around the tarmac, revelers drink champagne, pretty women flaunt their wiles and the celebration of service to Orange County begins.

Wouldn’t you know it? We loved every second.

Though times are tough in the airline business, Virgin America is moving forward with its expansion across the country, rocking every city as it descends in a blur of activity and excitement.

Last week’s OC launch started with a party on the SNA tarmac, and as the inaugural flight from San Francisco drew closer you could feel the excitement building. Luckily, we got a great spot on the tarmac for a view of the incoming airplane.

With the full crew on the ground including an alarmingly old MC Hammer and several members from Real Housewives of New York, the party kicked into full swing as revelers enjoyed more free drinks, appetizers and complimentary spray tans.

The party then moved over to the Pacific Edge Villa, where the Gadling crew enjoyed airline hobknobbing and excitement until the wee hours of the morning. Hats off to Virgin America for putting together an amazing event.

Ready to check out the madness for yourself? Book your tickets at

Virgin America launches Orange County service

Last week, Virgin America kicked off service with to Orange County, California with its inaugural flight from San Francisco down to John Wayne airport, between which they’ll be running 5 daily flights.

Never ones to miss a party, Gadling stopped by the tarmac to pay a visit to Sir Richard Branson, dish with MC Hammer, apply a few layers of spray tan and boost our hipster credentials.

The after party brought us over to the Pacific Edge Villa, a gorgeous slice of Orange County beach front property, where hobknobbers and people in the know lined up for autographs from our award winning blog team. Stay tuned this week for some gorgeous photos and tidbits from the event.


Los Angeles luxury at Santa Monica’s Oceana Hotel

If you’re going to take the time to visit a great beach destination, it’s the always a good idea to stay in a boutique hotel. While it’s true that they may be a bit more expensive than a legacy hotel chain, boutique hotels often absorb the culture and gravity of their surroundings, providing a unique experience that envelops the guest in the environment.

Thus, you may not want to stay in a boutique hotel in Chechnya, but in a hot destination like Santa Monica, California, it should be a high priority.

Hotel Oceania on the northwest side of Santa Monica is a beautiful example. Recently renovated in 2007 with a new room designs and a fantastic courtyard with a swimming pool, the property boasts 70 rooms with 58 suites, 21 of which have an ocean view. Each room is appointed fantastically, with plush, high thread count sheets, Kiehls bath amenities and enough room to throw a Frisbee. That’s no small feat in the crowded quarters of this Los Angeles.

One of the best parts about the Oceana is also the location. The hardest thing about finding a good hotel in Los Angeles is picking where to stay — the city is a sprawling mess, stretching from the posh waterfront through the dry city center, deep into the rolling foothills. It’s hard to find a hotel in a good location, and once you do, it’s nearly impossible to find one with activities within walking distance.

And this is where Oceana has the advantage. With Palisades Park right outside of your doorstep and the Pacific Ocean a hop, skip and a jump past that, beach volleyball, surfing and sunbathing are and your disposal. Just to the south? Santa Monica’s legendary Third Street Promenade and more food, drinks and shopping than you can shake a stick at.

Rooms range from $395 – $1000 per night at the Santa Monica Oceana — but take it from this blogger, check in early, enjoy the room and stay late and your visit will be well worth it.