Culture / Travel

A Love Letter to Pasadena — Los Angeles’ Most Underrated, Charming Suburb

A California Girl’s Restaurant, Hotel and Parade Tips

BY // 01.26.18

I am a California girl by birth — but a California girl by personality, I am decidedly not. Anyone who knows me can attest to my apprehension (to put it lightly) toward Los Angeles — that major metropolitan city I call home.

I am an awful driver, so the traffic and mess of freeways cause me to break out in hives every time I hit the road. Trendy restaurants and of-the-moment nightclubs filled with Paris Hilton-esque bottle blondes and wannabe-models-actors are my definition of hell. I like an opportunity to dress up, so California-casual has never been my thing. And grown men wearing flat-brimmed hats and skater gear tops my list of turnoffs.

Of course, not all is negative, and the City of Angels does have its high points: proximity to the ocean; Urth Caffé; a majority of the members of my family; perfect weather and enough outdoor activities to fill all 365 days of that flawless sunshine. And, perhaps one of the county’s most redeeming qualities: A little place called Pasadena — the small suburb of LA in which I grew up.

Most famously, Pasadena is home to the Rose Bowl. (When people ask where I’m from, I often respond: “Pasadena — if you know where the Rose Bowl is.” Most Texans recognize it right away thanks to the infamous University of Texas defeat of USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl game — an occasion that still sends chills down the back of my USC alumni father.)

To me, though, the Rose Bowl has little to do with football in my memory bank. Rather, it’s the place I always take long walks when home for a visit. (A walking and bike path circles the entire stadium and its surrounding golf course.) It is also the site of many wonderful concert memories, including NSYNC on my 13th birthday and, most recently, Coldplay. With the San Gabriel Mountains holding court in the background (my mountains, I call them), this is one of my happy places.

But there’s more to Pasadena than The Granddaddy of Them All. Since moving to Texas 12 years ago, I am constantly amazed at how Pasadena has blossomed — yet retained its charm. Imagine a nook of Southern California perfectly suited for those with an aversion towards the inflated snobbery, new-money pretentiousness, and flashy façade of Los Angeles’ more popular destinations. (I’m looking at you Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica.)

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Pasadena strikes the perfect balance of beautiful residential neighborhoods and a bustling city. The people who live here do so intentionally to avoid the limelight and gaudiness of other affluent Los Angeles neighborhoods. And if you’ve seen the hit television show Brothers & Sisters, which famously took place in Pasadena, you’ll get the idea.

Ultimately, I recommend you skip the hustle and bustle of LA proper on your next West Coast jaunt, and simply settle in to Pasadena. Here, my list of to-dos while in town — the result of one sleepless night and a dangerous combination of homesickness and wanderlust.

Book up at the Langham Huntington hotel — a storied institution that has weathered its more than 100 years in business like the most glorious grand dames. It’s regal and refined — history brightly preserved — but with a modern bent. (I lovingly call The Huntington my home-away-from home, as I reside here during holidays and while on quick visits to the family.) Tip: Request a patio room facing the horseshoe garden.

The Langham Huntington Hotel, Pasadena

From your temporary abode, walk to two quintessentially Pasadena places: First, the house famously depicted in Father of the Bride (843 South El Molino Avenue). You will not only have house envy upon arrival, but the beautiful manses along the tree lined sidewalks will, no doubt, have you reconsidering Texas for California.

Second, the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. My advice, upon a first visit, save the library and art for another day. Spend the afternoon wandering through the estate — the rose garden and cactus area are two of my top spots. And you must pop in to the original Huntington house — built by the railroad and real estate mogul family responsible for your hotel.

The cactus garden at The Huntington Botanical Gardens

For brunch, I adore La Grande Orange Cafe — a sprawling restaurant inside the old Del Mar train station. As a little girl, I remember going to this very spot with my parents to pick up my grandparents, who always chose rail over air when visiting us from Connecticut. (My grandmother loathes flying.) Today, the space has been charmingly converted into a lofted-ceiling gem of an eatery. I suggest dining on the patio and ordering the shredded kale and quinoa salad.

For dinner, opt for the patio at Café Santorini. (This was my go-to for teenage birthday celebrations and pre-prom dinners — a sophisticated choice for a very non-sophisticated time in my life.) The second-floor patio has a perfect view of a little square tucked inside Pasadena’s famous Old Town neighborhood. Go with friends and share an array of Mediterranean inspired mezze plates.

After dinner, walk across the square and grab an espresso and a gelato at the Il Fornaio bakery and grab a bistro table outside in the cobblestone alley.

Cafe Santorini in Old Town Pasadena

This brings me to Old Town, definitely worth a walk around the neighborhood that unfolds down Colorado Boulevard. My parents have fond memories of hanging out at Barney’s Beanery and the 35er before they had kids — both bars are still there and always fun for watching a game. Old Town, which was once just a couple dive bars, a record shop, and mostly empty historic, warehouse-style buildings, is now a shopping destination with all the usual suspects — Tiffany & Co., Design Within Reach, Vince, a Tesla showroom, et al.

Within walking distance of Old Town is the Norton Simon Museum — a fabulous collection of European works, from the Renaissance to the 20th century, originally acquired by billionaire industrialist, Norton Simon. This is definitely worth a stop as the size is manageable for a quick post-lunch walk-through — and the curvilinear building, originally designed in the late ’60s by architects Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey, with a renovation by Frank Gehry in the late ’90s, is gorgeous.

Norton Simon Museum

Another cultural highlight is the Gamble House, completely designed and furnished by Craftsman-style architects Charles Greene and Henry Greene. Pasadena has an impressive lineup of architecturally significant homes. A plethora of tours are available and highly recommended.

Finally, I would be a terrible advocate for my beloved Pasadena if I didn’t suggest you plan your entire visit around the New Year holiday. Even if you don’t like football (or can’t score tickets to the big game), it’s worth it to attend the fabled Rose Parade at least once. Don’t reserve tickets in the grandstand — they are overpriced and your bum will be numb by parade’s end.

Rather, wake up early, bring a chair, and claim a spot on the sidewalk along Colorado Boulevard, with the thousands of other people — many Pasadena natives do this year-after-year in tradition, yours truly among them — who want to spend the first day of the year staring at silly floats decorated in all variations of flowers. There are marching bands and horses and, of course, the Rose Court with its queen and princesses — a pageant of sorts I still regret not winning when I was an eligible senior in high school.

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