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Now reading Why Anthony Bourdain Loves Los Angeles

Why Anthony Bourdain Loves Los Angeles

How the New Yorker came to appreciate all that the City of Angels has to offer.

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This comes from our “Los Angeles” issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine. (Above photograph by Alicia Cho.)

Under a full moon, two New Yorkers chatted on the balcony of a hotel perched above the eastern end of the Sunset Strip, watching as the sky went from blue to pink-orange and eventually gave way to darkness over the palm-spiked crest of a West Hollywood hill.

In the company of a pack of red apples, I prodded Anthony Bourdain—crime novelist, essayist, graphic novelist, film producer, and serial Emmy winner for his latest televisual endeavor, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown—about why he has spent more and more time in LA in recent years. We talked about why Broken Spanish (the restaurant of a second-generation Mexican-American chef) excites him and also the next LA-centric episode of Parts Unknown (he was geared up to shoot Danny Trejo on a horse in the canyons beyond the Chateau Marmont for a dream sequence the following night). But mainly we talked about why and how he has come to love Los Angeles.

What makes you love LA?

As Roy Choi says, the spine, the very underpinnings, of the food here are Latino and Asian. This is not a European city; it’s not built on Irish, Italian, and Eastern European roots, with the French hotel system as a model. It never was. We all sneered at it in the East, because they didn’t have those fine dining Michelin restaurants in the same numbers we did. We all begrudgingly said, “Yeah, their strip malls are awesome, they got all these kooky, quote, unquote, ‘ethnic’ places that are kind of great.” But we didn’t take it seriously. Now that we’re all chasing Korean food with such fervor, we love it. While we were looking elsewhere, this real amazing dining scene has been exploding and growing for years.

I go to Koreatown first, because it’s a wonderland. You can drive for block after block after block, it’s enormous. You can really get lost. And the Korean food is so perfect, so pristinely untouched by time. As non-Koreans, we cannot get in as deep as Korean Americans, and Korean Americans can’t get in as deep as Korean-born Koreans. There are levels. There used to be a few Korean girls I knew here who’d take me to K-Town late. We’d roll up on these places that were like, “No, we’re not open.” And we’d say, “We can hear the music, and there are people going in the door.” And they’d say, “Okay, then we’re full.” Then the Korean girls would start yelling and the next thing you know, I’m in. And there’s four hundred people in there and they’re smoking—in Los Angeles!—drinking soju and makgeolli, and it’s a whole other world.

And then the Mexican community here is gigantic—that’s a world I really don’t know too much about. I’ve compared LA to Japan before, to Tokyo in particular.

There’s that excitement of knowing that no matter how long you live, no matter how well you come to know the town, you still know nothing.

Have you been to Secret Beef?

I have not been to Secret Beef. What is Secret Beef?

Do you know about it?

I don’t even know the secret of Secret Beef. What is Secret Beef?

Google “Secret Beef Los Angeles,” you’ll learn all about it. If you don’t already go there, you can’t get in unless somebody takes you. It’s sort of a grotty yakiniku place. The menu is all beef. I think there are only two tables. It’s on Pico, across from a McDonald’s or an Arby’s or something, with dirty curtains in front. It’s nuts! A place like this would never exist in New York.

There still are dive bars here; they still have restaurants whose menus have not changed since the ’20s and ’30s. You go to Musso & Frank and they’re still in their bolero jackets. There is an eighty-year-old waiter serving liver and onions. There’s a completely unironic type of establishment out here that people love. Jumbo’s Clown Room, the Magic Castle—those are strange and exotic and mysterious places to me.

The Magic Castle is fucking crazy—a castle filled with magicians who, without irony, do bird acts. Right now, out there in Los Angeles, there’s someone rehearsing with doves, telling his girlfriend, “Honey, this is our year. Just keep practicing with the doves and we’re going to be bigger than Bieber.” You go to the Magic Castle in black tie, and you eat dinner, and you see an awesome magic show. And if you sit at the bar, magicians will come over and do card tricks for you. No one has updated it at all. It’s a members-only club. Josh Homme and I are talking about learning three tricks and finding someone to get us in. There are so many businesses out here that just could not exist anywhere else. The architecture is beautiful. Those palms are seductive and dangerous.

There’s so much history, even on just this part of the Sunset Strip. This place the Pink Taco used to be the Players Club. The director Preston Sturges opened it up as sort of a restaurant/nightclub with a private club upstairs, where he and Howard Hughes and his director buddies would drink themselves silly. There is said to have been—and there might still be—a tunnel running from there straight into the hill, that then pops up under the Chateau, so these guys could basically send a girl through the tunnel and then come around the front, and she’d be waiting inside the hotel.

They’d send badly behaved stars here to the Chateau Marmont, but across the street was even more disgraceful. The lesbian silent-film star Alla Nazimova opened a hotel called the Garden of Allah, with a bunch of bungalows and a swimming pool in the shape of the Black Sea from her native Ukraine. It was the epicenter for badly behaved New Yorkers, like the New Yorker writers Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. It was for people who wanted to drink all day and get so fucking horribly drunk that they couldn’t possibly leave the grounds. People like Errol Flynn would stay there for months at a time when they were on a bender, or with a mistress.

You had Eddie Nash, who was involved in the Wonderland murders. Mickey Cohen—even the gangsters were interesting out here. And let’s not understate the residual, cumulative effect of all the movies we’ve seen that were set in this place, particularly period films. That’s still here. Whether it was The Long Goodbye or To Live and Die in L.A.—those places are still here.
It’s a place of American dreamers. Of dreams. Of outsize dreams. There are these places tucked in, and you don’t know what’s back there. You’ll go back into the Hollywood Hills, and it’s like you’re back in 1970, and you expect Joni Mitchell to come out in a fucking poncho. People complain about the driving out here, but driving is great! Turn on the radio, put down the top, put together the right playlist, and it’s perfect. If our greatest American export is
 our culture, then LA is Athens. 
For better or worse, it’s all here, 
all of those dreams.

What is it about the Chateau? Because there’s magic here.

It’s the warm embrace of a living thing. It’s a surprisingly family-friendly place, in the sense that 
the walls are thick and they’re 
used to treating adults like children, so it’s perfect for children. I like it because when you wake up at the Chateau, you know where you are. There’s continuity here, the little kitchen with the old stove, with a picture of Robert Mitchum washing dishes at the sink. There’s no untz untz untz factor—it’s not a slaughterhouse of young Hollywood on the make. If you see somebody famous, it’s not Bradley Cooper, it’s Werner Herzog or Christopher Walken—it’s people you think are cool and, of course, you don’t bother them. There’s no need.

It’s not shabby, but it gives the impression of being just a little bit old. It doesn’t look like any other hotel in the world. Every room is different. They’re all sort of quirky; they’re all comfortable. I always get the same room now, but in the old days, I used to excitedly wonder what room they’d put me in, wonder what it would be like. There’s an informality. I honestly feel like I’m living here, not staying in a hotel. It feels like an apartment with great service. If I walk into the lobby with a big, leaking, stinky bag of In-N-Out Burger, no one looks at me harshly. They’ll say, “Good choice, sir!”

And Los Angeles people are always happy to come here to see you. You could never go beyond these hedges if you didn’t want to.

Were you ever an LA hater?

Yeah. Woody Allen had taught me how I should feel about LA, which was that I should be snarky about it. I came out here with that attitude. I had read all the books—Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Nathanael West. Those palms weren’t just pretty, they were murderous, looking to eat your soul. You’d end up broken and whored out, on a dirty shag carpet, getting butt-fucked by Ron Jeremy. Of course I think that’s bullshit to some degree, but if you drive through the Hollywood Hills sometimes during certain seasons, the smell of flowers is almost oppressive, you almost can’t take it, it’s so verdant and sunny. There is an edge of danger here. I love it unabashedly now, but I wouldn’t live here. I certainly wouldn’t raise my daughter here.

Why?

It’s unhealthy. You see all these young girls from the Valley, clacking in high heels, in their little black dresses, up the street to go find somebody in the business. The values out here aren’t healthy for a child. I think it’s too easy for an artist, perhaps. I think there is something to the notion that if you are a writer, you need pressure and competition and the harshness and hard edges of New York. I haven’t written a thing since I’ve been out here. I write in New York because the pace is quicker and the mentality is different.

There is danger here, there is peril here, with falling in love with this lifestyle and expecting it to last forever.

I’ve been in television for sixteen years now, and I’ve found it to be an industry filled with fear and fearful people. What they’re afraid of is someday they will wake up and not be on television. And every day they compromise, they do whatever, they say what they think will keep them on television, or what is most likely to keep them on television. And in the end, given the choice between saying no to something that they feel is beneath them or staying on television, they’re going to stay on television. And if you stay out here long enough, it’s entirely possible that you will believe that season twenty-two of Two and a Half Men is, like, the greatest show that was ever put on television. People tell themselves stories like that with absolute conviction. Looking at this view, you can see how people can find themselves in that position. I think it’s a human thing. It’s never this nice in New York. Not a lot of sitting around, staring out at the view thinking, Should I stay in or go out? And I think that’s what keeps us from fermenting.

But you have no aspiration to become an Angeleno?

No, I can’t. New York is too deep in my tissue, and I’m aware of the peril here. I know myself, and this is not good for me. I have a lot of friends who’ve lived here forever, and they seem just fine and they would never consider going anywhere else. I understand it. I just sense that that’s dangerous for me. But I think that’s due to my own imperfections and weaknesses. That’s not the fault of Los Angeles.

What do you want from Los Angeles when you come here?

I’m not coming out here with a one-way ticket thinking, This better be the big one. People smell desperation and need out here. It’s like a poker game— never gamble when you need the money. Come out here, don’t give a fuck, come out here to come out here. I live by New York rules in LA—I show up on time, I do what I say I’m gonna do—but I don’t expect the world to move or behave like it does in New York, and I think that’s a good thing.