How much fun can you have in a city named after a dentist?
I pondered this question as I prepared to leave home for the weekend. I fully believe in the local getaway and have spent nights in hotels in Santa Monica, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and even downtown L.A. But Burbank?
The city, named for land-developing dentist David Burbank, who owned much of the area in the late 1800s, is less than 10 miles over the hill from my Silver Lake home. Nevertheless, it's never been high on my "must visit" list. That changed with the opening of the Graciela Burbank, a 2-year-old luxury boutique hotel. The 101-room hostelry was developed by Robert Zarnegin, one of the men who's also behind the Peninsula Beverly Hills. A weekend rate of $157 clinched the deal.
But what to do in "beautiful downtown Burbank"? My girlfriend was out of town, so it would be a solo weekend, a rare opportunity to be free of ringing phones and demanding e-mails.
As I headed over the hill, I had a full itinerary in mind. Burbank isn't quite the same as, say, Santa Monica on a weekend. But it does have entertainment-related options. Why not pay homage to the engine that drives this machine? For this Friday afternoon, I had several choices: attending a taping of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" or going on a studio tour at NBC or Warner Bros. None of these options is available on Saturday or Sunday, so I had time for only one.
The skies threatened so I was glad I had chosen the indoor activity: "The Tonight Show." I arranged a ticket in advance through NBC's website (www.nbc.com; click on tickets at the bottom of the page) and was thus able to avoid the long line of ticketless people who show up each day. The theater seats 350 and was far smaller in reality than it looks on TV.
Wearing a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Jay Leno came out to warm up the crowd. He was loose and funny, interacting with audience members and posing for photos as though he were in a comedy club. "Let me put on one of my dorky, ill-fitting suits, and we'll start the show," he said, as he left to get dressed 10 minutes before taping was to begin.
The hour, filled with trained animals, Eric McCormack from "Will & Grace" and Irish rock band the Thrills, passed quickly. (Unlike other tapings, which can seem to go on forever, the show ran straight through, with no retakes and no breaks, except for commercials.)
After the taping, I drove to the Graciela Burbank, just a few blocks up Pass Avenue from Warner Bros. Check-in was quick, and my room was lovely: fine Italian linens on a comfy bed (a Sealy Posturepedic 700 Plush, the same sleep set used at the Peninsula) and Dorothy Prentice Aromatherapy toiletries.
The finishes were elegant, from the polished granite bathroom counter to marble walls in the shower. An armoire held the 27-inch television and DVD player, and there were a couple of chairs, one for the large work area, one for relaxing and reading. I learned later that designer Cheryl Rowley, who also worked on Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica and the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, was behind the look, from the peach-hued walls to the profusion of fluffy pillows on the bed.
Table for one I could have burrowed into that room but needed some sustenance. A friend had touted Gary Bric's Ramp, a place that's been around in various incarnations for more than half a century, as authentic Burbank, so I decided to give it a try. (The name derives from the current owner and the building's proximity to the Golden State Freeway.) I took my server's suggestion and ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon, accompanied by broccoli and a baked potato. The filet was a fine, flavorful cut served sizzling on a platter. I ordered a glass of Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet and watched the crowd from my perch in the rear of the restaurant. The place was unself-conscious retro, with walls of rough-hewn wood decorated with ceramic and copper food molds and trivets in the shapes of animals, like something you'd find in Big Bear. I wouldn't return for the décor, but I'd go back any time for the beef.
I returned to the hotel, lamenting the loss of Chadney's, the long-shuttered jazz bar across from NBC, and considered stopping at Dimples, known for its karaoke, but it was raining, and no friends had answered the call to join me. So I grabbed my novel and headed back down to the Graciela lobby, where I took a seat by the fireplace, ordered a glass of Fess Parker Syrah, and reclined on an overstuffed sofa.
For a low-key hotel with a residential vibe, though, the Graciela had a hopping bar. At one table in the Library Lounge, director Garry Marshall, who founded the nearby Falcon Theatre, an innovative company focusing on new works, hung out with a couple of friends, while other industry types talked about "the business" over martinis. It was an entertaining way to end the day.
A burger at the counter The next morning, I drove in a mild rain over to Magnolia Boulevard, reputed to be the home of Burbank's coolest shops. After a poppy-seed muffin and a cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain blend at Romancing the Bean, I unfurled my oversized umbrella and set out to explore.
I came across plenty of vintage clothing stores, as well as a coin and stamp boutique, even wedding gown shops and Wax Poetic, a beauty (and waxing) salon.
I didn't need any of those goods or services, but I did duck out of the rain into It's a Wrap, a store that acquires previously worn clothing from the wardrobe departments of movies and television shows. I almost went for an Armani tie for $25, but fell in love with a Dolce & Gabbana wool cardigan, charcoal gray with vertical colored stripes. At $50, it wasn't cheap, but it was a fraction of its original price. Do I care that somebody on "Becker" once wore it? No, but I may tell the story if anyone compliments me on it.
For lunch, how could I not dine at Bob's Big Boy on Riverside Drive? This icon, built in 1949, is the oldest Bob's in the U.S. and a State Point of Historical Interest. A dauntingly large crowd waited for tables, so I grabbed the lone empty seat at the marble-topped counter.
I ordered the bacon cheeseburger, and the 8-ounce patty hung over the sides of the sesame seed bun. With its crispy bacon, fresh lettuce, sliced onion and tomato and melted American cheese, it was one of the best burgers in my recent memory.
I had hoped to take advantage of Burbank's Equestrian Center, but I abandoned the riding idea as the streets began to flood. What else to do on a rainy day, especially in the heart of the film industry?
As I drove up Olive Boulevard toward the dozens of screens on Burbank's Golden Mall. I noticed "City of God," the Brazilian film depicting a harsh life in the slums, playing at the Media Center 8 and decided to escape the rain and catch a matinee.
At two hours plus, it kept me dry and well-entertained for much of the afternoon, though the "bargain" rate of $7.50, just $2 off the regular price, didn't feel like much of a bargain.
An old friend joined me at the hotel for a casual dinner in the Library Lounge. After my unusually carnivorous weekend, I chose a Caesar salad, while Max ordered the free-range chicken breast. It was a light and satisfying meal, and we lingered over glasses of wine, people-watching, before calling it a night.
By Sunday morning the rain had stopped, so I decided to drive home on dry roads. Had I found wild nightlife or amazing new shopping or restaurants? No, but I'd had a relaxing weekend, and discovered more than I had expected in what I now realize is an underrated part of town. And I realized that not everything connected to dentistry has to be painful.