Return of 'L.A. Bizarro'
Writers Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian have updated the guide to Los Angeles' hidden odd spots, a challenging feat given the Internet's wide reach.
Matt Maranian (right) and Tony Lovett penned an update to the classic Southland guidebook "L.A. Bizarro." (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
It's hard to believe that such a place exists just 37 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway. But it does, and it's here that Anthony Lovett, coauthor of the guidebook "L.A. Bizarro: The All-New Insider's Guide to the Obscure, the Absurd, and the Perverse in Los Angeles," chose to relax on a recent Friday.
"This is straight out of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' " he joked. After about an hour he had caught three fish, which he later cooked in a pan with a little white wine and butter, "very nice, though there were still a ton of bones in them."
Finding an oddball gem like Troutdale, which opened in 1938 and appears to not have changed a lick since, is becoming increasingly difficult.
That's where the new "L.A. Bizarro" comes in. It takes a cockeyed, frequently ribald look at so-SoCal arcana in about 350 entries over 368 pages, organized by chapters on food, drink, shopping, sex, death and so forth.
Relic-like restaurants (the Safari Room in Mission Hills), crusty dive bars (the Liquid Zoo in Van Nuys) and some combination of both (Bahooka Ribs and Grog in Rosemead, "a comfortably chaotic labyrinth of aquariums, tiki gods, plastic parrots, and miscellaneous shipwreck flotsam") all get their due.
Then there are spots such as John's Tapo St. Barber Shop in Simi Valley, where you can get your hair cut by Elvis' former stylist; the Lawrence Welk museum in Escondido; the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon, which has pastoral murals painted on its outside walls; the nightclub California Institute of the Abnormalarts in North Hollywood, with its collection of sideshow oddities; and Lady Hillary's Dominion, a discreet bondage dungeon at an L.A. location not disclosed until session confirmation.
The book, the first update of the original 1997 edition and written by Lovett, 48, and Matt Maranian, 43, contains nearly 80% new material and specializes largely in places that time and progress have passed by. Whether by luck, chance, neglect or economics, these vestiges of a vanishing city have maintained a patina of pleasant dustiness and a quirky position on the periphery of pop culture.
Researching a work as idiosyncratic as "L.A. Bizarro" is no small feat, especially now that the Internet has muscled its way into many of Southern California's hidden corners.
"When the first book came out, the Web was fairly nascent," says Lovett. "Now everyone's taking pictures with their phones and blogging about where they are, so there's nothing left undiscovered."
That's why some of the book's most interesting new entries are, at first glance, intriguingly un-bizarro -- for example, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
"It's as strange as Dr. Blyth's Weird Museum," says Maranian, referencing the now-shuttered Cahuenga Boulevard oddity that once displayed items as far-out as giant human tumors and the alleged corpse of Vlad Dracula. "It's just the kind of weirdness that you have to look closer at to uncover."
"If, by way of example, we assume that Clifton's is the zenith of L.A. theme restaurants, then Bubba Gump is the nadir," the book's entry reads.
Of course, "L.A. Bizarro" doesn't shy from cultural nadirs. The quintessential "Bizarro" place, says Maranian, "is really hard to get to, slightly disappointing upon arrival and pretty much unlike anything you're likely to stumble upon anywhere else."
"I use the word 'disappointing' fondly," he adds. On one reconnaissance mission in Death Valley, for instance, Maranian stumbled upon an abandoned talc mining complex and functioning campsite called Warm Springs.
"Reaching Warm Springs camp is a lot like finding a single shoe and a pair of jeans alongside a jogging path in a city park, moist with morning dew," reads the entry. "There's a story to tell, and no doubt this canyon has seen life, but those who can tell it and those who lived it vacated long ago."
Speaking of long ago, there's also an entire section of the book devoted to defunct favorites. One such beauty is Law Dogs, a hot dog stand in Van Nuys that was owned and operated by an attorney offering free legal advice to customers who bought hot dogs after 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.
The other day, after his fishing expedition, Lovett was reminiscing about Law Dogs as he sat in a booth at a little wooden restaurant down the road from Troutdale called the Old Place. The eatery is a prime example of what Lovett and Maranian came up against time and again while writing the book: It has changed.
The new edition describes the Old Place as "perhaps L.A.'s sketchiest restaurant" and mentions that its menu consists of no more than "two main items (if you're lucky)" cooked by an elderly couple. On this trip, less than two years after the book was researched, Lovett discovered that the Old Place was, in fact, very new. While still quaint and wooden, it was crowded and well-run with a full menu and a kitchen full of cooks.
This threw Lovett for a loop, but he quickly recovered. The L.A. that bent his mind when he left the Dallas suburbs of his youth in 1979 and moved to downtown L.A. and later to the Gaylord apartments is disappearing faster than ever, he says. He now lives in Simi Valley; Maranian lives in Vermont.
"When I come to L.A., I get really uncomfortable," Lovett says. "Part of it is that crotchety 'get off my lawn' old-man syndrome. I'm just not acclimated to the change."
When L.A. Live opened downtown with its chain restaurants and Jumbotrons, Lovett recalls that it made him "really nervous. I felt like I needed to see the drunks and the old transvestite hookers to feel comfortable." It also made him fear for the untouched safety of a "Bizarro" favorite, the Original Pantry. "I'm afraid to go in there because I'm afraid the tables are going to be new and I'm going to be even more depressed."
Maranian is more sanguine about the rapid pace of change in the City of Angels. "It fascinates me. I get a kind of sick pleasure when I see a place like Johnie's Broiler get smashed by a wrecking ball," he says, referencing the pristine Googie-style coffee shop in Downey. It was demolished in 2007, only to have a coalition form afterward to raise money to rebuild it, using material harvested from the original. It reopened Monday as a Bob's Big Boy.
"It's so sick!" he says cheerfully. "I can barely wrap my mind around it. But that's L.A."