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I hadn't been to Los Angles in a few years, and for the continually growing megatropolis that is Southern California, a few years is an eternity. With that in mind, I set out to reconnect with dozens of cities, neighborhoods, people, and restaurants … it was a good thing I had unlimited miles on my rental Mitsubishi Spyder convertible.

DTLA

After sleeping off the red-eye from Honolulu, we set out to explore LA's invigorated Downtown. It's still rough around the edges, but the spots we visited indicated that the quality of the neighborhood's business has greatly improved in recent years. Margaritas by the pool at the Figueroa Hotel attract a crowd looking for a casual atmosphere. The Varnish brings the retro classic cocktail trend to the back of Cole’s, home of the “original” French Dip (tasty, but I prefer Phillippe's cheaper, down-and-dirty version). Far Bar, one of the secluded speakeasies in Little Tokyo, kept the party going into the night. It's all happening in DTLA.

The Standards

As for the rest of LA, where to begin? Our first full day covered some of the standard LA sites and trendy bites. Juicy chicken with secret garlic sauce at Zankou, a family-owned Armenian/Mediterranean spot, was a prefect snack before a daytime hike around the Hollywood Bowl. It’s pretty fun to check out during the day, and it seems my friend’s ‘secret’ first-date spot has caught on, as we saw a few picnickers enjoying the facility. Climbing up and down the steps was enough to deserve a trip to Umami Burger, a decadent burger experience. After a walk along Hollywood Blvd., amidst the impersonators and the tourists who love them, we stepped back in time with a vintage cocktail at the storied Musso & Frank Grill. It’s quite a steakhouse - with waiters in red coats, an open grill, booths for one... you can imagine the old-school Hollywood wheeling and dealing that went on here.

Santa Barbara

Our first adventure took us north to Santa Barbara. On the way, we checked out a couple of popular farmers markets. The jam-packed Santa Monica farmers market offered plenty of good people watching, while up the coast at the Malibu market we had a better opportunity to browse. This market was full of vendors eager to share their obscure ingredients and healthy fare. We even saw a few celebs. Once we made it to Santa Barbara, we compared the city's two main taco joints, Lily's (deliciously rough-around-the-edges, offering head, cheek, lip, tongue, and eye tacos) and the Julia Child-endorsed La Super Rica (larger menu, killer sauces, fresh tortillas). Santa Barbara is a beautiful city on foot, and we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset.

San Diego

On another side-trip, we headed south from our friend's Hermosa Beach bungalow, taking in scenic Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Solana Beach (with a quirky new design district, our favorite new discovery), La Jolla, and more. After a lengthy day of darting in and out of the Spyder, we had an enjoyable visit to San Diego and the Beach Cities. Perfect weather, awesome food, friendly young faces...it's easy to see why so many fall in love with the SD lifestyle.

                           

Lightning Round

The final chunk of our SoCal trip kept us firmly in the LA area, as we blazed through our checklist: Griffith Observatory, East LA taco trucks, the Apple Pan, Intelligentsia and the too-cool Abbot-Kinney scene in Venice, Thai Town, Silver Lake, Little Armenia, Echo Park, and more. Oh, and for our final outing, we made it back to Santa Monica to check out Whitey Bulger's pad. If only the traffic (unreal!) and sprawl weren't so bad, I would've considered looking into the 'For Rent' sign out front!

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