Thursday, November 27, 2014

And Where Do You “Where To?”: 4th Annual Thanksgiving Edition

Every year when Thanksgiving rolls around, I turn my blog platform over to my fellow bloggers, writers and industry folks to share their favorite destinations—the places they’re “thankful” for—in a very special #WilsonsGuide Thanksgiving Edition post!

I love this because I—along with you—get to see where other L.A. city experts like to “eat, drink and be merry,” so we can add even more fantastic new places to our ever-growing list of spots to check out in the city.

This year, I reached out to both old and new friends; food bloggers, actors and PR mavens; those who have been born and raised right here in L.A. and those who are transplants, to get their top, favorite dining and social destinations in Los Angeles. Their answers are diverse, ranging from intimate cafes to outdoor parks and everything in between, but they are all most certainly spectacular picks worth mentioning.

Check out their recommendations below and see where you’ve already been, or need to go next. And don’t forget to stop by their blogs as well!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tipple & Brine has my heart right now thanks to $1 oysters on Monday nights. If you're an oyster fan, order at least a dozen of the day's catch for yourself. Don't forget to snag an oyster luge as well! You'll get an oyster and a shot of Bowmore scotch. Sip a little brine, sip half of the scotch. Eat the oyster, and pour the remaining scotch into the oyster shell. Shoot it back, and you're luging baby.”

Hotel Cafe is a great place to enjoy good live music any night of the week. Tickets are less than $20, the space is intimate, and it's a great place to see up and coming musicians.” 

“I love good Italian food and I love the beach. No better place to combine the two then by visiting C&O's in Marina Del Rey. The garlic rolls they serve before your main course are a problem! And by problem, I mean Excellent! Don't say I didn't warn you.”  

 “I'm thankful for Angelini Osteria because it is a restaurant that welcomes everyone as they are: young and old, casual and formal, occasional foodie and Italian dining expert. It's that kind of place that makes you feel right at home and the food is always superb! We always leave thinking 'we need to come back soon!' with full bellies and visions of fabulous homemade pastas, beautiful entrees, and impeccable desserts dancing in our minds.”

“Hands down: Griffith Park. It's the perfect location for an easy to moderate hike but the best part is when you get to the top, you can reward yourself with Lucky Charm Rice Crispie treats from the Griffith Observatory Cafe! During various times of year, Griffith is home to a diversity of events including live outdoor stage plays and haunted hayrides. It's also one of the first places I visited when making my decision to move to LA. Sitting on the ledge of one of the Observatory walls, looking over this amazing city, I knew LA was where I was supposed to be.”

Kelly Page of Tasting Page says:
“I’m so thankful for the focus on farm fresh food in Los Angeles. I love the new attention to elevating vegetables from high end chef’s like Roy Choi at Commissary and Phillip Lee at The Gadarene Swine. It’s possible to have a fabulous gourmet meal in LA without eating any processed food!”

Kokekokko loosely translates to cock-a-doodle-doo in Japanese. Kokekokko in LA has a lot to crow about. Their yakitori chicken (charcoal grilled chicken on a stick) has been declared by many Japanese as the best in the world! I'm very grateful to have enjoyed the succulent skewered chicken prepared by Master Chef Tomohiro Sakata many times. Note: You may have to take a stroll around Little Tokyo before a seat opens up at this popular-with-Japanese restaurant.” Check out The Ninja Baker's YouTube Interview with Master Chef Tomohiro Sakata of Kokekokko here!

“I love meeting my friends at the Pedalers Fork [Calabasas, CA]. It has a fantastic, low key vibe for breakfast, lunch and dinner! The seasonal menu revolves around the locally sourced food, and usually from the farmers that set up at the farmers market right next door! Try to get a seat on the patio to get the full Old Town Calabasas ambiance of running creek and old, wooden buildings. This is truly the place to hang out in the west end of the Valley.”

“I'm thankful for Orleans & York in LA on Slauson Ave. As a New Orleans native, it's hard to find seafood better than my own. So I was initially skeptical but their shrimp po-boy and fries is awesome!” 

Share what places you're "thankful" for this Thanksgiving season in the comments below!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Where to Travel: New Orleans

A recent trip to New Orleans reminded me how much I’m in love with the city.

And really, there’s so much to fall in love with!

While Mardi Gras, spring or summer may seem like the most ideal times to go, I’ll let you in on a little secret: fall is an absolutely wonderful time to visit as well.

By autumn, the stifling humidity that plagues the summer months has been replaced with milder weather, that at most, requires minimum winter attire. There’s also still lots to do in the city—from staple tourist attractions, like taking a haunted ghost tour, to seasonal festivities such as New Year’s Eve at Jackson Square.

There’s definitely so many neighborhoods and restaurants and bars and places I still need/want to check out, but for now, here’s my #WilsonsGuide Top 11 List of New Orleans. It's based on what I’ve experienced so far in my visits over the past 10 years there. Most of the items on the list are in or around the French Quarter, but there's quite a few destinations that are in other parts of the city as well.

Check out my list below, and let me know your favorite stops in New Orleans as well, in the comments section below!

11.) Where to Be Merry: The French Quarter

As New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, The Quarter features some of the most sightly architecture in the city— immaculate historic 18th-century buildings with sweeping second- and third- floor galleries—narrow streets, and lots of character and charm. Depending on when you go—morning vs. night, holidays vs. any given day—it can be extremely loud, festive and so packed to the point you can’t even move, or it can be serenely peaceful, giving you the opportunity to check out the beautiful buildings, unique shops and ancient streets. Yes, it’s touristy and often smells, mainly the morning after a night of revelry and debauchery, but it’s most certainly not to be missed. Some main attractions include Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, art and antique stores, and scores of restaurants and bars, some of which have made this list. 

10.) Where to Be Merry: The Farmers & Flea Market @ The French Market

From a historical standpoint, it’s the oldest public market in the States; currently, it’s a hodgepodge of colorful vendors and eateries. At the bottom of the French Quarter, The French Market spans six blocks and includes a variety of shops, restaurants and local businesses. More specifically, its Farmers & Flea Market has a more informal vibe, where you can sit down for a casual meal at a food stand, shop for culinary treasures—like hundreds of authentic New Orleans spices and seasonings—and also pick up trinkets and souvenirs to take back home, anything from t-shirts and bags to bed sheets and artwork. I recommend checking out Oscar of New Orleans' stall, pictured below, to find amazing handmade jewelry. He has a kind, welcoming spirit and I have several pairs of his earrings that always get me compliments and have lasted quite a while. The French Market closes on the early side, at 6 p.m. daily, so get there sooner rather than later.


9.) Where to Eat: Beignets @ The Original Cafe Du Monde

On the edge of the French Market is The Original Cafe Du Monde. As one of the city’s oldest coffee shops, it’s got an acclaimed reputation for its beignets and piping hot café au lait. There’s something magical to sampling the French-style doughnuts smothered in powder sugar and unique chicory coffee that’s been served for centuries—all while sitting with 400 of your new best friends. It’s the perfect spot to rest after spending a few hours walking around in the French Quarter and also lends itself to captivating people-watching. The menu is simplistic, with only beignets and coffee, and it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week. Lines can be lengthy, depending what time of the day you go.


8.) Where to Eat: Seafood @ Acme Seafood House

Several of my friends recommended that I stop here, and I’m so glad I did. Keeping the décor simple with plastic black-and-white checkered table covers, glowing red neon signs and basic chairs and tables, Acme Seafood House focuses on getting its namesake right: the delicious seafood it serves. One must-order dish is the Chargrilled Oysters, pictured below. Six, steaming hot oysters are drenched in a creamy butter sauce, accompanied by French bread. The ½ & ½ Platter of fried shrimp and fried fish piled high on top of toasted bread and French fries is also a good pick, with large portions. The fish and shrimp are fried to get the perfect golden brown color and are very flavorful. Also, both seafood gumbo and chicken/andouille gumbo are available (my fave between the two was the seafood gumbo). Inside, it’s jam-packed with customers and the waiting line is agonizingly long outside, but it’s all so worth it. There are other locations throughout the city, but I say head to the oldest one, in the French Quarter, which opened in 1910.


7.) Where to Drink: Libations @ Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar

What better place to grab a drink than in the nation’s first bar! Rumor has it that Lafitte’s is the oldest structure to be used as a bar in the U.S. And while some may dispute this claim, it’s still pretty cool to drink in a building that’s been around and in use since the 1770s. Inside, it literally feels like a trip back into the 18th century, with worn wooden floors, a large brick fireplace and exposed wooden beams. At night, only the glow of candles illuminates the bar, making it feel intimate and cozy. The building itself may be ancient, but the drinks are modern, and you can get pretty much anything—like an infamous New Orleans Hurricane—that you could find at any present-day bar, to enjoy at Lafitte's or on-the-go. It’s located on Bourbon Street, farther east and away from the main section.


6.) Where to Be Merry: Live Music @ Frenchmen Street

If you enjoy live music, then a trip one night to Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is an absolute must. Bars and nightclubs line a stretch of several blocks, where every single genre of music you could ever imagine—and then some—exists. Jazz, bluegrass, country, R&B, funk, hip-hop—it’s all there, played by both up-and-coming and more established musicians, from locals to world-renowned recording artists. The most appealing aspect of this area is the ease in which you can freely wander in and out of bars—no cover at most establishments—to hear one brilliant band after another, all night long. It’s truly mind-blowing how much talent is here and how easily accessible such an eclectic mix of music is to the general public on any given night.


5.) Where to Be Merry: Woldenberg Park

Woldenberg Park is a narrow stretch of land between the French Quarter to the east and Canal Street to the west. It offers sweeping views of the massive Mississippi River and in general, is just a nice place to pause for a few brief moments and catch the breezes rolling off the river. There’s plenty of park benches facing the water to sit on, a trail for walking or jogging, and multiple stops for the Riverfront Streetcar Line, pictured below. Closer to Canal Street is the relatively new The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the States’ first outlet center in a downtown area.


4.) Where to Be Merry: The Louis Armstrong Park

Located in the Tremé neighborhood, The Louis Armstrong Park takes up several blocks and offers lush trees, interestingly shaped bridges, rolling hills, iconic statues and a lovely, large body of water with fountains. The Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts and the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium are also located here, housing theatrical and musical productions. The park itself, peaceful and serene, is quite scenic with lot of camera-ready views. Aside from its intrinsic beauty though, it's home to a special landmark: the Congo Square. It’s here where in the 18th century, slaves would gather to socialize on their days off, dancing and making music, often with heavy African influences. Take a stroll to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city life in a historically significant location.


3.) Where to Be Merry: City Park

And if you really want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, head to City Park in the Lakeview/Lakefront neighborhood. It's one of the country’s largest urban parks, almost 50% larger than NYC’s Central Park! With 1,300 acres of land, there’s a lot to see and do here, from simply basking in nature to checking out art, getting active and participating in fun activities for the kiddies. Some attractions include several gardens, a golf course, tennis courts, biking, walking and jogging paths, the New Orleans Museum of Art and an amusement park, and there's still so much more. You can also simply stare in amazement at the world’s oldest living oak trees here, including a grand oak that’s more than 800 years-old. A calendar of events on the website lists seasonal events.


2.) Where to Be Merry: Swamp Tours

The state of Louisiana comprises almost half of all wetlands found in the Southern States, and fortunately, New Orleans is only a brief drive away from these magnificent wonders of nature. For several hours, you can hop in a boat with a small group and guide to get up close and personal with the spectacular foliage and wildlife in these wetlands. Wind through narrow waterways and bayous and hopefully see lots of animals, including alligators, wild boars and raccoon. In the summer, the wetlands are vibrantly green and the vegetation is thick, but during the fall, they’re shades of brown, and trees have thinned, creating an eerily darker yet equally beautiful landscape. Our guide mentioned fall and winter are ideal times to visit; since the trees are barer than in the summer months, it’s easier to actually point out the animals that live here. There’s a variety of companies in the city offering tours, some also providing free transportation to the swamps. I’ve used Cajun Encounters, which is family-owned and promotes itself as eco-friendly. Their website is below.


1.) Where to Eat: The Sunday Jazz Brunch @ The Columns Hotel

Nestled on St. Charles Ave. in the Garden District and overlooking the historic St. Charles Streetcar Line, The Columns Hotel was originally built in the late 19th century as an Italianette home. It's now been converted into a modestly grandiose hotel with a bustling bar scene and a restaurant that offers a stellar Sunday Brunch. Brunch consists of a mimosa and four courses—soup, salad, entrée and dessert—and dishes are seasonal. When I went here one winter, I had arguably the best gumbo in the city, a beautiful beet salad, a colossal Lump Crab Cake topped with fried green tomato and a lemongrass beurre blanc, and a delectable chocolate cake. Service is extremely attentive and reverential, and we were able to enjoy a leisurely meal without feeling rushed or crowded, all while enjoying the background music of a live acoustic guitarist. And, on a crisp winter day, the food felt so comforting, filling and warm. This is a must for its décor and hearty, authentic food. Fun fact: it's also where Alicia Keys and Maxwell filmed their music video "Fire We Make."


BONUS: Where to Be Merry: All of the Various Events!

There’s scores of large-scale events that not only bring thousands of visitors to New Orleans, but also transform the city into such a lively, welcoming destination. True, there’s Mardi Gras at the beginning of the year, the Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring, Essence Festival in the summer and so many others, but the fall isn’t void of fantastic events either! The city gets festive for Halloween in October, the Bayou Classic in November and Christmas, New Year’s Eve in December, and also for other festivals and city-wide celebrations. Really, there seems to always be a good reason to visit New Orleans, regardless of the season or the month. See you there soon!