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Alison Martino's Neighborhood Guide to Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood

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Insights into the historic, walkable stretch of the Sunset Strip, which is undergoing big changes

Alison Martino

The People's Guide offers tours of Los Angeles neighborhoods led by loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and other luminaries of our choosing. Our guide to Sunset Plaza is Alison Martino, best known for curating Vintage Los Angeles, her preservationist-minded Facebook page and blog, which chronicle the history of the City of Angels and its hidden and vanishing treasures.

How long have you lived in Sunset Plaza?

I've lived in West Hollywood now six years. I grew up in LA, was born in Hollywood, raised in Beverly Hills, but live in West Hollywood, and I'll never live anywhere else.

How did you come to live here?

This was sort of a destination zone when I lived in Beverly Hills. It was just the next city over, so I always felt they were in the same neighborhood. So I went to a lot of restaurants growing up. I went to the Sunset Strip my whole life, and I always wanted to live there.

What like best about the neighborhood?

I love that I don't need a car. I walk everywhere. I walk to all the restaurants. I walk to IHOP in the morning for breakfast. I come to Cafe Med for lunch. Dan Tana’s is my favorite restaurant in the evening, and I work for them. So I do all their social media. But that's not the reason I go. I've been going since I was a little girl, so that's my favorite restaurant in LA.

Sunset Plaza is one of the most charming sections of West Hollywood. It's also a historic section. It looks pretty much the same as it did nearly 100 years ago.

The Mocambo in 1953.
Photo by George Mann via Vintage Los Angeles

Restaurants like Nicky Blair's and Cyrano were located in that area during the '70s. And the famous Mocambo was there during the '40s and '50s. The original Trocadero and Ciro's were also close by.

Those were the old Hollywood glamor clubs. The Mocambo and the Trocadero were demolished during the 1960s, when the hippie movement was developing. Clubs like the Whisky a Go Go were actually considered discotheques back then, and those were taking over. But The Comedy Store has been occupying the old Ciro's building since the early '70s. They've got the original Ciro's sign hanging in the kitchen. Luckily, the Whisky is still with us and will be celebrating its 53rd anniversary in January.

What do you like least?

I'm really devastated over the loss of some of the buildings and historic places in West Hollywood. I wish that buildings like Scandia, which came down on Doheny and Sunset, which was a beautiful midcentury building and was just torn down were still there.

The thing I like the least is our buildings aren’t protected more. Like, the House of Blues going out is a huge loss. I know if you own the property, you have a better shot at keeping your business, obviously. But if you don't ... . For example, The Palm restaurant was forced out by their landlord to build a big mixed-use building. They landed on their feet, because they're a chain, and they moved to Beverly Hills.

But a restaurant like ... Cafe Med gets a new landlord, and they get forced out for a proposed new Wahlburger. And they've done business for 20 years.

West Hollywood seems to be rapidly losing a bit of its identity. I'm still staying here, but Sunset Strip, it’s like a movie set. Things go up, things come down.

Better for buyers or renters?

I think it’s better for buyers. The rents are outrageous. I would say there are more homes in the neighborhood. But down by, like, the Whisky and where the old Tower Records was, those are all apartments down there, and they have tripled in the rent in the last few years.

Tell us something we don't know about the neighborhood.

Did you ever see the movie Scarface? The building at 8619 Sunset was the building that Robert Loggia owned in Scarface when they came to his office. So it was not Miami. It was Sunset Plaza. I love that.

I also love Chin Chin. It’s classic. I used to come here in the '80s. I'm trying to think, well, right across the street there was the Cafe Trocadero which was the famous 1940s and '50s club. Literally right there at that corner. That corner. Imagine the celebrities and the old Hollywood movie stars that came to Trocadero. So that was in West Hollywood.

8619 Sunset Boulevard, as seen in “Scarface.”

Local customs of note?

Well, West Hollywood to me is the most artistic city, maybe in the country. Because of its creative [culture], you can be whoever you want here. Look at the Halloween parade. I mean, where are you going to see that?

Hidden gems here?

There is a restaurant I'm concerned about. It’s famous. Which is the Gardens of Taxco, and that's a hidden gem. And I don't know if everyone knows about this place, but it really is special.

La Conversation is one of my favorite little restaurants on Doheny.

There's a great collectibles store called Off the Wall [Antiques] on La Cienega. It’s outrageously priced, but it’s so fun to browse through. And the guys who own it kind of know that. They have, like, pianos from the 1920s and they have panels from old ships, and they have mid-century collectibles. Such a great place. ...

The Schindler House on King’s Road is pretty special. Every time I post about it, people can't believe it’s actually here.

A photo posted by Bowen Chan (@black_party) on

The bar upstairs at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. When you go into the Rainbow, it’s not just the outside patio and the restaurant, but there's actually a bar upstairs. ... It used to be the old Villa Nova, where Marilyn Monroe had her first date with Joe DiMaggio. They used to hide Bugsy Siegel up there when the cops were looking for him. They had, like, cots, and they would throw him up there, and nobody knew about this upstairs bar area.

Later, it became, like, John Lennon’s hangout when he didn't want to be seen. He would go up there with Harry Nilsson.

Do you need a car to get around?

I don't. Nope, not in West Hollywood. I don't believe so. I mean, everything between Santa Monica, Doheny, La Cienega and Sunset, all walkable

Neighborhood hot spots?

Dan Tana’s, Cafe Med. There's a great restaurant that I love, it’s been in business for over 20 years. It’s this little French bistro. Le Petit Bistro. Great meeting place and reasonably priced.

Best places to chill or experience the outdoors?

West Hollywood Park, window shopping on Robertson Boulevard and La Cienega. There's some great vintage furniture stores on La Cienega. And the tennis courts on top of the new West Hollywood Library are a great way to spend a few hours. The views are beautiful.

Other great places to meet and chill with friends: ... Norms for a late-night breakfast, Craig's for a fancy meal, and Jones. I used to send everybody to The Formosa before they gutted its historic interior recently. I believe they realize now that it backfired terribly and are putting it back the way it was. So I hope to return there soon.

Who would love living here?

New Yorkers. Seriously. People who like to walk. Because it really is a walking neighborhood. And Europeans. This is very European to me; this whole Sunset Plaza has a European feel to it.

Who wouldn't be happy here?

There's a lot of construction going on. So I would think if you live next door to one of these massive buildings going up, you would not be happy.

It’s gotten very expensive to live here. When I grew up here, it was very affordable, ... and now it’s become so popular that the rents are just ... really out of control. But it's a beautiful place to live, because you can save money on not having a car.