When a traveler thinks of Los Angeles, visions of Hollywood, the Walk of Fame, celebrities and red carpets usually come immediately to mind.
Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach are sort of untapped treasures for many travelers. Part of the reason is they don’t even know these areas exist. Tourists tend to spend their time in Hollywood, along the Sunset Strip and at the Santa Monica Pier. The thought that there’s a whole different Los Angeles world beyond these places often never occurs to them.
But it does exist, and it is here that you will find that true California Dreamin’ lifestyle.
So turn on the Beach Boys because we’re going to have “Fun Fun Fun” ‘till daddy takes the computer (or tablet or smartphone) away.
The South Bay
The South Bay – it’s called this because it’s located in the southern part of Santa Monica Bay, which stretches from Palos Verdes to Malibu – is a place of bikinis and board shorts, of surfers and muscled and tanned people playing volleyball on the sand. It’s where people get around not in cars, but on bicycles slowly being pedaled along the beachfront sidewalk known as The Strand. In the South Bay, flip flops are the standard footwear and people actually call other people “dude.”
This is mostly a residential area, so if you’re used to beaches in say, Florida, then you’re in for a surprise. Instead of beachfront high-rise hotels and condos are houses. The rented houses are the run-down ones while the owners live in the plush, modern multi-million dollar ones. In fact, there are just two hotels on the beach in all the South Bay, the high-end Beach House, and the aging Sea Sprite motel, both at the Hermosa Beach Pier. There are a few hotels along Harbor Drive in neighboring Redondo Beach: the Portofino on the water, the Crowne Plaza, the Redondo Beach Hotel and, opening in late summer 2016, the high-end Shade Hotel, which has a sister location in downtown Manhattan Beach.
As you travel along this Pacific paradise, the first thing you’ll want to do is rent a bicycle. You can do this at Hermosa Cyclery at the Hermosa Beach Pier or Marina Bike Rentals along Harbor Drive in Redondo Beach. The bike path goes from north Manhattan Beach – locals refer this area as “El Porto” and it is THE spot to go in the mornings and late afternoons to watch surfers – all the way to the Redondo Beach Pier. This is a distance of approximately six miles. The bike path actually extends all the way from Palos Verdes to Santa Monica, a distance of more than 20 miles, but for now, stick to the South Bay.
There is a tour company that provides guided tours, Beach Cities Bike Tours (310-990-4020); a two-hour tour is $50 for a group of four. It’s a casual ride on a bicycle that points out TV and movie film locations, top surf spots, the culture of beach volleyball, as well as recommendations of top restaurants, nightlife and Happy Hours.
From your perch on the bike, you’ll want to stop at the Manhattan Beach Pier and check out the Walk of Fame of beach volleyball champions. Each summer, the “Wimbledon of Beach Volleyball” takes place here; the 2016 dates are July 14-17.
While there, you’ll want to quench your afternoon thirst with a beer in the venerable Shellback Tavern, a beach watering hole just up from the pier. Or if you prefer, the higher-end Strand House is the place for sophisticated drinkers or for those who are dining on an expense account. The nice Italian restaurant Mangiamo is the place to have a glass of wine at sunset from its “fishbowl” window; Happy Hour is Monday-Friday until 6:30, with house wines for $5.
If it’s Wednesday, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by not going into Ercoles for what well might be the best burgers in the entire U.S. On Wednesday evenings, they are 2-for-1, as long as you order two drinks with it. And that’s not an issue as you’ll likely order a lot more than two drinks, as is the culture here.
In fact, it’s drinks that really make the South Bay thrive. Locals, no matter their age, have the mentality of a college student when it comes to cocktailing. For this reason, the South Bay has L.A.’s best nightlife. There are small, casual bars and nice restaurants where people go just for drinks. All in their casual beach attire, of course.
The big playground for nightlife is the Hermosa Beach Pier. And king of this beach is Sharkeez, where locals go for one drink and wind up staying until last call, thus earning it the nickname “The Black Hole”; but it’s just one of several places surrounding the pedestrian-only Pier Plaza. Another good spot is The Mermaid, right on The Strand, which has lovely girls mixing up the best-made drinks in the South Bay. As a bonus, Happy Hour is seven days a week, 3-7 p.m., and again from 10-midnight. The rotating “Drink of the Week” ($5) is highly recommended.
One of these days – or decades – Redondo Beach will spiff up its pier; and when that happens, it will be one of the top coastal destinations in all of California. For now, though, you have to settle for its quirky spots. Naja’s is a run-down bar that serves 77 beers on tap and has “the more you drink, the better they sound” bands on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Just down from it, The Slip Bar & Eatery is a small and friendly locals’ hangout, often with live music.
But the “can’t miss” spot is Old Tony’s. This is a restaurant that’s been clinging onto the pier for nearly 60 years. Enter on its ground floor and as you take the small staircase upstairs to the “Crow’s Nest” bar, check out all the faded autographed photos of faded Hollywood celebrities. When you reach the Crow’s Nest, you will feel as if you just stepped into an old episode of the original “Hawaii Five-O” TV show. Bartenders wear aloha shirts, booth-like chairs surround small round tables and the décor is borderline cheesy Hawaiian.
You’ll love the place immediately and even more so when you have its signature drink, the Fire Chief. Don’t ask what’s in it, but it’s a red, rum-based drink that puts a Mai Tai to shame. And you get to keep the glass.
Here are some other South Bay food & drink highlights: Best Clam Chowder – FishBar in Manhattan Beach; Best Taco Tuesday (it’s very social with locals) – OB’s in Manhattan Beach; Most Romantic Bar/Restaurant – BALEENKitchen in Redondo Beach; and Best Wine Tasting View – The Bottle Inn in Hermosa Beach ($10, Thursdays, 6-7:30 p.m.).
So no, the South Bay is not L.A. It’s not anything like L.A. But it sure is worth a visit when you’re in L.A.