Why write when you can travel

We’re planning another research trip. It would probably be more productive to stay home and write more of the book, but we have to be in Southern California anyway for a cousin’s 50th wedding anniversary. So we’re taking a few more days to to search out more windows on the history of the region.

The Autry Museum of the American West. The first hugely famous singing cowboy in the pictures was Gene Autry, who starred in films and on TV from the ‘30s to the early ‘50s. His pictures ignited many a kid’s cowboy/cowgirl fantasies and had little to do with real ranch life or real history. And yet, the museum he founded in 1988 now is a multifaceted, inclusive showcase for the authentic art, history and cultures of the West.

The Japanese American National Museum. I think I owe it to my characters Kit Noguchi, and her father Mr. Noguchi, to understand as much as I can about the Japanese American experience, especially in Southern California. I expect a one-day visit here will only make me realize how much more there is to learn.

The Bradbury Building. You’ve seen it in tons of movies set in Los Angeles, most famously in the first Blade Runner. It’s ornate, mysterious, mazelike – just made for noirish chase scenes. It’s just an office building, not a museum, and we understand if you don’t make too big a deal of playing tourist, you can walk in and look around.

Other places are on the list, too. We’re looking forward to some unstructured time as well, to go wherever our fancy and our rental car will take us.

It’s funny: so much of what we think we know about history, we’ve learned from the movies, for better or worse. But when you start reading and visiting and trying to learn more, you often find stories much more interesting and complicated than you expected. Certainly more nuanced than what can be crammed into a couple of hours of screen time.

So there’s that. And of course there’s also, always, the food. I spent about 16 years writing newspaper restaurant reviews in the San Francisco Bay Area. The experience gave me an appreciation for high-end meals and ever-so-artistic presentations, but you know what? My favorite restaurants are the kind where they serve honest, simple, easy-to-understand food, like the French dip at Philippe’s, pictured here.

A brace of French dips ready for the customers at Philippe’s. A dill pickle, a lovely pink pickled egg, macaroni and potato salads round out the lunch. Tapioca for dessert, anyone?

Even though we had dinner at Musso & Frank (to get a sense of history) and Pump (because it was within walking distance of our hotel), the French dip at Philippe’s was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.*

But wait – two places claim to have invented the French dip. (Though you have to ask, how hard could that have been? It’s sliced roasted meat, inside a French roll, and you dip it in the roasting juices. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.)

Now we must, absolutely must, try the other place where this iconic sandwich might have first been served: Cole’s, which is more of a saloon, from what I can tell. Works for me. I want to go for the dip but also to admire the neon sign.

The trip is some weeks away, and I hope to spend at least some of that time finding out and writing down what Frankie and her friends have been up to, so I can eventually share it with you.


*Quick take on atmosphere. We actually enjoyed the vibe more at and around Philippe’s — the downscale, working-class neighborhood felt authentic and was far less grating on the nerves than the noise and partying on Hollywood Boulevard outside Musso’s door. As far as Pump goes — I loved the garden-room decor but the place was so loud we asked to be moved to a quieter table. We were moved, graciously. But it was still loud at the new table. I had steak with bearnaise at Musso and some kind of fish at Pump — neither were as memorable at the sandwich at Philippe’s.