25 years and counting:
WeHo welcomes visitors
by Ed Walsh
West Hollywood will celebrate its 25th anniversary next month but the city's biggest party, like every year, will be on the last day of October. While Halloween has been 86ed from the Castro, WeHo embraces it. With a population of just 36,000, West Hollywood will welcome hundreds of thousands for a mile-long street party. This year, Halloween conveniently falls on a Saturday. West Hollywood businesses hope that out-of-towners who make the weekend trek to one of the biggest Halloween celebrations in the world will sample enough of the city to make return trips other times of the year.
Until it became a city on November 29, 1984, West Hollywood had been an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County sandwiched between Beverly Hills and the city of Los Angeles. Being a bit of a no man's land helped West Hollywood's gay community thrive. While city police in Los Angeles had a history of harassing gays, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office, which oversaw West Hollywood, took a more laissez faire approach. The gay community has been good to West Hollywood in return, helping to transform it into one of the most desirable places to live in Southern California.
The city will celebrate its 25th birthday for a year starting with a celebration on Sunday, November 22, from 4 to 8 p.m., at a location that is yet to be determined. That's a week before the official day to avoid a conflict with the Thanksgiving weekend. A street party is planned on San Vicente Boulevard on April 17, 2010. WeHo's yearlong celebration will end on November 29, 2010, possibly with a community awards program, although details are still being worked out.
This Sunday, October 4 is the eighth annual West Hollywood Book Festival, with over 400 authors and artists expected to be on hand at the daylong event at West Hollywood Park.
Incorporation meant that West Hollywood instantly became one of the gayest cities per capita in the world. The city's official tourist bureau estimates that about a third of the city is gay but that figure varies. A 2002 study by the city's Human Services Department found that 41 percent of the city is made up of gay or bisexual men and about 3 percent gay women.
WeHo also has a big Eastern European population. The city has Los Angeles County's largest Russian-speaking immigrant communities. About 12 percent of city residents are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the majority Russian Jews, according to the city's tourist bureau. Gays are more heavily concentrated along the western section of Santa Monica Boulevard while Russians tend to live on the eastern side. It's common to see signs in English and Russian throughout the city.
Like many gay areas, West Hollywood is not the gay ghetto that it once was.
"When I came out in West Hollywood in 1991 that's what it was, a gay ghetto," said longtime resident and writer Paulo Murillo. "It didn't matter what time of day it was. If you got caught on Santa Monica Boulevard between La Cienega and Doheny you were a fag."
Murillo estimated that by around the late 1990s things had evolved to the more integrated scene it is now. It started, he said, by straight women moving into the neighborhood, socializing with gay men, and then eventually bringing their boyfriends along. Around that time art was imitating life or vice versa. Among the most popular TV shows were Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Murillo noted that his apartment building in the heart of gay WeHo was once all gay and now is made up of all young heterosexual couples.
This change is evidenced by a fewer number of the small gay shops that once filled the storefronts along Santa Monica Boulevard. But the number of gay bars and nightclubs has remained fairly constant, albeit more heterosexually integrated than in years past.
The main streets in WeHo are Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards. Gay clubs are clustered along the western side of Santa Monica Boulevard while Sunset Boulevard is where you will find the world-famous Sunset Strip, with its high-end shops, hotels, and trendy straight nightclubs. Both streets are especially busy on weekends. According to the city's visitors bureau, WeHo's population doubles on weekends as visitors flock in to enjoy its dining, entertainment, and shopping options.
Designing gays will find their nirvana in WeHo. The landmark Pacific Design Center is the anchor for the pedestrian-friendly design district that encompasses the streets of Melrose Avenue and Robertson and Beverly boulevards. There are more than 300 businesses there that focus on art, fashion, design, and furnishings. If all that has you overwhelmed, you can rest your designer bones in one of more than 30 restaurants and coffee houses in the area.
West Hollywood makes the perfect home base for gay travelers visiting the sights in southern California. It is midway between downtown Los Angeles and the beach. The beach is just a 20-minute drive and the center of Hollywood is less than three miles. Tourism in southern California, like everywhere, has taken a hit in the recession. Taking into account that travel budgets are tighter nowadays, the city's tourist bureau has the Web site www.WHinsiders.com, listing bargains for residents and tourists alike.
Unlike most parts of southern California, people walk in WeHo. The city is just 1.9 square miles and has everything: nightclubs, museums, designer show rooms, spas, fine dining, fast food, and Pavilions, a gorgeous new mega-supermarket. Bus service to the beaches, Hollywood, and downtown LA is frequent, so you can get around without a car.
Like many of the entertainers who call WeHo home, the city has had a number of facelifts over the years. West Hollywood Park is being renovated and enlarged. The city's library will soon be demolished and rebuilt. The parking that surrounded the library will be moved underground and that above ground space will be become part of the park. Everything is scheduled to be done by the summer of 2011 but the park itself should be open by next summer. Across the street, the Pacific Design Center is getting a new edition. A new red building will be added on the existing green and blue buildings. The red building will include a 380-seat state-of-the-art luxury film venue.
LA's gay beach is about a 25-minute drive from WeHo. It is a section of Will Rogers State Beach near Entrada Drive or West Channel Road. Gay locals call it Ginger Rogers beach. If you are driving, take Sunset Boulevard west to the Pacific Coast Highway. Make a left on PCH and then turn left onto either Entrada Drive or West Channel Road. There is usually street parking available and there are a couple of parking lots nearby as well. It is about 45 minutes if you take the bus. You can take the #4 or #704 bus to Broadway and 4th streets in Santa Monica, then transfer to #9 bus to Entrada and PCH.
West Hollywood's mainstays, the Abbey, Micky's, and the Rage are going strong.
The Abbey (www.abbeyfoodandbar.com), both a bar and restaurant, is an institution in West Hollywood, on North Robertson Boulevard, just off of Santa Monica Boulevard. The sprawling complex includes inside and outside spaces and a couple of dance floors. It is gay male and lesbian mixed and also attracts a lot of straight women and heterosexual couples. The Abbey doesn't charge a cover, even on the weekends.
The Factory and the adjacent Ultra Suede nightclubs are gay WeHo's biggest dance venues. The Factory is generally open on weekends only. Suede is open weekends and Wednesday nights. Suede has a "girls' bar" night (www.girlbar.com) on Fridays.
Micky's (www.mickys.com) reopened this spring after being closed for more than a year following
The East West Lounge (www.eastwestlounge.com) has an upscale New York vibe. It is gay and lesbian mixed with a popular women's night on Thursdays.
By the way, the Here Lounge (www.herelounge.com) also has a women's night on Thursdays and they also have one on Fridays. Here is next door to the Abbey. It has different themes every night. The mostly boy Red party on Saturday nights is cover-free.
The Rage nightclub features dancing and shows and has 18 and older nights for younger gays.
The upscale Eleven Restaurant and Nightclub (www.eleven.la) has dancing on the weekends. Weekday special nights include Musical Mondays and a Middle-Eastern themed night on Thursdays called Club Nur.
West Hollywood's old standbys, the Mother Lode and Trunks, continue to be favorites, drawing a laid back, down-to-earth crowd.
The newest gay bar in West Hollywood is slated to open by Halloween. It is in the space occupied by the lesbian-popular Normandy Room. The new bar is called Gym Sports Bar (www.gymsportsbar.com). It is owned by the same people who own the Gym Sports Bar in New York City.
Hotel rates vary in southern California depending on demand. The slowest time of year is now through the winter. With the notable exception of big events like the Oscars (March 7, 2010), hotels are much more likely to discount their rates in the fall and winter. The winters are a lot easier to take in LA than the Bay Area. Despite the winter being the rainy season in southern California, Los Angeles gets about five inches less rain per year on average than San Francisco and the average high temperature is about 10 degrees warmer.
WeHo's only gay hotel, the San Vicente Inn (www.thesanvicenteinn.com), is in a perfect location in the heart of gay West Hollywood on N. San Vicente Boulevard, just a block up from Santa Monica Boulevard. The hotel is undergoing an extensive renovation, and its new owner, Michael Hahn, plans to soon rename it the Vicente when about 75 percent of the work is complete. Hahn is very much aware of the horrendous reviews the hotel has received from guests on travel sites such as www.TripAdvisor.com. He is working hard to change that and has been doing a great job. Although the hotel is almost all gay male, everyone is welcome. Eleven units in the back half of the property were renovated into short-term luxury apartment rentals. The pool and deck are clothing optional. Amenities include a free continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free parking, steam room, hot tub, and a heated pool. Rates start at $89 for weekdays and $99 over the weekend. The friendly staff there are happy to give you tips on WeHo's gay nightlife. The hotel is running at about 80 percent occupancy, so book ahead to be sure to get a room there.
The Ramada Hotel has 176 units and has recently undergone extensive renovations, so the rooms are in great shape. Because of its central location on Santa Monica Boulevard, near 24 Hour Fitness, it has a big gay following. The hotel set up a Web site to attract gay visitors. The site, www.thegayhotel.com, is somewhat misleading because the hotel is mostly non-gay but it is a great location with reasonable rates starting at $129. Amenities include a pool and free Wi-Fi. Parking costs $27 per day.
The upscale Andaz Hotel (www.westhollywood.hyatt.com), with 257 units, is West Hollywood's largest hotel. It is on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of the Sunset Strip. It has long been a favorite of the stars. The hotel was once called the "Riot Hyatt" after the rowdy rock stars who frequented the hotel. It was renamed the Andaz in January after undergoing a complete renovation. Amenities include a rooftop pool with sweeping views of WeHo and downtown LA. On the first floor, the RH restaurant prides itself in serving the freshest food possible. It has only one freezer that is used mostly to store the restaurant's homemade sorbets. Rates start at $245 but you can get a 20 percent discount if you book and pay for your room at least a week in advance. The hotel has no self-parking but valet parking is $28 per day. Check the hotel's Web site and WHinsiders.com for specials. The hotel's slowest time is in November and December, so expect your best deals then.
The London West Hollywood (www.thelondonwesthollywood.com) opened in April 2008 and is one of the most exclusive hotels in Los Angeles County. It is up the hill from the San Vicente Inn on San Vicente near Sunset Boulevard. All 200 rooms in the hotel are suites with a very generous 750 square feet. Fox TV's Hell's Kitchen's Gordon Ramsay oversees the hotel's kitchen. Travel + Leisure named the London as the top big city hotel in the US and Canada in its 2009 World's Best Awards readers survey. Amenities include free Wi-Fi and like the Andaz, the London's rooftop pool has sweeping views of Los Angeles. The bad economy means that you can get luxury relatively cheap. Its rates start at $229. Parking is $32 per day.
Health and spa
You can get tested for HIV every night for free in West Hollywood. A van is set up on Santa Monica Boulevard, near San Vicente, until 1 a.m. Results are given in 20 minutes and there is seldom a line to get tested. You don't have to be a resident to get tested. The test is confidential but not anonymous, so you will need to show an ID and fill out a form with your name to get tested.
Gay folks love their spas and there are plenty to choose from in WeHo.
The Gendarmerie Spa (www.thegendarmerie.com) was originally created to cater to men. While the majority of the spa's customers are men, it now enjoys a loyal female clientele. You will see some of actor Billy Dee Williams's art on the wall. He is a regular. The spa's services include hair, massage, and skin care treatments. The spa maintains a friendly family atmosphere. Clients are welcome to come back any time and use the steam room for free. The spa is just off of Santa Monica Boulevard and will be hosting an open house on Halloween for friends and clients.
Voda Spa (www.vodaspa.com) is 15,000 square feet and includes an indoor pool, cool plunge, and Jacuzzi. Services include hair, massage, and skin care treatments. It is running a "stimulus" special that includes use of the spa facilities and a sampling of brief spa treatments for $99.
The Kinara spa (www.kinaraspa.com) also offers the works: hair, massage, and skin treatments. If you prefer more heavy-duty procedures including Botox injections, it also offers a medi-spa that is supervised by a plastic surgeon.
For more information, visit www.gogaywesthollywood.com.