In 1905, tobacco tycoon Abbot Kinney founded what he hoped would be a cultural utopia inspired by Venice, Italy. He envisioned a literate and morally upstanding society on the shores of the Pacific, 14 miles west of Los Angeles. Skip ahead five score and a dozen years, and it’s safe to say that Venice Beach isn’t exactly what Mr. Kinney had in mind.
In the intervening years, the city, which L.A. annexed in 1925, experienced a variety of subcultures which have shaped it into a location so unlike anywhere else on this planet that it’s developed its own unique character. This former home to artists, then beatniks, then hippies, then skateboarders and bodybuilders has embraced and been transformed by each. The result is a destination to travelers the world over who come to marvel at the most quintessentially free-spirited people assembled in one place.
It is not surprising, then, that Venice’s soul is reflected in its cuisine. The hippie ethic that emerged in the 1960s lives on in the kitchens along Abbot Kinney Boulevard and on Rose Avenue, just as the Boardwalk’s corn dogs and pizza-by-the-slice joints testify to the surf and skate culture of this once-affordable beach community.
Avital Food Tours explores food-friendly cities, offering guided tours that provide nourishment to both mind and body. I took the Venice Beach Food Tour tour late last week with Hana, a friendly and knowledgeable food sherpa, who shared insightful bits of history as our group explored culinary Venice. The journey began on the famed Boardwalk, where something in the air provoked a profound sense of hunger (and it’s legal for recreational purposes these days).
The route included an initial stop Rose Cafe for salmon toast: think lox bagel but substitute a hearty wheat bread for the bagel. Brunch here, as Hana explains it, is a bloodsport. They don’t take reservations, so be ready to jockey for position.
Next, it was around the corner to plant-based eatery Cafe Gratitude, where dishes are named for states of mind. The mole enchilada, aka, “I am Elated,” lived up to its billing, elating my mood as much as the “I am Chic” watermelon sangria.
Next up, Margherita flatbread and a sunchoke salad at Gjusta, sister restaurant of chef Travis Lett’s revered Gjelina. But whereas the Abbot Kinney hot spot fills up with Instagram-posting foodies from all over town, the unmarked Sunset Avenue restaurant/market across the street from the original Gold’s Gym is a haven for locals.
Finally, it was on to Abbot Kinney to cap it all off with something sweet: donuts. But Blue Star’s are not like any other donuts around. These are artisanal, seasonal, cocktail-inspired works of art. The blueberry bourbon basil is a masterpiece. Enjoy it with a good cup of coffee (also available at Blue Star Donuts), and all over this small stretch of premium road in this once and always vibrant neighborhood.