Murder on the Orient Express, North by Northwest, Silver Streak.
Mystery. Intrigue. Romance.
The rail system and all that it conjures up has always held a particular allure for the American public. Much of this fascination is due to passenger trains that evoke a feeling of simpler and, in some ways, more tender times. We’ve all seen the movies. Cheerful porters. Elegant dining cars.
Before laptops, iPods and smart phones, travelers had fewer options as to how they might choose to amuse themselves while on a train. They could sleep or eat. They might read or work a crossword puzzle. Or they could get to know the stranger seated beside them. In trains equipped with sleeping compartments, they could while the time away making love (the rhythm of the trains either adding or detracting from the experience depending on one’s outlook).
Gone now are the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and the Southern Pacific and Amtrak sometimes seems to be holding on by the skin of its teeth.
Standing as a testament to these old rail lines are beautifully constructed and designed stations throughout the nation. Recently, I had the opportunity of touring L.A.’s own Union Station. Built in 1939, Union Station is a nationally recognized historic landmark and presently is home to Metrolink, the Metro Red, Purple and Gold Lines. An ambitious plan is underway to link Los Angeles to San Francisco, Anaheim, and San Diego with “bullet trains” capable of traveling up to 250 miles per hour.
While touring the station, I found myself less interested in its future than in its formidable past. Combining the influences of the original Spanish settlers with an art deco flavor, architects Donald and John Parkinson incorporated incredible colored tiles and white washed stucco with clear lines, curves, and geometric mosaics. The effect is striking.
Union Station was originally built for a, then astronomical, cost of 11 million dollars. When it was constructed it displaced homes, wine vineyards, and the original Chinatown. Incidentally, the station is reputed to have its own ghost. (Maybe one of those displaced wasn’t too pleased about the concept of eminent domain.)
Though the newer additions to the station contain magnificent murals and sculptures, it is the immaculately maintained features of the past (the lighting fixtures, ticket booths, seats) that truly amaze. If you close your eyes, you might imagine passengers of years gone by, dressed in their “proper traveling clothes”, glancing up at the prominent clock tower in their rush to catch a train.
To a great extent, train travel in L.A. was diminished by the increased use of the automobile (as well as the introduction of freeways) and ultimately air travel. In fact, Union Station is often referred to as “the last of the great American train stations”.
Whether or not you take advantage of the facilities which are rented out for weddings and other functions, I strongly recommend taking a tour as I did (simply contact the L.A. Conservancy: 213-623-2489; the tour of Union Station, I believe, is every third Saturday).
If you do decide to take this tour, you might want to spend some time downtown either visiting Olvera Street or just having lunch or dinner. (The day I was there I had the “specialty” of the renowned Phillipe’s: the dipped sandwich. Delicious, and at $6 or $7 the price can’t be beat). For residents of the Los Angeles area or for those of you planning to visit, the following is a partial list of what was voted “best places to eat downtown” by readers of Los Angeles Downtown News:
- BEST BREAKFAST: The Original Pantry Café
- BEST AFFORDABLE RESTAURANT: Nickel Diner
- BEST WINE BAR: Corkbar
- BEST AMERICAN: Pete’s Café & Bar
- BEST STEAKHOUSE: Morton’s The Steakhouse
- BEST PIZZA: Bottega Louie
- BEST SEAFOOD: Water Grill
- BEST BURGER: Tommy’s
- BEST THAI: Soi 7
- BEST SUSHI: SugarFish
- BEST DIM SUM: Empress Pavillion
- BEST CHINESE: Yang Chow
- BEST VEGETARIAN FRIENDLY: Blossom
- BEST BAKERY: BabyCakes
- MOST ROMANTIC: Café Pinot
- BEST BARGAIN LUNCH: Phillipe The Original
- BEST ITALIAN: Drago Centro
- BEST MEXICAN: El Cholo
- BEST MIDDLE EASTERN: Lula Kabob
- BEST RESTAURANT HAPPY HOUR: McCormick & Schmick’s
(I would add to this one of my personal favorites: Clifton’s Cafeteria)
Please feel free to comment on any of the restaurants I’ve mentioned and to suggest one or two of your own.
Have a great weekend and thank you for joining me on my journey along,
RHODES LESS TRAVELED,