Friday 26 August 2016

Cheap Food of Downtown LA

I paid for my airfare to the USA, and was hosted by the Redbury Hollywood and Discover Los Angeles.

On our recent visit to Los Angeles, Narrelle Harris and I were determined to beat jet lag by staying up till night-time. As we'd arrived at LAX at 6.30am, this was no small challenge. Still, we thought we'd give it a go.

My strategy for filling the day was to introduce Narrelle to the delights of Downtown LA, an area which has had a rollercoaster ride from buzzing city hub to dodgy no-go area, then back up again, over the last century. It's a truly interesting part of LA, one more tourists should see.

Having transferred on the airport bus to the funky Redbury Hotel near Hollywood & Vine, we caught a Metro train to Pershing Square. From here it was a short walk through the lag-combating sunshine to Grand Central Market.

This sprawling collection of food outlets has been operating for almost a century, and contains a wide array of places serving everything from old-school Mexican to funky hipster food.

1. We started with a good coffee from G&B, at the Hill Street side of the market. They put together a creditable caffe latte and long black (alias a short Americano):

2. Moving through the stalls to the Broadway end of the market, we perched on stools at the bar of hip outlet Eggslut, and ordered its signature Fairfax sandwich containing scrambled eggs and chives, cheddar, caramelised onions and sriracha mayo, in a warm brioche bun. Gooey but tasty:

3. A short walk from the market was The Last Bookstore, a sprawling bookshop in a former bank vault. No food here, but always worth a visit:

4. For lunch we visited Nickel Diner, an old diner which has adopted a modern menu while carefully keeping its cool original decor. I ordered a Vegan Sloppy Joe, believe it or not (lots of beans in there, I think). It was excellent. Sadly the prices on the wall were a touch out of date:

5. It was a warm day, so we dropped into Clifton's Cafeteria for a cold drink. This amazing place was a fixture in DTLA for decades, until it closed a few years ago for renovations. Now it's back and as wacky as ever, with a kitschy fake forest interior complete with stuffed animals:

6. The next day we had lunch at Philippe the Original, an old-school diner on the edge of Chinatown. It's famous for its "French-dipped" roast beef sandwiches, and also does a great veggie omelette on a bed of hash browns in the morning:

7. One Downtown cheap eatery we didn't visit this time was Bronzed Aussie. But if you just can't cope with LA without eating a genuine Aussie meat pie, this is the place for you:

Bon appetit!

Monday 22 August 2016

Syria Before the War

The Temple of Baal Shamin in 1994. It was destroyed by IS in 2015.

Last week I discovered I'd won an award at the annual Awards for Travel Writing Excellence, conducted by the Australian Society of Travel Writers.

As they were presented on Thursday evening at the ASTW's annual convention, this year held in South Africa, it was Friday morning when I heard that one of my articles had been named Best International Travel Story Under 1000 Words.

The winning story was about Syria.

For the past five years the country has been embroiled in a gruesome, heart-rending civil war war which shows no sign of abating. My article, however, was about the visit that Narrelle Harris and I made to the country in 1994, while were resident in Egypt.

Me at Palmyra, Syria in 1994.

As I explained in the article, I was prompted to write the piece last year after IS forces captured Palmyra, executed an archaeologist, and destroyed one of the ancient structures within the famous ruins there.

While writing it, I didn't want it to seem like a complaint from an entitled Western traveller about no longer being able to visit Syria's great monuments. So I made a point of including the people we met in Syria, from hospitality workers to random locals encountered on the street.

The key figure was a small boy who, to our amusement, presented us with a coin as we were looking for a vantage point over a Crusader castle. When it was published in print, the article took the title A Boy and a Coin.

Roman Theatre at Palmyra, Syria in 1994.

It was an unconventional piece of writing for a newspaper's travel section, which usually features attractive places you can visit in the here and now.

Luckily Fairfax's national travel editor Anthony Dennis saw a place for it in the Traveller section, among a series of articles featuring World Heritage sites.

I was very grateful for the opportunity to write about the connections travellers make with the people of the countries we visit, and to highlight what was happening in Syria now.

Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, Syria in 1994.

Though destinations rise and fall in popularity, they don't disappear off the map; the people we meet on our travels are still there, living their lives and trying to make the most of their opportunities. We should remember them in times of trouble.

You can read my Syria story here: A Boy and a Coin.

I you'd like to make a contribution to assist victims of the Syrian civil war, here's a link to the Save the Children Fund's Syria appeal.

Friday 12 August 2016

Montreal - With a Twist

Life is a cabaret, someone once said. No more so at Montreal's Cabaret Mado, which I visited on my first trip to Canada in 2010 (courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission). While in the city, I investigated its food, music and subterranean corridors.

As my 2011 article about those experiences has since vanished from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...

“What’s funny about the cabaret now is that more straight people than gay people come to see our shows. We have boys, girls, groups doing their bachelor parties and birthdays, straight couples coming to see the drag queens, it’s so amaaazing!”

It’s easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm of Mado Lamotte, drag queen extraordinaire, as she sits in front of her dressing room mirror in a leopard-print dressing gown and prepares for an evening on stage.

Mado (aka Luc Provost) is not just a mainstay of the Canadian city’s vibrant gay village, but has crossover appeal among all Montrealers who like an outrageous night out.

Mado’s venue, Cabaret Mado, is approaching a decade in operation, though the decor suggests it was set up back in the 1970s. Spherical lampshades hang above the bar, illuminating the orange patterned wallpaper, as dressed-down patrons sip bourbon while waiting for the evening’s show to start.

Then Mado appears on stage as MC, dressed in a striking pink dress, purple wig and a headpiece made from an umbrella.

Subtle it ain’t, and for the rest of the evening the warmly enthusiastic audience is entertained by a succession of drag queens lip-syncing famous songs while dressed in the most extraordinary gear.

One is done up as a striking Spanish diva, complete with rapidly oscillating handheld fan; another performer with green locks wears a giant love heart bordered by live light bulbs; another does a Nana Mouskouri impersonation while holding a large sunflower.

It’s all good fun and a reminder of how distinctive this city is - entertaining, accepting and just a little offbeat.

“We’re very crazy people,” confirms Mado. “We have a strong Quebec culture, which influences the night life. In winter, people get sick of the cold and they go wild. The best party you can get sometimes in Montreal is in January.”

However, it’s fair to say that Montreal is a happening place the whole year round, and always memorable. Here are some other special places in Quebec’s biggest city.

Burgers with more than the lot

You wouldn’t expect a way-cool hamburger joint in this Francophone city, but maybe that’s the point of M:BRGR - to present a high-class alternative to the international burger chains.

This over-the-top burger bar has a slick 21st century interior, with sleek dark tables and curvy white chairs, and a long black bar with cool young people ranged along it.

The menu offers customised burgers up to and including white truffle shavings on top. There’s also a Kobe beef version which incorporates such exotic ingredients as grilled pear, porcini mushrooms and asparagus, and sells for a cool $100.

Life beneath the streets

As above, so below. Beneath the city streets is Montreal’s underground city, known as RÉSO, a play on the French word réseau (network).

It’s a 32 kilometre long complex of subterranean pedestrian tunnels linking hotels, train stations and shopping malls, allowing a visitor to stay entirely underground if desired.

With average winter temperatures below freezing point, this is a good place to hang out in the colder months.

If inclined to take an unconventional stroll, do an entire circuit of RÉSO with the aid of a ride or two on the Metro underground railway.

On the way, you’ll encounter wavy brick corridors, a huge postwar frieze of toiling Canadians in the main train station, upmarket malls with high atriums, a vast illuminated glass artwork about the history of music, and the fascinating Contemporary Art Museum via its below-ground access.

Duelling bagels

In the somewhat Anglophone district of Mile End, new residents’ loyalties are tested by being asked which bagels they prefer: the ones from Fairmount Bagel, or St Viateur Bagel?

Since the 1950s, these small but popular bakeries have vied for the affection of this now-cool suburb’s residents, and everyone’s been a winner as a result of the competition over quality.

Inside Fairmount, the customer joins a queue that squeezes through a narrow gap between towering stacks of trays full of freshly baked bagels waiting to be shipped out to customers.

In St Viateur, the customer is treated to the sight of a cascade of fresh bagels being scooped out of the oven, ready to be sold while warm.

But which tastes better? You’ll have to be the judge.

Full of beans

Adjacent to Mile End, the former working-class neighbourhood of Le Plateau is now cutting-edge, populated with bookshops, cafes and restaurants.

It’s well worth wandering down its side streets to have a look at the distinctive residential architecture, characterised by solid three-storey buildings with external metal stairways which allowed more internal space for big working-class families.

After this exercise, grab a table at La Binerie (The Beanery), serving old-fashioned Quebecois family food. When it opened in 1940, its cuisine represented affordable simplicity; now it’s regarded as retro chic. As you might have guessed, it serves some fine bean dishes.

Another interesting menu item is pouding chômeur, literally the “pudding of the unemployed”. This dish from the 1930s Depression is made from cheap ingredients available at the time, including brown sugar, maple syrup and flour.

Music with a backside

For nearly three decades, Foufounes Électriques has been a bar which showcases great DJs and live music.

Within its no-nonsense brick walls and industrial-punk decor, a young audience soaks up rock, electronica, house and alternative sounds.

It’s a mixed crowd from punks to goths, and the beer is reasonably priced. You can even sample Quebec fast food by ordering a poutine, a tasty mess of cheese curds and gravy.

Oh, and the venue’s name? It means “Electric Ass”.

It’s a joke that would appeal to Mado, a passionate advocate for her city’s unique mix of quirkiness and coolness.

“We have a culture that’s very rich,” she says. “We’ve got our singers, our movies, our plays; and Montrealers go and see these shows, they buy the art. We have a special culture you won’t find anywhere else in North America.”

Friday 5 August 2016

Welcome to the Uber California

My Uber stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
This could be heaven or this could be hell

Something different on my latest visit to the USA was my vastly increased use of Uber, the transport service that allows riders to book trips via a dedicated app.

I'd dallied with Uber on my 2015 US visit, using it for a handful of rides in LA, Portland and Seattle. But this time Narrelle and I used the service extensively, partly because Discover Los Angeles and Visit San Luis Obispo County covered my Uber expenses in their respective cities.

In total, we used Uber 28 times across these four cities:
  • Los Angeles: 20 rides.
  • San Diego: 3 rides.
  • Santa Barbara: 2 rides.
  • San Luis Obispo: 3 rides.

As this was the first time I'd used the service so extensively overseas, here are some observations from the viewpoint of a foreign traveller...


For ease of use, Uber beats catching a local taxi hands-down. To call a local cab, you generally have to find the right phone number, ring it and relay your location (though some local cab services might have their own apps, which you'd have to identify and download).

By contrast, with Uber I occasionally needed to adjust the location pin in the app to precisely show where we were, then entered our destination by name (eg California Science Center). There was never a need to enter an address if we were headed to a business or other landmark.

After registering a request, we had onscreen indication of how far away the Uber car is, as well as its make and registration number.

My only problem with this was that the app's font size was tiny, making it difficult to read the car's number. Also the reliance on giving you the make of car assumes you recognise car makes, which I don't. But there was usually a small colour photo of the vehicle to help.

An odd and disconcerting quirk was that several Uber cars lacked number plates, which apparently is OK in California in the interval between buying one's car and the plates arriving.


Except for one occasion, we used the Uber X service, a notch above the cheapest shared-car option known as Uber Pool. Understandably for a big city like LA, Uber X drivers would often own small vehicles with tight turning circles which could easily manoeuvre through congested traffic.

That did mean, however, that two big people like us often had difficulty squeezing in and out of these compact cars, and getting fiddly rear seatbelts to fasten. On one occasion a sportier make of car was extremely difficult to get into, though once slotted into the front seat I was comfortable enough.


Nearly all the drivers we used were safe on the roads, tackling traffic conditions well without taking risks. We resultingly gave them a five-star rating via the app (the ratings are used by Uber to disqualify drivers who fall below a set level).

The two exceptions were drivers who hadn't installed a cradle for their phones, so would shift their attention between the road and the phones in their hands. Not an experience you feel entirely safe with as a passenger.

In both cases we gave these drivers a lower rating than the usual five stars, and for one driver we followed it up with comments which were later acknowledged by Uber.


Uber seemed reasonably priced, even in a big city like LA where congestion could slow things down. Several of our Los Angeles trips landed between US$5-10, with a few longer ones around US$20.

In LA we still occasionally used public transport, which was great value at $1.75 per trip and could be congestion-free if travelling via the Metro subway/light rail network.

In other places, though, Uber was sometimes an affordable alternative to public transport. On our last day in San Diego we planned to visit Balboa Park with its many museums (see photo above). Two bus fares from the Downtown to the park's vicinity would have cost US$4.50, whereas Uber got us there for US$5.75. It was worth the extra buck for the door-to-door convenience and saved time.


This was the single most attractive advantage of Uber over traditional taxis. When each trip ended, we said goodbye and got out. End of story - no mucking around with foreign cash or credit cards. That really is a great convenience for travellers.

There was some discussion earlier this year whether Uber drivers should be tipped, after Uber said it would neither encourage nor discourage tipping.

Personally I think the introduction of cash tipping would be a disaster. The seamless cash-free aspect of Uber payment is one of its greatest assets.

The drivers. 

We had conversations with nearly all of our drivers, especially since I often sat in the front passenger seat where it was easy to talk. I was interested in whether the drivers were doing the job full-time or part-time, and whether they were able to make enough money for it to be worthwhile.

The responses were an interesting mix. Many were driving for Uber full-time, but there was a large number of drivers who fitted it in part-time around other jobs or activities.

There was a 9-to-5 accountant who drove on weekends because he liked the interaction; a musician who was often away touring but drove between tours; and students who drove when they had free time, to make some extra money. For these people, the flexibility of the gig was a big drawcard.

Only one driver specifically said she felt they didn't earn enough money, and thought LA's cheap public transport fares should be raised so Uber fares could go up too (a position I couldn't agree with, on equity as well as environmental grounds).

I was interested by how few women were Uber drivers, given the greater security from Uber knowing the identity of riders. Only two of our 28 drivers were female. Our first woman driver really enjoyed the job though, and had decked out her car with leopard-print seat covers to mark out a visual difference.

Interestingly, all of our drivers in LA were either Latino or black, and all young; not surprising perhaps for such an ethnically diverse city, but it did make me wonder if white guys weren't attracted to driving for Uber in Los Angeles for some reason.

In the other three cities there was more diversity in age and background, though we didn't have any female drivers outside LA.

The verdict.

Uber was much more pleasant to use than regular taxis, especially in LA; I'd used cabs there before and they'd presented all the shortcomings I'd noted in taxi services in Australia.

For a traveller in a foreign country, Uber is particularly appealing for two reasons: there's no need to handle unfamiliar cash, and you don't need a deep understanding of the local geography as the app handles that for you. These aspects were both much appreciated by us in California.

If I'd been paying for all my Uber use, however, I would have used it significantly less in Los Angeles and used public transport more. LA's Metro trains and buses are generally modern, clean and efficient, and great value with their US$1.75 single-trip fares.

That said, Uber was very handy for short time-saving trips, especially in less congested locations (eg we used it once to get to and from a laundromat in Santa Barbara). On top of that, we got to meet a random bunch of cheerful locals. I'll be using the service again, when on the road.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Life is a Cabaret (in LA)

I was provided with tickets to Cabaret by Visit California.

We're sitting in the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The music strikes up and the Emcee of Cabaret bursts onstage, and the audience erupts in applause. "My god, it's an American audience," I think. "They'll cheer everything."

Except... it works. By virtue of the famous musical's staging, we the audience are also the audience of the Kit Kat Klub within the story. The lively response of an American audience fits neatly with the raucous imaginary nightclub in interwar Berlin, so much so that the Emcee can confidently indulge in a little audience participation after the show's interval.

And what an excellent show it proves to be. To be frank, I'm here mostly because I want to have a look inside the Pantages. Situated near the corner of Hollywood & Vine, it's a gem of a venue that was once a spectacular cinema. Nowadays it's a live theatre venue, and its interior is a riot of extravagant art deco styling.

I'm craning my head to admire the complex, decorative ceiling within the auditorium, while members of the cast wander around on stage as if warming up. Then suddenly we're off, and I'm reminded how this story has played a repeated role in my life. 

As a kid, interested in history, the bittersweet journey of Cabaret's English teacher/novelist was fascinating. I can't help thinking it must have influenced me in later doing a similar thing myself, teaching English to students in Central Europe (in this case, Poland rather than Germany) in the 1990s.

Anyway, back to the show. This LA production is based on the groundbreaking 1993 London production by director Sam Mendes, a version of which I've seen before in Melbourne. It's an excellent updating of the musical for the 21st century, heightening the bisexuality of the novelist character, Clifford Bradshaw, and weaving a sexual fluidity through the whole production. 

There are now featured cabaret boys as well as cabaret girls, and a sexual ambiguity to a great many characters. This was an excellent decision of Mendes', underlining the breaking down of old social norms and conservative certainties in the angst of the era. 

It's not a cheery environment to live in. The past has died, the future has yet to be born - and what a terrifying future it will be once it arrives, as we're constantly reminded by references to the rise of Nazism. In such barren soil, love cannot succeed; so the romantic relationships of both Bradshaw and Sally Bowles, and of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, are doomed.

Seeing this staged in the USA during the current presidential campaign unavoidably sets the mind drifting to demagogues and public anger and hate speech, happening much closer to the venue than 1930s Berlin. I don't think the production team intended to have us considering the onset of authoritarianism in relation to current events, but musing on such matters adds a certain extra something to the evening.

Technically speaking, it's a fine production. The dancers are lithe, energetic and appealingly sleazy; the singers are strong-voiced; and the dramatic passages are ably performed. Randy Harrison (probably best remembered as youngest cast member of the US version of TV series Queer as Folk) is an excellent Emcee, with his endless sexual appetite and refusal to take anything seriously; while Lee Aaron Rosen makes a likeable and sympathetic Clifford Bradshaw.

Oddly, as Bradshaw's character is expanded by the exploration of his bisexuality, that of Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) seems to shrink. She's certainly less substantial and mock-confident than the movie version played by Liza Minnelli, though this may indeed have been the intention of her original creator, author Christopher Isherwood. 

This version of Cabaret is well worth seeing, and not just for the splendour of its venue. The musical still has something to say to us, living in similarly troubled times.

Cabaret runs to 7 August 2016 at the Pantages Theatre, Hollywood; click here for booking details.