Birthday dining atop the City of Angels…

Dear, darling readers, how are you all?  I hope this post finds you well rested after a weekend doing – and more importantly, eating – lovely things.

I’d like to take you away for a few moments if I may, take you somewhere special, somewhere you may have the same knee-jerk-love-or-hate reaction to as chilled red wine, Ben Affleck movies or Honey Boo Boo, somewhere fondly known as La-La Land, the Big Orange, the City of Angels, that’s right dearies – ooh I heard the voice of Mrs. Doubtfire when I said that! – we’ve arrived at the last destination on our epic road-trip, the place that is both J’s and my spiritual home, a city sweating slightly at a mere 100 degrees and climbing…say hello to Los Angeles.

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I have been unashamedly in love with LA since my first visit in 2008 and every visit since has only increased my adoration & appetite for the country’s second most tightly-packed-in-and-densely-populated city, the first being its East Coast fruit-bowl-counterpart, the Big Apple itself, New York.

Some people say it is a concrete jungle, devoid of style and culture. Some people are wrong. Some people are incorrect, unimaginative & lacking in a spirit of adventure.

I realise I’ve probably just offended a large percentage of the population but so be it. When you’re in love with something, you’re in love with every part of that something and Los Angeles is a city with warmth & class if you just take a small step off the beaten track. If you are so firmly on the beaten track that they’re close to naming a street after you, well, then I can’t help I’m afraid.

So if the idea of restaurant menus for dogs and vegan macro-biotic diets horrify you, probably best to keep flying east. If however sunshine, amazing food, movies, ski-ing, surfing, the arts, blue skies, sunny people and a devotion to working hard & reaping the benefits appeal to you, then hop off at LAX because honey, you’ve found your town.

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You want culture? How about an evening spent under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl listening to John Williams conduct ‘Star Wars’ while you picnic leisurely & wave your light-saber around? It’s a blissful way to pass a few hours – and no, ‘waving your light-saber around’ is not a euphemism for something a little less wholesome and family friendly.

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You’re more outdoorsy? Hiking to the top of Runyon Canyon to gaze at the vista below you is a surefire way to work up the appetite needed for a pit-stop at the Griddle, a cafe where the pancakes are larger than most of the patrons’ dogs and even the heartiest of diners – oh come on, you know that means me – struggle to clear their plates.

J loves this city as much as I do and whatever we chose to do each day was pretty much guaranteed to make us happy, however everyone deserves something special on their birthday and in J’s case, that something special was provided by an appointment in the cobalt skies above, in a Waco bi-plane that, courtesy of Sky Thrills, afforded us the most amazing 70 minute flight above downtown LA, Hollywood, Malibu, Santa Monica and everywhere in between.

I’m afraid I’ve been spoilt for life now as this is really the ultimate way to travel, soaring 1500 feet above the skyscrapers, mansions & malls below while the warm breeze caresses your face and your head, rather fetchingly encased in a very old school leather helmet, whips back & forth as you try to drink in every moment of the flight. If you’ve any interest in seeing LA from a different perspective, this is oh so very much the thing for you to do.

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Upon our arrival back down to earth but still with heads in the clouds, we headed to the Grove, playground of the rich & famous, the local & the tourist, where designer boutiques sit alongside chic restaurants and an adorable tram trundles you from one end to the other…

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…and from window shopping here, we headed around the corner to Urban Garden, a place that touts itself as having the best Lebanese food and a place that sounded perfect for an al fresco birthday dinner.

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We were after something casual but tasty, inexpensive but quality and in this unassuming Lebanese kitchen, we found just that. Both of us love many of the key ingredients that are often found in this Middle Eastern cuisine – I could honestly have hummus with everything – so the idea of filling our tummies with falafel, chicken, kale, chickpeas, garlic and lemon was so far up our street, it was practically parked in the living room, watching TV and drinking a beer.

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Exposed bricks. Quirky artwork. Steel pipes. Wooden furniture. Friendly staff. Cumin heavy air. The promise of ‘the best falafel this side of the planet’. I had high hopes of the modest but eclectic menu and the fact that it took a short while to be prepared filled me not with hunger-induced-irritation as can often happen but a reassurance that what was coming would be good and worth waiting for. When the portions arrived, they were generous and good value which let’s face it, can only ever make a meal seem more appealing.

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Urban Garden’s Beverly Boulevard location, whilst ideal for convenience, is not a peachy place to park your backside & enjoy outdoors dining at its best so we went to the one location that can always be guaranteed for a) spectacular views and b) air considerably fresher than a downtown concrete highway…welcome to Griffith Park Observatory.

Having had more than 70m visitors in a nearly 80 year history to its white, stone walls and expansive, velvety lawns, you might expect this to be a place where you’d have to fight for your right to, well not exactly party, more like take photos, point at the Hollywood sign & try to pick out your hotel from the minutiae of ant-sized traffic below but actually, it has a serenity and a peace to it that is both unexpected and welcome. In a city where nearly 4m people pack into a mere 1300 square km, anywhere that feels like it’s just you & the one you love, and not you & half the population of the planet, is a place to remember.

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So, we’ve made it up there, I’ve sung the praises of its remarkably tranquil beauty and now I hear you say ‘get on with it woman, for the love of flatbreads, tell us about the food!’

So I will.

Salad with no fewer than 8 hand crafted falafels, soft torn kale, ruby-hued roasted beets, quinoa, softly melting goats cheese & a lemon vinaigrette was ridiculously delicious. The earthiness of the sweetly chunky beetroot was matched by the almost-sherbetty fizz & tang of sharp lemon dressing while the falafel were crunchy and soft at the same time with an intense flavour of spice. Talk about a delicious way to be healthy; good lord, here, high above the city below, I had found it. As J will testify too, not many things are capable of muting me in hushed admiration but these bad boys did just that.

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Tabouli with chicken, parsley, bulgar, tomato, onion, mint, lemon & olive oil over hearts of crisp romaine was equally well received by the birthday boy; generous pieces of chicken were seasoned beautifully while the bulgar helped soak up the refreshing & colourful dressing and the romaine was crisp and vibrant and a million miles away from the wilted, unwanted leftover ingredient that lettuce can sometimes be.

Just as some meals are remembered for their quirky style or their ‘hmm-I-wasn’t-expecting-THAT’ quality, so some are known for their simplicity and their ability to present ancient food in a way that places it firmly in the here-and-now. Lebanese fare has crossed both continents and centuries and yet it’s distinctive, citrus-fresh and taste-heavy flavours are as popular today as they’ve ever been and places like Urban Garden are helping with that.

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Have you ever had an awesome meal overlooking your favourite place in the world, sat beside your favourite person in the world?

If you have, that’s fantastic and I genuinely couldn’t be happier that you’ll always have that memory to summon up on the days that a sad, soggy, over-priced lunchtime sandwich doesn’t quite cut it. If you haven’t yet, put it on your bucket list and get it done. It matters not whether it’s a Michelin starred banquet in Paris or a jam sandwich overlooking the rolling hills of Yorkshire; eat something you love, with someone you love, in the place that makes you happiest.

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