As you learn about it, you become sad that a city of half a million, once known as the Coney Island of the West Coast (and much later, in the 2000 Census, as the most ethnically diverse U.S. city), could forget what made it strong. And hitch its star to a breakwater, a Depression-era British ocean liner now mired in debt, an ill-conceived downtown redevelopment project and an overrated boutique beach district. But Long Beach is a great city in which to live, and tremendous fun to visit -- if you know what is here, and where to look. Long Beach's best points are often its most underrated.
It began promisingly enough in 1866, with sheep rancher Jotham Bixby buying part of a former Spanish land grant, Rancho Los Cerritos. In 1880, Bixby sold 4,000 acres of it to an Englishman, William E. Willmore, who failed in starting his own farming community -- Willmore City, the first real city here -- and died in the poorhouse. The Long Beach Land and Water Company bought out Willmore, changed the name of his utopia to Long Beach and incorporated eight years later. Bixby died in 1916, and his last 3,500 acres were subdivided into the present-day neighborhoods of North Long Beach, California Heights, Bixby Knolls, and part of the city of Signal Hill. And there was Long Beach -- sans Belmont Shore, which was a boggy marsh (a marshy bog?), Cal State Long Beach (1949), and much of East Long Beach. But it was staged for greatness!
Builders built, people bought, and Long Beach by the late '30s had most of the great Victorian, Craftsman and Spanish-style houses that make it a great place to live (Sunset magazine recently named Cal Heights one of the best neighborhoods in the nation); pounding surf (no breakwater yet); an International Style Moderne high school (Polytechnic, my alma mater); and the Pike, a storied amusement park that yielded the Coney Island label. Thousands of bathers rode the Pacific Electric railway's longest-lived line (a.k.a. the Red Car) here to soak it all up.
World War II and the 1950s changed everything. The city built a massive breakwater in the '40s to shield the Navy's Seventh Fleet -- headquartered here through Vietnam -- and the warships being created in its shipyards. That turned off the waves like closing a faucet, allowing, eventually, homes to be safely built right on the coast, but eliminating much of the waves' shore-cleansing effects. The '50s and '60s were prime growth years, with Long Beach annexing such northern regions as Lakewood Village, fueling a housing boom. But instead of updating the Pike, city fathers set the scene for its demise: expanding the shoreline by filling it, a process that was well along by the time they bought the Queen Mary, an Art Deco liner, in 1967. The harbor flourished as the Pike withered (it was eventually demolished in the 1980s), and downtown languished.
Despite this, Long Beach today is not the depressed industrial wasteland that East Coast papers inevitably label it whenever Boeing slashes its output/workforce. It truly is an International City, with a huge Vietnamese community and the largest Cambodian population outside Phnom Penh -- and correspondingly great ethnic cuisine. And despite its urbane pretensions, Long Beach has kept a blue-collar ethos, thanks perhaps to the harbor, the aerospace industry, the Navy or the ghosts of shipyard welders. No matter how much publicity the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Pine Avenue restaurant row or Second Street in Belmont Shore receives, this city's true heart will always be elsewhere: in its many intriguing bars, on 10th or Anaheim streets, on Atlantic Avenue in North Long Beach or Bixby Knolls, in any of its hundreds of historic structures or in any of the hundreds of residents who can recount any bit of this past.
Best Hip-hop MogulsUp Above Records. Farsighted enough to sign the Visionaries and to hang with LMNO. Seventh Street and Pine Avenue, Long Beach.
Best Cambodian FoodSophie's Thai and Cambodian Cuisine. Tender, delicious Panang salmon, grilled then topped with a thick curry; Phnom Penh rice noodles in broth with thin-sliced meats and shrimp, topped with cilantro and fried garlic. Served with a selection of wines, in an elegantly urbane space to make you forget busy Anaheim Street outside. 3720 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1763.
Best Midcentury Homes The Ranchos. Designed by the father of the modern ranch house, Cliff May, who went so far as to design fences and to specify which types of trees he'd like framing the streets of this serene district (though most of the ficus trees were yanked after they uprooted sidewalks). Classic low-slung, back-yard-facing A-frame buildings, these look like nothing special from the street. Unless someone takes pity and invites you in to one of the few unmolested examples; then windows swing out, open floor plans tell all, and gracious '50s living is evident. Northeast of Studebaker Road and Spring Street, Long Beach.
Best Motorcycle Shop West Coast Choppers. The reality thing is played, and their wide-tired, deconstructionist aesthetic isn't really our bag, but give Jesse James and his crew credit for virtually single-handedly reinvigorating the custom motorcycle like no one since Sonny Barger. 718 W. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 983-6666; www.westcoastchoppers.com.
Best Barkeep Dana at Red Room. Hard to understand -- we thought she was Russian at first -- but an absolute sweetheart with a photographic memory. Come in a year later and she'll still know your name. Even if you're ironic, that is still cool. Honorable mention: Blake at Red Room. 1229 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 432-4241.
Best Vintage Fourth Street vintage district. Too many stores to even mention 'em all, but they sell everything from those "women's sweaters" guys wore in the late '40s to vintage army khakis to Siestaware to Heywood Wakefield furniture to vintage neon signs that once lit this very city. Fourth Street between Cherry and Junipero avenues, Long Beach.
Best BikerChopper Dave. He works for Jesse James at West Coast Choppers, but he's a Sinners member, and he builds some of the coolest '50s-'60s-style choppers around. http://www.chopperdaves.com/home.html.
Photo by Jack Gould
Best MogulLong Gone John. He runs Sympathy for the Record Industry, throwing down the best local punk and anti-everything since the late '80s; more recently behind the slew of Gun Club reissues. Has all the Sun Jerry Lee Lewis EPs, more cool toys than Santa, and once set out to make a window blind from chicken bones. www.sympathyrecords.com.
Best New Record Store Fingerprints. If it's new or slightly used or Johnny Cash's first LP for Sun, these guys either have it or they've sold it and they'll try to find you another. 4612 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 433-4996.
Best Urban Legend Midget Town, where supposedly once little people who'd made a pile on The Wizard of Oz built homes. And where, Ellen Griley swears, one once went mad, slew his family and hung them on meat hooks. Except these were really just small homes on tiny lots on a narrow street that once was a carriage path around Jotham Bixby's son's house. No little people; no murders. Honorable mention: Fifties Irving Klaw pinup gal Bettie Page once hung her stockings over a shower-curtain rod in Bixby Knolls. Or so they say. La Linda Drive north of Bixby Road, Long Beach.
Best French Restaurant Frenchy's Bistro. Delectable French offerings rendered with a California-friendly touch that reaches out to things like seared tuna without relinquishing a hefty wine list, legs of lamb and creamy potatoes. The price? Up there; as Ray Charles said, let Lincoln and Jackson start shakin' hands. 4137 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-8787.
Best Seagoing Bar The Observation Bar. The bar on the Princess Louise went down with the ship, so we'll give it to this hardwood, curvilinear, Art Deco goddess. Aboard the R.M.S. Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 435-3511.
Best Grammy Winner Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Hodges, who's played with everyone, and who actually bagged the Grammy for sitting in on Waits' Rain Dogs disc. He used to give Rebecca Schoenkopf's son drum lessons, too, until the little ingrate, who was 5 at the time, started whining that all his friends were outside playing. Waaaah.
Photo by John Gilhooley
Best Hardwood V2O The Venue. This joint has decent munchies, deep drinks, and style for days. It's a nightclub with a supper club vibe: recessed or lifted, semi-secluded seating areas for VIPs/surgeons/surgeons on-call. Stylistically, it's all hipster stuff: low-level lighting, eerie backlit bars, polished concrete floors, plush comfy couches, and the tunnel: an amazing hardwood-framed conduit connecting the dance floor to everything else. Nothing like it for miles; it's the best tunnel in the city. 81 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, (866) 402-5828; www.v2olongbeach.com.
Best PabstJoe Jost's. Oldest bar in Long Beach: long and dim and deep with a parking lot and a real live snooker table. And the best Pabst draft in town. They must actually clean out the lines. 2803 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 439-5446; www.joejosts.com.
Best Punk Rock Alex's Bar (honorable mention: the K B Club). Give Alex Hernandez (former bouncer at the Clipper, Fern's) credit for having the vision and the heavy equipment to resurrect this place -- and the nerve to wait until he finally got an entertainment license, so you can see Dengue Fever or Dexter Romweber. Alex's Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; K B Club, 710 W. Willow St., Long Beach, (562) 427-0078.
Best Unsung ArtistVictor Gastelum. You've probably seen his album covers for Calexico, or maybe one of his all-too-infrequent shows. But if you did, you'd remember his vivid stencil style that instantly keys in on blue-collar, Latino Southern California -- instant Echo Park/Long Beach/Santa Ana. www.opticnerve.com/html/vgp.htm.
Best Upscale Bar The Sky Room. The food here is great, I think. I don't remember; last time I was here, atop the historic Breakers hotel -- now a retirement home -- was the night I proposed to my wife. Honorable mention: the Madison -- new money personified, in a former bank building. The Sky Room,40 S. Locust Ave., Long Beach, (562) 983-2703; The Madison, 110 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 628-8866.
Best Mexican RestaurantBrite Spot. This branch is near our house, but there are several from which to choose. The Pacific Coast Highway outpost was first; it was previously an American caf named Brite Spot where, legend has it, they invented the cheeseburger a long time ago. The current owner kept the name, and it's the best authentic Mexican in the city: tangy, charred slabs of carne asada; mojarra frita (fried fish) done to perfection; and awesome burritos, on which I live. 3721 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-4903.
Best Dead Girl Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, Los Angeles' most famous unsolved murder since being found, cut in half, there in 1947. Her last place of residence was 53 Linden Ave., and previous to that, she worked in a caf where Village Treasures is now, at Broadway and Linden Avenue.
Best Used Book Store Acres of Books. Row upon row of non-seismically retrofitted books dating back so long that prices embrace trickle-down economics, stagflation -- even brinksmanship. Positively encyclopedic. 240 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 437-6890.
Best New Book Store Open. This place continues the tradition started by Dodd's (gone), Rodden's (gone), Chelsea (gone) and others: just a good little independent with a taste for the city's history. On some level, all books are history books. 144 Linden Ave., Long Beach, (562) 499-6736.
Best Breakfast Egg Heaven Cafe vs. Omelette Inn. At Egg Heaven, you get your comically complex, zesty, rich breakfast omelets where eggs are almost a side note -- all in slightly snooty Belmont Heights. At Omelette Inn, you get the gritty downtown vibe: waitresses with nose rings and belly chains and breakfasts that showcase the true bounty of the chicken. Tough call; listen to your stomach. Egg Heaven Cafe, 4358 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 433-9277; Omelette Inn, 108 W. Third St., Long Beach, (562) 437-5625.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.