California Dreamin’ A Baltimore writer returns to Hollywood older and wiser—and hungry for pie.

By Terri Steel



sunset blvd on los angeles

On a cool Monday night in West Hollywood, silver stars light the sky as I snuggle under a fur throw to screen a thriller. I’m rooftop at the Petit Ermitage Hotel, savoring a glass of pinot noir, its dark, earthy scent all musk and wood, graciously handed to me by a woman I’ve just met who happens to be lounging beside me. “You like red?” she whispers, handing me a glass and filling its deep crystal bowl. “By the way, the director and producer are sitting behind you.”

My plane landed only an hour earlier—I’m rendezvousing with my adult daughter for a week of R&R, in theory. For me, this trip is also a personal chance to confront my youthful infatuation with the entertainment industry, a crush that ended in early heartbreak. But for now, digging my hand into a bowl of truffled popcorn, I turn for an inconspicuous glance at the two dashing movie men lounging on the cabana—before I can stop myself, I’m grinning.

It was in my 20s that I was smacked with this schoolgirl crush on California. After a particularly harsh winter in Baltimore, I charmed my new boyfriend (now husband), Rick, into abandoning our hometown for adventures across the desert. We packed a U-Haul, banking somewhat vaguely on my big ’80s hair and bright smile to take us to surreal heights we had only dreamed of. But how hard could it be? After all, my brother-in-law, Jeff Marder, had made his way as a comic, performing with Johnny Carson and Arsenio Hall, and landing his own HBO show.

But all those pretty pictures of hot sports cars, movie cameras and pristine beach houses I had conjured listening to songs like “California Girls” proved out of reach. A few short months later, our pockets were empty and we returned home. Like a jealous lover, Rick still holds a stiff grudge, refusing to visit the entire West Coast. Sitting rooftop, I feel a little sorry for him.

petit_pool_day_final_v4-21A hummingbird buzzes past my breakfast table the next morning to nuzzle a succulent orange-scented blossom in a lush garden that would make Eve envious. The petit dejeuner is a grand display of French-inspired delicacies, including warm chocolate croissants. I pop one into my mouth, the satiny chocolate ah-inducing, and load my plate with slices of ripe melon, berries, crusty fig bread and dreamy Brie. In blissed-out mode,

I think about how much I love my large family—our kids and grandkids—and perhaps ironically: how much I love the city of Baltimore.

This French/Moroccan-inspired Petit Ermitage has a true bohemian feel. Nestled in a residential neighborhood that’s predominately gay, the boutique hotel was formerly an apartment building. Today it hosts L.A.’s finest, including a resident artist, Marcus Suarez, who has helped to create an amazing art collection. An exclusive annual pass allows members access to the rooftop’s heated saltwater pool, with stunning views of the city and nightly entertainment.

As reserved guests of the hotel, we are delighted to have an insider’s view.

People-watching at the pool is such a tonic that we to linger for the first few days. (Plastic surgery is an art, no?) We chill out and I feel myself seeing this corner of the town through my 50-something eyes. It’s a perfectly heavenly place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.

By midweek, we will ourselves to exit the hotel doors for some shopping and sightseeing, before meeting my (now ex) sister-in-law, Marki Costello, granddaughter of the famed Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello), and my nephew Lucas at Jon & Vinny’s, a fantastic modern Italian place, for dinner.

imagesLucas has comedy in his blood, making rounds in the L.A. stand-up clubs at just 19. He shares his witty but down-to-earth observations all day on Twitter: “You know you’ve been in college too long when Panda Express seems exotic.”

As he chats us all up over pasta, Lucas’ brimming natural confidence confirms what I always suspected—I was never Hollywood material. And that’s OK. I’m a writer; I’m from Baltimore.

Next day, a short stroll brings us to Melrose Avenue, where colorful retail beckons. Ducking into Nasty Gal, I find a trendy bargain: a pair of soft-suede, black-fringed shorts that can work day or night—and for under $40. Next up is L.A. Rose, a vintage shop that boasts a notorious online clientele. My daughter is a huge fan and snags a formal, floor-length stunner for Saturday night’s summer soiree: The Night Circus. As guests of the hotel, we’ve received an invitation to this formal, creatively dubbed gathering, requiring circus or black-tie attire, prior to our arrival. (Don’t expect me to dress circus, BTW.)

img_0006Shopping complete, we stop by Sweet Lady Jane for a shared lunch and dessert—the house-made meatloaf sandwich and a slice of pie. We order Oprah’s favorite variety, the cherry, and marvel at its size and color. A crisp lattice crust, crisscrossing over plump berries, makes it impossible not to dive in, and we finish off every morsel without speaking, barely noticing Academy Award-winning actress Linda Hunt, cast member of “NCIS Los Angeles,” at the next table.

After lunch, we peruse a local arts show before heading back to freshen up, finding ourselves just in time for the Toledo Show in the Masters Lounge. This in-house entertainer, Toledo, implements a Shabbat blessing over bread and spirits every Friday (shots of absinthe are on deck this evening) before taking the stage for his jazz and burlesque show. His performance is, in a word, unique—“It’s like this Cab-Calloway-meets-Tom-Waits sound,” my daughter suggests—and we are mesmerized. According to the Los Angeles Times, we are watching “the coolest cat working in Hollywood.” The burlesque dancers are top-notch, too, but Toledo is the showstopper. He’s performed with Janet Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Diana Ross—to name a few. Watching him perform, I forget myself.

Next evening, the Night Circus is full of surprises: towering tents fill with fire-eaters, strongmen, acrobats and jugglers, as lingerie-clad clowns thrill the crowd. I feel like the luckiest spectator on earth. Drinks are filled, glasses clink and I am flattered when a guest offers me a magic cookie. For a second I’m actually tempted, like it’s 1982. Then I catch a glance at my reflection, and there it is, staring back at me: 2016. “No thanks,” I say with a smile.

The ’80s are over, but I’m glad to say my schoolgirl crush has new life, and a new perspective. This time, California has not disappointed.

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