Silver Lake + Los Feliz
The village that has developed a voice all of its own
It’s difficult to imagine in the modern moment, but in an alternate dimension, Silver Lake could’ve been the site of Disneyland. Even if you squint hard past the packed third wave latte shops and body sculpting studios, the Cannabis dispensaries and $15 salad emporiums, you’d be hard pressed to find the evidence that in the aftermath of his Steamboat Willie breakthrough, Walt Disney built his first major studio at the intersection of Griffith Park Blvd. and Hyperion Avenue. But it’s there. It’s just buried like a lost animated ark underneath a Gelson's Market that boasts a wine and tapas bar.
During the Depression years, you could find Walt Disney in what was then called Edendale, a neighborhood that later became a working-class Mexican enclave and alternately, the epicenter for the fledgling Los Angeles gay rights movement. It was in Silver Lake where he and his team conceived Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, even modeling their homes based on the charming cottages behind the studio (that still exist). In the wake of Snow White’s success, Disney decamped to Burbank, bought up a ton of land in Orange County for the theme park that bears his name, and left the neighborhood to ultimately fulfill its final form: becoming the West Coast Williamsburg.
IF YOU BREEZE THROUGH SILVER LAKE ON ANY GIVEN AFTERNOON, YOU'LL SEE THIS ADMIXTURE OF OLD AND NEW CULTURE SHOULD YOU KNOW WHERE TO LOOK.
If you breeze through Silver Lake on any given afternoon, you’ll see this admixture of old and new culture should you know where to look. In the intervening years between Disney’s departure and its re-emergence as the setting for millennial neo-noir mysteries starring Andrew Garfield, Silver Lake served as a bedroom community for first and second generation Latinx families, many of whom worked in downtown manufacturing jobs. Accordingly, the roots of the neighborhood’s best unreconstructed Mexican food spot Tacos Delta, traces back to the days when Spanish was the most commonly spoken language in the surrounding blocks.
Founded in 1981, Tacos Delta is the platonic ideal of a Southern California Mexican food hole-in-the-wall: it’s affordable and family-owned, with recipes that stretch back generations. Open early and closed late. The fish tacos and burritos are delicately breaded, drizzled with fresh lettuce and tomatoes and a dollop of sour cream. The chilaquiles might be the city’s best, and there’s menudo on the weekends. It’s what made it a neighborhood meeting spot for decades, attracting both bearded film executives playing weekend bohemian and Mexican grandparents who remember the halcyon era before one-bedroom apartments started going for $2995.00 a month.
As the venerable chef and owner of AOC, Suzanne Goin once aptly described Tacos Delta: “Sitting out on that makeshift patio with the eclectic mix of fellow Delta fans is simply the best. Although everyone comes here for the delicious tacos, especially the charred carne asada or al pastor, my all-time fave from this genuine Mexican family owned place is the menudo they make on Sundays…And such a great crowd at the community tables.” If you’re looking for a civic connection or communal vibe, you can’t find a better spot than on their patio, bonding with your neighbors over a heaping platter of chilaquiles.
Over the last decade, Silver Lake transformed itself from a nexus of small mom and pop restaurants, panaderias, and donut shops, to a top-tier destination for culinary pilgrims. There’s the absurdly packed Sqrl and the Thai staple Night + Market. If you’re looking for insanely delicious white table cloth Italian food, there’s Alimento. But if you actually live in the neighborhood or are just stopping in for the afternoon, a trip to Café Tropical is mandatory. If Los Angeles is overrun with boutique coffee shops that make their cappuccinos with the solemnity of someone splitting the atom, Tropical has cranked out singe-your-eyebrows strong Café Con Leches since the Gerald Ford administration. It attracts everyone from aspiring screenwriters to recovering addicts walking in from the rehab meetings next door, a genuine Mos Eisley cantina for caffeine. A place to recover from the harsh sun while sitting underneath rainbow colored bunting and paper lanterns, imbibing in Cuban coffee so good it makes you google “trips to Havana.” What’s more, their Cuban sandwich is so peerless that the dearly departed food critic Jonathan Gold hailed it as his favorite in Los Angeles.
Just across the street is Silversun liquor, the bodega that the band the Silversun Pickups named themselves after. It’s a reminder that up until recently, Silver Lake was a cradle of West Coast indie rock, producing bands like Local Natives and Lord Huron. This is where Elliott Smith settled after leaving the Pacific Northwest, and where he famously took the Figure 8 cover photo in front of what is now a Filipino fine dining restaurant called Ma’am Sir. A few doors down is Sunset Junction, a fabled intersection that once hosted the Circus of Books (since converted into a literary-themed marijuana dispensary), and currently is the site of Intelligentsia Coffee, and the perennially cool sneaker spot, Undefeated.
Beck might be the most iconic musician that the neighborhood produced, notably opening up the storied neighborhood venue Spaceland in 1995 (alongside the Foo Fighters).
Beck might be the most iconic musician that the neighborhood produced, notably opening up the storied neighborhood venue Spaceland in 1995 (alongside the Foo Fighters). Rechristened The Satellite in the early part of this decade, the venue remains a local nightlife mecca, hosting the popular indie night, Dance Yourself Clean, LGBT dance nights, and Sunday standup sessions featuring the likes of Neil Hamburger and Brandon Wardell.
Of course, any quarter famed for its sonic heritage needs a record store for its residents to keep their crates stocked. For over a quarter century, Rockaway Records has been the area’s go-to, weathering the transition from vinyl and tapes to CDs, and back to vinyl again. Though it has downsized from its formerly cavernous digs, it can still go toe-to-toe with any spot east of Amoeba. But what gives it its character is its memorabilia, which doubles as a veritable Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s here where you can gawk at signed Beach Boys 45s and old Led Zeppelin promo blimps, Pink Floyd contracts and Neil Young promotional displays from the Rust Never Sleeps era.
Few neighborhoods can mark the swiftness of Los Angeles’ evolution as starkly as Silver Lake. In the last decade, it transformed from a hipster mecca into a well-heeled tourist destination— the place where your programmer friend from the Bay rents an Airbnb when they’re coming to visit LA. As you might imagine, the area’s nightlife has changed dramatically, with upstarts like Tenants of the Trees and The Friend Bar competing with comparatively old standbys like Cha Cha Lounge and The Thirsty Crow.
However, the most dependable spot remains one of its oldest bars, the Teutonic-themed Red Lion Tavern. Built in 1959, the Red Lion has a bucolic patio built for sipping one of their dozen imported German draft beers on warm summer nights. The fish and chips is so delicious that it makes you wonder why you don’t eat fish and chips more often. The waitress uniforms and the bar’s décor hew to the feel of old Saxony, as though you’re in a Hofbrauhaus that’s been dropped smack the middle of Silver Lake. This isn’t not quite Disneyland, but it’s endearingly whimsical. It’s the sort of place that fosters an irreplaceable sense of connection. A place where you imagine the seven dwarves would’ve wanted to sip brews after a long day of digging for diamonds.