The San Fernando Valley is easily one of the most misunderstood regions of Los Angeles. Long mocked for its suburban strip malls, vapid “Valley Girl” accents and affordable tract housing, the Valley gets a bad rap as L.A.’s tragically un-hip suburban wasteland.
But the stereotypes are simply not true, and we proved it in this year’s Best of L.A. issue, which features dozens of hidden gems all over the San Fernando Valley and beyond, even into the far reaches of the Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys.
Where else but the Valley can you find a massive warehouse that exclusively sells horror movie props? Or an entire village built with bottles, tiles and doll heads? Sure, the Valley sometimes feels like it’s the hottest place on Earth, but that’s all the more reason to jump off a cliff and into a good old fashioned water hole or glide down a massive water slide in a public pool.
We found these and a gaggle of other surprisingly cool things to do in the northern reaches of Los Angeles — because despite what you may have heard, not everyone in the Valley wants to hang out in a 7-11 parking lot.
Join the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard
Walking into Tonga Hut is like traveling back to 1958. The San Fernando Valley tiki bar looks on first glance as if it hasn’t changed much since opening 56 years ago, though in reality a new owner restored it to its former midcentury glory in 2005. Tiki Ti may be L.A.’s most famous tropical-drink dispensary, but Tonga Hut is about three times the size, which means you actually might be able to get a table on the weekends. Choose from classics including the Zombie or a mai tai, or an original house creation, such as the habanero lime syrup–spiked Latin Liver. True tiki devotees will want to join the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard: Drink one of each of the 80 or so cocktails from the seminal tiki tome Grog Log in the space of a year, and you’ll get a plaque on the wall, plus $1 off all future drinks. —Jason Horn 12808 Victory Blvd., N. Hlywd., 91606. (818) 769-0708, tongahut.com.
Scavenge vintage doorknobs from the 1800s
Thanks to Shari and Rick Pistone, owners of Rick’s Hardware Co. in North Hollywood, thousands of unique vintage doorknobs, drawer pulls and hinges have been saved from landfills. Their treasure chest of a store is lined with wooden cubbies filled with stunning hardware for doors and cabinets, with items of every style, finish and period. Antique and vintage pieces from as early as the 1800s are the shop’s specialty, but new merchandise is available, too. If you’re renovating a home, don’t throw away the discarded fixtures; take them to Rick’s and see if you can make a deal — buy or trade. You may even see your old hardware in a movie: The shop does a brisk business with the studios, renting out unique hardware for set decor. —Jacky Surber 4382 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd., 91602. (818) 508-7948.
Explore a secret lumber wonderland
If you wanted a hunky guy who could build anything and has the means to own a tricked-out, $30,000 pickup truck — not that we’re looking or anything! — check out the crowd picking up goods each morning at Far West Plywood in Northridge. It’s frequented by contractors, not average Joes puzzling over the power drills at Home Depot. Operated by the same family since 1960, Far West Plywood boasts the highest grades of hardwood, moldings and finished and unfinished paneling, not to mention melamine, particle board, laminates, flooring and siding. The huge, steel-walled warehouse looks like some kind of replacement structure erected after a hurricane. Don’t be fooled: Although the address sounds like Parthenia near Reseda Boulevard, it’s Parthenia Place — an obscure dead end next to the railroad tracks. It’s the sort of secret, high-quality spot you have to live in L.A. for years to discover. —Jill Stewart 18450 Parthenia Place, Northridge, 91325. (818) 885-1511, farwestplywood.com.
Smoke from a robot-shaped pipe
A San Fernando Valley institution, Captain Ed’s Shoppe has served generations of smokers with the finest glass pipes and other accessories since 1967. With locations in Reseda and Van Nuys, this joint is so beloved that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the 818 area code with a penchant for the green stuff who wasn’t already a fan. Back in the day, Captain Ed’s primo stock was mixed with quirky posters, T-shirts and other oddball items. Now, at the Reseda location, those items are overshadowed by the wide array of smoking accessories — everything from the classic, pocket-sized pipe to Snoop Dogg’s line of vape pens. There’s also a case filled with high-end glass crafted by artists who turn pipes into ducks, robots and other colorful characters. These sculptural pieces can cost well over $1,000 and are almost too beautiful to use. Next door to the Reseda shop is the associated Heady Gallery, open for exhibitions by the best artists in the scene. Times have changed and pipes are now art, but Captain Ed’s hippie spirit remains. Look for the “Make Love, Not War” mural on Reseda Boulevard. —Liz Ohanesian 7011 Reseda Blvd., Reseda, 91335. (818) 996-1222, captainedsshoppe.com.
Watch totally out-of-print VHS tapes
Imagine yourself in a dusty world where VHS tapes inherit the earth, people punctuate phrases with “you see?” and geezers croon about Barbara Stanwyck and John Wayne to tunes churned out by an adenoidal Victrola — and you’ve just imagined yourself into Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood. You see? Not just for the geriatric, Eddie Brandt’s offers its expansive collection of rare, classic and out-of-print films (many only on VHS) to regulars including Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, Angelyne and seemingly every B-movie actor under the San Fernando Valley sun. Stick around long enough and you may get a chance to shake hands with Peter Bogdanovich or, more likely, hear the unofficial Eddie Brandt’s anthem, “I thought this place was closed!” The Eddie Brandt, now deceased, co-opened the store in 1969, leaving his legacy to his wife, who still runs the shop with the help of her son and cantankerous but lovable clerks. No matter our post-VHS reality; Eddie Brandt’s persists as a fedora-free, unpretentious cine-mecca and, above all, as a place to talk movies, often with snaggle-toothed cinephiles raised on the silver milk of Hollywood — and who are damn well going to tell you about it. —Lila Seidman 5006 Vineland Ave., N. Hlywd., 91601. (818) 506-4242/506-7722, ebsmvideo.com.
Decorate with live-cast human skulls
At Dapper Cadaver Horror Props, the stuff of nightmares awaits you — coagulated by type and made so well you’d never know it’s merely a set of replicas. Located behind an unassuming storefront just off the 5 freeway, this den of dread carries everything from lab jars to a dozen distinct, live-cast human skulls. Need some life-sized dinosaur skeletons? An electric chair … complete with victim? A giant hewn-stone head? Check, check and check. How about something custom-made? Pitch your Hieronymus Bosch–style fantasy, and their artisans can build it, on site. Thousands of television shows, films, toy companies and live-event venues around the world get their quality death and science decor from Dapper Cadaver, but anyone (living) can pop in to shop. Rent to trick out an event, or buy something for yourself or for that friend who has everything. Founder B.J. Winslow makes sure to stock something wonderfully awful to fit any budget. —Jody Lindke 7572 San Fernando Road, Sun Valley, 91352. (818) 771-0818, dappercadaver.com.
Climb inside a house made of color-coded bottles
Simi Valley gets a bad rap. Between the Manson family using Spahn Ranch as a clubhouse in 1968 and ’69, and the town acting as a host for the 1991 trial that would eventually acquit the policemen who beat Rodney King, Simi V. is known for her claws and daggers in California’s history. But Simi Valley also is the cherished home of one of the state’s most treasured folk art sites. Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village, a shockingly detailed outsider-art site comprised of color-coded structures built with bottles, tiles and all the doll heads Tressa Prisbrey could unearth at the local Simi dump, was built by hand between 1956 and 1981. Prisbrey started the project when she was already 60 years old, some say as a form of therapy to deal with the deaths of five of her six children. Other sources say she wanted structures to display her 17,000-strong commemorative pencil collection, and still more sources will impart that she just wanted to do something with the remnants of her then-husband’s “bad habit.” —Rena Kosnett 4595 Cochran St., Simi Valley, 93062. (805) 231-2497, bottlevillage.com.
Check out a Cheech Marin mural
If you virtually cruise down Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima on Google Maps, you’ll see a few hand-painted storefronts but mostly blank façades. That was Pacoima back in 2011. Since then, the town’s main drag has flowered with new fine-art murals, earning the moniker “Mural Mile” and attracting throngs of walking and biking tours. Artist Levi Ponce has mapped out the 20-plus old and new murals. They include his own Born in East Valley, featuring Cheech Marin against smokestacks and a 1959 Impala lowrider, and Pacoima Art Revolution, a stunning re-creation of the Mona Lisa as a Mexican warrior. Plus there’s Rah Azul’s Mi Vida, Mi Cultura, a brightly colored tableau of birds, bicyclists and books on race theory; and Kristy Sandoval’s Assata Shakur, Freedom Fighter, celebrating the town’s African-American population. For such a concentration of public art, it’s well worth the drive up the 5. —Jessica Langlois Van Nuys Boulevard between Arleta Avenue & Herrick Avenue, Pacoima, 91331.muralmile.org.
Get flower power in a wildlife sanctuary
In the high desert of L.A. County, a number of wildlife sanctuaries and open lands let you walk undisturbed, gaze at desert plants and animals, or just enjoy the silence. Butte Valley Wildflower Sanctuary is one of the prettiest of these open spaces. Perched on a plateau above Saddleback Butte State Park, this 350-acre parcel is surrounded by a lush forest of Joshua trees, with trails that lead more or less nowhere. In springtime you can see a wide array of colorful California wildflowers. Travel a little further north, and you’ll come to a cliff with views of Edwards Air Force Base; drive along nearby avenues to find two widely used professional movie sets decorated as vintage roadside stopovers, Club Ed (on 150th Street East) and the Four Aces (14999 E. Avenue Q in Lake Los Angeles). —Suzy Beal Avenue J between 190th and 200th streets East, Lancaster, 93534. (661) 944-6881,dfg.ca.gov.
Rent a cabana at a public pool
Set among nine acres of grass and sandy beach, Hansen Dam Aquatic Center is L.A.’s largest public pool, but it looks like a resort you’d see in Palm Springs, complete with cabana rentals and two impressive water slides. The modern, 1.5-acre walk-in pool overlooks the vast Hansen Dam Recreation Area and has an impressive view of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, which makes it seem more like a vacation destination than just a day at the community pool. Over the last few years, Hansen Dam has become popular with large picnic groups, and the line to get in can take 40 minutes or more. It’s best to arrive at least an hour after opening. The facility bans glass, knives, charcoal or improper swimwear, so it pays to read the rules before heading out. A swimsuit vendor and food truck are on-site and admission is $1 to $3.50. —Suzy Beal
11798 Foothill Blvd., Lake View Terrace, 91342. (818) 899-3779.laparks.org/dos/aquatic /facility/hansendamRC.htm.
Tour an old oil boom town
An underappreciated historic site just off the Golden State Freeway in Newhall, Mentryville is a gorgeous place to hike that also offers some pretty cool old stuff to look at. Located at the entrance of scenic Pico Canyon, Mentryville was a 19th-century oil boom town built around its famous oil well, Pico No. 4. Antique oil drilling rigs and other artifacts line the canyon road, and you can tour the preserved buildings of Mentryville on alternate weekends. It’s sort of reminiscent of Pioneertown (and has served as a movie location, natch), with the added bonus of hiking trails that are mostly flat, mostly shaded, bikeable and family-friendly. Recent upgrades include pleasant little bridges, benches and picnic tables to enjoy, plus there’s plenty of parking ($5 fee). But Mentryville manages to hang onto its Old West flavor, despite being just a couple miles away from busy Santa Clarita. —Suzy Beal 27201 Pico Canyon Road, Newhall, 91381. (661) 251-8820, scvhistory.com/mentryville.
Hug a sheep
If you’re feeling a bit blue, sometimes a nice animal cuddle is the best way to get your sense of hope back in order. Go hug a sheep, a cow, a goat or even a turkey at the Gentle Barn, a 6-acre rescue sanctuary that’s home to more than 160 farm animals recovering from abuse or neglect. The mission of this special facility is to bring people and animals together to provide spiritual healing for all. Each animal at this rehabilitation center has lived through a sad hardship story, which is posted near its pen to create an even deeper bonding experience when you stop by. Visitors are encouraged to give love, hugs and attention to the animals. It’s a wonderful feeling to sense their reciprocity. Seeing these formerly abused animals learn to trust the world again makes it possible to put your own worries into perspective. —Nikki Kreuzer 15825 Sierra Hwy., Santa Clarita, 91390. (661) 252-2440, gentlebarn.org.
Jump off a cliff
A mile’s hike into Malibu Creek State Park is an old-fashioned water hole called Rock Pool. A ring of cliffs ranging from 20 to 50 feet high surrounds the deep, green water. On the weekends, the cliffs serve as a launching pad for brave cliff jumpers who practice their sport in front of crowds of wallowing onlookers. Other cliff-jumping spots might have higher cliffs or clearer water, but none match the lazy-day party vibe and jovial jungle atmosphere of Rock Pool. It’s so deep in the woods that the park rules prohibiting cliff jumping (and public drinking) are ignored. The result is a sunny circus that you can join as an applauding audience member or, if you’re fearless enough, as a high-flying performer. No pressure, though — you can always lie out on a rock and sun yourself like a happy seal. —Isaac Simpson 1925 Las Virgenes Road, Calabasas, 91302. (818) 880-0367,malibucreekstatepark.org.
Learn curling. Yes, curling.
Given the Kings’ big win this past season, more L.A. denizens ought to take to the ice. The best place to get all frosty this fall and winter without leaving town is L.A. Kings Valley Ice Center in Panorama City, where Hollywood Curling offers classes and friendly amateur games in the strangely addictive sport of curling. Wear ear muffs in the Valley! Learn to brush the ice like a madman! Laugh at your friends as they slip and belly-flop on the ice only to be harmlessly dragged off by the “stone,” which weighs 40 pounds. It’s really fun — so fun that you should book well ahead to reserve spots. The ice rink crew trains you in curling for about an hour, then lets you make an ass of yourself. During late spring and summer, the Hollywood Curling organization moves its roving program to Valencia’s beautiful Ice Station Valencia rink, where you’ll enjoy the same blend of humiliation and revelry. —Jill Stewart
8750 Van Nuys Blvd., Panorama City 91402. (818) 893-1784,lakingsvalleyicecenter.com, hollywoodcurling.org. 27745 N. Smyth Drive, Valencia, 91355.(661) 775-8686, icestation.net.
Listen to live Mayan music in a mission-style theater
Elisabeth Waldo is one of L.A.’s multicultural treasures. She’s a concert violinist and composer who is also a musical archeologist. First tapped by Leopold Stokowski for his youth orchestra, La Waldo went on to play violin for film soundtracks, record her own exotica albums and consort in Latin America with the likes of Diego Rivera and Yma Sumac. How can you get in on this action, you ask? Well, Waldo has a compound in Northridge, called Rancho Cordillera del Norte, which is not only a repository of her collection of Pre-Columbian instruments but also a showplace for a range of concerts in a Mission-style theater. All are either conducted by, or presided over by, the maestra. The featured music includes Mayan, Incan, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican, as well as other genres connected to California. The schedule can be unpredictable, however, so be sure to consult the website and plan ahead. The rancho also can be rented for weddings and other extravaganzas.
—Jeffrey Burbank 9015 Wilbur Ave., Northridge, 91324. (818) 993-1669, elisabethwaldomusic.com.