rediscovering Pasadena

Art, history and fine dining create a memorable destination.

I remember my first visit to Pasadena, driving out of L A on the 110, a highway that transforms itself from straight ahead freeway to curvy parkway then ends right into downtown. It’s my kind of entrance to this city of 142,000-plus residents that’s tucked next to the San Gabriel mountains. Pasadena is also the site of Rose Bowl, home of UCLA football and the rather well-known Tournament of Roses. 

Fun fact- the first post season football contest was held in 1902 at Pasadena’s Tournament Park. Michigan traveled out West to trounce Stanford 49 to 0, a score so lopsided that the organizers switched to Romanesque chariot races for the next dozen years. The only good news for Stanford players that year was that they returned to our lovely Peninsula in January and didn’t have to train back to Ann Arbor. 

Classic California Charm

I’ve never witnessed the Tournament of Roses, but I’ve spent time in Pasadena and enjoyed every minute. The Mediterranean-influenced Spanish Colonial architecture easily wins me over and it’s found in lovely neighborhoods as well as downtown where classic buildings haven’t been overshadowed by skyscrapers. Santa Barbara has a similar esthetic of preservation, but Pasadena adds contemporary splashes with two Art Center College of Design campuses and the Norton Simon Museum among others.

We began our Pasadena adventure at the magnificent Langham Huntington, the iconic, 112-year-old hotel that has not only managed to survive as one of California’s destination landmarks, it has thrived. That’s not easy to pull off with a prodigious, century old property and the Huntington dodged a few bullets including two world wars and the great depression. The 392-room hotel was rebuilt after being declared seismically unsafe in 1985 and reopened in 1991 under Ritz-Carlton management. Langham Hotels bought the 23-acre property in 2007 and has made major upgrades to rooms, restaurants and public areas.

During our stay, the carpeted hallway to our wing of the building was covered with protective plastic along with the presence of professional film equipment. When we got to our room, the view unveiled an elegant grouping of outdoor dining tables on the spacious lawn. It all was part of a Hollywood film creation, in this case, a segment from HBO’s Westworld was in the middle of filming. Although we didn’t run into Ed Harris or Anthony Hopkins during our stay, we did pass the entire cast in the hallway one evening on our way out to dinner. It was perfect Southern California fun.

Dining Adventures

The Langham in London introduced afternoon tea when it opened in 1865 and that lovely tradition is followed in their properties worldwide. The Langham Huntington brings the tradition into the dramatic lobby lounge with floor to ceiling windows offering views of the Horseshoe Garden and San Marino. The noon to 4 PM seating features Wedgwood tea served in Langham Rose teaware along with delicate sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream and other delights. It’s a serene and luxurious break in a busy day.

Occasionally, we’re in a mood for a classic American steak in a suitably stylish restaurant. For that treat, we simply strolled over to The Royce Wood-Fired Steak House where prime cuts of beef, sourced from top U. S. and International farms, hold starring roles in a traditional menu.

We started the dining adventure with Seared Foie Gras and Veal Sweetbreads appetizers while examining the steak offerings. We settled on a contrast of Filet Mignon cuts, a local from Brandt Beef in Brawley, California and the other sourced from Pennsylvania’s Mayer Farm. The Royce’s sommelier paired wines from a broad list and the experience was just as we expected- picture perfect.

Dining Downtown

The following evening, we hopped a ride on the Langham’s shuttle for a short ride to Pasadena’s Old Town where fun culinary ventures have sprung up in recent years. We began at Maestro, where modern Mexican cuisine and hand-crafted cocktails have made an impressive statement among new restaurants. Maestro boasts over 80 Tequila and Mezcal offerings that pair with authentic offerings from south of the border. We surrendered to the wisdom of our enthusiastic host and enjoyed a perfect Margarita with a touch of Jamaica syrup and a Mezcal Campfire with lime, green chartreuse and maraschino. Our cocktails were paired with Picadas and Esquite Corn appetizers that reminded us of our visits to Mexico and what authentic food and drink tasted like.

Dinner was an easy stroll through Old Town to Union Restaurant where Marie Petulla and chef Bruce Kalman delight in creating daily menus that are as creative as the fresh and natural ingredients sourced locally. The Purple Brussel Sprouts with apples, candied citron, spiced panna and mint were a great beginning, followed with Saffron Gnocchetti Sardi pasta with bay scallops and Calabrian chile. We also shared a Vermillion Rock Cod prepared with buttered leaks and pickled kohlrabi, topped with a tomato fennel broth. The atmosphere was as fun and vibrant as the food and it’s well worth a special trip when you’re in Pasadena or neighboring area.

My Favorite Brunch

I had set aside time on my last morning at the Langham Huntington for a leisurely breakfast and I hoped The Terrace restaurant might have one of my favorites- Corned Beef Hash with eggs lightly poached. They exceeded my expectations with Short Rib Hash, the braised short ribs on country potatoes and topped with sweet chili aioli. And I’ll bet whatever you love will be on the gourmet breakfast menu.

Visiting Culture

The Norton Simon Museum on Colorado Boulevard features seven centuries of European art with works from Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh among other famous artists as well as an Asian sculpture collection that spans 2000 years. The contemporary architecture uses natural light to great advantage to highlight the display space. 

For a real taste of classic California history and magnificent architecture, take a short drive (or Langham shuttle ride) to the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens. This 207-acre estate that the late Henry Huntington built at the turn of the 20th century contains Huntington’s remarkable mansion, library and botanical gardens. You’ll want to set a day aside to tour the stately buildings that exhibit one of the largest collections of California and American art as well as the 14,000 varieties of plants in the spacious gardens.

Pasadena is one of those hidden gems that shouldn’t be overlooked and it’s only a short drive to bustling Los Angeles and the great sprawl that surrounds the big city center.