It’s no news that California’s Venice is not what it was five years ago. What was once a diverse neighborhood filled with beat poets, drug addicts and drum circles on the beach has now become a pseudo-bohemian beach town that tourists and locals alike flock to for boozy brunch and Instagram photoshoots. Some even refer to the area as “New Venice,” but the old Venice flavor is still there ... if you know where to look.
Yes, there are dozens of Venice restaurants and shops cool enough to make a trendsetter’s palms sweat, but it’s important to pay homage to the nitty gritty hole-in-the-walls that anchor the authentic soul of Venice.
For the inside scoop, we hit up our friends at Groundwork Coffee Co. on the Venice Boardwalk—a neighborhood favorite since they opened shop over 25 years ago. Needless to say, they've seen it all. Since then, Groundwork has expanded to 11 total shops in LA, and was one of the first certified organic coffee roasters in the city, but the boardwalk location remains the OG and the epicenter of Venice.
Groundwork barista Jason Klass, a local curmudgeon who lives for little more than music, food and traveling, took us on a tour through old-school Venice, no frills attached:
Images courtesy of Groundwork Coffee Co.
What do you love about Venice?
Jason Klass: I love the spontaneity of Venice, where it’s always laidback and a little weird, and you just might happen by an impromptu gathering of session musicians jamming on a bossa nova melody a few steps away from the sand. Venice is one of the only neighborhoods in LA that’s walkable with a community feel.
What tips do you have for first time visitors to LA?
JK: While any vacation in LA should include a lazy day in Venice, make sure to check out what the rest of the city has to offer. Los Angeles is expansive and though I grew up here, I’m constantly discovering new areas. We’re lucky to have an incredibly diverse population and possibly the best hole-in-the-wall restaurant scene in the country. Find me checking out live music, hiking the hills nearby, stumbling around K-town or just lounging in my hammock. Los Angeles is a difficult city to comprehend by any means, but if you put aside your expectations and stay away from the Hollywood Strip, you’ll find that there’s something for everyone.
Take us through your ideal day in Venice.
JK: Grab a cup of coffee or cappuccino from Groundwork on the boardwalk and spend the next half hour just people watching. People hang out in public, so strike up a conversation with the locals. You never know where you might end up. There’s always some sort of spectacle to witness. And make sure you wander around the Venice Canals for a while, preferably with a bottle of wine. If you’re feeling lazy you can walk down to the beach at any point from the boardwalk, but I’ve always found the areas south of Washington Blvd to be cleaner and far less crowded. The majority of the time I stick around near the shop on Westminster Ave. where you can can often catch local guitar hero Vinnie Caggiano playing out front of the coffee shop. Most of the food options are geared now towards the high end or bottom of the barrel tourist bites, but there are still some solid cheap eats if you know where to look.
Here's where the barista keeps it real:
JK: Hidden inside the International Food Court, they’ve got a full menu of Peruvian classics—the lomo saltado is perfectly cooked, the ceviche is bright and fresh and the rotisserie chicken might be even better than LA institutions Pollo ala Brasa and Pollo Inca. I’m still trying to crack their salsa recipe.
JK: This is a taqueria originally from Santa Monica (I believe this is their 4th location). The menu is pretty vast but I tend gravitate towards their sopes and the majority of the time I order a cemita poblana (Mexican sandwich). The meats are never greasy and don’t forget those carrots and jalapeños in escabeche.
JK: A true classic LA greasy spoon that’s nearly gone from this side of town, and disappearing fast everywhere else. Don’t play games, just get the pastrami burger. It’s objectively low quality, but so good.
JK: This place feels like the last little piece of old Venice’s soul. Great dive bar burgers with surly service and grandpa blues bands on weekends that can actually play. It may be the only bar I’ve gone to in Venice within the last couple years where you can escape the douches and walk down to the water after a few pitchers. If the landlords ever kick them out, it’s time to finally pack up and leave.
Image courtesy of Nikki Kreuzer @lunabeat
The Wee Chippy
JK: Simple concept with good execution—line caught cod, thick cut fries and your choice of seasonings (I’m partial to rosemary and parmesean) and sauces. Somehow the owner finds UK newspapers for each box.
JK: This is the type of place I rarely step foot in, but the menu is surprisingly solid and there’s none of the cold-press pretensions you find all over the Westside. You can down a ginger or turmeric shot before you dig into a chicken club wrap or a salad. It’s a good little healthy neighborhood spot.
Valentinos Tacos Food Truck
JK: A truck parked in the parking lot of the Fox Discount Center on Lincoln, I come here for only one thing: the lamb barbacoa burrito—best kept Mexican food secret around.
La Isla Bonita
JK: While there are many notable mariscos in LA, where else are you going to get a good ceviche tostada from a truck on this side of town for a couple bucks?
JK: By far the best late night truck option nearby, the carne asada is grilled with slightly carmelized onions and smothered in an avocado salsa, and this is one of the few places I’ll order chicken. The tlayudas (Oaxacan pizza) are surprisingly good for being made on a truck and the memelas (Oaxacan sopes) will do in a pinch.
Arden Shore is a writer, dot connector and sock collector from Los Angeles. Despite being a local native, she hasn't heard of many of the Venice gems recommended by Jason, and plans on eating her way through each and every one. Follow her meanderings on Instagram @ardyparty or Twitter @ArdyParty_