PAPER or plastic?
Szechuan or Cantonese?
Old Pasadena or Old Town Monrovia?
When choosing where to go for a night out in the San Gabriel Valley, Old Pas and Old Town Monrovia are on a level playing field. And for the hometown crowd, Monrovia may now have the edge.
Shocked? Don’t be.
For locals — and I mean those who live in our Valley or even in the Whittier area — and drive to either downtown, yes, what New York City residents call “the bridge and tunnel crowd,” few trek to Old Pasadena anymore for a night on the town.
Even after a metamorphosis that included the restoration of old buildings and infiltration of fancy new stores and restaurants, it became so successful that it’s the No. 1 hot spot for Los Angeles and South Bay teenagers and twentysomethings out on a date or after a rave.
Hometowners, especially Pasadenans, dismiss Old Pasadena as a place choked with chain stores such as the Gap and J. Crew and chain restaurants with mediocre food but nonetheless jammed with hungry tourists (Cheesecake Factory, Melting Pot, Buca di Beppo, the list goes on and on.) Part of that is their lament from losing what they remember as old, Old Pasadena — locally owned restaurants and service shops. I used to go there in the mid-80s with my Orange County friends who were aghast at stepping around the occasional napping homeless resident. My wife and I loved to eat tacos at Ernie’s, catch a movie at the AMC-Old Pasadena 8 at Colorado and DeLacey and pick up a chocolate bagel at Goldstein’s (all three long gone).
But lately, like thousands of other Valleyites, nine times out of 10 we choose Old Town Monrovia. Granted, it doesn’t have the panache of Old Pasadena (no Norton Simon Museum) but for the sheer experience, it has arrived. True disclosure: We lived in Monrovia for 14 years and cheered its own transformation from down-and-out burb to thriving, renaissance town. But without getting into all those vulgar things called facts, let’s just say Monrovia’s revamped downtown is a fetching lure, no longer a stepsister to the Rose City.
We prefer Monrovia’s family atmosphere, free parking and Family Festival on Friday nights to Old Pasadena’s urban pedestrian mall, trendy bars and expensive garage parking.
While some have come and gone, my wife and I can still patronize long-time independent restaurants such as Mondial, Cafe Opera, Rudy’s and even the oldie-but-goodie The Monrovian. New places such as T. Phillips and the London Pub have upped the ante. Nikki C’s from Rosemead Boulevard is set to open a restaurant on Myrtle. And Chang Thai Bistro — located where Sweet Garlic Thai once was before it moved to eastern Pasadena where it became Daisy Mint — is our new haunt.
That’s not to say we don’t get curious about the Old Pasadena landscape. On Saturday night, we walked down memory lane. We married with the date crowd and ate pasta carbonara at Mi Piace, then checked out the new Intelligentsia Coffee with the funky glass coffee pots. As Ann Erdman, Pasadena’s information officer would say, “So much stays the same and yet so much turns over that it can be new each time you go.”
In truth, having both downtowns so close is one of the best things about living in the San Gabriel Valley (or as my wife who grew up in Huntington Beach puts it, “so far from the ocean.”)
But before every older city tries to become the next Old Pasadena, goals I’ve heard over and over at election time, cities must examine what I didn’t have time to do in this column: the facts. Like, both city’s commitment to historic preservation, to a vision, and to using redevelopment tools and federal grants to spur private investment. Each city helped build dense housing in or near downtown to create a steady flow of customers. And both made sure parking was adequate, if not plentiful.
Monrovia is a blueprint for how to revive your small downtown. Which city is the next to try it?