Way Up on North Lake

May 29, 2010

If Randy Newman lived in Altadena, he’d write a song called “I Love North Lake.” Our stretch of Pasadena’s iconic avenue is in many ways the mirror image of South Lake. Where they have upscale chain stores, we have quirky mom and pop shops. Their spiffy houses on tidy lots contrast with our farmhouses, old cottages and hilly neighborhoods that shelter apartments, condos and a mansion or two. From South Lake, you can stroll to the Langham Huntington Hotel on tree-lined streets; from North Lake, it’s a stiff hike uphill through chaparral to the ruins of the Mt. Lowe Hotel. It’s not exactly civilization vs. the boonies, but sometimes we Altadenans like to think of it that way.

North Lake is Altadena’s essential artery and hub of commerce and community; we have tons of churches above Woodbury Road (where Altadena officially starts) and even a mosque (Masjid al-Taqwa).

The Altadena Library is a peaceful, much-loved post-and-beam retreat, and we have a Theosophical reading room, too. Farnsworth Park has a WPA auditorium (home to the reviving Theater Americana), an outdoor amphitheater, green fields and tennis courts with killer views. We have our own traffic school, water district, fire station and dance academy (Sue B’s), and dueling hand-car washes (Doug Wash and Apco, facing off on the east side of Lake across Morada). If you need your oboe repaired, Michelle Forrest has a tiny studio just south of Altadena Drive. And it can’t be a coincidence that my favorite doc at Vanderhoof Veterinary, Bronwyn Dawson, has a last name that rhymes with Awesome.

It may not be chic, but North Lake is extremely photogenic. Film crews frequent Westminister Pres, St. Elizabeth’s, the imposing Elliot Junior High and nostalgic Ronnie’s vintage gas station, as well as our modest shopfronts and our lovely residential streets. Tourist attractions? We have just-off-Lake Christmas Tree Lane and, at the tippy-top of Lake, the trail to Mt. Lowe and the site of the once-grand Cobb Estate; the driveway and trees still frame wonderful views down to Pasadena,  and on a clear day, to Long Beach and beyond.

Lest you think we have no nightlife, take note of the Rancho, Altadena’s own semi-biker bar. Way up here on the hill, only the new El Patron Mexican restaurant is open for dinner (and they are super-nice folks, with a reasonably priced menu of Mexican classics), but at Bulgarini you can get the best gelato in all of L.A. until 9 p.m. or, if they don’t run out, maybe even as late as 10 p.m.(!); and nearly every night of the week you can hear live music of remarkably high caliber at Coffee Gallery Backstage. There seems to be some sort of taboo against any other restaurant up here (lovely little Amy’s Café, old-time Fox’s, the excellent, welcoming Park Bench Deli and the tiny Brio Café, catering to the pampered people indulging at Brio Spa) staying open past 3 p.m. But because we are unincorporated L.A. County, and not the fussier city of Pasadena, we get the cool food trucks — and long lines even at midnight when the Kogi truck, for instance, comes up the hill. Restaurateurs, the time could be ripe….

A Manning brother models his new Irish Pride line.

Way up on Lake you’ll find friendly merchants who know your name. Why, just the other day, someone at Merit Cleaners tapped on the window to call me in from the sidewalk (where I was coming out of Altadena Hardware, having purchased the perfect sized cork for my vintage salt shaker) to let me know my clothes were ready. The free-roaming dogs, cats and birds at Steve’s Pets are as cuddly as the people who scoop your crickets or wash your dog. If you can get the attention of a Manning brother over the roar of embroidery machines at their new Irish Pride shop (formerly their printing press!) they’ll give you a tour of the place and sell you a T-shirt or a belt buckle that doubles as a bottle opener. Then you can run across to Rancho and you’re ready for business.

Gallery at the End of the World

If it’s the right weekend, I’d head across Lake to the Gallery at the End of the World for one of its monthly, three-day-long art fests featuring works from creative people all over L.A., not to mention a bacchanal of food and drink.

The once-sprawling Webster’s complex has split into separate businesses, including Webster’s Pharmacy, which still has its own little post office, Webster’s Liquor and the charming Webster’s Fine Stationers, which also carries gifts and has a pack ‘n’ ship service. New things are opening up on North Lake all the time. For instance, Ace Smoke Shop seems to have expanded through a parking lot and into the building just north of it.  That’s progress! And to balance that our, we have our own Curves — and on El Molino, opposite the fire station, is the new chiropractic/health/yoga center, Altadena Junction (yoga at noon and 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays — if they can get the firefighters to do yoga, I’m there!). Also newish on the street is the bright and cheery Undersea Indoor Playground, which looks to be just what it says it is, and where $9 gets you or your kid a full day of fun.

North Lake still has Alfie’s Appliances (just off Lake at 912 E. Altadena Dr.; check out the bulletproof vintage Wedgwood and Gaffers and Sattler stoves and curvaceous fridges from the 1950s) and the amazing Tangles & Lockes salon next to Coffee Gallery. And winner of the Unchanged Since the 1970s Award is the 2200 block of North Lake, home to Oh Happy Days health food store, the Dutch Oven Bakery, the Boys Republic Thrift and Altadena’s official (i.e. non-Webster’s) post office.

The north side of Mariposa, which T’s into Lake, is newly thriving after a tragic accident involving the venerable Altadena Hardware and a moving bus. There’s Steve’s Bike Shop (check out the vintage tractor), Ritzy Rags resale, A Brief Moment West Salon and a new little antique store full of craftsman treasures called Mary’s Misc. They all join the aforementioned Altadena Hardware, where old-fashioned service is why tout Altadena comes in for their tools, paint, kitchenware and slim jims.

Karen at Kat Scrap Studio

Photography by Walt has moved next door from its former location and now adjoins Ms. Dragon’s Print & Copy, a move that made room for the arrival of Kat Scrap Studio, which celebrates all kinds of creativity, including dimensional collages, altered books and needlework. They have tons of great archival papers (concentrating on soy-based inks and women-owned companies), stamps, inks, pens and other such stuff to feed, as owner Karen Myers says, “our tactile needs.” She also has a tiny gallery of local artisans’ work and a space in back that customers are welcome to use for projects — plus she offers classes in all kinds of hands-on art making. The coolest thing in the store are the old dressmaker’s dummies, light fixtures and a birdcage from the former Polly’s Dress Shop, which occupied this site from back in the mid-1950s.

What goes around comes around on North Lake, and I love it.

A Few June Happenings on North Lake

Altadena Artbreak
Saturday, June 12, 9:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Farnsworth Park
An all-day festival and celebration of youth and art, with dance, music, crafts, games, food and more, including performances from teen rock, jazz and classical musicians. The day kicks off with a family- (and dog-) friendly 3K run at 8 a.m.

“You Changed My World! Great Faces of Altadena”
June 2 – 29; opening reception Sunday, June 13, 7 – 9 p.m.
The Coffee Gallery, 2029 Lake Ave., 626.398.7917,
A show of portraits by Zofia Kostryko.

Altadena Artists’ Home Studio Tour
Friday – Sunday, June 25 – 27
A three-day affair with a silent auction on Friday and studio and home tours on Saturday and Sunday. Start at the Gallery at the End of the World, 2475 N. Lake Ave., to purchase maps and tickets ($8).

4 Responses for “Way Up on North Lake”

  1. Lynn says:

    Thanks for this great article. Just wanted to mention some of the wonderful people at these local North Lake stores. Like John at O Happy Days – who gave me a complimentary bowl of delicious yams the other day to take to a sick friend, or Debbie at Ms Dragon Press – who cheerfully gave me my batch of copies that I needed right away & let me come back & pay for them the next day (because I had forgotten my wallet at home.) Folks like them make Altadena a real small-town kind of home town!

  2. Terrific information on beautiful Altadena. One more event that your readers should know about is the ART ON MILLIONAIRES ROW Art Festival which will be held on Saturday, June 5, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, at the Altadena Library, 600 E. Mariposa. We will feature 30 artists booths with all manner of wonderful art for sale from local artists. We will have a juried art show including 18 local artists, a food court featuring Altadena restaurants, including Martins BBQ, Amys Patio Cafe, Bills Chicken, the Coffee Gallery and Nancys Pastries. There will be childrens activities all day – Barks and Books with children reading to Pearl the Poodle (a real dog!) in the morning and face painting and balloon sculpture in the afternoon. Local artist David Lovejoy will be directing visiting kids in creating an interactive art piece that will turn the Library’s approach bridge into the Golden Gate! This artwork will remain in place for an indefinite period following the festival. There will be representatives of other community organizations available to let you know what is going on in Altadena, and a sale of art books and childrens books by the Friends of the Library. And, best of all, it’s all free to the public – even if you don’t live in Altadena. Visit the Altadena Library website at for more information.

  3. Sharon says:

    You can’t beat the merchants or Altadena in general. I have lived here and plan on staying.

  4. Rose West says:

    Thank you for the great article about our North Lake community and especially the shout out about Curves. Members are loyal because it is the gym where everybody knows your name, which is so characteristic of Altadena.



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