If you want to spot a star in Los Angeles – a real one, not simply a name embedded in the footpath – you won't find them on Hollywood Boulevard. You'll have a better chance if you check in to the Sunset Marquis, an unassuming hotel tucked down a backstreet off Sunset Strip. The Marquis doesn't get as much buzz as the Chateau Marmont or Sunset Tower down the road, but it has been ground zero for rock revelry since it opened in 1963.
By the mid-1970s, it had become a temporary home to names such as Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and the Ramones, before hard rock acts such as Metallica, Guns N' Roses and Aerosmith started chucking TVs out its windows in the 1980s. In the '90s, supermodels with first names only (Cindy, Kate, Naomi, Claudia) skipped queues around the block to get into Rande Gerber's Whiskey Bar, a 60-person bolt hole off the reception area.
When you pull up to the entrance today, it's so discreet you might sail straight past it. A maze of cool, cream villas unfolds around almost 1.5 hectares of lush green garden, with 150 comfortable, non-flashy rooms and suites serviced by an ever-obliging concierge. There are nooks and crannies that hide a multitude of sins – amble past the shimmering blue pool and you'll find a stairway concealing the subterranean NightBird Recording Studios, where many of today's forces in music, from Rihanna to Kanye, have cut some of their biggest tracks.
This is "very LA" in that the best attractions are hard to find or out of the way. Many first-time visitors are turned off by the city's seedy arterials and soulless highways, but there's plenty to reward visitors who know where to look.
When it's time for dinner, I head to another vintage West Hollywood gem. Dan Tana's is a classic red-sauce Italian joint on Santa Monica Boulevard which opened in 1964, soon after the Sunset Marquis. Perched under a green neon sign next to the famed Troubadour nightclub, it's a bustling, low-ceiling bistro with glossy leather booths, red and white tablecloths and framed photos of its celebrity clientele.
The menu hasn't changed in 50 years: spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parma, and other dishes with starry names such as veal cutlet Milanese à la George Clooney. Tuxedoed waiters keep the martinis flowing, but it's best to heed American writer Dorothy Parker's famous words: "I like to have a martini. Two at the very most. After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under my host."
The next day, I decide to explore a different part of town. Los Angeles isn't just about Hollywood, and one of the must-see areas is the city's gentrifying downtown district. For years this was off limits to most tourists due to its highly visible social problems, but downtown has rarely been safer than it is now.
A neighbourhood favourite since 1947, Langer's is the quintessential American deli. The steamy room, with its formica booths and sassy staff, is most famous for its #19 sandwich, a towering brick of juicy pastrami, house-made coleslaw, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese on seeded rye bread served with a hefty spear of pickle. Remember, you can always ask them to wrap up what you don't finish and take it back to the hotel.
Returning to the Sunset Marquis with half a sandwich, I finally see my first big star – a man just about every person in Australia would recognise. There, sitting quietly in the al fresco Cavatina restaurant beside the koi pond, is none other than Today show legend Richard Wilkins. When I walk past, he looks up and flashes me a genuine Hollywood smile. Only in LA.
Little black book
SUNSET MARQUIS HOTEL
One of LA's most storied celebrity homes-away-from-home, this well-located gem between Beverly Hills and Hollywood is an exercise in discretion: luxury villas and suites are set among tangled gardens and there's a working recording studio in the basement. Stay here and you'll never know who you might run into. SUNSETMARQUIS.COM
One look at the walls of this Italian-American restaurant reveals its high-powered clientele: Madonna, Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, you name it. The hearty menu of red-sauce classics is excellent, too. DANTANASRESTAURANT.COM
Open from 8am to 4pm, Monday to Saturday, at 7th and Alvarado in downtown LA, this vintage diner is best known for its epic pastrami sandwiches and other indulgent comfort food: molten chilli cheese fries, chopped liver, fried chicken. Come hungry. LANGERSDELI.COM
Canter's towering sign has been glowing over the happening Fairfax district since 1931. Famous for its late-night burgers, bagels and matzo balls, the 24-hour institution has been used as a filming location on television shows such as Mad Men and Entourage. CANTERSDELI.COM
MUSSO & FRANK GRILL
Hollywood's oldest eatery, Musso & Frank has been pouring martinis and grilling strip steaks in relatively unchanged surrounds since 1919. Modelled on New York-style steakhouses, it has welcomed a bohemian clientele since the days of Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. MUSSOANDFRANK.COM
It doesn't get more cinematic than the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with its flamingo-pink colour scheme and stately patio. Many deals have been sealed here, and it even played a small role in Watergate. The menu, if it matters, is pricy Americana. DORCHESTERCOLLECTION.COM