Saturday, July 5, 2008

Underneath the Mango Tree

Let's go visit a tropical paradise. Many have benefited from such a getaway. After retiring from his career as a naval intelligence operative, writer Ian Fleming lived in the Blue Mountains on the island of Jamaica in an estate he named Goldeneye. While there he created the character James Bond, secret agent, code name 007.

Fleming set many of the 007 novels and films in his beloved Jamaica. One of them is "Dr. No," where James Bond appreciates the seductive tropical climate, the sound of the sea, the wind blowing through palm fronds....
They swooped down quietly through the soft singing dusk...and turned to the left along the harbour side. They passed one or two smart restaurants and night clubs... Then, where the road curved away from the sea, there was a blaze of golden neon in the shape of a Spanish galleon above green lettering that said 'The Joy Boat'. They pulled into a parking place and Bond followed Quarrel through the gate into a small garden of palm trees growing out of lawn. At the end was the beach and the sea. Tables were dotted about under the palms and in the centre was a small deserted cement dance floor to one side of which a calypso trio in sequined scarlet shirts was softly improving on 'Take her to Jamaica where the rum comes from.'...the drinks came. The glasses were dripping with condensation....A few yards away the sea lisped on the flat sand...Above them the palm fronds clashed softly in the night breeze. A gecko chuckled somewhere in the garden. Bond thought of the London he had left the day before. He said, 'I like this place...'
Let's join 007 beneath a shady cabana, among the palms and tropical flowers, and sip a cool drink, fragrant with mango and guava. with the relaxed groove of reggae and calypso playing in the background. Maybe Ursula Andress will emerge from the waves in her white bikini and join us.

Yet we're not in Jamaica. We're in Santa Monica, at the western end of Pico Boulevard, at the corner of Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, just a block from the sea. Our tropical paradise is Cha Cha Chicken - a Caribbean joint set in an old gas station painted orange and blue and surrounded by tropical foliage, artwork, and reggae and calypso music. A row of painted oil drums planted with waving bamboos and tropical plants hide the dining patio from the busy street. Thatched umbrellas shade tables covered in bright tropical print oilcloth.

For 12 years this place has been dishing up jerk chicken, fried plantains, and dirty rice with black beans to those hungry for a taste of the Caribbean - or for a chance to imagine themselves in paradise.

You order your food at the counter, and the cashier hands you your drink and a plastic seashell with a number. When you sit enclosed in the patio waiting for the server to bring your food, you can imagine yourself in a funky beachfront shack in the tropics. To add atmosphere, right outside the place is Mauro Staccioli's sculpture Untitled (homage to Jack Kerouac).
That should get you in the mood for some beach bumming!

This neighborhood has seen a lot of change. In the 20s, Ocean Park was a busy and popular amusement attraction, and exclusive beach clubs like the Edgewater, Jonathan Club, and Casa del Mar were built at the end of Pico Boulevard. During Prohibition, water taxis brought high-rollers out to gambling ships moored 3 miles off the coast here. Huge ballrooms on the Pier attracted couples during the 30s. Bodybuilders posed on Muscle Beach in the 50s.

Then things took a downturn. In Ocean Park to the south, the modern amusement attraction Pacific Ocean Park was built in 1958, but failed in 1967 due to urban renewal, bad management, and the changing times. The neighborhood declined, and became known as Dogtown. By 1967 the Casa del Mar had become the home of Synanon, a drug rehabilitation center.

But under the surface, things were always stirring. Venice and Ocean Park became counterculture scenes. Rock and roll in the nearby Civic Auditorium inspired local punksters. Kids surfed in the ruins of POP, demolished in 1974, and hung around the Zephyr Surf Shop, perfecting their skateboard moves on Bicknell Street's hill.

The neighborhood has turned again. Now a row of high-end hotels lines Ocean Avenue. Shutters-on-the-Beach opened in 1997, followed by the refurbished Casa del Mar Hotel and the Viceroy Hotel in 2001.

Today, if they were in Santa Monica instead of Jamaica, James Bond and Honey Ryder could have their choice of tropical paradises to loll in - they could bring a couple of Red Stripes from the liquor store on Main Street, and hang out in the colorful, funky patio at Cha Cha Chicken. Or they could saunter down the hill to more sophisticated surroundings, for martinis (shaken, not stirred). Shutters-on-the-Beach puts one in mind of the Kingston Queens Club Fleming describes in "Dr. No", with its lazily rotating fans and white-painted verandas.

Which would you choose?

1 comment:

Kathy Rogers said...

Shutters, hands down. I am a frosty martini kind of gal.

I love the bar at Casa del Mar, but they have hired some of the worst musicians in town. Terrible jangly dancehall piano or mushy meandering no-particular-tune piano. A pox on both of them. The duo that's been playing at Shutters is Just Right.