"The attractive literature which Los Angeles sends out drew me as it has thousands of others...painted in colors of Spanish-Mexican romance...with old Missions, rambling adobes...the strumming of guitars and the click of castanets." - The words of Christine Sterling from Olvera Street: Its History and Restoration, who arrived in 1920's L.A. seeking a romantic living portrait of Spanish-American culture and history. Instead she found the city's oldest historic area in a sad state of crumbling decay.
Determined to rescue, preserve, and ultimately celebrate the original roots of L.A.'s inception, Sterling, "Mother of Olvera Street," succeeded in transforming a neglected alley into a tourist destination and storied city landmark.
One of the city's oldest Christmas events - Las Posadas, a spiritual tradition performed throughout Mexico, is being presented nightly on Olvera Street until Christmas Eve. Las Posadas re-enacts the arduous trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem taken by Mary and Joseph. The candlelight Posadas procession, open to public participation, features children depicting Mary, Joseph, angels, and shepherds. As the procession marches it asks for shelter, in song, from Olvera shops (representing posadas/inns). Their requests are rejected until the end, when admission to an inn is accepted and the worshipers (and the public) are served pan dulce and champurrado (a warm chocolate-based beverage). Festivities start daily at 5:30pm.
If you're new to Olvera Street, begin your visit at the Avila Adobe House Museum, the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles and focus of Sterling's restoration efforts. Built in 1818 the adobe offers a glimpse of California life in the 1840's. Sterling made it her home until her death in 1963. Free admission seven days a week, 9AM to 4PM.
A quick summary of Olvera Street's best dining options:
El Paseo Inn
One of the two spacious, centrally-located Olvera Street restaurants intended for unhurried dining and perpetual people-watching. Large indoor dining room and charming bar area...but sit on the patio unless it's snowing. Wide selection of entrées, however stick with antojitos (appetizers) like the enormous El Pueblo Platter, which gets you a little bit of everything. Live mariachis sweeten the potent margaritas.
Casa La Golondrina
The other 'roomy' restaurant at ground-zero Olvera Street, and considered by many Angelenos to be synonymous with Olvera Street dining. Opened in 1924 and housed in the Pelanconi House, the oldest brick structure in Los Angeles. Like the El Paseo Inn it vaunts a prized patio location and lively ambiance. Cochinita Pibil and the Moles are good bets. Service can be relaxed so if you're in a hurry go elsewhere.
Eighty-year-old walk-up-counter institution that anchors north end of street, and has built a reputation for its taquitos with guacamole sauce. The taquitos are nicely-seasoned and fried in front of you in enormous steel pans that look like they predate the gold rush. The thin 'guacamole sauce,' really a green verde sauce, is hard to define, but it works. Can't go wrong with the #1 combination - 3 taquitos w/ guacamole sauce, beans and cheese. Food to enjoy while strolling and shopping.
La Noche Buena
Tiny affordable fondita wedged between souvenir shops. Serves authentic combination plates that rival quality of most Los Angeles taquerías. Nab a stool at the outdoor counter for an in-your-face view of the cooks. Large stone mortars on the counter always brimming with delicious red and green salsas.
La Luz del Día
Typically first restaurant visitors see (it's next to the ageless stuffed donkey) upon arrival at south end of street. Sit indoors or outdoors after ordering at counter. Watch smiling abuelitas lovingly press homemade tortillas. Same ladies will deliver the food to your table. Carnitas combo plate with a couple of thick, warm, freshly-cooked tortillas is a good bet. Cash only.
“There were picnics into the hills, dancing at night, moonlight serenades, romance, and real happiness...before the Americans came.” - Christine Sterling describing downtown's former fairy-tale existence in Olvera Street: Its History and Restoration.