Although my wife and I aren’t jet-setting billionaires, we still have a lot of fun on our date nights. Living in Southern California gives us plenty of options and many of them require little or no cash to enjoy. Don’t let the lack of a Learjet, personal assistant, or a bank vault full of cash stop you and that special someone from having a blast together.
Here are five inexpensive ways to rock date night in Southern California. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but for what it’s worth, my wife approved of all of these dates: enough so that she actually ended up marrying me.
1. Trip Down Nostalgia Lane
As proud Generation X-ers, we were thrilled to find the actual house used for the exterior shots of the Brady Bunch. It’s located in a residential neighborhood in North Hollywood, so respect the owners’ and their neighbors’ privacy and property. We took a few quick snapshots and left. Feel free to sing the show’s theme song before, during, and after your pilgrimage. Everyone else does (okay, maybe not, but we sure did).
Continue your Trip Down Nostalgia Lane date with a stop at the nearby Carney’s. What better way to feel like a kid than to chow down on a coupla hot dogs inside a train converted into a diner? This Carney’s is just as good as the original restaurant on Sunset: get in line, order your food, then munch away while sitting at a window seat, pretending you’re on a trip somewhere. Get a dog with sauerkraut, one with chili and mustard, and a soda; it’s the perfect meal while you look at your photos of the Brady Bunch house.
2. Historic Downtown
This date is awesome because it’s easily accessible by public transportation and you can walk off all of the food you chow down at Grand Central Market. The scene at the market has always been vibrant and energetic. The food choices change over the years, but it’s always delicious. Trendy eateries come and go, but several have been here for many years. Our current favorite: Las Morelianas, which serves some of the best carnitas this side of the border. An employee is usually out front handing out a small sample of the meat in a fresh tortilla. One bite was all it took for us to order a few tacos. Be sure to ask for “mixta,” which is a combination of everything good on the pig that is, the pig snout, liver, and heart — trust me, it’s muy delicioso.
Two attractions at opposite ends of the market offer L.A. history. On the east side of the market across the street is the Bradbury Building. The moment you walk inside, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to the early 20th century. You can access the first floor only, but it’s worth a visit (especially if you’re a Blade Runner and/or 500 Days of Summer fan). I wish they’d allow guests to use the elevators, but looking up at them and the skylight is still quite a treat.
At the west side of the market across the street is the quirky and cool Angels Flight Railway, which is the “world’s shortest railway.” It’s basically a ride up the hill connecting two streets. This is a must-do for tourists and locals alike; however, it’s currently closed (as of July … 2014) due to some red tape. Check their website to see if they’re open again during your trip there.
3. Park, Ride, Eat
While dinner and movie is always a good, if predictable, date, combining some kind of physical activity is even better, since you won’t feel as guilty about wolfing down on all of those calories. While I enjoy walking and running, there’s something about riding a bicycle that is perfect for a date. Maybe it’s the childhood memories that sprout up from a good bike ride or the feeling of movement that’s unique to powering those pedals. Whatever the reason, when my wife and I hop on our beach cruisers, it’s hard for us not to have fun.
We’re fans of the Pacific Electric Inland Empire Trail, which is open to walkers, runners, and bicyclists all year round. The trail runs from Claremont to Rialto, a distance of 27 miles, and is dog-friendly. This date will require you and your significant other to stretch those legs on the pedals, but the best part about is that you can vary it according to your fitness level, with several starting points throughout the trail. Ride for a few minutes or over an hour, depending on where you start.
For our date, we started at Central Park in Rancho Cucamonga, then rode our bikes a few miles to Viva La Vegan, an awesome all-vegan market and eatery. The food was surprisingly good. As much as I love carnitas (see Las Morelianas above), I know it’s not the healthiest food in the world. Thankfully, Viva La Vegan offers a “fauxnitas” made entirely of jackfruit (!) and is an excellent alternative to the piggy goodness. The cafe sits in the larger Viva La Vegan space and it’s a terrific place to relax before jumping back on your bikes.
4. Shakespeare in the Park
Free arts and culture is always a good thing, especially with the top-notch Independent Shakespeare Company that puts on free Shakespeare at Griffith Park during the summer months. Pack a picnic basket with food and drink, a blanket or low-back chairs, and some type of insect repellent. The location near the Old Zoo at the park is awesome; you’ll feel like you’re in another world as you get wrapped up in one of Shakespeare’s plays.
For the perfect (and easy to transport) dinner at the park, my wife and I love the sandwiches at Roma Market in Pasadena. Mr. Mazzeo is the store’s longtime owner and resident sandwich maker; just ask him for a sandwich and watch him as he slices the imported meats and cheese by hand before drizzling imported olive oil on a freshly baked Italian roll. It’s minimalist deliciousness at its best and you’ll definitely have the best sandwich amongst your fellow Shakespeare fans.
5. Games and Grub
Find out if your date has a geeky side to him/her by hanging out at the amazing Game Haus Cafe in Glendale. Kickstarted two years ago, the cafe is home to nearly 1,000 board games that you and your date can play all night for only a $5 cover charge.
Don’t waste your time playing the stale old Monopoly, though. We’re living in a Golden Age of Gaming, so take a chance with something you’ve never played before. I can think of no better introductory game than Ticket to Ride. It’s often noted for its elegant gameplay: it’s the perfect game for new players and seasoned gamers love it as well. It only takes a few minutes to learn, but offers a lot of replayability. The staff at the cafe is terrific. Feel free to ask questions or for game recommendations.
Food and drink are good at Game Haus and you’ll need sustenance for all of that gaming, but for better and cheaper eats, go down the road to El Sauz Tacos for great carne asada tacos and other hole-in-the-wall goodness.
6. In the Air Tonight
Here’s one more pack-a-picnic-and-go-the-park event that we love attending: free music at the park. Most cities offer a concert in the park series during the summer and we’ve enjoyed many of them. I especially like the event at Creekside Park in Walnut. Parking can be a pain (which is true for most of these events), but the park itself is roomy and comfortable, with a good sound system, and a few food trucks and local groups worth supporting. The crowds at these events tend to be families, so the vibe is always mellow and relaxing.
The music varies, though, as does the quality of each act. If possible, check the city and the band’s websites for samples of the music being played. Most are cover bands, so you’ll recognize the music, but the bands aren’t always top-notch. We saw a Beatles cover band a few years ago and they were one of the weaker ones, which was a disappointment. Still, free music at the park is a typically good evening out.
As for food, you can never go wrong with the Filipino dishes at Salo-Salo Grill a few miles away in West Covina. I prefer the family style meals at the restaurant, but you can get any of their affordable dishes to go. Definitely get the garlic fried rice; pair it with one of the entrees like beef tapa or lechon (pork) ribs. Whether you decide to bring it to the park or eat beforehand, either way you’ll be stuffed and ready to enjoy some free music. Don’t forget to bring a blanket or comfortable chair.