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Going bi-coastal

Los Angeles is a city of vast wealth and cultural influence, but relatively little corporate power.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large
Last Updated: July 18, 2008: 12:39 PM EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Fortune) -- A few months back, Fortune asked me to move from New York to Los Angeles, and I readily said yes. From the canyons of Sixth Avenue in New York, the Hollywood studios seemed like just one tentacle of the information conglomerates, and one that was increasingly less central to their futures. And yet, whenever I came to LA, I was impressed and slightly bemused by the sense that the denizens of "the industry" there still believed that the media universe orbited around their stars - their mostly distant corporate overlords be damned. In one important respect they are right: Regardless of the relative profitability of film and TV programming, it remains the principal engine that drives the dream factory of popular culture.

It should be added that part of the appeal of moving to Los Angeles was that the city - and surroundings - are actually about much more than the entertainment industry. On a standalone basis, the Los Angeles-area economy would rank as the 15th-largest in the world, just behind Mexico and ahead of the Netherlands. And indeed, the film and TV studios are only the seventh largest employer in the region, behind such industries as tourism, trade, technology and financial services.

Anyway, aside from being asked about the weather, I'm often asked by people back East what it's like out here. Here are a few random observations about business and culture from a newcomer:

Vast wealth, not so many big companies

Despite being America's second-largest city, Los Angeles fights below its weight when it comes to sheer corporate power. Only nine companies from the area appear on this year's Fortune 500 - less than 2%. The largest is Walt Disney (DIS, Fortune 500), which clocked in at number 67; others entrants include Ingram Micro (IM, Fortune 500) (about an hour outside the city), Northrop Grumman (NOC, Fortune 500), Occidental Petroleum (OXY, Fortune 500), Amgen (AMGN, Fortune 500), Health Net and troubled Countrywide. On Fortune's list of the top private companies in America (measured, as the 500 is, by revenue), Los Angeles had none. Yet, according to the list of America's rich people compiled over at Forbes magazine, 40 out of its top 400 claim their principal residence here.

The rivalries are fierce

The Economist once smartly noted of Canada that visitors need to be prepared for the simultaneous inferiority and superiority complex of the locals. There's a bit of that here in LA, too, because it is not New York, and Angelenos don't like to hear about it. Over the years, the East-West coast thing has manifested in such forms as Yankees-Dodgers and Biggie versus Tupac, but a new front recently emerged when a New York steak house, Wolfgang's, opened an outpost in Beverly Hills. It's owned by New York restaurateur Wolfgang Zweiner, and Los Angeles is, of course, the turf of Wolfgang Puck, owner of Spago and much more, including a fairly new high-end steakhouse of his own, called Cut. Puck filed and lost a trademark infringement suit against Zweiner, but the Los Angeles Times recently reviewed both restaurants for a "steak-off". While it sort of declared the contest a draw - with Zweiner a clear winner for meat and Puck's Cut the champ of side dishes and venue - you could detect at least a little bias for the home-town guy when the reviewer savaged nearly everything at Zweiner's and noted that "the menus were laminated (like at Applebees)."

They do things different

Speaking of fine dining, I was invited to a soiree at a famous media billionaire's home high up in Beverly Hills. By Los Angeles nightlife standards (unless you are part of Lindsay Lohan's crowd) it was already late, close to 9 p.m. Anticipating the usual display of sushi or some opulent buffet, I was struck when I arrived and was directed to a "shwarma station" where a guy was making the kinds of pita sandwiches you normally get in strip malls. (By the way, that's not a dig - some of the best cuisine in Los Angeles is in strip malls). One side note on cuisine: I'm amused, as any Canuck might be, by the growing presence on menus in hip LA eateries of "Lake Superior White Fish." I have no idea who started marketing this stuff widely or when, but hats off: It could be the new Chilean Sea Bass.

Curb your valet

Another big adjustment from Manhattan, of course, is the driving - and let's just say that all the hype about LA road rage is well-earned. But what is really different is all the valet parking at restaurants and private homes when an event is being held. There are, in fact, are at least two levels of service. The first level is what you'd expect: They park and retrieve your car. But the higher level - which brings out the inner Larry David in me - involves the valet not only holding the door for you as you climb in but reaching across with the seat belt and snapping it in place for you. Would you mind loosening my tie while you're at it and shifting into drive?

You're breaking up

One of the biggest surprises here, given LA's sprawl, is how poor cell phone coverage is in some pockets. This is a cause of particular consternation to fans of the new iPhone who live in and around nearby Laurel Canyon, who say they have to descend into the flatter, less bucolic, parts of the city to properly work their gizmos.

A city of angels - and celebs

I found myself curious about who is considered a true celebrity in Los Angeles, the kind of star that would send a murmur through even the most jaded crowd. I got a possible answer recently when I was lunching at a place on Sunset Boulevard where a few boldface names already dotted the room. Suddenly there was a ripple of excitement when Slash - the guitar hero formerly of Guns N Roses - came in for a sandwich. The number of people who went by his table just to say hello or shake his handed reminded me of what it must have been like for Louis B. Mayer back in the day. I wondered if this is because Slash is one of the few LA denizens whose coolness is truly authentic. This was corroborated by a veteran music journalist, who added that Slash's meta-celebrity is "multifactoral," related in part to his legend as a partier, his guitar prowess, and his signature look of "top hat and frizzy biracial hair."

The weather

Oh, yeah, it's very fine. To top of page