The words discreet, glamorous and sophisticated have not sat comfortably in the same sentence with Hollywood’s Sunset Strip for almost as long as living memory can serve. The famed section of Sunset Boulevard that winds out of the secluded wealth of Beverley Hills and hurtles headlong into the flash and trash of West Hollywood has become synonymous more with stumbling starlets than sophisticated style. It is not surprising given the history of Sunset landmarks like The Viper Room, ‘Riot’ Hyatt and Chateau Marmont whose scandal riddled histories have lent them a certain kind of cache. The courtship of famous-for-no-reason reality television stars and their paparazzi suitors is now often played out on the Sunset Strip guaranteeing exactly the wrong kind of exposure and clientele for many of the establishments that line the famous Boulevard. So what of Old Hollywood glamour? Is that hidden world of poolside cabanas, private booths and prohibition-era style speakeasies all but gone? Have DJs in the lobby, obnoxious part-time model staff, a trendy makeover and a Hummer in the valet left that unintimitable Hollywood style in its tracks?
“Our guests don’t spill Cosmos on the carpet” says Jeff Klein the owner of the Sunset Tower Hotel, the treasured 1929 Art Deco landmark perched at the crest of the famous strip, “I have a different customer than that”. The “different customer” that Klein refers to has steadily grown in number and allegiance since he took over in 2006 and began restoring the extraordinary legacy of the iconic locale. Originally the most glamorous apartment building in Los Angeles (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra called it home at various times) and a symbol of the golden age of Hollywood, it became a dowdy piece of nostalgia as the era faded and almost faced the wreaking ball. To revive its fortunes it took Klein (ironically a New Yorker) buying the hotel, stripping it back to its timeless bone structure and imbibing it with a sense of its own historical pedigree. The elegant facade with its continuous columns of windows and surreal cast-concrete tableaus now houses an establishment the equal to its reputation.
In the ’boutique’ hotel market Klein’s Sunset Tower is an anomaly. It did not open with fanfare and ‘IT’ hotel status, its rise to the top has been slow and consistent, the reverse trajectory of its competitors. Designer Paul Fortune’s sympathetic modernization of the hotel is the opposite of trendy. He collaborated with Klein for 18-months before unveiling the revitalized hotel in 2005 and the makeover was initially greeted with modest, not overwhelming praise. The walnut panels, brass fixtures and furnishings in taupe and dusty pink are not the stuff hip hotels are typically made of. There are no quirky or ironic details save for the sepia head shots of stars that never were. Appreciation of its restrained aesthetic and comfortable luxury has grown over time as the hotel has become less self-aware and truly embraced sophisticated service .
In a city, and more specifically a zipcode, where privacy is the most luxurious commodity, the stocks of the Sunset Tower are sky high. Its decidedly discerning clientele value its ferocious commitment to discretion and velvet-glove approach to the more plastic elements of the city blowing up and down the strip. It was no surprise then when this year Hollywood’s most vigorously A-List party, the Vanity Fair Oscar after do, switched from its long time location to the Terrace and Tower Bar’s that wrap around the base of the 15 story hotel.
Dimitri Dimitrov, maitre d of the Tower Bar is the man that oversees the cosy bar with sweeping views of Los Angeles, white tuxedoed waiters and a live soundtrack of piano music. Not imperious, nor obsequious, he is the definition of old school ‘deep service’ and a veteran of Hollywood’s A-list haunts. The diminutive, Yugoslavian glides through the plush space deftly juggling the unique set of challenges that accompany stewarding the clubhouse of the world’s most glamorous and famous individuals. Observing him from behind a martini, it is clear he knows the pecking order and politics as he ushers the orbits of the beautiful and powerful away from collision. Blissfully unaware, the guests settle into the alluring, insulated world of the Sunset Tower’s creation. At the Sunset Tower Hotel a revival of Old Hollywood glamour is taking place and coaxing that elusive and distinctive quality out of its once terminal retreat across the city.
With its mix of hawkers, fast food and the sandal and socks winnebago set it is difficult to imagine that the Hollywood walk of fame was once a kind of Champs-Elysse of the film industry. Grauman’s Chinese Theater is now a ‘megaplex’ of neon and tacky trinkets that draws huge numbers of people, the happy side effect of its dominance is that other close-by venues of the same period which have retained their original features are largely tourist free. Little known is that the Chinese Theater has an almost famous sibling a mere block away, Grauman’s Egyptian Theater is a Hollywood design masterpiece whose original fittings have been carefully restored. It houses the American Cinemateque and screenings of old and new classics in an original theater built in the beautifully bizarre ‘Egyptian-revival style’. Across the road sits the legendary Musso and Frank Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant and a stalwart of the scene. Owned continuously by the same family for 90 years, little has changed at Musso and Frank and its not likely to in the future even considering a fourth generational shift in management. The drinks are still strong, the food the same and the promise of star or six propping up the bar still holds.
Without reservation the cocktail is America’s greatest contribution to the beverage world and recent years have seen a reclamation of the art of mixing the perfect drink. Relying on original recipes and methods from the past, this new trend is identified rather earnestly as ‘mixology’ and its conjurers ‘mixologists’. It might be self-reverential but they are producing drinks that would satisfy Sinatra. The secreted away, basement rum bar Las Descarga is the new chico on the block and it has a prohibition-era vibe complete with wild Cuban bar top burlesque dancing.
When it comes to design Los Angeles is a chameleon. Every architectural and stylistic design trend of the last century is represented in the city however it has managed to have developed its own unmistakable signature to every era and style. The regency meets mid-century stylings of the Avalon Hotel are as unmistakably LA as the deco surrounds of Klein’s hotel. Like the Sunset Tower, the motel hidden behind a lush palms fell out of favor at points but its classic pool, almond shaped structure and Kelly Wearstler Regency-style makeover has ensured that those who appreciate its classic status are coming back. The same can be said for a handful of once shunned locales and former haunts of the greats that are quietly being rediscovered with a conspiratorial whisper and a subtle nod to nostalgia.
© Vogue Living, Septmeber 201, Photography Credit: Prue Ruscoe