Hotel Bel-Air Feature

December 2011

Original content from Finantial Times, How to spend it

A breath of fresh Bel-AIr

While the legendary Hotel Bel-Air closed for a two-year renovation, its established competition raised its game while new hotels came seeking fame and fortune. Can the original grande dame reclaim the limelight, asks Maria Shollenbarger.

"Are the swans still there?" This is the question on everyone's lips. The Hotel Bel-Air - legendary in Los Angeles, loved across multiple time zones - has just reopened after a two-year closure and $100m-plus makeover, and I am one of its first guests. The query comes not just from old family friends in the city, who, like me, grew up with this legend in their backyard (in some cases, almost literally), but also, in the days following my stay, from the more far-ranging curious: the wife of an Emirati retail magnate; the steward on my Air New Zealand flight; an Italian chef of some renown. One is left with the impression that this isn't just because the Bel-Air is unique in greeting its guests with the picturesque sight of a small pond, just past the quaint footbridge entrance, populated by white swans (yes, they are still there - in fact, never left). It's because those swans constitute just one irreproducible element of several found across the Bel-Air's 12 hillside acres, which in their aggregate have elevated it into hospitality's most rarefied stratum - that place where hotels attain an identity beyond just the bed or cocktail they offer, becoming a fixture of their city's own society and the objects of their patrons' long-term affection.

It's a mixed blessing, a spot in that pantheon; any hotelier who has been inundated with outraged correspondence for having dared to change the carpet in a lobby or strike the boeuf bourguignon from a menu can tell you about the curious possessiveness that often attends that affection. And the clientele in question here are - how to say it? - especially used to having their way. Historically, they have comprised a unique ego-system of Hollywood deal-makers - actors, directors, producers and, back in the day, the Carroll & Company-suited studio heads who bankrolled them all - mixed with high-net-worth neighbours in this exclusive gated community and the quietly prosperous from LA's other monied enclaves: the Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Holmby Hills, Beverly Hills and Hancock Park.

The actor Robert Wagner, whose childhood was spent in Bel-Air Estates (as the area was christened by its developer Alphonzo Bell in the early 1920s) when it still consisted mostly of bridle paths, spent much of his life in and around the hotel; his mother made it her address for almost 23 years. Elizabeth Taylor briefly resided here, after her first, ill-fated marriage to Conrad Hilton. The Reagans had a regular table at the restaurant. Jack Nicholson gave his daughter Jennifer away down on the lawn next to the swans in 1997; Anjelica Huston wed the sculptor Robert Graham in the same spot a few years earlier, at which occasion the über-agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar stole the spotlight when his Pacemaker momentarily winked out, as then did Swifty himself. Joan Collins renewed her vows here and Sophia Loren tied the knot on the premises. Princess Grace of Monaco was enough of a fixture to have had a suite named after her. One could go on, if this edition of the magazine were three or four pages longer.

Simultaneously, well-to-do families from far outside the Hollywood radius celebrated Thanksgiving, with turkey and all the trimmings, on the patio; professional societies would convene for monthly meetings at the restaurant; sweet-16ers from the city's private girls' schools drank their first champagnes (or so they claimed) at the bar with Daddy, him fresh off the back nine of the North Course at the Los Angeles Country Club, her just off the sand volleyball courts at the Jonathan Club. The Bel-Air's ongoing gift to Los Angeles has been the twofold one of creating a bridge between Hollywood and old-money LA, and of sustaining the city's old-school glamour. And very few other places have seen the increasingly pronounced chasm between what the city's society used to be and what it's evolved into bridged as deftly as it is here.

But with its 2008 acquisition by the Sultan of Brunei-owned Dorchester Group, the Bel-Air pulled the plastic over its famous palm-shaded pool and closed for business for a projected 18 months, which extended to 25 for a host of reasons (among them some unseasonal summer rain and resulting mudslides), leaving all those who frequented the bar, lobby and patio restaurant wandering in a sort of selva oscura of status confirmation.

It was a timely move, since alternative accommodations sprang up elsewhere across the city in the intervening two years, while other incumbents on the five-star scene undertook various stages of upgrade and renovation. Dorchester Collection's Los Angeles flagship, the Beverly Hills Hotel - even more established than the Bel-Air (and in its own way equally special) and celebrating its 100th birthday next year - has refurbished a handful of its famous bungalows as staggeringly luxurious presidential suites. They are sprawling houses on the hotel's palm- and bouganvillea-covered grounds, complete with chef's kitchens, private cinemas and full-sized pools set in garden terraces that rival some of the $3m homes in the Beverly Hills Flats just to the south. The Peninsula Beverly Hills, on a gleaming stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, likewise overhauled its rooms and suites in the past year; and L'Ermitage, with its 1990s reputation as the scene of A-lister trysts and some of the more salubrious post-awards show goings-on, has been acquired by the Viceroy Group, which has also expanded into Mexico, Anguilla and Abu Dhabi recently.

Then there are the young Cipriani brothers, Ignazio and Maggio, fourth-generation scions of the Venetian restaurant family. In 2006 they acquired a 12-storey, circa-1960 building, which had housed a string of decreasingly successful chain hotels, on a block of Beverwil Drive, close to Pico Boulevard in the muddled zone where Beverly Hills melts a bit ignominiously back into plain old LA. In June it reopened as Mr C, the first in what's hoped by the family firm to be a string of international properties. The brothers oversaw a very expensive-looking retrofit of the lobby, which now gleams with polished rosewood panelling and Eames Lounge 670 chairs, travertine and green-veined calacatta, and hand-blown Murano chandeliers, in a curious but attractive décor hybrid that nods to both midcentury LA and the ancestral maritime republic. They've installed a satellite of the family restaurant, adjacent to a teak-decked pool. The rooms have oak or teak-strip floors, leather chesterfields, nickel-and-leather campaign tables and bathrooms incongruously walled in wainscoting. A modest-looking group of town houses across the driveway is being remade a handful of three- and four-bedroom private villas.

Any Bel-Air denizen looking for social safe harbour here during the hotel's closure would have left disappointed; Mr C has a certain charm, but it's a hotel tower, not 12 gorgeous planted acres, and it's working a very different angle on LA glamour for an equally different clientele (younger, more aspirational: On The Way Up rather than Arrived).

Thankfully for those denizens, and countless other loyal guests, as of last October 14 the Bel-Air is welcoming them back. And some are in for a shock, because the top brass at Dorchester Collection has done more than change the lobby carpets.

There are a handful of improvements with which few could find fault: the addition of an ethereally beautiful 4,100sq ft La Prairie spa with a relaxation area that opens onto the quietude of sage-scented hills; the canny installation of the amiable and hugely talented Wolfgang Puck (Austrian-born, but the elder statesman of California cuisine if ever there was one) in the restaurant's kitchen; and the construction of a handful of slick new suites, with glass walls and outdoor fireplaces, facing the canyon over Chalon Road.

But the facelift has elsewhere on the property occasioned mixed responses. Starting with the famous lobby: the comforts of potted palms, butter-coloured walls, Aubusson rugs and classic chinz-and-stripe combinations that defined the space for decades have given way to something altogether more self-consciously chic. Alexandra Champalimaud, the New York-based designer of exemplary good taste who has put her mark on New York's Pierre and Carlyle hotels, has reimagined this iconic room, ringed in arched, leaded French doors, with rigour and an icy palette. The floor is lain with strips of white French oak; the ceiling, less expectedly, is coffered and panelled in the same wood. Descending at its centre is a handmade brass fire hood, suspended over a fireplace enclosed on all four sides by glass and secured in a block of bright-white, rough-hewn limestone. Champalimaud's natural affinity for the forms and glamour of the earlier decades of the 20th century dovetailed nicely with her brief to pay subtle homage to the Bel-Air's salad days; sofa and chair backs and delicate, bronze table legs curving elegantly, recalling Syrie Maugham. It's spare, arguably less inviting than it was (an opinion held, probably inevitably, by a large camp of the regulars), but certainly more beautiful.

Champalimaud also designed the rooms and suites, which carry those same themes of rigour and lightness through the Spanish-colonial buildings lain roughly in a long, lean oval running up Stone Canyon Road. Terracotta floors have been replaced with smooth limestone; ceilings are the same French-oak strip as in the lobby; graphic black-and-white rugs and blackworked linen curtains add punch to the sorbet tones. The fireplaces - most of the 103 units have them - have been scaled down, smoothed over and glassed in. Past the French doors of the suites are the same mellowed terraces as ever, with tiled pools and those signature pink adobe walls. If the mood transition from what was to what is now is jarring, the sheer beauty and quality of the furniture and finishes in the interiors again win the day. This winning-ness doesn't extend to the in-room technology, managed via touch-pad telephones, which incited massive frustration and desperate longing for a nice old-fashioned light switch when a push of the "temperature" button repeatedly cast the bedroom into darkness. (Presumably, these glitches have been worked out.)

To reach most of the rooms, suites and the spa one traverses the restaurant - a wide, airy patio space cleverly bookended by a row of closed-in private banquettes at one end, and a series of exquisite private dining rooms at the other. The former have views over Swan Lake, as it's winkingly called, and by night are lit beautifully along the edges of their enclosures by votives; the latter showcase stunning glass-and-nickel wine-storage cases and huge Carrera marble fireplaces.

Puck himself patrols the perimeter many days, stopping to chat with diners and confer with staff. He is the quintessential LA chef-restaurateur: his outfit is the official caterer of the Academy Awards Governors Ball, and when not manning the kitchens here or opening steakhouses across the planet (including Cut, his outpost at London's 45 Park Lane), he dabbles in a spot of acting. Spago, the bistro he opened on the Sunset Strip in 1982, transformed America's perception of fine dining and all that that categorisation entailed (flip-flops as acceptable dress? Steely Dan on the stereo? Who knew?), and was for years a nexus of the Hollywood great and good. His presence here is a coup and a stroke of genius by the Dorchester team, and the menu he's created reflects perfectly the relaxed-refined ethos of California dining.

I experience this on my last evening, with an impromptu sneak-peek tasting dinner of dishes from that menu - due to launch a week later - arranged by Puck's brilliant operations manager, Alex Resnik, which I enjoy in the bar with some winemaker friends (whose cult-following cabernet sauvignon is a favourite of Puck's), rather than in the restaurant. It's here - formerly a place of clubby cosiness: wood-panelled, dimly lit, with teal-upholstered chesterfield sofas - where the new owners ran the most risk of causing offence to the old guard. It's also the space that was in most need of an overhaul (there was reportedly a musty tinge to both the air and the patrons in recent years). And they've made quite a departure. "The elegant bar is a cherished space," reads one press release, "so Rockwell Group [the design firm responsible for the bar, restaurant and ballrooms] will only lightly touch its familiar look."

That professed lightness is a matter of some contention. The once red-oak panels are finished a matte grey-black; underfoot is a mix of herringbone-patterned stone and deep-sable pile carpet. The dark brown leather banquettes are lit by stylised brass sconces. It seems to refute, down to the last colour-wheel contemporary canvas on the walls, many vestiges of the traditionalism that was. "Oh, your father's not going to like this at all," my mother murmured, more to herself than to me, when we walked in. But with all due respect to him and his 70 very elegant years, many of which saw him an occasional guest of this bar, he is no longer their target demo. And by our third bottle of burgundy - paired with bone-marrow flan on mushroom toasts and Puck's signature tuna tartare, given the SoCal treatment with a bit of avocado and ginger - the collective feeling about the bar was altogether softened. The place was also packed.

On the way out, my winemaker friend - a local, but no stranger to sophisticated international style - paused in the lobby and looked appreciatively around. "You know, this is the third time I've seen it, and every time I come it grows on me. I think I might like it now." That's one loyalist back in the fold.

18 Hotel Bel Air - Pool - Joe Schlemzer