"This is what God would do if he or she had their money," murmured a guest to me as we wandered the grounds of the newly-reopened Hotel Bel Air (701 Stone Canyon Rd, 310-472-1211). Reputedly its owner, Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, through his London-based luxury hotel Dorchester Group, has spent some $100 million rebuilding this landmark Bel Air hostelry. And you know what? It looks like the money was well-spent. It is gorgeous! The formerly somewhat dreary 12-acre hotel, nestled into the woods of rustic Bel Air, has been brightened, refurbished and rebuilt to maintain its oh, so romantic atmosphere while accommodating knowing guests in this wired age. (All rooms have fast wireless Internet service, and each has an iPad to control room temperature, lighting, and to order room service.) The in-house PR woman, Alisha Mahon, told me that they even built a cellphone tower to make reception more available.
Interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud and the Rockwell Group designed all of the dining and entertainment venues. The signature swans (Chloe, Athena and Hercules) are back in their Swan Lake below the footbridge, which you must cross to enter the hotel; the birds are gliding along and making raucous noises... and I have been cautioned not to try and pet them 'cause they bite. (It is rumored that one swan committed suicide just before returning. And on opening night all male hotel execs wore swan feathers in their lapels.) You have probably read in the papers about the dispute with the hotel union, which is protesting that most employees discharged two years ago when the renovation began have not been rehired. I can only hope that it is resolved shortly, but I was struck by the cordial, caring manner of every one of the 275 hotel personnages I have met.
I have been coming to this boutique hotel since the fifties, alternating with my favorite, the Beverly Hills Hotel, now under the same management. Over the years I became friendly with several of its managers, especially Frank Bowling, the British toff who is now an exec with Montage Hotels. A vivid memory of many years ago is seeing Robert Redford swimming laps in the peaceful pool. The 103-room hotel was opened in 1946, and I recall hearing that it was offices and riding stables before that. In the 1980s, the Rosewood Hotel people bought it. (A condition of the sale was that the original owner's wife, Francis Chanock, could remain as a permanent guest until her death.) It was always a hideaway within this city, where many an illicit romance was conducted away from the prying eyes of the press and public. The bar was (and will be again) the most romantic drinking spot I know, and I held many, many business breakfast meetings in its dining room.
Speaking of that dining room, the biggest and best change? Someone had the good sense to engage Chef Wolfgang Puck and his company to take over all of the food operations! Yes, room service, breakfast, lunch and dinner will come from Puck's kitchens. Hell, that is reason enough to check in for a few days of pampering. Before the opening, Wolf and I walked through the new two-story fitness studio and Spa by La Prairie, and I remarked that it exceeded any spa I have ever seen, even those in Bali and Baja. Jt is huge, 4,134 sq. ft, and stunning. The 12 new hillside accomodations (from $1,900 to $4,800 per night) have sweeping canyon views, there are now three 'loft' guestrooms, and I heard there is a special rate of some $565 dollars a day for a basic room until the end of the year.
I have yet to eat a proper meal in the new dining room, so that review will have to wait a few weeks, but I did attend a Sunday brunch and charity auction which Wolfgang hosted in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Bel Air on October 16th, where they auctioned off many exciting packages arranged by Mansour Travel for the benefit of St. Vincent's Meals on Wheels, which delivers daily over 4,000 meals to needy seniors and others. It was, quite simply, one of the best meals of my life. (And I don't say that lightly, having had many great meals in a long and exciting life.) The fact that I was seated at a table situated between Sidney Poitier and Paul Anka did not influence my judgement, only my enthusiasm. Sidney starred in and co-wrote the first movie I ever produced, For Love of Ivy, so I was delighted to see him and his lovely wife Joanna. Next to Sidney was the impressive Professor Ephraim Isaac of Harvard, dressed in his native Ethiopian garb. Wolfgang's wife, designer Gelila Assefa, is also Ethiopian. At the next table was singer Paul Anka and his date, the lovely Lisa Pemberton. I was Paul's first publicity guy when he came down from Canada in the early sixties and won acclaim with his song, "Diana." We reminisced about those days, when I arranged for him to be on the cover of Time and even handled the press for his 1962 Paris wedding to the stunning Egyptian model, Ann Zagheb. Paul told me that one of his daughters writes occasionally for the Huffington Post!
That luncheon featured a Yellowtail Tartare with Caviar from Nobu Matsuhisa, a Twice-Baked Upside Down Cheese Souffle from Francois Payard, Paul Bartollotta's Penne al Ragu di Crostacei (and we owe him an apology for writing that he had left the Vegas Wynn Hotel; he is still there and running his superb restaurant). Wolf's Spago crew sent out a Snake River Farm Wagyu New York Sirloin (incredible earthy beef flavor), and my sweet pastry chef friend Sally Camacho, now at the Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel Air Dining Room, served up a Poached Pink Lady Apple with sorbet. As I said, it was a memorable meal... the first of many I expect to have at this exquisite, unparalled hotel in the woods of Bel Air. I hope you will join me there.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at email@example.com.
Follow Jay Weston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaywestonsbcglo