Anything but Standard
Published: June 2009
By Jonathan Gold
The legendary Sunset Strip is back in action, thanks to hot clubs, cold coffee, and the arrival of the modder-than-mod Standard hotel
If you have a quarter to feed a coin telescope, you can see forever from the Smurf-blue, AstroTurf deck of the new Standard hotel, past the turrets of West Hollywood châteaux, over the Beverly Hills flats, toward the purpling mass of distant Catalina island. If you swing the telescope the other way, the license plates on the cars crawling down La Cienega seem almost close enough to read through the late-afternoon haze. But if you want to peek into a faraway window, the sort of illicit purpose to which Hollywood telescopes are often put, you may be out of luck: the sight lines are all wrong. Or maybe not.
"You are forgetting," muses hotel owner André Balazs, peering out at the city, "that these telescopes swivel three hundred and sixty degrees. Perhaps where the telescopes on the Empire State Building indicate places of interest, we should install brass plaques on ours . . . and engrave room numbers on them."
Welcome to the hotel of the future, right here on the Sunset Strip: T-1 lines and silver beanbag chairs in every guest room, aphrodisiac yohimbé sodas in the mini-bar, and a tariff starting at just $95 per night.
Balazs, of course, is the proprietor who transformed the nearby Chateau Marmont hotel from a fading Hollywood legend into a swanky clubhouse just shabby enough to frighten off the squares, and turned an old SoHo factory building into a hotel—the Mercer—so sleekly modern that Calvin Klein calls it home. This time he chose as his canvas a cheerful 1964 motel that had long since been reworked into a retirement home but was gifted with great Mid-Century Modern bones.
"The hotels I love," says Balazs, "are the ones that inspire excess in human behavior."
Some of the 138 rooms contain an Eames Surfboard table, a big, puffy couch that is actually inflated, and matchbooks imprinted with the phone number of a local bail bondsman. There's no art in the rooms, but the curtains (as if anybody would ever close them to the glorious views of the Los Angeles basin) bear an Andy Warhol flower print circa 1964. The temperature control knob is labeled so:
What separates The Standard from the kind of hotel whose drinking glasses are sani-sealed for your protection may be little more than bread and circuses, but Balazs has always given good bread and circus. An elegant vitrine behind the registration desk sometimes functions as a stage for performance art and is likely to be filled with drowsy naked models. The shag carpeting in the lobby's Playboy After Dark-style conversation pit creeps up the wall to the ceiling, like Burt Reynolds's hairpiece gone bad. Just off the lobby, where you might expect to find the hotel newsstand, is a combination barbershop and tattoo parlor, walls blanketed with photographs cut out of magazines, and staffed by artists who glower from behind their sharp implements. The hotel could bring cottage-cheese ceilings back into fashion.
Balazs has even installed a DJ booth in the lobby in case some visiting friend—Puff Daddy?—feels like taking a turn behind the wheels of steel.
"A good hotel first has to make you feel comfortable, protected," says Balazs. "But then it has to wrench you out of the familiar, tempt you to do things you might ordinarily be unlikely to do." Like the Sunset Strip itself.
I have my own ideas about the Sunset Strip, the two miles of Sunset Boulevard between Cresent Heights Boulevard and the Beverly Hills border. At six, I tagged along with my father whenever he took out-of-town visitors to look at the hippies. At 14, I begged rides from friends' older brothers to hear Donald Byrd and Ahmad Jamal at the Roxy. At 19, I tossed wadded newspaper at county sheriffs during a punk-rock riot outside the Whisky A Go-Go.
In other words, my relationship with the Strip was approximately that of every other Los Angeles kid in the seventies. It represented a teenage wasteland, infested with hookers and populated by skinny Midwestern guitar players who cohabited four to a room. Once synonymous with Hollywood glamour, the Strip had become run-down, seedy.
Suddenly, the Sunset Strip is jumping with a frenzy it hasn't seen since the late sixties. The mob trying to breach the velvet ropes outside nightclubs—and hotels—sometimes backs up traffic more than a mile. The sidewalks are crowded, for crying out loud. And everything old is new again. Blond starlets spill out of tight black dresses at Barfly as their mothers did when the restaurant was the Rat Pack hangout Nicky Blair's. Veteran trouper Marty Ingels broadcasts his live radio show Saturday nights from Legacy (which used to be the legendary showbiz hangout Scandia), to a crowd that still drops names like Jack Warner and Lew Wasserman. Even the Marlboro Man, the giant billboard cowboy, is back. These days, thanks to the California Department of Health Services, his cigarette droops in a helpless arc, and the brand name has been replaced with IMPOTENT. Just so.
Sure, you can walk the Strip, but you're more likely to soar past the red rope when you roll up in a Benz. Directly below Spago Hollywood, Budget Rent-A-Car (8789 Sunset Blvd.; 310/652-1502) specializes in the sort of dream machines—Porsche Boxters, Mercedes convertibles, Range Rovers, Rolls-Royces—built to impress. Polish up at the hulking concrete Sunset Car Wash (7954 Sunset Blvd.; 323/656-2777), which used to double as a sort of Tunnel of Love for students from nearby high schools and comes with a gift shop twice the size of most airport boutiques. You need never be bored waiting for the carnauba wax again.
Decaf nonfat vanilla blended—with whipped cream—is the usual at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (8591 Sunset Blvd.; 310/659-1890). Plus, when your young brother comes to town, the Coffee Bean offers up exactly what he hopes to find: more creamy, toned actress/model/whatevers than you'll find anywhere outside a casting call.
The decent sound, major bookings, and tolerable Cajun food at House of Blues (8430 Sunset Blvd.; 323/848-5100)—constructed around an actual rusty farm building found at Robert Johnson's famous Crossroads, and with a stage built on truckloads of Mississippi soil—outweigh the heavy dollops of post-hippie mysticism and the profoundly undemocratic door policy. Whisky A Go-Go (8901 Sunset Blvd.; 310/652-4202), the midwife for every pop movement in the last 30 years, has lately been putting on a lot of hair-intensive heavy metal shows again. Coconut Teaszer (8117 Sunset Blvd.; 323/654-4773), which sucks more than 30 bands a week through its red doors, is home to the purest possible expression of the base rock-and-roll impulse.
Hustler Hollywood (8920 Sunset Blvd.; 310/860-9009) is Larry Flynt's bid for "respectability," a vast, clean, well-lit coffeehouse-newsstand-smut emporium across from the Whisky. Tourists fondle leather harnesses and giggle; scruffy rockers lounge on the terrace with smokes and nonfat lattes. A lonely remnant of the Strip's shady past, the Body Shop (8250 Sunset Blvd.; 323/656-1401), a relatively wholesome topless-bottomless joint, has been taking it off since 1938. The refurbished club draws Japanese tourists these days, along with a well-heeled contingent of young actors.
Bars of the Moment
Barfly (8730 Sunset Blvd.; 310/360-9490), a wildly popular spin-off of the Paris restaurant of the same name, is presided over by a giant picture of Charles Bukowski's alcohol-pickled visage. If you ignore the velvet-drenched décor and the weird Japanese-French cooking, you might be able to pretend that this address is still frequented by Frank and Sammy instead of young actors with poor shaving habits. Bar Marmont (8171 Sunset Blvd.; 323/650-0575) is club czar Sean MacPherson's model-infested proto-Vietnamese lounge.
It's a Gas
"How do you feel, man?" asked the waiter at O2 (8788 Sunset Blvd.; 310/360-9002) as I sucked aromatherapeutically enhanced oxygen through a plastic tube stuck deep into my nostrils. "Because you look, like, pretty silly." Prepare to feel like a patient while inhaling passion, joy, and clarity at Woody Harrelson's ultravegan raw-foods restaurant and bar (think kava-root "margaritas"). Wear hemp.
Park It Here
Book Soup (8818 Sunset Blvd.; 310/659-3110), perhaps L.A.'s best retail bookstore, has deep sections of Hollywood books and new fiction, as well as a good newsstand and the easiest parking on the Strip.
Thirty-one years ago, George Harrison's publicist got lost while trying to find George's rented house on Blue Jay Way, a tiny lane above the Chateau Marmont. The street, immortalized on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album, is still a magnet for those who would neck to the superb view—although even stopping your car is a quick route to the surest parking ticket in Hollywood. West Hollywood is home to the most beautiful apartment courts anywhere: elaborately tiled, mid-twenties fantasy villas that actually outdo their supposed models in Andalusia. Many of the best are in the couple of blocks that make up the Harper Avenue Historic District, just south of Sunset. Still, my favorite court, Patio del Moro, is right around the corner at 8225-8229 North Fountain Avenue. The mammoth Guitar Center (7425 Sunset Blvd.; 323/874-1060) is the repository of every rock-and-roll dream that has ever gone down in this town. The onanistic displays of would-be Eddie Van Halens trying out new Strats are worth a special trip. A Rock Walk commemorates stars and faithful customers. Nearby is the hallowed spot where Hugh Grant was caught with his pants down. Hint: Hitchhikers around here aren't necessarily looking for a ride.
Beyond the Standard
Always cool and perpetually under construction, Chateau Marmont (8221 Sunset Blvd.; 800/242-8328 or 323/656-1010; doubles from $210) is really a charming place to stay. My favorite Chateau story?Last summer, a gaggle of girls pounded on what they thought was Leonardo DiCaprio's door in the middle of the night, only to be greeted by a bemused George Plimpton. DiCaprio had checked out the day before. Members of Led Zeppelin once heaved TV sets through the window of their upper-floor suite at the Hyatt West Hollywood (8401 Sunset Blvd.; 800/233-1234 or 323/656-1234; doubles from $129), the famous "Riot House" of the 1970's, but you shouldn't feel obligated to follow suit. Sunset Marquis Hotel & Villas (1200 N. Alta Loma Rd.; 800/858-9758 or 310/657-1333; doubles from $280) is a Beverly Hills Hotel for the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and its Whiskey Bar is the most reliable rock-star hang in town. Howard Hughes, John Wayne, and Bugsy Siegel all used to live at the Art Deco landmark now known as the Argyle Sunset Boulevard (8358 Sunset Blvd.; 800/225-2637 or 323/654-7100; doubles from $240), but that was a really long time ago. Still, the view from the pool is endless and the weekend scene rivals that of the SkyBar, the long-reigning watering hole at the Mondrian (8440 Sunset Blvd.; 800/525-8029 or 323/650-8999; doubles from $260). Ian Schrager's re-invention of this white box of a hotel pretty much sparked the Sunset revival.
There's No Place like Chrome
Once known as Ben Frank's, a great 1950's coffee shop name-checked in Frank Zappa's "Help, I'm a Rock" and frequented by misbehaving rock stars from Jim Morrison to the Germs' Darby Crash, Mel's Drive-In (8585 Sunset Blvd.; 310/854-7200) was chopped and channeled into an ersatz Happy Days-era diner. Somehow, the place is more crowded than ever. There's a moral in here somewhere, but I can't put my finger on it.
Legumes with a View
Spago Hollywood (1114 Horn Ave.; 310/652-4025) spent 16 years as possibly the most famous restaurant in America, the foundation of Wolfgang Puck's empire. Today, Puck's attention may be on his more ambitious Spago Beverly Hills, but Spago Hollywood is better than ever, with impeccable versions of the Jewish pizza, chopped Chino vegetable salad, and sticky fried quail that changed the way California cooks. Every restaurant on the Strip has the same vista as Spago, more or less—what the real estate brochures call "jetliner views of L.A."
It looks like a rock club, it sounds like a rock club, and when the crowd gets pumped up on a Saturday night, it even smells like a rock club. Sushi on Sunset (8264 Sunset Blvd.; 323/656-3242) may be nobody's idea of a classic sushi bar, but the firecracker rolls, the soft-shell-crab rolls, and the infamous Philadelphia rolls made with cream cheese and salmon are screamingly popular. As is the "tuna pica," minced raw tuna tossed with sesame oil and layered like mortar between stacks of fried wonton wrappers, at Asia de Cuba (8440 Sunset Blvd.; 323/848-6000), the Cuban-Chinese restaurant at the Mondrian. Some of Asia de Cuba's food is actually good, but it's hard to eat a dish like calamari salad and sliced banana without laughing hard enough to propel half a glass of Riesling through your nose.
Conventional wisdom has it that, of the half-dozen sidewalk restaurants on Sunset Plaza, Café Med has the best food and Chin Chin is the cheapest. Le-Petit-Four (8654 Sunset Blvd.; 310/652-3863) attracts the most Euroglam crowd, cell phones glued to their ears, hunkered over endless glasses of Mumm and barely touched grilled-chicken Caesars. Clafoutis (8630 Sunset Blvd.; 310/659-5233) is a great place to stretch a cappuccino into an hour or two of pure, hedonistic people-watching. Men tend to have complicated hair; women, elaborately constructed garments that display cleavage in ways not technically feasible without input from the aerospace industry.
The Standard, 8300 Sunset Blvd.; 323/650-9090; doubles from $95.