Athough Angelenos don't sleep in hotels, they practically live in them. Back in the 1940's, the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was the spot for the Hollywood power lunch; by the nineties the Hotel Bel-Air's cloistered restaurant was the place for the paparazzi-free breakfast. Today the Writer's Bar at L'Ermitage is where players go to talk story.
A fresh crop of A-listers has discovered what the previous generation knew so well: there's no better location than a hotel for a drink, a script meeting, or to work on a screenplay while being pampered and spoiled by a waitstaff that knows a thing or two about service. Most of all, hotels provide the essential ingredient every industry heavy craves—plenty of opportunities to see and be seen.
With top chefs on board, the fight is on for coveted reservations at a handful of new hotel restaurants. Not since the mid eighties, when Spago and Michael's were inventing California cuisine, has there been this much buzz in the L.A. restaurant biz. Here, the 11 hottest hotel canteens.
Chateau Marmont For the past 18 months, the restaurant at the legendary hotel on the Sunset Strip has been L.A.'s best-kept secret. In December 2002, owner André Balazs hired Mohammad Islam, a high-voltage chef with a New York pedigree. After stints at Jean Georges and Mercer Kitchen, Islam has brought serious cooking to a hotel that has long been known as the playground for celebrities, not as a place where you'd think to eat.
It isn't easy to get a reservation—not because the restaurant is booked, but because no one answers the phone. Leave your number; you may or may not have your call returned. If you're not confirmed, however, you can't get in—the slick attendant with the earpiece at the top of the steep driveway won't let you pass unless you're on the list.
Inside, Chateau Marmont is populated mostly by hotel guests, who melt into their banquettes in the lobby lounge, laughing over cocktails. The nine-table dining room is warmly lit and romantic—it feels like an 18th-century Central European hotel with low banquettes and brocade wall coverings. But if it's a mild night (which it usually is), you'll want to dine in the garden. At the end of a path lined by tiki torches, the bar is marked by a spectacularly illuminated palm tree. Could there be a more conducive spot in the world for a martini?You'll know instantly that this is the place to be; celebrity sightings are practically guaranteed. The food?Sure, it's good: crunchy-sticky balls of risotto al salto with Fontina cheese melting inside; fork-tender roulades of veal breast with wild mushrooms; a dessert of butterscotch "silk," or pot de crème (Islam's wife, Malika Am-een, is the pastry chef). The menu itself is small, but so much the better—it's easier to peer over it to see who's coming down the pathway next. 8221 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; 323/656-1010; dinner for two $95.
Dining Room Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa Not many Angelenos know him by name, but Craig Strong, the young and unassuming chef-de-cuisine of the Dining Room is one of southern California's most talented cooks; he may be the top chef at a hotel restaurant in L.A.county. And the Dining Room, with its rich walnut paneling, gorgeous handblown chandelier, and impressive floral arrangements, is among the area's most formal dining experiences. Curtained-off nooks are ideal for those who want privacy, yet still to be the center of attention.
Resist the urge to order a steak. Although the Dining Room recently added an à la carte option to its formerly tasting menu-only format, it's best to put yourself in Strong's hands and let him show you his range. A meal might begin with a soup plate holding a quenelle of sweet mint sorbet, over which a white-gloved waiter pours hot, fresh English pea soup. The contrast in temperature speaks to what successful intellectual cuisine does: it stimulates even as it comforts; the result is irresistible. Next, a perfectly seared diver scallop with bok choy, forbidden rice, and against-all-odds delicious "ketchup" made from fresh pineapple and tomato water. Then comes lobster poached in butter with pine nuts, chard, lobster roe, and a surprising, yet completely harmonious, Sauternes sauce. A beautifully browned poussin, Moroccan-style, comes with couscous, sultana raisins, and broccoli purée.
Strong does double duty with pastries: on a recent visit, lighter-than-air beignets, each pierced by a fondue fork, were presented with six kinds of sauce (caramel, chocolate, cinnamon, banana, praline, and cream cheese with candied clementine). Then came a warm chocolate cake with brandied- cherry ice cream. Mignardises followed, and it seemed an Armagnac was inevitable. 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; 626/577-2867; six-course tasting menu for two $136.
Sai Sai Millennium Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles There's no shortage of good Japanese food downtown, but Sai Sai, the restaurant on Pershing Square, is an undiscovered gem. All sleek lines and blond wood, the room is modern and inviting. Unlike many L.A. sushi bars, Sai Sai is spacious and airy; you don't have to elbow your way in. A narrow sushi counter runs along one side, but the tables are the place to be.
New-style Japanese, courtesy of Ricardo Zarate, the Peruvian-born chef, is the order of the day. Don't miss kaki shishito—a single deep-fried Kumamato oyster, dressed in its shell with tomato-yuzu salsa and a charred shishito pepper. Yellowtail ceviche, pristinely fresh, is tangy; shiso leaves bring a perfumed note to "electric" eel rolls.
But traditional dishes sing too: exemplary sushi, crisp tempura, toro (tuna belly) that's so buttery it dissolves in your mouth. It's all perfect with a chilled junmai sake. 506 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 213/624-1100; dinner for two $65.
One Pico Shutters on the Beach With the departure of executive chef Tim Goddell from Whist at the Viceroy hotel just across Ocean Avenue, One Pico has emerged as the best hotel dining room in Santa Monica. Chef Matt Lyman has been cooking some of the finest food in L.A. since his arrival at Shutters three years ago.
Nobody talks about One Pico, yet the place is always busy—with both food and service that are reliably outstanding. And as hard as it might be to fathom, it's almost impossible to find decent food with a great ocean view anywhere north of Laguna Beach and south of Santa Barbara. There may not be any crashing waves, but the wide sandy beach appears to go on for miles. Arrive just before dusk to watch the sun set over the Santa Monica Pier.
The hotel's exterior brings to mind Cape Cod; the airy, high-ceilinged, beamed dining room looks like that of a beachy Northeastern retreat, with the fireplace burning year-round. It's elegant, but informal. To start, the Dungeness crab salad with green apples cut like matchsticks, celery, walnuts, grapes, and cider dressing, is a winner. If you're dining among friends who like to share, double the order of rock shrimp ravioli with wilted pea sprouts and velvety lobster sauce, or you'll be sorry. Seared George Banks scallops are the Platonic ideal of a mollusk—sealed by the heat, moist inside, with nothing aggressive to mask the delicate flavor. Underneath lies an expertly executed (if undersalted) risotto, made bright green by puréed arugula and creamy with mascarpone cheese. I rarely order chicken, but Lyman prepares his free-range bird two ways, separately roasting the breast and braising the leg. Both are spot-on, enhanced by an intense chicken jus, shaved summer truffles, and a garlic-tinged corn-and-spinach sauté. If you want to feel like an eight-year-old again, order the "do-it-yourself s'mores" for dessert: four toasted house-made marshmallows, each sandwiched between graham crackers and skewered. Little pots of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and caramel sauce encourage gooey dipping. 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; 310/587-1717; dinner for two $105.
Gardens Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills This restaurant most closely approaches the 19th-century idea of what a good hotel dining room should be: welcoming in an understated way; dignified, yet not self-important; a place where you might enjoy eating on most nights of your extended stay. There is no room for look-at-me style in this unflashy, very correct, hotel. Guests are made to feel that they can blend in or stand out, depending on their mood. If a diner at the corner table is wearing black, the white linen napkin will be removed, unobtrusively, and replaced with a black one. At lunchtime, the garden, all wrought iron and greenery, beckons. A middle-aged rocker with long, blue-black hair comes outside, blinking in the sunlight, carrying a baby. He puts her in a car seat on his table and coos at her as he looks over the menu.
Where else in L.A. can you get a minute steak?Quickly grilled, with a generous dollop of herbed compound butter melting on top, it's just as it should be. Order hand-cut frites, stacked in a lattice, and a small watercress salad, and all is right with the world. Dinner is lovely, too: butter-poached lobster with black-truffle flan is perfect for a dressy night out. Tomato-fennel soup from the café menu is good for a casual, quiet bite. A goat cheese-covered crouton sits in the soup plate, and the waiter ladles the soup around it from a tureen—thick, delicious, a little spicy. If you feel like peering over the Pacific Rim, order three fat Thai crab cakes, crispy with panko, and dip them in hot-and-sour sauce. On the side comes delicious green papaya slaw. I'll be back, at the usual time, tomorrow evening. 300 S. Doheny Dr., Beverly Hills; 310/385-4950; dinner for two $110.
Balboa Grafton on Sunset The Sunset Strip steak house resembles neither a steak house nor a hotel restaurant. It looks like, well, the lounge of the moment. Designed by local architecture firm Tag Front, it's stylish and small, with a wall made entirely of twigs; luscious caramel-hued, leather banquettes; and stacked, multi-colored Lucite light fixtures. It's too cool-looking to be anything but a hipster hangout. Don't let that fool you: the food is terrific.
Unless you're a vegetarian, order the 40-day dry-aged Aurora Angus New York strip. Choose from among nine sauces—"housemade" Worcester-shire, "J.1." (the house version of A.1.), smoky Cabernet reduction, béarnaise—but don't sweat the decision; they're all just fine. The Caesar salad, though prepared tableside (always fun), is rather pedestrian; instead, try the Vidalia onion and Maytag blue cheese tart with crisp country ham. Don't get too caught up in the appetizers: the steak's the thing. It arrives perfectly cooked, with the seductive, almost gamy complexity well-aged beef should have. Come on a Sunday night, when every bottle of wine—including half bottles—is half price. A 2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape for $30?It's like a beautiful dream. 8462 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 323/650-8383; dinner for two $95.
Belvedere The Peninsula Beverly Hills Don't mention "hotel food" around Bill Bracken, executive chef at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, or you may find yourself being shouted down by quite an imposing figure. Bracken is probably the most charismatic of L.A.'s hotel chefs, as well as one of the most creative. But he doesn't take himself too seriously—this very tall fellow has a shaved head, a Vandyke beard, a gold earring, and a jaunty seersucker chef's jacket that he had to fight the hotel's general manager to adopt.
Bracken's sense of whimsy shows on the plate—a welcome twist in a pretty-but-staid dining room. Bluefin tuna "lollipops" consist of fat cubes of raw fish speared on actual lollipop sticks. Give in to the primal urge to order "macaroni and cheese": elbow pasta with Taleggio, shaved black truffles, and a Parmesan tuile.
Bracken really excels, however, with more-serious dishes. If lamb three ways is on the menu, don't hesitate. The braised lamb shank with tapenade of eggplant and the mini-New Zealand lamb chop, wrapped in an English pea purée and caul fat, are both wonderful, but the loin, poached slowly in olive oil, is the real showstopper—intensely flavorful, purity itself, the essence of baby lamb.
Desserts here can feel overly architectural for the 21st century; the simplest are the most appealing—artisanal cheeses from the trolley, Meyer lemon pudding cake with raspberry sorbet, a homey assortment of "cookies-n-milk." How sweet it is. 9882 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310/788-2306; dinner for two $100.
LESLIE BRENNER is the editor of the Los Angeles Times Food Section and a former T+L contributing editor.
When Noé (251 S. Olive St., third floor; 213/356-4100; dinner for two $95) opened last year at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza, it marked a comeback for Robert Gadsby, a Thomas Keller protégé whose eponymous restaurant was shuttered in the late nineties. Though you have to have a sweet tooth to love some of the dishes, the shrimp cocktail, for one, is a standout: succulent Santa Barbara spot prawns with an unexpectedly light, peanuty Thai dressing. So is the arctic char served over artichoke barigoule with cipollini onions and tomato confit.
Oceanfront (1910 Ocean Way; 310/581-7714; dinner for two $100), the restaurant at Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, has been trying to find its sea legs for the past couple of years. A new chef, Collin Crannell, may prove to be the ticket. He certainly has the credentials: Crannell is an alumnus of Water Grill, L.A.'s revered downtown seafood house, and a former sous-chef at Patina.
As settings go, it's hard to beat the Mid-Century Modern poolside patio at Blue on Blue in the Avalon Hotel (9400 W. Olympic Blvd.; 310/407-7791; dinner for two $100) in Beverly Hills. You'll feel as if you're in a 1950's movie about L.A. When the restaurant opened in 2001, the poolside scene was achingly cool but the tomato soup tasted as if it had come from a can. Jeffrey Everts, a promising new chef, has recently arrived. The jury's still out—and hungry.
In September, Los Angeles will see one of its highest-profile (and longest delayed) openings this year. Ludovic Lefebvre, former executive chef at the famed L'Orangerie, will launch a restaurant in Westwood. This long-awaited newcomer will be calling the unlikeliest of places home: the W Westwood (930 Hilgard Ave.; 310/208-8765; dinner for two $75). L.A. foodies can't wait.