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L.A.'s Hot Plates

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.

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