How the Sunset Tower Got Its Cool
In three short years, New Yorker Jeff Klein turned a onetime dowager on Sunset Boulevard into L.A.'s It hotel. What can we say? Chic happens.
Catherine Deneuve—sultry blonde, the scent of Gauloises on her fingertips—is sipping her Chardonnay in the amber glow when some pesky journalist sidles up to the piano player and says, "Wouldn't it be a good idea to play the theme from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? You know, 'If it takes forever, I will wait for you.'"
The piano player looks stricken.
"No," he says derisively. "Leo DiCaprio was in last night and we didn't play anything from Titanic."
Cool reigns supreme at the Tower Bar, the hushed dining room at the Sunset Tower Hotel—a place that feels like a private club and plays host to a revolving cast of actors, writers, agents, legends, and grandes dames—all candlelit and surrounded by old Hollywood sepia stills on the burnished walnut–paneled walls. Created by 37-year-old Jeff Klein, it's a small oasis for the swells. Klein is determined to bring back glamour and élan to a street awash in neon and nubile starlets, rock stars, and celebutards in diaper shorts who wouldn't know a torchon of foie gras from a Fatburger.
"This is exactly how I envisioned it," says Klein over lunch one day at The Terrace, the casual ground-floor lounge that overlooks a Tiffany-blue pool. Sunlight glints off his vintage Hermès watch, the shoes are Prada, and he's wearing a bespoke blue pinstriped suit. He has movie-star good looks and the infectious charm of, say, a young Tony Curtis. "I didn't know Los Angeles could handle elegance," he says, recalling the early days of his project. "When I think of Hollywood, I think chic and cool. There's nothing tackier than that annoying 'you have to be cool to get in' club. Maybe I'm an old soul, but I love those places that treated everyone well."
On any given night the banquettes—Tom Ford, Anjelica Huston, Joaquin Phoenix at their tables, Brian Grazer at another, a Russian billionaire cooling his heels, sipping a fresh-squeezed vodka Citron Pressé from the bar—are presided over by the Macedonian-born, soigné maître d' Dimitri Dimitrov. When Klein opened the restaurant, his friends Tom Ford and Mitch Glazer told him he needed one important player to make it work. Formerly with L'Ermitage, Dimitrov was that man. He performs host duties—arranging napkins and drinks with precision, ushering over paper cones of frîtes alongside steaks and macaroni and cheese with lobster, pouring vintage Bordeaux—and generally creates a thirties black-and-white film where Carole Lombard, in a long white silk bias-cut gown, might hold on to the Art Deco handrail on her way to meet Gable for a gimlet.
That was Hollywood: Chasen's, Romanoff's, the Brown Derby. Gossip columnists in pillbox hats, chauffeurs in caps, men in spats. When rehab was for quitters. When the cool drank cocktails in style instead of hoovering cocaine off a toilet. Where everyone ate real food, not thimbles of raw fish crowned with frisée. What the Tower Bar has achieved is nothing short of a miracle: offering a swank environment in a city short on grown-up behavior.
Which is why Jennifer Aniston is a regular—without her bodyguard (she was here with Orlando Bloom). So is Bill Murray. Mitch Glazer and Kelly Lynch come for the caviar service and the glittery nighttime view. Then there's Katie and Tom, Brad and Angelina, Mick Jagger, Jackie Collins, Balthazar Getty, George Clooney, Nancy Reagan, and Kirsten Dunst. Eva Mendes was here the other night by the fireplace, with director Terry George across the room. Drew Barrymore was caught making out with Spike Jonze. But even if you're a nobody, Jeff Klein, tall and chuckling, could care less. As legendary hotel manager Frank Bowling—of The Carlyle in Manhattan, then of the Hotel Bel-Air and now the ambassador of the Peninsula Beverly Hills—puts it, "Jeff has created an atmosphere where the old guard and the new guard all feel comfortable. You might find Betsy Bloomingdale and Nancy Reagan at one table and David Bowie at the next. Everyone feels relaxed and welcome here. And, just as important, the hotel doesn't look like anyplace else. It's totally unique." There's no velvet rope, no deejay in the lobby, no seventies shag rugs, no paparazzi to harangue the guests.
"The dirty little secret," Klein says, "is that Los Angeles is a very sophisticated city. We don't have a dress code, but people actually dress up a bit. They look nice." That means blazers for men, no muffin tops for women. "When we opened, Dimitri asked, 'Should we have a dress code?' I wasn't sure. I thought, Just no baseball hats, sneakers, or T-shirts. That very night George Lucas walks in wearing a baseball hat, sneakers, and a T-shirt."
Known for hosting events such as the Miramax Oscar party for nominees like Helen Mirren and Peter O'Toole as well as the Creative Artists Agency after-bash for the Golden Globes last February, Klein has his standards. When Sean "Diddy" Combs tried to crash the CAA event, he was politely turned away by the hotelier himself. The mogul wasn't pleased, but he called Klein the next day and apologized.
There was the night Britney Spears, pre-rehab, tried to book three rooms. Klein, who refers to the pop star as trailer trash, refused. As he remarked to the magazine Los Angeles Confidential, "You get celebs, but good celebs—not the cheesier kind."
Klein, who also owns the City Club Hotel in New York, grew up on 79th Street and Park Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. His father ran an industrial cleaning company and his mother, Susan Klein, "is extremely aesthetic," Klein says. She loves art, furniture, and design and collects American folk art. The younger of two sons, Klein graduated from Columbia Prep, despite being severely dyslexic. "In those days they just thought I was stupid."After graduating from Tulane University, he spent a year studying at the Sorbonne. Back in the States, he began his career as a bellman at New York's Hotel Wales. His mentor was Bernard Goldberg, who was a boutique hotel pioneer in the late eighties. Klein worked his way up the food chain: housekeeping, sales, front-desk manager. In 2000 he purchased what is now the City Club, renovating and revamping the property and installing Daniel Boulud in the restaurant.
"I moved to L.A. three years ago and all my New York socialite friends said I'd hate it—'It's so plastic,' they told me," Klein says. "But I love this city. I think it's so rich. There are interesting people here. I love the vibe and the energy."
On a whim, Klein walked into the old Argyle Hotel on Sunset Strip. Once the home of the St. James Club, it was ripe for a facelift. Originally, it was an apartment building where the likes of gangster Bugsy Siegel, Frank Sinatra, and Howard Hughes lived. In 2004 Klein bought the stone-carved structure, erected in 1929 by architect Leland A. Bryant, for a reported $20 million, and began renovations.
"It was run-down, tacky, fake Deco, but the location was always great," explains Klein, who hired Los Angeles designer Paul Fortune—he also did Marc Jacobs's Paris apartment and Les Deux Café, in Hollywood—to transform the property into 74 guest rooms with a world-class spa, poolside bar, and restaurant. The penthouse, where tall banks of windows let in the blinding light, is an oasis above the fray. From the patio, there's a stunning vista of downtown and, on the other side, a bird's-eye view of the Hollywood Hills. The toiletries are Kiehl's, the colors muted beiges and purplish-browns, and the rooms, though smaller than some modern hotels', are lean and luxurious.
One of Klein's most frequent guests, media entrepreneur Jon Diamond, has made the Tower his home for about 100 days a year. "They know my habits and see to it that they're met to perfection," he says. "The rooms are warm and large enough to hold meetings in. If I do hold one in the Tower Bar, clients immediately notice the discreet atmosphere."
About four years ago Klein met producer John Goldwyn, grandson of Samuel Goldwyn and bona fide Hollywood royalty, at a dinner party arranged by Eric and Lisa Eisner. The two became popular dinner guests and with Goldwyn's pedigree, Klein soon had an insider's feel for the rich and powerful of Los Angeles.
When the Sunset Tower overhaul was completed in August 2006, the hotel became an extension of their social universe and was suddenly the biggest little hotel in Hollywood. "All the right people just started staying here," Klein says. People such as Sofia Coppola, French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, Renée Zellweger, and Sean Penn. Nicole Kidman was a resident. Most of the rich and famous check in with fake names and Klein makes everyone sign a "no wild party" agreement.
No one knows the fickle nature of Los Angeles's hot spots more than the owners of such clubs as Social Hollywood, Teddy's, Hyde, Winston's, and Eleven, which all vie for the same underage names. Klein is instead striving for a more New York "21" feel. A place, he hopes, that might endure forever. "He's created a style that could last fifty years," says Bowling. As for his competition, Klein is unconcerned. "In L.A.," he says, "hotels try to scare people into thinking they're cool."
Klein hired young chef Dakota Weiss last October, who is turning out such haute SoCal comfort foods as grilled Brie-and-lobster sandwiches to be washed down with chilled Domaines Ott by the pool.
But more than the food, the hotel is known for its good manners and generosity, a reflection of Klein's own personality. One night a trio of diners exiting the Tower Bar passed by the piano player and said to the waiter, "That was the best service we've ever had."
Told the story, Klein smiles broadly. "Celebrities are treated like royalty, but we treat everyone here like royalty," he says. "When celebrities see that, they appreciate it. They see that everyone is treated the same way. They don't really want to receive special consideration. The other night Penélope Cruz had to wait for a table. I love that."