Thursday, October 20, 2011

From USA Today: Stars bring the glitz, but Hotel Bel-Air adds the glamour

By Kitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY

BEL-AIR, Calif. – Marilyn Monroe did a photo shoot at the Hotel Bel-Air's oval pool shortly before her death.
  • Old Hollywood, a la 'The Women':  The ladies' room by Wolfgang Puck's new eatery is the perfect place for a touch-up and a little gossip.
    By Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY
    Old Hollywood, a la 'The Women': The ladies' room by Wolfgang Puck's new eatery is the perfect place for a touch-up and a little gossip.

By Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY
Old Hollywood, a la 'The Women': The ladies' room by Wolfgang Puck's new eatery is the perfect place for a touch-up and a little gossip.

Grace Kelly stayed at the low-rise pink-stucco hideaway so frequently that a suite is named after her.
Britney Spears holed up when she wanted to get away from her paparazzi-surrounded house. Meg Ryan andRussell Crowe checked in when they were an item. Bel-Air regulars have included privacy-seeking Nicole KidmanMichael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.
The 65-year-old celeb magnet in the pricey residential neighborhood where Nancy Reagan lives reopened Friday after a two-year, top-to-bottom renovation. The question in A-list circles: Would the beloved and historic pink palace — considered one of the world's more exclusive lodgings — be better after a face lift?
Friday, gardeners were adding last-minute flowers to the Bel-Air's famously lush landscaping under the direction of Jon "Johnny Appleseed" Goldstein, who says his firm also has done work for Sheryl CrowJohn Mayer andLance Armstrong. Workers still were redoing the Kelly suite, where a portrait of a beauty — clearly not Kelly — graces a wall. It's '60s British supermodel Jean Shrimpton, a fan of Kelly's, says Alexandra Champalimaud, who designed most of the hotel's interiors. She rejected hanging a picture of Kelly ("a cliché").
Champalimaud decorated the 103 rooms and suites in an upscale contemporary residential style. No room is the same, but all contain sleek custom furnishings mixed with retro Hollywood-glam accessories. A restroom by the bar and new Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air restaurant channels the classic movie The Women, with four vanity mirrors on a circular table — perfect for a gossip session.
As for gossip, much was generated on terrace banquettes in alcoves overlooking the rest of the restaurant. Reagan and her pal Betsy Bloomingdale held court Wednesdays over lunch. (The Bel-Air invited the former first lady to the opening, but she has not been in the best of health and did not accept, hotel spokeswoman Alisha Mahon says.)
The restaurant previously was not a strength of the hotel, so super-chef Puck was brought in to run the revamped eatery, says Edward Mady, a regional director for theDorchester Collection, a group of luxury hotels owned by the Brunei government. Mady also is general manager of Dorchester's The Beverly Hills Hotel. And he has been serving as Bel-Air general manager since Tim Lee suddenly departed before opening. One challenge: dealing with the UNITE HERE union, which picketed at the opening, saying many former Bel-Air union workers weren't rehired. Mady sent picketers water and cookies.
Dorchester Collection CEO Christopher Cowdray, in town for the opening, says the Bel-Air is seeking a general manager who can deal with the "complexity" of the reborn VIP roost — including Puck's eatery (due to open to the public Nov. 1), an elegant La Prairie spa (a 60-minute massage costs $190) and a dozen new hillside digs with sliding glass walls, decks and little spa pools, starting at about $1,500 a night.
The Bel-Air's rooms and suites (currently starting at $595) now have phones with touch screens to call various departments and iPads on which one can order room service and more. Cell-phone coverage has been improved — dropped calls were a complaint of hotshot guests. Gadgetry such as in-wall mood-lighting switches (difficult to find in the dark) and fancy multi-head showers can be daunting for the technologically challenged.
But regulars fearful that the hotel would become a trendy boutique hotel can be reassured. The look outdoors is much the same: Spanish Colonial-style architecture, arched walkways, gurgling fountains, tranquil pool, lovely old trees (some of which were uprooted, taken away to be tended, then replanted). Security staffers in suits patrol discreetly as the hotel's three swans — Athena, Chloe and Hercules Jr. — glide in the small man-made lake.
Puck mingled at a Champagne brunch benefit Sunday. Smiling for photographers: Will FerrellSidney PoitierJames Caan and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.
Like a movie star who took a hiatus from the screen, the Bel-Air is ready again for its close-up.