Los Angeles may be one of America’s trendiest cities, but when it comes to luxury hotels, it’s in love with the past. Something about New Money tempts its holders into imitating the old ways rather than forging new ones of their own. So Beverly Hills hotels, especially, operate with a sort of muted, discreet luxury more suited to a moneyed uncle than a cutting-edge whippersnapper.
But late last year, nightlife impresario Sam Nazarian, the guy behind some of L.A. coolest and best-designed haunts, decided to enter the hotel market and hip up the luxury niche. Could he make his new venture, the SLS, appropriately sassy without losing the formality and class of a proper five-star hotel appropriate to the City of Angels?
The location is certainly ideal: In the former Hotel Meridien on La Cienega, a couple of blocks south of 3rd Street and the Beverly Center. You could walk between the two — if anyone in Los Angeles ever actually walked anywhere. The clubs of West Hollywood are about five minutes east, and on a good day, LAX is 20 minutes down La Cienega.
Sometimes the best way to evaluate places like this is to simply take the big names out of it and appraise the place as a product. That’s what I did. Without the splashy names to impress you, will you still be impressed?
Immensely. The common-area decor feels like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, picking up quietly self-impressed scenesters as you tumbled.
The twisty style logic starts even before you enter the building. An outdoor covered patio, stocked with couches and supervised by a clear, mounted deer head gives the impression that the hotel hasn’t entirely finished moving into the building. Yet a few guests are usually hanging out there, generally ignoring the shelves of borrow-able books and smoking cigarettes in grudging compliance with California’s outdoors-only law.
Inside the doors, a long, over-dressed banquet table stretches nearly to a vanishing point; it’s the communal breakfast area, but it would suit the Mad Hatter. Oversized accents and elongated fixtures recall a whitewashed fin-de-siecle drawing room, pulled to comical limits and stashed in semi-darkness. Let your eyes adjust for a moment, and you’ll start to understand one of the primary draws of a good hotel: It makes you feel the way you can never feel at home.
On the walls of the elevators, life-size photos of loitering people — at a glance, not necessarily people you’d find cheery company, but they seem prosperous and busy — make riding alone feel like a group experience.
There are those who choose a hotel to display their style and wealth, and ironically, they’re often the ones who demand the most privacy. The SLS rooms are havens, but not from narcissism: Smoked mirrors cover most of the vertical surfaces. The TV itself vanishes behind floor-to-ceiling gloss when it’s not on. Such preening-ready design is patently L.A., but there are moments, such as right after waking, when you’d rather not stare at your reflection, even if it makes the room seem even larger than it already is.
The bed was so good that, quite frankly, I barely remember it. I fell asleep nearly immediately. Some people might be put off by the fact it’s sitting in the middle of the room and not pushed up against the wall (the desk was at the head, behind glass, so lovers can spy on each other as one works), but the pillowtop mattress and D. Porthault linens did their work.
Such an environment is clearly nothing like the homes that most of us live in, and to make up for it the SLS puts homey touches in the bathrooms. For example, instead of toothbrush glasses, guests use real goblets of colored glass.
Shampoo and body lotion doesn’t come in little throwaway bottles, but hefty ones sized like the ones in your own shower. Using them makes this highly wrought space feel a little more like home (and hotel heads promise they’re sanitized and refilled between guests).
Just so that there’s always a reminder that your late-night snacking impulse could lead to unsightly un-Hollywood thighs, the minibar segregates the goodies into those for “Saints” (trail mix, sun-dried fruits) and those for “Sinners” (peanut butter pretzels, chocolate licorice).
The truth is that my TV almost never was on. My favorite spot in the room was the leather banquette by my window, which overlooked La Cienaga Blvd (and, craftily, a billboard advertising the hotel itself). In the morning, the east-facing window was bathed in sunshine, and I could read the paper by the warm light.
One of the hallmarks of a true luxury hotel is that it insulates you from having to endure true interaction, and the SLS follows the modern trend of wiring rooms to the rafters. On the edge of that magic TV panel, there’s a console slot for playing DVDs, and beside the bed, the requisite mini-stereo awaiting your iPod. Internet access is wireless. But this is the type of place where if you want to borrow a laptop — or even a hybrid vehicle — the hotel has one to lend.
The coolness factor is so stratospheric, it’s hard not to get swept along. Here’s a shot from the in-room information folder, that gives a glimpse at the hotel’s tongue-in-cheek fabulousness (and its pervasive monkey motif):
As is is the trend with many modern upscale hotels, some of the amenities exist purely to notify you of their cleverness. For example, each room has a little rack of random pluses such as a cardboard kaleidoscope (by an etched sign reading “Take a Peek”).
Don’t let the SLS’s Starwood-managed reservations lull you into mundane Sheraton-level expectations: The staff is well-trained. They remember your name when you return your car to the valets at the porte cochere, and they’ll grant you access random amenities such as a pillow menu. The concierge addressed me as “sir” to the point of my annoyance (and his supreme subservience), and I noticed he just as readily accepts $40 tips from high rollers who wanted to get onto the toughest guest lists in town.
Which brings us to the clientele. Some of the SLS customers pick it because of the names behind it. So let’s bring those names into it for a second. Its head, Sam Nazarian, is the chieftain of the SBE Collection, which runs some of L.A. more popular nightspots (gay/straight confab bar The Abbey, dance club Area, XIV by Michael Mina, the Katsuya restaurants). Guests at the SLS gets guests get automatic entree to the guest lists at his other properties in town, and for the image-conscious, that counts for something.
The staff’s uniforms (or “attire”) are by designer Pascal Humbert, who gives the men tailored black suits and the housekeepers trompe l’oeil aprons printed on their dresses. Off the lobby, sassy luxury housewares brand Moss runs a little shop, and its expensive, culture-weary wares — think of a Spencer’s for millionaires that sells stuff like lamps sprouting from the barrels of chrome automatic weapons — are offered for sale for overindulgent guests. I had to wonder whether the celebrities who came through the SLS would appreciate the paparazzi shots sold as ironic curios. (The staff member I mentioned this to agreed that yes, the hotel might want to stash the Leo DiCaprio ambush shots on the night he comes to dine.)
Most notable, the overall design is by Philippe Starck, who has been installing jaw-dropping (and for the un-hip, possibly nightmare-inducing) lobby furniture such as oversize candle holders and side-tables that look like human heads. Naturally, nearly everything is for sale.
SLS guests are also shortlisted for the hotel’s over-the-top restaurant, The Bazaar, which is a destination for non-guests, too. Here, the Wonderland theme is warped to gastronomic ends. James Beard-winning Spanish chef Jose Andreas oversees an endlessly inventive menu of comforting classics rendered with molecular gastronomy. True to its name, it’s set up as a sort of marketplace of stations. In one area, you warm up with pre-meal cocktails, such as caipirinhas slushies made with liquid nitrogen and mojitos sweetened with a puff of cotton candy that vanishes as the drink is poured. Everything feels experimental, but never off-putting.
Then you move into a dining area — Top Chef’s second-season runner-up Marcel Vigneron is lead dog in the open kitchen — which hits diners with wave after wave of ingenious small-plate creations such as olives spooned up in burst-in-your-mouth packets of liquid, or simple celebrations of top-quality ingredients such as a plate of Spanish fine-sliced ham. For dessert, you’re moved to a third area, where anise-infused chocolates and other bizarre but elegant combinations wipe out your remaining reserves.
Roaming is encouraged. There’s an in-house tarot card reader (really), and the furniture has hidden surprises, such as the banquet table embedded with monitors showing loops of Fellini films. The night I was there, “Desperate Housewives” actress Teri Hatcher was wandering in the Moss design store.
Even if it’s all undeniably pretentious and even defiantly Roman, the fact that most everything is based on simple childhood favorites and is executed with nearly surgical skill somehow undercuts the ridiculousness. Foodies may count it as one of the best meals in recent memory.
I might have counted my stay among the most remarkable in years if I hadn’t be there a second day. That’s when, on a 90-degree day, I tried to use the pool.
The SLS lives in such fealty to the “in crowd” that it has hopelessly oversubscribed its rooftop deck. Unless they stake out a spot in the morning, guests can’t secure a lounge chair, despite the fact that most of the hipsters up there aren’t even swimming. (“Don’t you know Hollywood douches can’t float?” joked a friend of mine.) The hotel told me that only guests and customers of the hotel’s spa, Ciel, are granted access to the pool, but the youth, size, and homogeneity of the crowd seemed to testify to the contrary.
The SLS pool area is for scenesters, and not for hotel guests who want to pop up for a casual afternoon dip. The service, too, was slow and, unlike the Bazaar, not nearly worth the prices charged ($20 for a very poor, very watery rum cocktail that was gone in five sips).
After being banished to an inhospitable group cabana, I decided to make a break for it, but when I went down to my car, there was an even more unpleasant surprise: While my vehicle was with the valets and the windows had been rolled down, someone had stolen a $40 phone charger from the cigarette lighter. When I discreetly pulled the manager aside to tell him about it, he seemed mortified (“This just doesn’t happen, sir,” he said; “It just did,” I said), but to the credit of the SLS, he immediately made it right by running to The Grove, an upscale shopping center located a few minutes east, and buying an identical replacement.
If only I had satisfied myself with keeping to myself. If I had only ensconced myself in my mirrored haven, and gone downstairs for the dazzling culinary chemistry experiments, my SLS would have been the most remarkable stay I’ve had in years.
Instead, I learned an important lesson: No matter how lofty the design goals, a place lives or dies on the quality of the people who use it.
465 South La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles
Doubles from $400