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Special Restaurant Issue / A New Sparkle: Design

The L.A. look? It's his

Dodd Mitchell is the reason hip restaurants are dressed in leather and shooting fire. And that's just the beginning.

November 05, 2003|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

It could be a hallucinogenic vision, maybe an opium den inside a strip joint: Mirrored ceilings reflect red lights, peacock feathers tease teardrop lamp crystals, and huge tassels shimmy at the corners of a bar that's papered in foreign currency and dressed to thrill -- it's wearing a burgundy leather corset.

But no, this place is real: a restaurant called Chi at the West Hollywood Hyatt. It's the latest creation of Dodd Mitchell, the hottest restaurant designer in Los Angeles, a man who is almost single-handedly reviving the Sunset Strip with credits including Le Dome, Katana, Falcon and the Balboa Lounge.

Mitchell has added fire, water, leather and stone to more than two dozen restaurants and bars from Santa Monica to Beverly Hills and beyond, and the names read like a stylish traveler's must-see list: Dolce, Voda, Lounge 217, Linq, Gaucho Grill, Sushi Roku, Avenue, China One, the Crescent Lounge and Sleep.

He has created a particular L.A. look, or at least, a delirious L.A. style, since no two of his creations look the same. With hotel and restaurant projects on the books in New York, Miami and Las Vegas, Mitchell seems destined to become a brand name. Maybe soon. Today, he's shooting a pilot TV show called "Dodd Mitchell Makes Over America," where he gives the full-on treatment to a celebrity's hometown hangout.

"I'm nervous as hell about it," he said, pulling a seat up to a padded-leather table. "I didn't know I was interesting like that."

Ashton, Justin and Jennifer

Mitchell, a boyish if slightly frayed 37, is already mentioned in the same breath as his celebrity investors, including Ashton Kutcher at Dolce and Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Tilly at Chi.

His most demure ideas include walls covered with hundreds of heavy black railroad spikes at Katana and a grand, red staircase leading to the second floor of Zen Grill, where the honeycomb ceiling took six months to complete (he got the idea looking at the underside of a cocktail umbrella).

His most outrageous ideas? Maybe the flames that lick the bottoms of liquor bottles at Dolce. Or the cozy side-by-side toilets in the elegant Linq ladies room. Or that fire pit at Chi, which he says was inspired by the contours of a certain part of the female anatomy.

Four Mitchell-designed restaurants have opened in the last month alone. And it's clear the designer's trademarks are becoming more brazen. At Cinch, a French-Japanese restaurant and lounge in Santa Monica, heavy brass chains separate the dining room and lounge. Yet to come: a statuary garden with fire-breathing figurines.

At Le Dome, Mitchell has so completely made over the 25-year-old institution that it's unrecognizable. Not even the dome was spared in the radical redesign -- a time-traveling riff on medieval Europe, log cabin America and movie-set Hollywood. Mitchell complains about the result, since not all of his ideas were put into place.

And it's true: The many rooms add up to a schizophrenic effect. There's the Midwestern steakhouse corridor, with its dark leather banquettes. The dungeon-like back room, with stone and suede walls and an incongruous crystal chandelier. There's the log cabin room, with its stretch-limo fireplace. And the bar: a circular space-age affair, surrounded by Gothic Tuscany.

"There's something a little off about everything here," he says, calling the work a "cluster of styles."

Like many of his projects, Mitchell had a hand in designing the Le Dome menu, too, and it includes the spicy Tilly Tini martini, named for Jennifer Tilly, who was, until two weeks ago, his fiancee.

Tilly is also an investor in Chi, his most audacious, and in some ways, oddly personal, creation. Mitchell designed the table settings, graphics, uniforms and even the bodies of the hired help. The Chi logo, in temporary tattoo form, is applied to waiters' forearms and the waitresses' lower backs, because, Mitchell said, "guys are pigs," and look at the waitresses as they leave.

"Every time they serve food or walk away, you get brand recognition," said the designer, seeming amused by the idea. "Sometimes it surprises me. All this stuff comes out of my head."

An L.A. creation: himself

That's literally true. Mitchell has had no formal training. His approach isn't derived from any academic aesthetic; it's almost entirely his personal psychology.

Not long ago, Mitchell was like all the other hopeful L.A. guys struggling to get past the velvet ropes and into places like the ones he now designs.

He was born in Fresno, the son of a prizefighter and a hairdresser, and grew up in cities across the Southwest oil patch as the family followed a petroleum engineer stepfather. He quit high school and came to L.A. At 19, he got a job sweeping up sets, and eventually, began designing them.

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