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Coming into its own again

A contemporary vibe carries the storied Athletic Club into the 21st century.

September 28, 2006|Heidi Siegmund Cuda | Special to The Times

BACK in the 1920s, if you were rolling with the Hollywood elite, more than likely you were a card-carrying member of the Hollywood Athletic Club.

The cavernous place on Sunset Boulevard was a notorious playground for the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Lon Chaney and Charlie Chaplin.

Although it opened its doors in 1923, women weren't allowed to join the club until 1929. But its new owners, Jeffrey Chodorow and Melissa Richardson, are making up for lost time.

They've rechristened it Social Hollywood, and the entire venue celebrates the female form, from life-size mermaid tapestries that cover upstairs walls to a brilliant photo exhibit of some of Hollywood's most glamorous beauties in their prime. Think Jane Fonda and Sophia Loren when they were hotter than any of the vapid vixens we put up with today.

But the owners have done much more than celebrate the ladies, they've managed to give the place a soul.

Despite being an excellent facility for a multitude of events (think Gothic bashes and star-studded premieres), the old Hollywood Athletic Club always felt like a club for hire. It was just another venue to fill up with bodies and promoters, and even though it had a glorious history -- the real athletic club lasted three decades -- it just didn't have the right stuff to make it into the 21st century.

Until now. It's pretty unbelievable what the ownership has accomplished since its grand opening in June, and the fact that it manages to stay hot night after night is a testimony to long-term vision.

The owners poured $12 million into renovations. The foyer feels like the lobby in a Moroccan palace, which might have something to do with the marble jaguar that greets you when you enter the club -- it actually came from a Moroccan palace.

It's the hybridization of the historic and the postmodern that makes Social Hollywood work so well.

"Social has this great old Hollywood feel to it the moment you walk into the place," says actor John Stamos, a regular. "But I like how they've given a completely new contemporary vibe to it."

The club, which opened with a splashy event with Charlize Theron, is also a favorite of Orlando Bloom, who says that for him, it's all about the service.

"Everyone treats you well here from the moment you walk in," says Bloom, who turns up whenever he's in town.

SOCIAL Hollywood represents a transitional moment in Hollywood history. When Geisha House and Mood opened up in the heart of Hollywood, it was clear that club owners were finally ready to put their money where their mouths are. These places not only represented high art, they were built to last.

This new temple of nightlife has the same aspirations. Mark Zeff of Zeff Design went with elegant chic, a Moroccan-themed restaurant area, a bar backlighted by images of the moon, an upstairs area called Level 2, which is where VIPs party the night away in a multitude of rooms. They even revamped the Barrymore ballroom, the spacious dance area that has been used for everything including Halloween performances by the Damned and the Toilet Boys and as the personal playground of John Barrymore, the man after whom the ballroom is named.

"They literally traveled the world hand-picking art pieces and elements of the nightclub," says David De Bacco, the club's director of service, the former general manager of Geisha House and a key person in building the great Nobu chain. "From the moment you walk in the door, it's all about customer service."

That was a hallmark for his tight, polite staff at Geisha House, and now he's redirected that kindness toward Social Hollywood. People are responding.

"I like to go there just to hang out at the bar," says Sean Sweeney, a DJ-actor who frequents the club's bar area, where there's never a cover and there's usually a DJ spinning some mad Euro-lounge music. "Everyone's nice, it's a good-looking, eclectic crowd and it seems to attract people from all over the world so you never know who you might meet.

For instance, Madonna, Ingrid Cesares (who had her birthday party there), Christina Aguilera and Chris Judd have been repeat visitors.

"What's remarkable about Social is how they come through not only with an amazing atmosphere, but they deliver impeccable service," Sweeney says.

It's the equivalent of a spa treatment while you're out on the scene.

"I've really watched and learned a lot since I moved to L.A. a year and a half ago," says De Bacco, who came from New York but traveled the world opening and running Nobu restaurants.

A big part of Social's early success is due to how seriously Chodorow takes his food. The entrepreneur first built Asia de Cuba at the Mondrian Hotel into the powerhouse that it continues to be today, and he's hoping to do the same with Social, by including such delectables as butterfish tagine and pomegranate-glazed lamb rack. There's also a bar menu that includes such fancy fare as macaroni and cheese with manchego cheese and olive oil potatoes served with crispy olives.

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