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My, madame, how you've changed

Did $35 million buy a hip new vibe for the Beverly Wilshire? Let's just say that the regulars won't think they're in the wrong hotel.

March 04, 2007|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

WHEN the Beverly Wilshire injected $35 million into a renovation last year, the 79-year-old matriarch minding the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive had hoped to change its appeal from the old-money elite who came to sleep and shop to younger and hipper crowds inclined toward minimalism and martinis.

When the scaffolding came down and the cozy, contemporary and gadget-wired rooms opened, the question was simple: Had this hotel buried its rich history to lure the young, rich and fickle?

Celebrity appeal, I decided, is not an entirely ridiculous gauge of the success of the updated hotel. (The new image also comes with a new name; they've dropped the Regent and it's properly known as the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel). Sure, celebrity counting is a somewhat craven, hick-from-the-sticks measure, but in Los Angeles -- during Oscar week no less -- it's an accurate barometer of hip.

When I phoned to book a room weeks ago, the receptionist assured me they'd been long sold out, a promising sign. Determined, I searched the Internet and found the lone available room. I was in. My $555 mini-suite was a midpriced option among the mostly $525 to $600 rooms.

Given the full occupancy, the Beverly Wilshire's 395 rooms (including 138 suites) evidently compared favorably to those other Oscar-week regulars that book a year in advance: the five-star duo of Raffles L'Ermitage and the Peninsula, and the Four Seasons, a corporate colleague on Doheny Drive.

On the days before the Academy Awards, the Beverly Wilshire was buzzing -- $360,000 Maybachs valet-parked bumper to bumper and every few moments a deliveryman dropping off floral arrangements, designer shopping bags, dozens of those pre-packed diet-food totes and -- the surest sign of the imminent Oscars -- some hefty gift baskets.

Once inside, though, the famous faces were scarce. I saw none in 24 hours. If celebrities were hiding in-house, the staff wasn't talking, which told me that they either were well trained to keep their lips zipped or had zero to mention. Other employees seemed distracted and hurried, perhaps scurrying to remove the brown M&Ms. Obviously I needed to recalibrate my critical tools.

I knew that for the makeover to be successful, the hotel would have to have undergone both a physical and a psychological renovation. Perennially cast one star short of the coveted five-star distinction, the property has a historic, almost symbiotic relationship with its designer boutique neighborhood. It relies heavily on the somewhat touristy cachet of Rodeo Drive.

And that's something the hotel embraces, but also subtly rejects. Balancing privacy and publicity, dignity and overexposure in such a well-traveled part of the city is not easy, but the Beverly Wilshire is traveling the right path. The hotel touts its film and fame heritage, with display cases filled with miniature Oscar statuettes and movie stills, along with the pricey baubles from in-house jewelers David Webb and Mikimoto.

They've added on-street entries and al fresco dining to the lobby restaurant, the Blvd (short for Boulevard), which faces Wilshire. The hotel also has added family-riendly features, such as pool dining and cabanas.

But the lobby itself, like stars who look shorter in person, is smaller than its grand history suggests. The high-priced redesign didn't figure in any meaningful, free public space, unless you want to lounge with a $14 martini in the Blvd. Wind blows through the lobby, and though it's quite businesslike, it's not the best venue for passing time -- or looking for stars.

The hotel has shifted its public energy and attention to the rear lobby, where star architect Richard Meier has replaced the old dark and cozy bar and frilly dining room with sleek, light spaces: Cut, Wolfgang Puck's white-hot first steakhouse, and the companion bar, Sidebar. Already, they attract agents in suits and writers in jeans and that particular breed of Los Angeles socialite, the fashionable foodie.

Tempted by the Japanese Wagyu filet mignon -- $130 for 6 ounces -- I had hoped to try out Puck's place, but it and Sidebar had been hired out, a good indication of their popularity. I settled in at the Blvd, stashed my bottle of wine (corkage is rather steep, $40) and scanned the by-the-glass list of wines, each from $10 to $38. I like its quirky menu of pizza and gourmet waters, served like fine wine in pure crystal.

In a previous life, the Blvd was the stately dining room where Grandma took you for birthday tea or danced with Grandpa on anniversaries. When it was unveiled in 2005, it represented the first stage of what the hotel called an "enhancement."

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