There are many words that have been used to describe Sunset Tower Hotel. Legendary, is one. Glamorous is another. Former resident Truman Capote called it “very posh”. But none of these adjectives quite captures just how fun it is too.
The fun is obvious as soon as my guest and I check in. The receptionist is a striking woman with a resplendent Afro wearing a trouser-suit and rectangular framed spectacles and she looks as if she should be in a hit Netflix series.
“Welcome, Miss Day,”’ she says and she speaks slowly, as if her words would prefer to be sprawled out horizontally on a chaise longue eating bonbons, rather than having to go to the bother of actually communicating.
“Over there is the Tower Bar, where things tend to get a little” – her voice drops – “spicy.” She looks at me over the rim of her spectacles. I am putty in her hands.
“And over there, is the Terrace Bar where you can get a drink,” the voice drops again, “all day.” We get a rickety lift to our room – the lift, like so much else here, seems to be in its original art deco state: Sunset Tower was established in 1929, in the golden era of Hollywood, and past guests have included Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. John Wayne lived in a flat that has now been converted into a 7,000 sq ft gym (it was rumoured he kept a cow here for fresh milk, a legend sadly debunked by the LA Times in 1988, the spoilsports).
The infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel also had an apartment at Sunset Tower but was asked to leave after running an illegal gambling ring. Siegel’s former abode is now the Tower Bar, where Hollywood movers and shakers gather every evening to gamble reputations, which is legal.
Sunset Tower is still very much the place to be seen. It has recently undergone a tasteful renovation, preserving the feel of its decadent past while sensitively updating the interiors. Our room is a case in point. The original floor-to-ceiling windows of panelled, curved glass, are intact. They look out over the flat city sprawl of Los Angeles to one side, and to the ceaseless thrum of Sunset Boulevard on the other.
The room is painted in colours best described as discreet Neapolitan ice cream: pale pink walls, brown dado rails, cream curtain pelmets. The bathroom is lined with shimmering gold wallpaper depicting illustrations from Hollywood past. The fittings are exceptional – I end up taking a picture of the burnished brass lavatory handle on my phone, such is the understated economy of its Twenties design.
Our room is quirkily arranged in an L-shape, which remains faithful to the building’s layout, and although there are the necessary mod-cons (the ubiquitous Nespresso coffee machine is in place) none of it overwhelms the hotel’s essential character, which is based very much on the assumption that you probably won’t be spending that much time in your room, because there are martinis to be drunk downstairs and a heated pool to dive into, perhaps while fully-clothed in an Oscars ball gown. (When Iggy Pop stayed here, he believed he could dive from his window directly into the pool. “Sometimes he could,” says the small information booklet we are given in our room. “But at least once a month, the ambulance would come to treat him.”)
In the Tower Bar restaurant downstairs, we have been promised a table at 8.30pm. Good, British people that we are, we arrive 10 minutes early not wanting to cause a fuss, so we stand by the bar and wait to be called to our table. The restaurant is packed full of people who look as if they might be famous, but it is too dimly lit and the atmosphere too whisperingly discreet to confirm any sightings.
I order a martini. The white-jacketed bartender, who also looks like a Netflix extra, makes what is hands-down the best vodka martini (dry, with an olive) I have ever tasted. It is lethally smooth and slips down my throat like a cool, fresh waterfall, firing up my synapses with a final velvet punch of pure alcohol to the back of the gullet.
“Dimitri will be with you shortly,” we are informed. Ah yes. Dimitri. I already know about Dimitri, Sunset Tower’s famed maître d’, because everyone I’ve met at this hotel has mentioned him in some capacity or other, usually in the reverent tones reserved for priceless works of museum art. In the bedroom, there is an entire photographic book devoted to pictures of Dimitri camping it up for the camera – pushing a hostess trolley; suited and booted in a bathtub, legs splayed outwards.
Dimitri is originally from Moldova, and has acquired a fearsome reputation for being one of the best-connected men in Hollywood, a man who pores over copies of People magazine in order to recognise the famous faces he must shepherd into the requisite banquettes. Apparently he was recommended for the job at Sunset Tower when Tom Ford wrote his name on the back of a napkin and handed it to the hotel’s owner, Jeff Klein.
Ten minutes pass and then 20, and Dimitri does not come to get us. We can spot him in the melee, a short, dapper man with swept back hair, Nana Mouskouri glasses and shiny shoes, who air-kisses everyone and seems to glide rather than walk: a penguin on coasters. Eventually he glides over to us and pats my dining companion on the chest, mumbling something neither of us can make out, and then disappears again.
Half an hour passes, then 40 minutes. We order more martinis. Dimitri pops up again like a Moldovan hologram. By this stage, I’m verging on drunk. Dimitri takes my martini glass and leads it out of the restaurant, so we assume we should follow. He finds us a table in the adjoining Terrace Bar.
“But this isn’t the Tower Bar we were pr-…” I start, protesting feebly.
Dimitri flaps his hands “Yes, yes,” he says, as if it has all been planned. “This way you get to experience both restaurants.”
And the thing is? I don’t care. I don’t care that I’m not sitting in the super-glitzy, fame-filled, legendary restaurant of Hollywood’s golden era. I’m delighted by Dimitri’s utter eccentricity and by our waiter, who introduces himself as Billy Welch and reminds me of Matt Damon in the film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. Billy is so charming that, at one point during our meal (serviceable fish tacos; more excellent martinis) he says to me: “Your face is too perfect for me not to tell you that there is a clump of mascara on your cheek.”
I’m thrilled when a woman who is a dead ringer for Wallis Simpson comes over and introduces herself as Gabé, the new maître d’ (it is Dimitri’s last night, he’s retiring as it turns out, hence the general hullabaloo). Gabé speaks to us solicitously about her South African childhood and how we really must come back for longer next time, and then leaves us each with a business card. I wonder how much more glamorous my life might be if I had been called Lizzé, and then, two and a half martinis down, I begin to think bed might be a good idea.
We sleep soundly, high above Sunset Boulevard, with the glitterball of Hollywood turning beneath us and sending out shards of glittery light into the darkness.
I wake up with no hangover and an enormous sense of well-being. It was the most fun I’ve had in a hotel for a very long time.
Read the full review:Sunset Tower Hotel