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Secret Haunts, California

Gordon Mott
Posted: November 18, 2005

The world is getting to be like the Prohibition-era days when people would pass along information about the best speakeasies in their favorite city or neighborhood. The situation hasn't gotten quite that bad in America, but it is still a common question among cigar smokers: "Hey, where do you go to smoke in Los Angeles?"

There just aren't that many places, if you don't have a connection at the Grand Havana Room, or if you are content to find outdoor spaces that allow smoking. But what if you have a group of business colleagues who want a meal and a cigar without having to go outside? Such a place exists, and it is perfectly legal under California's smoking statutes. It's the new Wine Terrace at the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills.

Let me set the scene. The Hotel Bel-Air may be one of the best-kept hotel secrets in Los Angeles, if not in America. Heading west from Beverly Hills, you turn off of Sunset Boulevard shortly after the UCLA campus, onto Stone Canyon Drive, not that far from the 405 freeway. The winding street twists through a tunnel of trees, past the imposing gates of fabulous mansions, with glimpses of the verdant fairways of the Bel-Air Country Club. You could easily miss the pinkish posts that mark the exit from the hotel's parking lot. A left turn shortly thereafter puts you into a small parking lot with a dark green awning at the far end. You have entered another world, one with lush gardens and paths draped with old trees and plants, small bungalows and luxurious rooms and suites, and a restaurant that aspires to be one of the best in the city. Carlos Lopes, the hotel's general manager, truly cares about taking care of his guests with an absolute goal of maintaining their privacy and making sure there are no disruptions to their stays. It's hard to believe you are just minutes from the bustle of Sunset Boulevard, and downtown Beverly Hills.

Mr, Lopesis an avid cigar lover, was lamenting that it had become almost impossible to have cigar dinners on his property. He spied a small space on the side of the hill above the rest of the hotel's rooms that employees were using as a storage area. He had a brainstorm. He constructed a small tent-like structure, opening up one side as a terrace with couches and a few armchairs, building some shelves on one side, and putting in a small wine cooler, and dubbed it the Wine Terrace. You almost feel as if you're in an African safari treetop hut; the leafy branches of the trees below twist up and around the space just off the terrace. At night, the trees and paths are illuminated, giving the impression of a true retreat, hidden in the California woods.

The best news is that because it is an open tent, you can also smoke there.

The table can be set up as one big single expanse that can seat 16 people comfortably, and probably about 20 squeezed in tightly, or the tables can be divided into smaller groupings. The hotel's Wine Spectator award-winning cellar can be tapped for your occasion. For the time being, the menu is fixed, and the food is served family style. But the normal fare is platters of antipasto and big bowls of pasta and vegetables. Lopes and his resident manager, Roland Venturini, want to keep it that way for now because the main kitchen is just far enough away that they worry about getting individual orders to the Terrace still piping hot. There is a cigar list, but diners are also welcome to bring their own.

Even though the terrace has been open only since the summer, there's no guarantee you'll get the space when you want it. Several regulars from the Bel-Air neighborhood have been reserving the space weekly, and as word spreads, you can be sure that more and more evenings are going to be filled up. Mr. Venturini says the cost of a dinner is about $75 per person before wine.

You won't go wrong if you want to have your own private cigar dinner in Los Angeles by choosing this new aerie location in the Hotel Bel-Air.

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