In the early part of this century, the hilly area of Los Angeles that is now Bel-Air was just a real estate developer's dream. In 1922, Alonzo E. Bell built Bel-Air as an exclusive community of estates linked by winding streets and accessed through a pair of towering marble arches that front on Sunset Boulevard. In the heart of his new subdivision, Bell opened a planning and sales office. This arcaded mission-style structure is now the oldest part of the Hotel Bel-Air.
The Bel-Air, which sits on 11.5 lushly wooded acres in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California, routinely hosts world-famous celebrities; yet it is homey and comfortable enough to still be a sort of clubhouse for its neighbors. One gent who lives near the hotel can be found at the Bel-Air Bar almost every evening for an hour or two before dinner, savoring a cocktail and a fragrant cigar.
The hotel's secluded location and small size, the residential style of its rambling 92-room complex and its luxuriant gardens full of trees and flowering plants are attractions that keep guests coming back year after year. This exclusive resort property has no long, anonymous corridors lined with room numbers; instead, most guest rooms and suites open directly onto the hotel's gardens. Many rooms have private patios that are coveted during the summer months; wood-burning fireplaces are popular amenities during the winter.
Under the able direction of executive chef Gary Clauson, the Restaurant at the Bel-Air has become renowned. Clauson has created a wide-ranging menu that is classic enough not to shock the hotel's old-money patrons and venturesome enough to interest the entertainment industry's avant garde. Entrees are priced at $18 to $34 and portions are extremely generous.
Light eaters may opt for Clauson's spa menu ("Cuisine Legere") of reduced calorie, low-fat dishes. The wine list is strongest in California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and Bordeaux first growths. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the elegant Restaurant, but I invariably opt to dine outdoors under cascades of bougainvillea on the terrace. Here, no opportunity to ensure guest comfort has been overlooked; the waiters adroitly adjust clear plastic windscreens to block or admit breezes, and the tiles underfoot are heated to take the chill off the evening.
Best of all, since this is outdoors, you and your cigar are welcome. Spurred by an upsurge in fine cigars, the Bel-Air recently purchased a small humidor. Kept behind the front desk, the humidor is stocked by Alfred Dunhill of London with Dunhill Coronas Grandes, aged Condados, and Dominican Cohiba Esplendidos and Montecristo Double Coronas, ranging in price from $7.50 to $11. The cigar selection is listed on the menu at the bar, a clubby, wood-paneled hideaway that has a cozy fireplace and features live piano music after 9 p.m.
Bel-Air bartender Gus Tassopulos has noted a marked increase cigar smoking, adding that the practice is even popular among women. On a recent evening, he says, one lady sat at the bar and sipped a 1955 Taylor Vintage Port ($56) while puffing contentedly on her cigar. "She was here a week ago, too, only she was in a different seat and with a different man," observed Tassopulos with a wink. "I didn't recognize her at first."
-- Jean T. Barrett
Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.
701 Stone Canyon Road
Phone: (310) 472-1211; fax (310) 476-5890
Room rates: $315 to $435 for a standard room, depending on size; $495 for a junior suite; $550 to $950 for a one-bedroom suite, depending on size; one-bedroom presidential suite: $1,500; two-bedroom presidential suite: $2,500.