The Peninsula Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills

Stroll into the Peninsula Beverly Hills during cocktail hour and you'll be treated to a scene that can only be described as a scene from When Worlds Collide. To your left is the Club Bar, which Los Angeles magazine dubbed the city's "best power bar" last year. On a recent Friday, it was crammed to the maple-paneled rafters with an astonishing cross section of L.A. West Side society. Most of the patrons appear to have been buffing and dieting all week so they can spend several hours in the Club Bar downing Absolut on the rocks, scarfing up pistachio nuts and spiced taro chips, checking each other out, and gossiping about who's over budget on which picture and whose $3.5 million beachhouse isn't moving because it's overpriced in a soft market.

Across the lobby is a jarringly different vista, that of a vast, elegant drawing room furnished with oversized brocade-upholstered sofas--seemingly straight out of the nineteenth century. Behind glass screens, fires crackle in two fireplaces, while a harpist plucks the chords of Pachelbel's Canon. A gowned hostess is serving high tea to a group of gentlemen dressed in business suits and turbans. The loudest sound is the clinking of silver spoons against Limoges teacups.

These worlds coexist happily at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, a thoroughly civilized hostelry almost equidistant between Rodeo Drive and Century City. A pair of local developers (the brothers Bo and Robert Zarnegin) own 80 percent of the hotel, and the Peninsula Group of Hong Kong owns the remaining 20 percent. The trans-Pacific partnership has worked well-in two short years the Peninsula has earned a secure spot in the Filofaxes of discriminating travelers worldwide. Even the locals like it; the Club Bar is one of the hottest watering holes in town for grownups, and Roseanne and Tom Arnold are said to retreat to a suite in the hotel when completing writing projects.

The Peninsula's accommodations, which begin at $265 a night, are appointed with distinctive furnishings and fabrics that don't scream hotel. Standard amenities include three two-line phones, in-room safes and fax and modem capabilities. Suites boast faxes and CD players, and many have walk-in closets, private balconies, and kitchens. The hotel also offers two floors of villas at the back of the property, each with its own entrance onto the lushly landscaped courtyard. The Peninsula's public-relations director confides that the villas are favored by guests who are undergoing plastic surgery at the renowned Lasky Clinic, adjacent to the hotel. Guests who wish to come and go discreetly from the clinic often request a villa with a private door onto the back street.

One factor that separates the Peninsula Beverly Hills from its upscale competition in the area is its lack of large function space. You won't find yourself trapped in a cavernous hotel ballroom with no exterior windows, you won't run into people wearing name tags, and you won't have to wait 45 minutes for your car because some $500-a-plate gala is just getting out. The Peninsula's only large space for parties is the Verandah Room, a charming space that opens onto a garden courtyard and accommodates 90 for a sit-down dinner. Hotel staffers quip that it's the perfect size for second or third weddings.

My idea of a truly good time is to knock off work early in the afternoon and hang out at the Peninsula's rooftop pool. Canvas-draped cabanas to block those Southern California rays flank the 60-foot pool and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The cabanas have become prized locations for afternoon-long private meetings, so if you want to be sure one will be available, a C-note will reserve it for a day- complete with a fruit basket and Evian water to quench your thirst. Request a phone, dial up your attorney in some northeast-facing Century City high-rise, and ask him whether he can spy you waving from your lounge chair.

The Peninsula permits cigar smoking in the Club Bar and on the outdoor dining terrace of the excellent formal dining room, the Belvedere. If it's a warm night, enjoy your roasted rack of lamb under the stars (if they are visible through what L.A. boosters call the marine layer and what others just call smog) and savor your postprandial smoke free from the glare of sensitive patrons. But remember that this is California, and familiarize yourself with the local ordinances before you light up. At the time of this writing, two bills banning smoking in restaurants were being considered by the state legislature.

Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel.