Strip Style

Los Angeles Times Travel
September 14, 1997

This could happen to you. Even with 10 years' warning, our wedding anniversary sneaked up on us--both of us. We had less than a week to pull off something fun.

How about a place that evokes France and the mystique of old Hollywood, yet is current enough that we just might bump into Keanu or Uma? Two phone calls got the last room at the Cha^teau Marmont, the Sunset Strip hideaway of Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes, famous for libertine high jinks and an artistic clientele. We showed up just after noon, a tad apprehensive. We knew the 1920s hotel inspired by a Loire Valley cha^teau is being lovingly renewed, but old photos of shag carpets and dingy bathrooms stuck with us, along with the wild legends. Led Zeppelin riding Harleys through the lobby. John Belushi overdosing in a bungalow.

Right off, we knew it was the right choice. The lobby was quiet and sunlit, the garden elegantly cared for. Even the water dispenser and glasses beside the reception desk were stylish.

The clerk greeted us pleasantly, with the choice of a morning Los Angeles Times or New York Times. (Guess.) The current Variety hung in a frame on the elevator, which was cramped enough that if Keanu had been aboard, the weekend could have turned very interesting.

Afternoon sun poured into Room 22 through French windows, and jazz played softly on the mini-stereo. The queen bed, covered in a nubby bedspread, was comfortable. Judy threw open the windows, and we listened in on conversations in the garden below. When the manager sent up a plate of fruit and a welcome note, Judy was sold: "I feel like I'm in Europe."

Hollywood glamour lurks in every corner. Room 29, across from ours, is where Jean Harlow held liaisons with Clark Gable. We had read that every room had a script instead of a Bible, but in ours there was neither, just recent magazines, the 100th edition of the Paris Review and a cozy reading chair.

We called in lunch from the pool, which is behind a locked gate and sunk in a brick patio hidden in a thicket of palms, bamboo, ferns and eucalyptus. Even though all 63 rooms and bungalows were booked, and it was a warm day, there were fewer than a dozen sunbathers and no one in the 80-degree water. The traffic noise from Sunset Boulevard is incessant, and a shampoo billboard with a woman flaunting her blond mane and the words HOLLYWOOD AND SHINE towered above the pool.

Our plan was to explore the Strip on foot. In the afternoon we shopped the stretch of boutiques and shops between Holloway Drive and La Cienega Boulevard--"It's hipper on La Brea if you ask me," Judy concluded--and for dinner we opted for Spago, the original bastion of the Wolfgang Puck empire. With the main action shifted to Spago Beverly Hills, we got in at 7 p.m. with only two days' notice, but had to sit in the shoulder-to-shoulder tables by the open-air kitchen. Which was fine. We had a great time, even though Spago's prices have risen as its celebrity star has fallen.

We shared a special appetizer of roasted white asparagus with wild mushrooms and celebrated with a bottle of 1995 Chalone Chardonnay, priced at $44, about in the middle of the list of California whites. Entrees were a fresh fish special and a veal T-bone with chickpea fritters--"garbanzo bean logs," the server advised.

Because we were going to walk back, we could finish the wine and not worry about driving. The flip side was we were more than a mile from our hotel, and we had drunk a bottle of wine.

But this was what we wanted--to stroll the Strip and defy the L.A. car culture. For almost an hour we browsed the stacks at Book Soup, which has the street's deepest selection and best outdoor newsstand. When we felt lighter, we hit the sidewalk and steered east into the Saturday night madness of Sunset Plaza.

When the boutiques close, the cafes expand along the sidewalk like a Slinky, adding rows of tables. Everyone seems to be gabbing in Italian or Farsi and smoking, giving everyone the eye and gulping San Pellegrino water. Hostesses in little black dresses stage-manage the scene.

*

The last time I walked the Strip on a Saturday night, my hair was a foot long, the street was lined with poster shops and the air was thick with the smell of burning . . . herbs. Now, as we continued east, the only storefronts open were psychics and the busy Sunset Strip Tattoos. Inside, two women were getting their shoulders inked by cigarette-smoking skin artists before an appreciative audience. No other storefronts were open except one at 8519 Sunset that read "Spy Shop." Inside we found a boggling array of high-tech security devices and eavesdropping gear for sale, and books such as "21 Techniques of Silent Killing." The store is the retail side of the Spy Tech private investigations agency.

Back on the street, we survived the crosswalk at La Cienega Boulevard--"You get the feeling they're surprised to see pedestrians," Judy remarked--and aimed for the House of Blues.

In order to get a drink, we would have to pay $21 each for the show. We sated ourselves with the souvenir store upstairs and a coffee mug with the faces of Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, the faux Blues Brothers. We bypassed the Mondrian hotel and its hyper-trendy Sky Bar and headed for Bar Marmont, the Cha^teau's own trendy club.

A sign on the door explained the lack of a line: "Private Party." A woman stuck her head out and suggested we try the hotel lobby, a classy candlelighted hangout where we found other Bar Marmont wannabes plopped on sofas. The aroma of jasmine wafted in an open window; we ordered a latte nightcap.

We took a pleasant breakfast the next morning in the garden and finished the weekend around the pool, reading the papers. We saw not a single celebrity we recognized, but we weren't disappointed.