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California - St. Regis Style

The Larry Hart lyric “Hate California/It’s cold and it’s damp” never made much sense to us.  Whenever we were on the coast, it was sunny and warm. Until this past November when for four days straight, the clouds never lifted, and the sun never shone. Not once did we get to put the top down on our rented red Mustang convertible. We even had to supplement our summery wardrobe with some warm outerwear. Still our spirits never dampened for this time we experienced California --  St. Regis style.

There are ten St. Regis hotels today, all offshoots of the original New York City landmark now nearly a century old. The Los Angeles St. Regis is only one year old and as different in appearance and atmosphere as New York is from LA.  In New York, the beautiful Beaux Arts building stands flat on a Fifth Avenue midtown corner bustling with urban action. In Los Angeles, the futuristic tower sits atop a circular driveway that sweeps up from Century City’s Avenue of the Stars.  Pedestrian traffic is non existent; shopping is off site in a gardened mall. 

Entry to the St. Regis at Century City – a change from Fifth Avenue
Entry to the St. Regis at Century City – a change from Fifth Avenue

The lobby at the St. Regis LA: a sense of power and confidence

Walk into the St. Regis New York, and the ambience is intimate and European. Space is divided into small areas. French furnishings are upholstered in shades of vanilla and gold; potted palms and crystal chandeliers transport you back to the Gilded Age. Walk into the St. Regis Los Angeles, and you experience a sense of power and confidence in a contemporary American setting. Ceilings soar several stories high; space seems unconstrained, desert colors dominate.  It would appear east and west can never meet until you notice the darkly paneled bar on the right side of the lobby and its mural of Flamenco dancers performing against a glowing backdrop. Oddly enough, it brings to mind the famed Maxfield Parrish mural of old King Cole and his court that dominates the King Cole Bar in New York.

Flamenco dancers instead of Old King Cole at the St. Regis LA
Flamenco dancers instead of Old King Cole at the St. Regis LA
“I haven’t seen the King Cole mural, but people comment on its connection to ours so often I imagine this one was a deliberate echo,” Dietmar Gross, the assistant front desk manager, tells us. This is the third hotel Dietmar has worked in. “When I came over from a competitor, it was as a housekeeping manager. But after three months, I was asked to be a manager in the front office and gladly accepted. I love the front office because it’s the heartbeat of the hotel,” he says.

The son of Romanian-born parents, Dietmar has the exotic good looks of a 1940’s matinee idol, a quality that suits the mood of the St. Regis LA for despite its twenty-first century design, a feel of old Hollywood permeates the lobby with its plushy sofas, subdued lighting and furnishings of burled wood offset by antique tapestries from Iran, huge abstract canvases, and swaths of orange and gold fabric that swirl around standing lamps. Later that evening after settling into a luxurious corner room, we stepped out onto the balcony and looked out over glittering Beverly Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance, falling once again for the aura of glamour that surrounds LA -- even in the rain.

Dietmar Gross, assistant front desk manager, evokes a 1940’s matinee idol
Dietmar Gross, assistant front desk manager, evokes a 1940’s matinee idol
Now Dietmar showed us around and told us the hotel’s story. “This used to be the Tower, a Westin property and a very well known place. In 1985, the presidential suite was created for Ronald Reagan. He stayed here whenever he was in California; the hotel became known as the West Coast White House.

“But when it was decided to turn this place into a St. Regis, it was closed down and completely renovated. All the rooms were redone. Things were moved around. The spa with its outdoor pool and cabanas was built. The restaurant was relocated beside a beautiful garden. It’s a romantic hideaway.”

We walked through the restaurant into the garden. A pathway led to a secluded area where flowering vines covered latticed walls and the only sound was the rush of running water. It could have been the set for  a Technicolor musical: Gene Kelly dancing with Cyd Charisse. Century City with its office towers and television studios were another world, and Dietmar was beginning to look like Cornel Wilde. Around us, mission-style umbrella tables were arranged for al fresco dining. If only the weather were nice enough. . .

That evening we enjoyed interior dining, however, at Encore, the St. Regis’ signature restaurant, a long, bow-shaped room with windows overlooking the garden. Gray walls and pale auburn banquettes combined with the flowing space to create a sophisticated yet serene atmosphere.

We were joined by food and beverage director Kurt Wiksten, a Van Johnson look-alike (why was everyone reminding us of a mid-century movie star?) who, like Dietmar, was intent on putting his take of the St. Regis on the record. “I was out in Boulder Colorado where I opened a resort when I ran into a friend who asked me to get involved here,” Kurt said. “I came down in June of 2000 and stayed through the opening in November. It was a very challenging experience. We had to meet time constraints. We had to deal with the competition, and the competition in LA is extraordinary.

“After the opening, I moved on to another project in Texas and while I was there, I got a phone call from our previous general manager. They had lost their F&B director. ‘Can you get back tomorrow?’ I came back and never left.”

Food and beverage director Kurt Wiksten, a Van Johnson look-alike (why was everyone reminding us of a mid-century movie star?)
Food and beverage director Kurt Wiksten, a Van Johnson look-alike (why was everyone reminding us of a mid-century movie star?)
Among the challenges Kurt faces is acquainting the LA community with the St. Regis name but in a California mode. “St. Regis hotels share the five-star, five-diamond standard but on the per-property level, you can embellish,” he told us. “California is not New York.  Our banquet service doesn’t demand white gloves and French service.  People want servers to be a little less obtrusive, not standing tableside. Encore’s dress code is casual. If someone in the bar wearing jeans and a shirt wants to come in and eat, we’ll let him. That’s the style of the producers and CEOs in Century City. If we didn’t accept them, we wouldn’t survive.”

From all accounts, the producers and CEOs of Century City have accepted Encore. So apparently has the wider LA dining public making it, in the space of a year, one of the region’s more celebrated restaurants, heralded in Esquire Magazine as one of the top 20 new restaurants in America. Encore’s manager Bernard Erpicum, a well known figure in the LA restaurant scene, had managed Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, the celebrity-dominated dining spot where getting a reservation remains close to impossible. He also had owned West Hollywood’s Eclipse, the favored site for consummation of entertainment-industry big deals.

“We knew Bernard would bring in the people we desired,” Kurt told us.  “He has a rolodex you could kill for. He can call the CEO of Fox-TV.  ‘Why don’t you come over and have dinner?’ Ten minutes later he’s coming through the door, gets the kiss on both cheeks from Bernard, and is escorted to a table.”

Encore’s chef is the young and exciting Bruno Davaillon, whose boyish charm belies a background of extensive training in his native France and experience at some of France’s great restaurants. “I’ll put Bruno against any chef,” Kurt said. “He has a passion for simple, elegant food with light sauces, loves fresh organic ingredients and is very particular about where he gets his produce from.  His style in the kitchen is unique. He is one of the calmest chefs you’ll ever see. We can be doing 120 and there he’ll be, standing in the dining room, looking over the scene.”

Unfortunately Bruno was nowhere to be seen in the dining room, or the kitchen for that matter, the night of our visit. A Lakers player had successfully bid for Bruno’s services a recent proceeds-to-charity auction, and Bruno was cooking dinner at his home. We had to settle for sampling the products of his culinary gifts.

A California wine seemed most appropriate, and Kurt recommended a 1997 Cain Five, the flagship blend of Cain Vineyards which is located in the St. Helena region of the Napa Valley. Typically a blend of five grapes to achieve a Bordeaux-like experience, this particular vintage eliminated the Merlot and was 87% Cabernet Sauvignon. Not at all harsh or overpowering, it had a lovely aroma, started off nicely, finished very slowly, and was a wonderful accompaniment to the memorable amuse bouche that began our dinner: Scottish smoked trout tartar, with Worcester cream, Osetra caviar, crispy potatoes and mustard oil – a briny combination that whetted the appetite for what was to follow.

Bruno has devised an extensive menu that combines traditional Provencal cuisine with contemporary California touches. Sauted duck foie gras came with a spiced mango chutney drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  A fricassee of  shrimp was paired with white truffles, a delectable scallop risotto with delicate chanterelles and barely cooked asparagus. The oven-roasted squab, crisp on the outside but tender and moist within, was served with black mission fig and squab jus – a novel and delicious blend, some sautéed fresh spring onions, and a leg confit with truffled vinaigrette. After such savory combinations, we took the simple route for dessert: strawberry sorbet and with cream and fresh strawberries accompanied by buttery home-made shortbreads. 

It was a superb dining experience enhanced by an atmosphere that was relaxed and casual. The room was a study in understated elegance, the service flawless yet friendly, the total lack of pretentiousness in no way interfering with some very serious culinary accomplishments.    

View from a corner room at the St. Regis LA
View from a corner room at the St. Regis LA

“Since 9/11, we’ve had our ups and downs with occupancy levels,” Kurt confessed over coffee (and, indeed, what hotel has not?) “but Encore consistently has done very well. Fox is around the corner, CBS is down the block, all the major studios are nearby. And we are still evolving. We’ve just begun a spa cuisine -- we have such a beautiful spa which we try to sell as well as the hotel. About a month ago, we rolled out the chef’s table where the chef will create whatever you like off the menu; you can mix and match. It’s been one of the most popular venues on our menu. 

We have a tasting menu for $75, $105 with champagne – great value, we think.” He smiled and leaned back. “The St. Regis name is definitely getting out in California with this hotel in Los Angeles and our neighbor to the south in Monarch Beach.”

Everyone we knew in California, from cousins to relocated friends, urged us to check out the St. Regis in Monarch Beach, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, if only to see the property and have dinner at Aqua, its signature seafood restaurant. And so despite the lack of sunshine, we set out on a two plus-hours drive to the 400-room coastal property that opened last July. A good part of the drive we made that rainy Saturday afternoon was along the traffic-clogged Interstate, and thoughts of “Is this trip necessary?” kept crossing our mind. But once we got onto the Pacific Coast Highway for its last leg and drove through Laguna Beach passing art galleries alternating with stretches of the sea, such revisionist thoughts disappeared.

At Dana Point, we turned east for about half a mile to the entrance of the lavish, expansive resort that spreads out over 172 acres with its own Robert Trent Jones 18-hole golf course and private beach accessed through landscaped nature trails. There was more than an hour until the time of our dinner reservation, and our plan was to stroll through the gardens we’d heard about, set among groves of olive and cypress trees. But an overcast sky and damp chill changed that plan to exploration of the Tuscan-styled hotel’s interior, palatial in its high ceilinged splendor with dramatic vistas of the ocean, beautiful furnishings and extensive displays of art: glass sculptures, paintings, even a mural in the domed ceiling of the rotunda-shaped lobby.

From the lounge off the main lobby, we stepped outdoors onto a paved expanse set with tables and chairs dubbed the “Sunset Terrace.” No sun was setting, but the drizzle had ceased, and it was clear enough to see beyond the fountains, Italianate gazebo, landscaped grounds and pool where land had been built up to obliterate the view of the Pacific Coast Highway making it seem that  the ocean in the distance began at the edge of the property.  It was a stunning scene and strikingly like the view from the terrace of the Ciragan Palace- Hotel Kempinski in Istanbul, an actual Ottoman palace converted into a luxurious hotel on the shores of the Bosphorous.

View from the Sunset Terrace, St. Regis Monarch Beach
View from the Sunset Terrace, St. Regis Monarch Beach
Heating torches that stood alongside tables made outdoor seating comfortable, and we had cocktails with a California couple, Norma and Jack Maron, who had booked a room for a night. Hollywood was many miles away now. Still a preoccupation with movie stars must have lingered, we realized, as simultaneously we told Jack Maron how much he reminded us of Jack Nicholson. It was an uncanny resemblance that extended beyond appearance to voice, expressions, even mannerisms. Amused, Jack told us the comparison was constantly being made. Sometimes, he said, with a familiar smirk and mischievous glint, he lets people believe he really is Jack Nicholson. . .  

It turned out to be so pleasant sitting beneath the heating torch that we asked for a table on the adjacent terrace that fronts Aqua in order to have at least one experience of al fresco dining during this California swing. The headwaiter led us across a paneled dining room whose walls are hung with paintings commissioned for Aqua by Wade Hoefer. It was already filled and bustling, and we understood what people meant when they told us “Aqua has a buzz; it has a feel.” It also has the inspired touch of celebrity chef Michael Mina who originated the wildly successful original in San Francisco followed by its namesake at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Interior of Aqua, the place with a “buzz.”
Interior of Aqua, the place with a “buzz.”
One reason we had made the schlep from LA to Dana Point is that one among us will go anywhere for outstanding seafood. And when the three-tiered cart of oysters with flavored shaved ice was set before him, he nearly swooned  -- but not before selecting more than one from Column A (Kumanotos from Oregon), Column B (Miyagis from Washington State), and Column C (Cape Cods).  His partner’s attention, however, was directed to another bowl of crushed ice on which sat a mound of Iranian  Imperial caviar that was served with crème fraiche, chopped white onion, and potato crisps. Accompanied by a glass of champagne, is there a tasting experience more sublime?

Our other selections included a crepe of langoustine and scallions served with grapes, a sashimi of eel and yellowtail, and a 1 ½ pound lobster pot pie served tableside in a copper pot. Its pastry lid was lifted and placed on a platter. Beneath were big chunks of lobster and root vegetables in a rich yet delicate lobster truffle cream which were ladled onto the flaky pastry crust. We had crossed the country from New Hampshire to California for Maine lobster. But who was counting miles? There was also Chilean sea bass in a consommé with root vegetables and rare tuna with foie gras. Absent from all dishes were the exotic combinations so prevalent nowadays; each dish seemed to revel in its own essence.

In a spirit of abandonment we asked for the dessert sampler and were rewarded with (thankfully) tasting-size portions of vanilla crème brulee, apple pie with maple pecan ice cream, mango coconut sticky rice, milk chocolate-banana bread pudding cake, and pineapple upside down cake with rum raisin ice cream.  All were marvelous but the best was Aqua’s famous root beer float made with sassafras sorbet and homemade vanilla ice cream and served with a chocolate straw.

Passing through the lobby bar on the way out, we stopped to admire what looked like an enormous Maxfield Parrish painting. Upon inquiring, we learned it was a recreation of a small Parrish painting: “The Gardens of Allah” by Russell Carter, an artist from Santa Barbara. We had the sense of coming full circle in an ongoing story linked by the vision of a painter -- who lived and worked not far from the New Hampshire town we live in today -- from Fifth Avenue to Century City to Dana Point. We wondered whether the connection extended to the other St. Regis hotels for surely the St. Regis story continues . . .

The St. Regis Los Angeles Hotel & Spa
2055 Avenueof the Stars
Los Angeles CA 90067

Phone: 310-47-8217; Fax: 310-407-8302     

The St. Regis Monarch
One Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point, CA 92629

Phone: 949-234-3200; Fax: 949-234-3201

Travel Notes

Seeing “Mulholland Drive” made us think of Hollywood of the post-war years when it was a citadel of glamour and excitement run by a Studio System that created movie stars who became cultural ikons. It inspired a drive through the canyon from Sunset Boulevard to the actual Mulholland Drive, not such a terrific idea as it turned out in the rain.  But it also inspired a terrific idea: visiting a pair of legendary destinations whose recent renovations make them twenty-first century in terms of comfort and convenience yet whose ambience lingers in the byways of a romantic Hollywood past.

The Beverly Hills Hotel still embodies the magic of movies to its very name written in silver screen-style script across the one green wall of the pink stucco palace that peeks through the palms onto Sunset Boulevard. None of the glamour’s been lost in this spacious elegant hotel that dates back to 1914. The famed Polo Club, with its deep velvet banquettes and tables set with peach-colored cloths, remains not only the place to be seen but one of the region’s outstanding restaurants.

Scenic Splendor at the Bel Air
Scenic Splendor at the Bel Air
They used to say if the Beverly Hills Hotel was where you went to be seen, the Bel Air Hotel was where you went not to be seen. Further west off Sunset Boulevard, this property which first opened in 1946 has 92 bungalow-style secluded rooms and suites, many with private patios and fireplaces, spread out across twelve acres of beautiful gardens. An abundance of flowers: hydrangeas, bougainvillea, gardenias, impatiens flourish in carefully tended beds or cascade down walls. One dines not only superbly but amidst scenic splendor at the Bel Air in a garden-like setting with many tables tucked into latticed retreats.

Beverly Hills Hotel
9641 Sunset Boulevard
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Phone: 310-276-2251
Reservations: 800-283-8885

Hotel Bel Air
701 Stone Canyon Road
Los Angeles, CA 90077-2909

Phone: 310-472-1211

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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