Hollywood Hotelicide


My most recent visit to the City of Angels reminded me that even in as small an area as the eastern end of the Sunset Strip the options for overnight accommodation - and the quality thereof - can be bewilderingly variable. Sometimes, too much choice can be worse than no choice at all. With that in mind, here's some observations on the neighbourhood's nighteries.

The creme de la creme, the best of the bunch. OK, so I've not stayed in the Chateau Marmont, and the big pink Beverley Hills Hotel remains a mystery viewed only from a distance. But I don't need to go anywhere else when the Sunset Tower has everything I want. Floor-to-ceiling windows framing - if you get a corner room on the south-east side - the best views of the city; beds you sink into that make sleep feel like an enveloping cloud rather than (as is so often the case after 12 hours in the air) a frustrating and episodic type of electro-shock treatment; polite and efficient staff who never fuss or intrude; a stylish decor that blends clean lines and modernity with Art Deco flourish; a dash of old-school Hollywood glamour; gratis wi-fi, and terrific cookies with the turndown service rather than an apology for a chocolate. The only down side? The ruinously expensive parking charges - though, to be fair, these are cheaper than most of the nearby competitors'. As are their rack rates.

I can see why the estimable John Mayer was often spotted here when he and Jennifer Aniston chose to head out for a meal - there's class and sophistication to spare, but without the preening show-offishness that dominates the neighbourhood's hotels. And the minute you walk into the building you feel both that you've entered an oasis of common-sense normality amid the fakery and glitz and hamminess of the Strip, yet it turns one of those hotel marketing cliches - that being there makes you feel special - into a living, breathing reality. When in Los Angeles, I really don't want to be staying anywhere else.

If I do have to be anywhere else - if, say the Sunset Tower is full, or the company paying for the trip are being mean and stingy (erm, sorry, I mean "are having to be particularly cognisant of the bottom line in today's straitened times") - I will also gladly and happily accept lodgings in this rather different establishment, in a quiet and very suburban-feeling street in the armpit of La Cienega and Melrose. The big sell here are the rooms - as the sign outside suggests, they're all suites, with a kitchenette, microwave, kettle (yes!!! No more fruitless searching for that most elusive of LA commodities - a potable cup of tea! As long as you bring your own tea bags) and so forth. The bathrooms are a tad dark and the shower curtains, on two of the three occasions I've stayed there, a little fragrant, but the space, the location, the pleasant service and the overall level of comfort make up for any shortcomings. It's also very competitively priced compared to the higher-end Strip properties, which often appeals.

Like all the Shrager hotels (with the exception, of the several I've stayed in, of the Royalton in New York, where detail remains at the service of class, rather than the other way around), the Mondrian is an exercise in frustration. The itch I can't seem to scratch with this chain is the obsession with pretension, which is allowed to run riot, trumping every other consideration, including practicality.

The first impressions are reasonably telling: those huge, pointless doors facing the Strip, there to look impressive but do absolutely nothing, end up being a repeated thematic motif. See that crowd of people milling round the front door for no discernable purpose, all wearing white track suits? They're not groupies, or paparazzi in pyjamas, or members of some new LA weird-beard religion - they're staff. Drive on to the cramped forecourt and half a dozen of them will be fighting over you: walk up to the (reasonably heavy) glass doors on a windy day and you're on yer own. An airy lobby, filled with Philippe Starck's consistently attractive but uncomfortable-bordering-on-unusable experimental prototype furniture, gives way to light wood lift doors, which, on opening, plunge you into an unexpected inner darkness. The lifts are lit by a wattage equivalent to three penlights, with dark blue bulbs, set in the floor. That's after you've negotiated the desk staff, who've usually lost your reservation, or have no record that the travel company who's booked it has left a credit card number on file, so need an imprint of your own card (and when they realise they don't need it after all they phone you up to apologise, usually while you're or on the bog, or asleep). (Though in the interests of balance, I should report that this has also happened to me at Le Parc Suites - just not every time.)

And then there's the rooms. They too come with kitchenettes, but there's no kettle, only a coffee machine (which you can use to boil water in, but the resulting brew is neither tea nor coffee, really), and the fussiness of the lobby and variability of usefulness of the lighting is carried through. Smaller rooms have too much furniture shoehorned in, turning them into an obstacle course; larger ones offer a clean, airy feel, though it's tempered by that wearying pretension.

The whole property is also rigged with a succession of traps for the unwary. Unscrew the cap on that bottled water and you'll be charged a sum you could probably buy a similar sized bottle of Scotch for at the Pink Dot over the road; dare to unwrap the CD placed just so (its edges parallel to the edges of the table, and probably of the guest info folder it's symmetrically placed atop of) to slip into the briefly-stylish-but-now-miles-out-of-date music centre and you'll have just added 20 bucks to your bill to listen to one good track and a load of what some preening style guru thinks is "hip".

It could all have been so different. I stayed here the first time I came to Los Angeles, in 1993, before the present owners either transformed or ruined it (depending on your perspective). It was a bit tattered around the edges but it was a grand place to stay - affordable and funky, hip without trying to be, the rooms bright and the atmosphere breathable, the titular artist's work reflected in the strong geometry of the building's rectilinear design and emphasised with a palette where red, blue and yellow accented the primary black and white. Shrager came along with his Anne Maurice-style makeover (all white: the quintessential blank canvas) and removed all the character, replacing it with the bland cliches of nod-and-wink postmodernist design, like a plastic surgeon "improving" a natural beauty with anaesthetised precision. Even the bar was turned from the sort of place where you'd still get lounge singers crooning their way through the Great American Songbook into a haven for the bland Hollywood be-seen set - like the Strip needed another. 

And yet, and yet, and yet...

In this curate's egg of a hotel, good things can still unexpectedly be found. If you can book room 1216, you can't go wrong. It's on the top floor, north, erm, "wing", south-western corner - far enough away from the pool, the other side of the hotel from the Strip, and with a view (albeit of Beverley Hills rather than Downtown) that comes close to being the equal of the Sunset Tower's. You can stand at those windows and feel that you're floating over the streets below; and as you return to the hotel from the south, looking up to pick out the window you've been looking out of, you realise that your eyrie above the city is magnificently isolated - a tiny dark rectangle set so far up in the sky that the "one day all this will be mine!" sensation could get almost godlike. Get in to that room, or any in a comparable position, as far from the pool, the laughable Skybar and the lobby as possible, and your stay in LA will be almost as magical as the photos on the hotel's website want you to believe.

The Grafton has three things going for it. Location, location, and location. OK, that's not fair: it's also very competitive, especially when compared to its next-door neighbour, the sky-high and sky-high-priced Mondrian.

I first stayed here when it was little more than a cheap motel (without the en-suite parking), a choice brought about by ruthless personal penny-pinching. I can't remember what I paid to stay there for the night - we're talking 1999 I think - but it definitely wasn't more than 60 dollars. Today the rates have a 1 in front of them, and much of the increase seems to have been spent on the decor. But you're still at the heart of the Strip, within walking distance of most of the places a visitor wants to go in West Hollywood, and paying about half the price for the pleasure. Walk out of the Grafton, past the Mondrian, and the next building you see is another fake - the corrugated tin shack that conceals the House of Blues: and if you're staying at the Grafton, suddenly you begin to see that battered, rusty exterior reflected ever more clearly in the Mondrian's polished glass. They're two of a kind, those buildings: places that know how to put on a show. The only difference is that the Mondrian charges you on the way out.

The Grafton, too, knows how to shake its tail feathers. They like to give their travellers on a budget a taste of the behind-the-velvet-rope high life, but a quick peep into the bar and an even briefer glance at the bill mean you're never left feeling that the illusion is meant to be sustained. Times are tough, but this place must be a goldmine. They get all the tourist bucks a place like the Mondrian disdains, and enable those lower-budget holidaymakers to kick back in the bar and laugh until tears roll down their faces at how badly the fashion victims and linen-suited pseuds in the big house next door are getting ripped off. The Mondrian clique are probably doing the same, looking down their noses at both the trashy buildings to either side, but I know whose attitudes and aspirations I feel more in tune with.

All that said, the Grafton gets docked points based on my last stay, this very month. In their infinite wisdom, the management have decided that it's perfectly OK to sell the room underneath the bar as a bedroom. True, it does have a bed in it, and the bathroom is fine. The fact that it's out of range of the hotel's wi-fi, and anyone in it needs to wander into the stairwell to get a signal, could be marked down as a mere irritant. And it's true that the volume of the music being played in the bar isn't something that would stop the determined sleeper - say, someone prepared to jam a pillow over their head, or happy to wear the earplugs the hotel supply (for free - at least I think they're free) in every room - couldn't manage to ignore. But the constant clatter of moving feet, which sound as though they're shod in steel toe capped DMs and on the ends of legs of 20-stone giants practicing tap routines, is another matter. As is phoning reception and asking to be moved only to find there's no spare rooms. And that the bar closes at 2. And the fact that they omit to tell you that the cleaners come in, move the furniture around, and get busy with the Hoovers at 5.15. The following night they put me in a room by the pool, which was lovely, and where sleep was possible for more than two and a half hours - but they've got a cheek selling any rooms under the bar as fit for purpose. If you're staying here and you find yourself going down one flight of stairs and turning right then right again, ask to be moved before you even check out the room. 

Sometimes, if I've been very bad and displeased God in some way, I'll be billeted in The Standard. Its geographic location offers a clue to its principal attraction: it's near the Marmont and a closed-down strip joint - so it's got the cool cachet and cred of a top-notch Hollywood locale, while offering a proximity to a certain kind of earthiness advertisers would label "edgy". Its rooms are not exactly priced to sell - OK, so it's not in the Marmont/Mondrian bracket, but it's considerably more expensive than the better-placed Grafton.

This is the hotel Rusty owned in Ocean's Twelve, and while trying to work out which room Topher Grace trashed may provide you with some much-needed on-the-premises fun, it's easy to see why Danny's right-hand man would have lost his share of the Vegas heist so quickly. While there may be a demographic that longs to stay in a place like The Standard, it is not one I find myself longing to associate with. The phrase "Twat's Paradise" comes to mind - and even in LA, where such establishments are ten-a-penny, this gaff is a standout.

Where to begin? Well, if the "wacky", or quite possibly "zany" decision to place the name of the place upside-down on the entrance porch (it's, like, so not standard! Geddit??!!!!) didn't quite do the job, the model - they've always been female whenever I've been there, but maybe they let guys in too, I can't say - reading a book in a glass case behind reception tells you quite a deal about the kind of hotel you're checking in to. Yes, over to the right, that is indeed the lobby's guest DJ for the evening, and those mellow electro b-sides he's carefully mixing into a slushy aural wallpaper will doubtless have been selected to cater to the intensely niche needs of... whatever type of person thinks a chick in a fishtank means this is a happening joint.

The only thing worse than the lobby at The Standard are the rooms. (The coffee bar is not bad, and even placing the newsagent/kiosk in the in-house hair salon - yes, hair salon - seems to show a commendable make-do spirit.) In a sense that's a cheap shot - the actual rooms are OK: pretty big, comfortable, though somewhat Spartan - but none of them are in a very good place. It's a low building - a former motel, apparently, though after two nights here you'll be thinking it was modelled on Stalag Luft 17 - so none of the rooms at the front are far enough away from the Strip to give you any distance from the constant traffic and people noise. The south-facing rear rooms look out over the pool, which seems like a great idea until you discover that the pool is also the hotel bar, which is open for loud business until 1am. You could ask for one side or the other when checking in, I suppose, but what's the point? Heads you can't sleep, tails you'll be kept awake. But, hey, if you're the kind of person who wants a crappy DJ in the lobby and thinks having the sign upside down is Kewel, then getting some shut-eye is probably the last thing you look for in a hotel. For self-conscious hipster wannabes, this place may well be the moon on a stick; if you're in LA to do something that involves being up reasonably early, or perhaps need to be doing some work in your room of an evening, it's a little bit of poseur hell on earth. 


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