For many inhabitants of rival cities like New York and Chicago, disparaging Los Angeles is a popular pastime. L.A. may have gorgeous weather and gorgeous movie stars, they concede, but the ethos is shallow, the smog is thick, and the traffic is insufferable. Such thoughts comfort those obliged to slog through the slush each winter. Alas, they are largely untrue. In fact, as we found on a recent visit, Los Angeles can be a delight, with friendly people, a thriving art scene, sensational restaurants and, yes, the occasional movie star sighting. The public transportation options deserve whatever ridicule they receive, but the traffic is not much worse than in other large conurbations. Indeed, I challenge anyone to rent a late-model convertible and not enjoy driving in L.A.
Our suggested hotels were clustered together in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and those neighborhoods are still fine places in which to stay. They are at least half an hour from downtown, however, and downtown Los Angeles has seen a major (if incomplete) renaissance in recent years. In spite of some remaining grit, it is now home to some of the city’s best restaurants and bars, as well as major cultural institutions like the Broad museum and the neighboring Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Arts District houses numerous galleries and stylish shops in converted warehouses, and some luxury hotels have now opened. The NoMad Hotel, occupying a grand former bank building, is the most stylish of these, but with 241 rooms, it is clearly no hideaway.
In fact, all three of our hotels in Los Angeles had more than 100 rooms. I decided to see if I could find any boutique properties, ideally somewhere more convenient to the city’s resurgent downtown than Beverly Hills. I sought smaller hideaways to the east.
Of the three hotels I reviewed, the Hotel Covell was the closest to downtown, in the rapidly gentrifying Los Feliz neighborhood. Opened in 2015, the nine-room property stands atop an excellent coffeehouse, a delightful wine bar and a gourmet ice cream shop, a trinity that covers many of my primary consumption requirements. In fact, the hotel functions more as a set of small independent apartments, each with its own entrance (we went to reception just once, to check out). The only public space reserved for guests is a roof terrace, furnished with a couple of sofas and loungers.
We texted the hotel when we arrived, as instructed. Kevin, a friendly manager, met us out front and directed us to the rear parking lot, accessible via an alley. I quite liked being able to simply park behind the hotel, rather than having to deal with the rigmarole of a valet. Kevin helped bring our luggage up a flight of stairs to our sunny suite, Chapter 9. At first glance, I liked the wood-floored room’s spacious layout, with a large off-white sectional sofa, a wet bar stocked with dishes and glasses, a full-size refrigerator and a king bed on a 1970s-inspired platform covered in burgundy-toned carpet. That décor choice doubtless won’t please everyone, nor will the bead curtain hanging from the door of the walk-in closet, nor will the compact bath, tiled in white and pinkish-beige, with limited counter space and one small sink. I also felt let down by the “incredible view of the Griffith Park Observatory” promised on the hotel’s website. The only incredible thing was that I could find the tiny distant observatory at all, amid the visual barrage of tacky billboards and unsightly rooftop air conditioners.
On the plus side, Kevin responded quickly to requests, such as when we asked him to send up some trouser hangers for the closet. And we enjoyed breakfasting each morning on the patio below our room. The Go Get Em Tiger coffee shop served all-too-tempting pastries, yeasted waffles and flawless scrambled eggs. And I recommend stopping by the cozy and friendly Bar Covell, where, rather than giving you a menu, the bartender-sommeliers ask about your wine preferences and offer a taste or two to help you make a selection. Overall, I enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Covell, the uninspiring views aside, but the property will appeal only to more-self-sufficient travelers.
The appealing neighborhood close to downtown; the warm and helpful manager; the charming wine bar; our bright suite; the easy parking.
The oversold view; the lack of turndown service; the record player with no accompanying records; the poor soundproofing.
The kitchenette has dishes and a full-size refrigerator but no stovetop or microwave; room service from the wine bar (from 5 to 11 p.m.) and from a nearby breakfast taco restaurant (from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) is available for an $18 service fee.
We checked out and drove to West Hollywood, a lively neighborhood just east of Beverly Hills, where hotelier Jeff Klein opened the Hotel 850 in 2018. Within a short walk of the center of West Hollywood’s nightlife on Santa Monica Boulevard, the 23-room property combines a century-old bungalow with a new building tucked discreetly behind it, designed by architect Marc Appleton and decorated by Rita Konig. A smartly dressed man at the front desk checked us in and informed us that we had been upgraded from a Grand Room to the One Bedroom Suite, the best accommodation in the hotel. He summoned a valet to retrieve the luggage from our car and asked him to accompany us in the elevator to our airy fourth-floor suite.
The bright living room came with wood floors and sisal-covered walls, windows on two sides and glass doors leading to a terrace. From its cushioned loungers and love seat, we could see some of the Century City skyline beyond the West Hollywood rooftops. On the other side of the living room, the spacious bath also had plenty of light, enhanced by a white-marble counter on the dual vanities and a roomy white-marble walk-in shower. Brass fixtures and botanical prints added touches of warmth. In the bedroom, a gas fireplace faced a comfortable king bed, and a complimentary minibar offered an assortment of snacks. The beverage selection was rather less impressive: a can of cola, a can of diet cola and a reusable glass bottle of (tap?) water.
Our rate included a complimentary picnic on the roof deck, which came in a charming traditional wicker basket. We sat in the sun and lunched on beet salad and chicken salad. In addition, guests can congregate in the Living Room. Small continental breakfast buffets are served there each morning, with pastries, fruit and coffee (savory items and proteins are available via room service). We also came down to the Living Room one evening before dinner, hoping to sit on the sofa by the fireplace and enjoy a drink from the honor bar, as described on the hotel’s website. But we learned that the honor bar had been removed shortly after the 850’s debut. Guests seeking an aperitif must now go elsewhere. Guests seeking a newspaper to read at breakfast must also go elsewhere, or at least wait until 10 a.m., which was annoying to this morning person.
In all other respects, I had a splendid time at the Hotel 850. The staff were welcoming, the housekeepers were conscientious, and our accommodations were sunny and stylish. Plus, we were able to walk to a number of fine restaurants. The Hotel 850 is not a grand luxury hotel like our other properties in town; instead, it’s a charming and very comfortable guesthouse. I wouldn’t hesitate to return.
The location central to West Hollywood restaurants and nightlife; the stylish décor; the commendable housekeeping staff; the sunny roof terrace; our spacious, airy accommodations; the friendly staff; the comfortable main lounge.
The complimentary continental breakfast buffet had few savory items; the sad beverage selection in the complimentary minibar; the lack of newspapers.
The honor bar mentioned (as of this writing) on the hotel’s website no longer exists, which means you must go outside the hotel for an alcoholic beverage; hot breakfast dishes are available via room service.
Klein has a second and more famous hotel in Los Angeles, the historic Sunset Tower Hotel. This striking art deco structure opened in 1931 as a luxury apartment building, and it was home to numerous famous and infamous people, including Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Truman Capote and Bugsy Siegel (his former apartment is now the Tower Bar). Barely saved from demolition in the early 1980s, the building became a hotel, which Klein purchased in 2000 and renovated. He completed a “refresh” of the 81-room hotel last year, and I was curious if the plaudits the press have lavished on the property and its restaurant were deserved.
My initial impression was unfavorable. After leaving the car in the care of the valet, we entered a compact and surprisingly hectic lobby. The young man at the front desk seemed harried, and his welcome was laconic. “Checking in,” followed by “Last name?” When he asked if we needed help with our luggage, in a tone indicating that he expected us to decline, I replied that some assistance would be lovely. I had no intention of going up to an $850-per-night room unaccompanied. A gregarious bellman salvaged the situation somewhat; he actually seemed pleased to see us, and he gave us a helpful tour of our Studio suite.
Located on the 14th floor, one floor below the penthouse, our accommodations had memorable views, even though our floor-to-ceiling windows faced Sunset Boulevard and the mansion-cluttered Hollywood Hills, rather than the downtown skyline. I quite liked the art deco décor done in pink, white and chocolate. In the small living room, black-and-white movie stills hung above a white-linen sofa. The bedroom occupied a corner of the building, rounded by a floor-to-ceiling arc of windows. The bath came with a deep separate tub, a walk-in shower with a window and gold wallpaper embellished with midcentury modern-style motifs inspired by the hotel and its neighborhood. At turndown our first night, we received a chocolate model of the Sunset Tower, in addition to the chocolate chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies normally provided each evening.
During our stay we enjoyed breakfasting on the pool terrace — actor Josh Brolin sat across from us one morning, at a table gratifyingly inferior to ours. A ruinously expensive spa ensures that guests who can afford it look their best — it focuses on beauty treatments more than massages — and one floor below, a dramatic gym with chandeliers provides intimidatingly good-looking personal trainers. But I didn’t feel up to a workout, and the pool terrace was closed for private events by the time we arrived back at the hotel each afternoon.
The vaunted Tower Bar also proved something of a disappointment. I liked its welcoming staff and its cozy décor, complete with a fireplace and midcentury modern-style wood paneling. But style triumphed over substance here. The by-the-glass wine selection was uninspiring, and there’s nothing special about a list of “Specialty Cocktails” that includes a basic Aperol spritz and Moscow Mule. The throwback food menu proved similarly banal. The deviled eggs topped with a few crumbs of paddlefish caviar were especially unimpressive. Other dishes — including rich oysters Rockefeller, an immense pork chop with apple sauce and spinach, and some roast chicken with Broccolini and fingerling potatoes — ranked as good comfort food, undeserving of their price tags.
But of course, the hotel promotes The Tower Bar for its celebrity sightings and exclusive ambiance, presided over by the celebrated maitre d’ Gabé Doppelt, not the food. Since I have poor star-spotting skills, I invited a local friend who works in the industry to dinner. He assured me that no one in the restaurant that night ranked as a celebrity. Doppelt also failed to make an appearance during our two-night stay. I wouldn’t care about either fact, except that the hotel’s website sells Doppelt and the experience she “choreographs” — not to mention celebrities — as integral to the experience.
Other minor problems arose during our visit. We didn’t have enough hangers in our wardrobe, for example, and it took two phone calls and four hours to have more delivered. The beautiful windows provided poor soundproofing; we went to sleep to the sounds of a DJ across the street calling out drink specials. And most important, the hotel lacked the sense of being a hideaway, in spite of its zealous protection of celebrity guests’ privacy. Staying at the Sunset Tower felt very “L.A.,” but like many Hollywood blockbusters nowadays, it has been overhyped.
The impressive art deco architecture; the memorable views in every direction; the glamorous pool terrace; our plush bath; the energetic bellman.
Our tepid welcome; the hectic lobby; the sometimes loud restaurant and bar; the closure of the pool terrace in the late afternoon both days of our stay; the inadequate soundproofing.
Although the hotel strongly forbids photography in any public spaces, if you want a picture of yourself, waiters seem more than willing to oblige.