Hotel Bel-Air used to be the place to get a good craft cocktail
Hotel entrance circa 1951. Copyright, Hotel Bel-Air, via Andrew Harper

Los Angeles has developed a reputation, one that’s rather unfair. Traffic jams, celebrity DUI’s, and gluten-free eateries have become the unwarranted icons of the West coast metropolis. But L.A. is also home to something that’s been somewhat forgotten: gauzy, glittering old Hollywood, the essence of yesteryear’s black and white movies. Between L.A.’s contemporary doggie clothing boutiques and hip cafes, there are certain landmarks that capture last century’s dazzling, classic L.A. Hotel Bel-Air is one of these places.

Located on Stone Canyon Road, Hotel Bel-Air is hardly in a remote location, yet it feels a world away from L.A, L.A. Perhaps that’s what has made it appealing for decades. Indeed, Hotel Bel-Air has always been a private space for the rich, beautiful, and often, the famous. As Los Angeles Confidential puts it, the hotel’s “quiet reputation has swelled over the years to almost mythic proportions, and there isn’t a celebrity or dignitary worth his or her Guccis who hasn’t graced its hallowed space.”

The boutique hotel was built in 1922 on sixty acres of land. Sixty acres is an astounding number in Los Angeles, even for a hotel. Since its creation, that number has since dwarfed, but still remains substantial at twelve stunning acres. The hotel has also changed hands several times, but the theme of the place has always remained consistent: “oasis.” It wasn’t supposed to be an obvious, flashy hotbed for press ops. It was supposed to be a getaway. An unfathomably expensive, but subtly lush getaway. There are gardens. Sumptuous rooms. There was – and still is – a swan lake. You cross a bridge to view it. What Hotel Bel-Air really provided was a secluded playground for Los Angeles’s elite.

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This is Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe and photographer Bert Stern at Hotel Bel-Air in 1962

Who did this escaping elite group consist of? Tycoons. Movie stars. Not celebrities as we see them today, the modern day reality opportunists and pop stars known for notoriety. These were movie stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Debonair Robert Wagner worked as a pool boy. His mother was a resident for twenty-three years. Other regulars included Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Lauren Bacall. More contemporary visitors include Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, and Brooke Shields. Oprah celebrated her 50th birthday there. Longtime visitor Marilyn Monroe had her last Vogue photoshoot on Hotel Bel-Air’s property before her untimely death.

This is Swan Lake
Swan lake circa 1951. Copyright, Hotel Bel-Air, via Andrew Harper

And within this oasis, there was another oasis: The Bar. The Bar, as meta as Audrey Hepburn’s cat, is the drinking establishment of Hotel Bel-Air, a treasure amongst the drinking spots at Marriotts and posh crash pads. King Cocktail – aka Dale DeGroff – the man responsible for reviving the modern cocktail movement, worked there from 1978 to 1984. He credits an episode from his time there to be a career game changer. One day, he served a guest the classic cocktail, using Cognac and sour mix. He says an “older gentleman” turned to him and said, “‘So kid, I suppose you think you made that right, don’t you?’” The man then showed him to make a sidecar from scratch, with Cointreau, fresh juice and a sugared rim. The episode repeated itself when another man asked for a margarita. When DeGroff gave him one with sour mix, he asked for the ingredients himself and made his own drink. DeGroff recalls the incidents, telling First We Feast, “It got me thinking about proper cocktails.” While we’d never credit the Hotel Bel-Air as responsible for the craft cocktail movement, the traditional vibe of The Bar and its clientele seemed to at least get the cocktail genius’s wheels turning.

This is the Bel-Air bar
The Bar circa 1951. Courtesy of Hotel Bel-Air

In his book The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks, DeGroff states, “I’d never before been challenged behind the bar, and so I was ignorant – I didn’t know what Sauternes was, didn’t know how to mix a fresh drink, didn’t have any drinks history.” He did some cocktail research, including gathering information from longtime waiters in Bel-Air’s lounge. He found out the regulars liked to drink a cocktail he’d later find out was the classic Pimm’s Cup. DeGroff describes how in the ‘70s and ’80s, it was fairly commonplace for pricier hotels to have their own private labels of bourbon. During DeGroff’s tenure at Bel-Air, this privately labeled bourbon was from Jim Beam. He used it to make his own variation of the Bobby Burns cocktail.

According to Forbes, Hotel Bel-Air still remains one of DeGroff’s favorite hotels. He says, “What’s extraordinary about the property is the Japanese gardens and the layout.” He points to how this layout contributed to a certain level of discreteness among visitors. “There’s nothing over two stories,” DeGroff says, “You could drive to your bungalow without ever going to the lobby, which is why President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe had their affair there.” DeGroff says The Bar was filled with “moguls and megastars who were too well established to bother with the starlets and riffraff at the Beverly Hills Hotel.” Again, Hotel Bel-Air wasn’t about partying, it was about refined decadence.

This is Hotel Bel-Air bar and lounge
Hotel Bel-Air’s bar and lounge, today. Courtesy of Hotel Bel-Air

In 2011, Hotel Bel-Air went through an intense multi-million dollar renovation. However, the integrity of The Bar was salvaged. Though a touch of modernity has been added, that touch – which includes a fireplace and a grand piano – is not meant to overshadow the old Hollywood roots of the joint. Still, we would have loved to pay The Bar a visit back in its heyday. Between the curmudgeonly patrons demanding fresh juice, the privately bottled bourbon, and the proximity to beautiful gardens filled with cavorting celebrities, DeGroff paints The Bar as a place celebrating luxury in the form of classics. The Bar may not have reinvented the wheel, but anyone who enjoys a simple martini can tell you that when it comes to drinking, that’s often not the most important thing.

Social image via Flickr / Alan Light