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Former magazine maven to maître d’: Gabé Doppelt dishes on her first few weeks at Sunset Tower

Former magazine maven to maître d’: Gabé Doppelt dishes on her first few weeks at Sunset Tower
Gabé Doppelt at Sunset Tower Bar, one of the most exclusive dining rooms in Los Angeles. She is the new maitre d. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

If you’ve visited the Sunset Tower restaurant recently, you may have noticed a shift in the atmosphere. While there’s a sameness to the routine here that borders on romantic — the polished silver, the practiced opulence, the inevitable celebrity sighting — something palpable is different. And that something is an incredibly slight, fast-moving, quick-witted woman with a softened South African accent named Gabé Doppelt.

Three weeks ago, Doppelt, 58, who worked for decades in media as a fashion editor and journalist at publications like Vogue, Mademoiselle and most recently at the Daily Beast, and was also a producer at MTV, embarked on a late-in-life career pivot: taking the reins as maître d’ of the Sunset Tower’s restaurant from Dimitri Dimitrov, the face of the Sunset Boulevard institution for 13 years. Craving a change, Doppelt, who worked closely with Anna Wintour for years, spent the last 18 months in a hospitality crash course, training under Dimitrov.

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No matter that Doppelt had never worked in a restaurant before and, by her own admission, “knows very little about food.”

She brings a swagger and style to the restaurant, as well as more than a couple of quirks. Doppelt only drinks hot drinks out of paper cups. She claims to eat a total of four dishes ever, all of which are seafood, on a rotating basis.

We caught up with Doppelt to see what the first weeks have been like. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has it been stepping into Dimitrov’s shoes?

Pretty seamless actually. Dimitri prepared me for anything that could possibly happen to me, so I’m just equipped to deal with it. I also feel a strange kind of ownership over the physical space. It’s like anyone who comes into your home. You want them to have a good time, and that’s what it feels like, like my own personal salon.

What are some of the situations he prepared you for?

He prepared me to be thrown nightly. Somebody will walk in who should be given a prominent table, and it just pulls a card out of the whole house of cards, and you have to be able to turn on a dime. On occasion, there will be some hostility. You need to deal with that. And to be tough. The physicality of it is what I go on about. Luckily I had 18 months to train as if this were my gym.

Why make the career switch when you did?

When the Beast downsized and closed the bureau, I was burned out. Thought I would take a year or two off. Then return to journalism. During that time I partnered with Grace Coddington to create a fragrance for her with our partner Comme Des Garcons. When the frangrance had launched and it came time to return to my old ways, I felt a sense of doom at the prospect. And then Jeff [Klein] called with this offer. My feeling was, at this ripe age to be offered a shot at a new career was a pretty remarkable thing. I don’t cook, so I’m essentially a professional restaurant guest. To be on the other side intrigued me; the other side of this particular restaurant.

Dining in Los Angeles seems to constantly be shifting away from fine dining. How important is it to have a maître d’?

I’m learning now that maître d’-driven restaurants are a rarity in just about any town. This is my first restaurant job and I know how critical Dimitri was because I was a guest here for 13, 14 years. I had my table in the Tower bar and it was critical to me—so I understood that language from being a guest. It’s a rarity to go to a restaurant and actually know the person at the front. I think it’s critical when you have a restaurant like this when you cater to a certain industry or industries which we do. It’s important that we make these people feel welcome and to let them know they will be taken care of. They can tell us what they want and we’ll give them whatever they want. Anything they want. On a purely selfish level it makes it a lot more fun for me because it makes my job not just putting bums in seats.

What sort of weird requests have you had to deal with?

Bob Saget’s bachelor party is an exceptional thing. It was my first week. He’s a regular here. They had dinner. Nine men. Then his wife-to-be [and her friends] decided to come over, so I suddenly had to find space for 16. You can’t be thrown by that, you just have to figure it out.

What are you hoping to keep the same, or change?

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I hope to bring my own personality to it. I think I already have because Dimitri is so specific and I just can’t be him, and I realized from day one that I will fail if I try to be him.

So what was training under him like?

I found my notebook the other day from my first four months of training, and I can’t believe the stuff I wrote in there. I even had drawings and diagrams. Where a candle should go. Chairs with arms versus no arms and where the chairs go. Those things are most critical for him, and as far as he’s concerned if that is ruined at the beginning of dinner, there is no way to make it up. That’s what he spent 90% of my training teaching me.

So how difficult is it to get a table here?

We hope it’s as difficult as it can possibly get. That’s good for business.

So the exclusivity of it is a good thing?

At the end of the day, everybody wants to be looked at. And wherever you sit in this restaurant, you’re going to have somebody to look at. I think we exist for everybody. Listen, our price point is at a certain level where it’s prohibitive to some people, so it kind of edits itself. And if you can’t afford to eat here we have two incredible bars.

What’s a typical day for you like?

I’m not that late rising because I have a dog that likes to be let out. Then I go through email. And then I read the New York Post because I’m still addicted to it, and then I read newspapers and newsletters. Then I watch Jeopardy from the night before. I wish Alex Trebek would come in for dinner.

When do you get to work?

I’ll come here at 4:30 p.m. Throughout the day I monitor what’s going on for reservations. I have an app on my phone. So if someone makes a reservation I can see it and see the shape the evening is taking. I’m addicted to it. As addicted as I am to Jeopardy and an Italian game called Buraco.

Do you have a go-to dish?

I’m a creature of habit. There are only two things I eat in the restaurant. Salmon and scallops. That’s it.

Are you ever starstruck?

There are people that I really would like to meet. One came through here and she didn’t disappoint. Lady Gaga. But I love sports so probably any athlete that walked in here. LeBron James has been here but sadly on my night off. And Alex Trebek.

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Will you keep your cool if Trebek comes in?

I don’t think I’d lose it even though internally I would.

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