Tower Bar: Glamour under the stars

ON a balmy summer night, where do you take out-of-town friends more intent on seeing something of the Hollywood scene than trying the latest, greatest restaurant? To the most adult place on the Strip: Tower Bar at the Sunset Tower hotel. We commandeer my friend John's rented convertible, lower the top, the four of us pile in. We cruise along Sunset Boulevard, taking in the glitzy boutiques, the packed sidewalk cafes, the stretch limos idling at the curbs, giggling at the goofy getups of teenagers swarming toward the Strip.

I can never remember exactly where the hotel is, but coming round a curve, there it is, looming over the Strip like an Art Deco wedding cake. Built in 1929 as a luxury apartment building, this is where Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe and other stars lived during Hollywood's heyday. In recent decades it's had several incarnations as a hotel. Refurbished by owner Jeff Klein over the last few years, today it exudes an understated glamour. We pull neatly in front and try to unsnarl our hair. Nobody, it seems, thought to bring a comb. But it's not every day any of us drives a convertible.

Before we go in to dinner, I want to show my friends the pool with a view where a scene from Robert Altman's 1992 film "The Player" was set. The small terrace overlooking the city and the small turquoise pool is magical at night. And wow -- people are dining out there, not just having drinks. If only we'd known! It's so lovely, with the city spread about below, the stars overhead, and Klieg lights sweeping the sky.

Without much hope, we ask if we could possibly get a table outside. We can and we do after a short wait. Our table is right at the edge of the pool. A waiter in a crisp white jacket arrives bearing cocktails. My pals are in heaven.

The restaurant also has a new chef in Dakota Weiss, who was formerly at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. Weiss, 31, came up in hotel restaurants, but at the Tower Bar, she inherited a difficult kitchen and a menu that wasn't really hers. Klein listened and showed enough faith in Weiss to give her a new kitchen to play in.

To the eternal gratefulness of my friend John, a long table to our left is set up for a birthday party populated by some of L.A.'s seemingly endless supply of beautiful women. Models? Actresses? Agents? Any and all of the above. He doesn't care.

It's a perfect spot to enjoy a chilled seafood tower, which takes two waiters to deliver. The two-tiered seafood extravaganza is easily enough for two, if not three -- oysters, steamed mussels, shrimp, lobster, and long-legged king crab laid out on a bed of ice. This would be the moment to break out a bottle of Champagne. One night, my table is busy slurping oysters when I look over and see a woman by herself at the next table with a glass of brut and an entire plate of maraschino cherries. A sip, a cherry. A sip, a cherry. It doesn't seem to be cheering her up.

With a new menu that is fully hers, Weiss revels in turning out updated classic chophouse fare. There's a shrimp cocktail, of course, and beef tartare, and Caesar salad. But it's potato blini that speaks to me, topped with a poached organic egg and garnished with black truffles and beet tartare. Grilled artichoke is fine, too, fun to dip into a lemon mayonnaise spiked with a little horseradish. Have it with a martini instead of wine, because this one is a sure wine killer. But if you're ordering just one appetizer to share, go with the generous fried calamari. They're light and puffy and come with a fresh marinara sauce for dipping.

Stick with the simple

WITH main courses, I've found it's best to stick with the simpler preparations, like the roasted lamb T-bone. You won't go wrong with the steak frites either, but it seems pricey at $45 for a steak that doesn't taste particularly aged. Grilled chicken paillard and swordfish are both just this shy of being dried out. They'd have more flavor if they were cooked less and had more seasoning. Even some cracked black pepper would help. Grilled king salmon with lemon, good olive oil and a bouquet of jumbo asparagus may not be the most exciting dish on the block, but it's well executed -- though a bit under-seasoned, and the morel mushrooms and fava beans don't quite work with its flavor. But the idea of pairing the paillard with arugula adorned with pine nuts and ricota salata is a nice one.

After that evening, I can't wait to come back for lunch, picturing studio types in their Dolce & Gabbana suits under the chic beige-pink cabana. At 1 p.m. there's hardly anybody here. We breeze in, without a reservation, and get a table.

The lunch menu covers much of the same territory as dinner, with the addition of an excellent lobster macaroni and cheese (if you can bear to pay $26 for that childhood dish), a refined Caesar salad crowned with a raft of oiled toast and a sophisticated shrimp club sandwich lavished with ribbons of crisp bacon. Lobster Cobb, though, is the real winner, a deconstructed salad with sliced hard-boiled egg, chunks of beautiful lobster, blue cheese and lettuce. (It's also on the dinner menu.)

Some of the magic is gone in the glare of high noon. But it's a clear day, and you can see all the way to downtown. There's also the bonus of a young Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike taking a dip in the pool, which is small by hotel standards yet so inviting there at the edge of the view.

Why isn't the place packed? The only people here seem to be hotel guests, busy working at their computers and drinking glass after glass of perfectly brewed iced tea, served in a carafe with simple syrup and lemon wedges on the side. How civilized.

Dinner in the more formal Tower Bar itself is lovely too. Swathed in warm wood, with walls plastered in formal black and white photographs of young actors from the '20s, '30s and '40s, the dining room feels like the set from an old screwball comedy. That's designer Paul Fortune's touch.

It's so convincing, I begin to wonder if that's Nick Charles of the 1934 film "The Thin Man" at the bar waiting for Nora. On second look, no. But he is (obviously) an actor with a William Powell profile, wearing a precisely positioned fedora, with a striped shirt, worn tails out, which would have horrified Nick Charles. And instead of a proper martini, this 21st century incarnation of the dapper detective is sipping a glass of wine.

The menu straddles the two eras as well. Weiss has obviously been given the directive to create an appealing hotel restaurant for the bicoastal set. Nothing too fancy or too challenging, just easygoing dishes that fit with a peripatetic lifestyle. Imagine coming in from a long flight and sitting down at a table secluded in an alcove, unfurling the beautiful linen napkin embroidered with the name of the restaurant, ordering a glass of wine and an omelet with black truffles. Though they offer more texture than intense flavor, the black, crunchy slices are still delicious folded into the loose, golden omelet. Beef tartare, too, would fit the bill, though it's often bland.

Young chef

GRILLED focaccia replays the grilled pizza from previous menu. You can order it topped with shaved fennel or goat cheese and grapes. But Brie? An idea you'd expect to see from some clueless bed-and-breakfast hosts. I do like the version heaped with eggplant and artichoke caponata. Caponata is supposed to be sweet and sour, but in Sicily, no one would use balsamic vinegar. Though she makes it work, she relies in general, like so many young chefs, too much on aceto balsamico and truffle oil. I'd love to see what would happen if she dispensed with those two crutches.

When it comes to the wine list, I'm hard pressed to find something I want to drink at a price I can afford, given the high markups. Wine service could be better too. Servers tend to pour too high, and reds can sometimes be too warm. And the corkage fee is one of the highest in town: $45.

Desserts all seem to be pitched to kids with the munchies, which runs counter to the grown-up scene. You've got a trio of big cookies, all very sweet, a huge slice of red velvet cake with a loose cream cheese frosting, or a chocolate brownie sundae. Best bet is a vanilla gelato parfait with raspberries and lemon mousse. On none of my visits was anyone at my table gobbling up the desserts. Their gooey sweetness makes them cloy.

Compared with other hotel restaurants, Tower Bar's food is very decent, if you put aside some of the glitches. There's that seafood tower, the lovely potato blini, Lobster Cobb and roasted lamb T-bone. I wouldn't recommend this address to real foodies or put it on my list of L.A.'s top 10 restaurants, but it's fun for an evening out on the town. It's also just about the only adult spot on the Strip.

The closeness of the tables, the live music, the unbeatable views, the suave maitre d' (yes, Dimitri Dimitrov is still there), staff in white jackets, create an unforgettable, quintessentially L.A. experience. On Sunset Strip, finally, there's somewhere that's not just another stab at trendiness, but a restaurant and bar that resonate with life.


Tower Bar

Rating: * 1/2

Location: Sunset Tower Hotel, 8358 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-6677;

Ambience: Clubby, discreet hotel restaurant with city views, a small cozy bar and a pianist playing old jazz standards most nights. There's also a poolside terrace serving the same menu at night, and an abbreviated menu at lunch. The most adult address on the Strip.

Service: Attentive, from servers in white jackets and a suave maitre d'.

Price: Appetizers, $10 to $42; main courses, $19 to $31; secondi, $23 to $45; sides, $7; desserts, $12.

Best dishes: Seafood tower, oysters on the half shell, potato blini with poached organic egg, calamari fritti, grilled artichoke with lemon horseradish mayonnaise, grilled focaccia with eggplant and artichoke caponata, lobster Cobb, sirloin burger, omelet with black truffles, lobster macaroni and cheese, roasted lamb T-bone, vanilla gelato parfait.

Wine list: Short on value and interesting choices. Corkage fee, $35.

Best table: One in an alcove, with a view.

Special features: Breakfast, lunch and dinner are also served outside beside the pool and under the chic cabana.

Details: Open daily for breakfast from 6:30 to 11 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., light menu from 3 to 6 p.m. and dinner from 6 to 10:45 p.m. Brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Valet parking at dinner, $6 for the first two hours, $2 each additional hour; at breakfast, lunch and brunch, two hours complimentary, $2 each additional hour. Full bar. All major credit cards.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.