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Made-over Beverly Hilton stars in a sequel of its own

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Heads were turning toward the collection of car candy parked along the Beverly Hilton's driveway one recent evening. The valets lined up a Rolls Royce with custom rims, a rare Spyker and a pair of exotic Bentleys. But a nearly 5-year-old Ford got the best spot: Valets apparently sensed the soul of the turquoise Thunderbird convertible, the remake of the 1955 classic.

That was the same year Conrad Hilton opened his Beverly Hills showcase and welcomed Hollywood to eat, drink, sleep and, mostly, celebrate. During Merv Griffin's subsequent 16-year ownership, the '50s icon became a convention and tourist house and, like the new T-Bird, lost its momentum.

Ford discontinued the Bird two years ago, but the Beverly Hilton is once again rolling along at top speed, thanks to a new owner who gave it a sparkling, $80-million overhaul.

Though faithful to its 1950s origins, the three-year-long remake vaults the once-tired property up several notches into the ranks of modern, celebrity-worthy luxury hotels. Now it boasts a fresh lobby, redecorated rooms, a revamped restaurant and bar, and upscale lobby shops.

Like any Hollywood success, there's a big-budget sequel to come. The Hilton's owner, Beny Alagem, under his company, Oasis West Realty, is already planning for a $500-million project that would add an adjacent 120-room Waldorf-Astoria, the first in Southern California; shrink the Hilton from 570 rooms to 402; and add luxury residences and oodles of landscaping, even on rooftops.

From the looks of things, the new project would further improve the Hilton, which would get a dramatic entrance, sculpture garden, luxury rooms and underground parking.

Already, the Hilton is a much lovelier place, though pricier too. My discounted room was $325 a night; add $29 for valet parking and taxes, and two nights will total at least $750. These days, that's not bad, especially given the sophistication of the upgrade.

For untold thousands who work in entertainment or the media, the Beverly Hilton isn't so much a hotel as it is a temporary studio, perhaps best known for hosting the Golden Globe Awards, the Oscar nominees' luncheon and nearly 175 other annual red-carpet events. Most of those invitees, me included, end the night headed to the parking garage, not the guest elevator.

So it was with great anticipation that I finally held a key to a room, a "deluxe king with terrace and luxury bath" -- absent a bathtub but with a frosted-glass shower and L'Occitane products. From my fourth-floor balcony, I had a great view along the hotel driveway where I'd stood reporting on the Golden Globes.

It is ever so much better upstairs, even though I did once get to embrace George Clooney on the red carpet. A sophisticated man such as Clooney might feel right at home in the 350-square-foot room, handsome with its crisp, white bedding, espresso-hued wood fixtures, crystal lamps and silvery accents -- the interior-décor equivalent of a tuxedo.

He would sip wine from the Spiegelau stemware, switch on the Bose radio, relax in the plush armchair and then propose to me.

Oops, sorry. Got carried away. It's surprisingly easy to indulge in the Hollywood fantasy here. I walked to Spago, took the house limo to Saks Fifth Avenue and lounged poolside after a massage in the Aqua Star Spa, which opened last year.

THE ZOMBIE CREW At night, the outdoor parts of the new restaurant, Circa 55, and the relocated Trader Vic's Lounge, are already gathering spots for Young Hollywood. You can't blame them for loving the 90-item cocktail menu that includes a $14 Zombie and high-drama snacks such as a flaming lobster roll.

With such potent concoctions, it's only a matter of time before some starlet falls off her platforms into the pool, an Olympic-size wonder, the largest hotel pool in Beverly Hills. It's a glorious expanse of warm water, surrounded by 73 lounge chairs and three canopied, outdoor beds that rent for $100 a day.

The renovation also shifted focus onto the pool, which becomes a glittering backdrop for Circa 55 and the bar. You may be glad for the scenery, because the prosaic food at Circa 55 likely won't compel many repeat visits. The kitchens here, however, turn out competent, uncomplicated fare -- tangy Caesar salad, nicely grilled salmon, respectable pasta dishes.

If you can't wait for a small pot of room-service coffee for more than $13 ($8.25, plus $3.75 delivery charge and 16% automatic gratuity), a lobby Starbucks swiftly provides the brew for $2, including tip.

Stellar service, however, bridges the gap between expectation and experience. From the moment I checked in, I felt, gosh, sort of special, even if my name wasn't Mrs. George Clooney. A woman can travel alone comfortably here, given the business vibe, the ever-present staff and the check-in procedure -- the clerk came from behind her desk to whisper my room number. At night, you can listen to the lobby lounge's piano player and people watch.

Upon my arrival, the bellman got to the room ahead of me and, when I arrived, carefully explained how to use the hotel's amenities -- 24-hour business center, fax delivery, Internet and even the 13-inch TV in the bathroom.

A room-service waiter arrived in less than 20 minutes with my request for an ice bucket, and he even included appropriate stemware. Of course, ahem, I was here to work, not play. Easy enough.

The hotel is chockfull of technology: wireless Internet throughout, power outlets in the lobby and bar and loads of them in the guest rooms, which also have two direct-dial phones and a 42-inch plasma TV -- the better to watch CNN in high-def.

The Hilton routinely hosts gigantic conferences for 1,200 or more, which, perhaps owing to the hotel's nearly 9 acres, 60,000 square feet of event space and hundreds of rooms, invisibly swallows them up.

But the spa is a bit cramped and lacks the amenities many of us spa sirens have come to expect. There's no whirlpool or sauna, and the steam room is a shower-steam combo that fulfills neither function well. At least the massage prices aren't outrageous: Most hourlong treatments are $125.

Many of today's remodeled hotels try to be something they're not. The Beverly Hilton just improved on what it was: a glamorous business hotel that understands how work and play can coexist and, in this town, may even be the same thing.

TRUE CELEBRITY CRED Still, this renewed Hilton relies so heavily on celebrity-of-yesteryear associations that Marilyn Monroe's image shows up in photos outside the guest rooms and restaurant, inside books at the spa and painted on murals.

Yet, of the dozens of hotels in Southern California that slap framed movie stills on their walls to elicit "authentic" celebrity cred, few have a claim as legitimate as the Beverly Hilton's: It's always been a celebrity hangout. Its celeb-celebrating past is particularly interesting when you consider how the founder's great-granddaughters have helped redefine what it takes to be famous.

You can almost picture infamous heir Paris slipping onto one of Trader Vic's new poolside sofas and sipping on a Tiki Bowl tropical cocktail. Just hope the valet guys call her a taxi.

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