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Huntley Hotel: A '70s vibe on Santa Monica Beach

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Not too long from now, we're going to laugh that we ever thought deep shag carpets, low tables carved from wood chunks and white leather chairs were the epitome of cool. Wait, we did that already ... in the 1970s. And yet they're back, and they're all over the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica.

The couriers of cool have delivered this grandly remodeled beach hotel that's so of the moment it will forever be stuck in that moment. Two blocks from the sand and a block from the Third Street Promenade, the 18-story rehabbed and renewed Huntley takes many design cues from the flamboyant hallmarks of '70s lounge culture and reinterprets them for 2007.

Although the location is killer and the place scores high for drama, it feels like a collage of hipster hangouts. Count on dozens of flickering candles and hallway spotlights that blind you, lots of dark, deeply grained wood furniture and paneling, curtained canoodling spaces and shimmer applied to silver-dipped branches, glazed cabinets for the TV and gleaming chrome fixtures. The Huntley is aimed toward well-paid, hard-partying thirty- to early-fortysomething travelers, some too young to remember when these motifs hatched.

If you've visited the local restaurants Koi, Table 8 or Citizen Smith, the signature of designer Thomas Shoos will seem familiar here. Shoos, who decorated those restaurants, designed the Huntley's lobby, 20 suites and the Penthouse — the rooftop restaurant and lounge — and collaborated with designer Mary Meis on the 209 guest rooms.

The designers rely on telling clues to reveal the character of target clients. Or maybe that's just cynical me reading meaning into the lobby's wall of piranhas — dozens of them dipped in white lacquer and affixed by posts. They seemed a metaphor for the schools of sharply dressed guys prowling the Penthouse restaurant on a March weekend for date bait.

As a restaurant, the Penthouse is moderately successful. As a hipster lounge, it's wildly so. When the elevator doors open after dark, expect a tsunami of sound. You may not immediately notice the ocean view; it's shrouded by curtained cabanas and blocked by the bar and bathrooms. After 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, ocean-view cabanas in the bar area are reserved for those who can afford the $600 minimum; restaurant cabanas are reserved for larger parties but with no spending minimum.

On a recent Friday night, a 50-ish male hotel guest dressed in denim and white tennis shoes wandered into the restaurant, looked for dinner, found a bar scene and retreated to the elevator. Kids, don't put your folks up here when they come for college graduation. They'll pay about the same, but they'd be happier across the street at the Fairmont Miramar.

To the right crowd, however, the Huntley sends all the right fashion cues. The guys arrive in the expected untucked shirt, designer jeans and hair spiked with lots of product. Girls' clothes are tight, bright and low-cut. The designers attired the guest rooms with quirky lamps, stark white duvet covers and statement headboards, these a button-tufted micro-suede.

The two-year, $18-million remodel seems to have kept the original 1960s floor plan intact but added the must-haves of trendy luxury hotels: plasma TVs, DVD players, high-speed Internet access, upscale bath products (Gilchrist & Soames), Matteo linens, Sony Dream Machine CD player-clocks and Evian water ($6).

The rooms stock the minibar with this crowd's necessities: Red Bull, a cocktail shaker, Ketel One and Grey Goose vodka, Oreos, Cliff energy bars and, for $8, an intimacy kit (including two condoms).

Apparently, these guests like to party, which explains why the room service menu is divided into time zones, including the 11 p.m.-to-6 a.m. all-night menu. It also features 30 wines, including a $500 bottle of Cristal Champagne, the $12 All Night Omelet and a fairly generous $12 continental breakfast. That morning meal comes with your choice of carbs and fresh fruit, but coffee is sold separately, arriving in an insulated pitcher large enough to caffeinate a whopper hangover. You won't be able to sleep it off at the pool; there isn't one. The fitness center is crammed into a lobby-level room, and the "cafe" is a small sundries shop with two tiny tables and barstools. There's no outdoor dining, no patio and no spa, and if you're driving an Escalade with a roof rack, it won't fit under the ceiling of the driveway.

I stayed in one of the smaller guest rooms, a 350-square-foot upper-floor room, $325 a night on special. Though adequate for a lone business traveler, it would be cramped for a couple. The desk chair swivels into the wall, gouging the upholstered corner. The breakfast tray nearly covers the writing desk, the only open table space in the room, leaving no place for a second plate or diner. That meant croissant crumbs in bed, but an efficient housekeeper swept them away.

It took some persuading of the less on-the-spot front desk to have a Los Angeles Times delivered. After two requests, a bellman delivered the paper in one minute, 45 seconds, along with a bill for 54 cents.

From my room on the 12th floor, I expected a soaring view of the Pacific Ocean. I got one — from the toilet, or standing backward in the glass-and-marble shower (no tub). The room's only ocean view is from the bathroom, somewhat like the setup in the Penthouse, where some of the best ocean views are from the bathroom stalls. My bedroom window faced north toward a remnant of water and the Malibu cliffs.

Like a lot of the junior careerists who fill the Huntley's rooms, the hotel is balancing conflicts in its identity. It's hard work trying to be a businessperson's hotel (management says 70% of travelers are), but it's not ready to settle down and leave the late-night parties behind.

It's a great place for girlfriend getaways, beach walks and bachelor parties. The Penthouse might even be a great place to take your parents — if, that is, you're planning to tell them you're marrying an unemployed scoundrel. They won't be able to hear a word you say.

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