Given the stereotypes about Beverly Hills — rich, stuffy, boring, cheesy — it might be hard to imagine anything remotely hot transpiring within city limits, but a getaway last month proved that, though Beverly Hills is no bargain, not everyone needs Daddy's platinum card to have a hip time.
My first stop was Neiman Marcus. I'll concede that Neiman's falls into that potentially snobbish category I was trying to avoid — unless, of course, you treat it as theater. As fashionistas gear up for the weekend with open boxes of Prada ombré slings and patent-leather Christian Louboutin pumps scattered at their feet, you'll find few other places for such an entertaining show. On this Friday afternoon, hours after the news that fashion photographer Helmut Newton had died in a car crash by the Chateau Marmont, the buzz was centered on a Manolo Blahnik 4 1/2-inch-high bondage stiletto called the Helmut ($685), which had arrived in the store earlier that week.
Though just a few blocks from the Neiman Marcus/Saks Fifth Avenue/Barneys triumvirate, the 1-year-old Mosaic Hotel seemed a world away. Softly lighted with dozens of candles sparkling on a tiled wall, the lobby's ambience was calming and romantic — the kind of intimate space one might seek for Valentine's Day. I had booked on the hotel's website the Sleepless in L.A. special, which included two nights for $398 plus tax — not cheap, but less expensive than some of the city's other upscale options, such as the Peninsula and the Regent Beverly Wilshire. (The Mosaic's special has since increased to $438.) My room, one of 49, was perfectly charming, kitted with Bulgari bath products, Frette linens and bathrobes, and copious down pillows.
After a peek around a promising pool area, complete with cabanas, hurricane candles and heat lamps, I made a mental note to return to this little-known spot on a warmer night for cocktails. Then I set out to meet my friend Aaron for drinks and appetizers at Maple Drive. Though the 14-year-old restaurant's décor has remained relatively unchanged, the menu hasn't. Eric Klein, the 30-year-old chef who took the reins last year, turns out contemporary comfort food that has revived this spot. Our crispy calamari and classic "chicken in a pot" soup were good renditions. The crowd was lively, and a jazz duo turned out moody tunes in the bar area.
The next morning I met another friend, Sena, for breakfast at the stylish Avalon Hotel, about a mile from the Mosaic and home of the Blue on Blue poolside restaurant. We sank into vintage chairs in the Mid-Century lounge and ordered a smoked turkey benedict and hotcakes with blueberry compote. A server brought a silver pot of good, strong coffee.
By the time we pried ourselves from this oasis it was almost noon, and we headed for the Museum of Television and Radio on Beverly Drive.
"Are you here for 'Sex and the City'?" a clerk asked. Not having a clue, we nodded yes and were shown to a screening room. Turns out the museum is hosting a "Sex and the City" marathon on weekends through Feb. 22, during which episodes from all six seasons are being screened. We caught the racy "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" episode, during which museum-goers — many of whom were decades older than the show's core audience — gasped and laughed throughout, a hoot in and of itself.
Upstairs in the Stanley E. Hubbard Library, you can search a database for almost any television or radio program imaginable, then watch or listen at a monitor with headphones. Sena was itching to see "Square Pegs," the old high school sitcom starring "Sex and the City" actress Sarah Jessica Parker as Patty Greene and Jami Gertz as Muffy Tepperman. In the 1983 episode Sena selected, Bill Murray guest-starred as a politically incorrect substitute teacher. You can load up to three programs at a time, but we left after one, just in time to catch a bizarre and wonderful sight.
Are you familiar with the Red Hat Society? Until 10 women of a certain age dressed in flamboyant red hats and purple dresses breezed past me that afternoon, I had been in the dark. Sena stopped one whose nametag said Cordial Herm and asked about the group. Cordial invited us to look up the Red Hat Society on the Internet (www.redhatsociety.com) and gave us the annotated version: They wear red hats and purple dresses, enjoy cultural events and are 50 or older. Sena and I could join as junior members, she told us, but until we hit 50, we'd have to wear pink hats and lavender dresses.
Newton in black We took our leave and crossed the street to check out the Taschen bookstore, which opened in November. Philippe Starck gets credit for the design. Twenty computer screens, some on the ceiling, broadcast collages from the German company's arty and often controversial books. On this afternoon, in a memorial to the owner's friend, both the front and back walls were lined with Taschen America's "Helmut Newton Work" ($40). When a customer inquired about the daunting 66-pound "Sumo" — another Newton title which, at $3,000, was the most expensive book produced in the 20th century, according to Taschen — an employee advised, "Anyone dressed in all black can help you."
I chose the $40 "Work" and walked up Beverly Drive to Nate 'n Al to grab a bite and peruse my purchase.
Even at 4 p.m., this landmark delicatessen was hopping. Young customers in designer jeans and wool hats as well as the old guard in tweed jackets and slacks ate thick sandwiches and big bowls of soup. The servers couldn't have been nicer.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped on North Cañon Drive at Le Palais des Thés, which opened in November as the first U.S. outlet for the Parisian tea company. Beautifully packaged tins line the shelves, and customers are offered more than 200 varieties.
That evening my friend Vincent and I went to Mako on Beverly Drive. The menu is best described as Japanese tapas. Though we were disappointed that the restaurant had run out of crispy oysters and snow crab tempura, we found plenty to keep us occupied, including seared foie gras with litchi, Peking duck and pad Thai with shrimp. For dessert, we shared melt-in-your-mouth Valrhona chocolate cake.
But the real action was at the Crescent, a new hotel on Crescent Drive. Formerly the Beverly Crescent, the property reinvented itself as a hip boutique hotel and reopened in July. On this evening, the place was teeming with post-grads. One cheeky fellow wearing a camouflage cap, silk ascot, pea coat, jeans and sporty sneakers smoked a cigarette carefree while chatting up a young woman showing a lot of skin. (Think polyester kerchief top, low-rise jeans, tragically chunky shoes.) After one cocktail in the standing-room-only space, Vincent and I called it a night.
The next morning, my friend Jill and I checked out Urth Caffé's new spot on Beverly Drive. As fans of the Melrose location's Spanish latte (with condensed milk and unbelievably strong espresso), we were relieved to see that the menu was the same. The crowd, however, could not have been more different.
On any given morning, the clientele at the Melrose Urth offers wilder fashions than most shows in Paris. The previous weekend, while sitting at an outdoor table on Melrose, I was treated to a delicious sighting of an unshaven Jake Gyllenhaal. Here on Beverly, our token celeb was James Cromwell, script in hand.
Heather John is a senior Style editor at Los Angeles Times Magazine.