F.or someone who never normally smokes or drinks whiskey, I’m doing well to pretend to be a Cuban cigarillo connoisseur at a Beverly Hills speakeasy on a balmy Friday night.
It’s easy to play make-believe in this city within a city; the perfectly landscaped streets are film-ready and even the police look like actors. (My brother is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department and argues that everyone in its Beverly Hills counterpart is a pretender, but that’s another story.)
The whiskey bar is secreted away within the Maybourne Beverly Hills hotel, one of only a handful of places in Beverly Hills where you’re allowed to light up. I’m with two expat friends at the table where Kenneth Branagh celebrated winning his first Oscar – best original screenplay for Belfast – a few weeks earlier. Curtains divide each of the seating areas – all the better for bad behavior. “If I repeated some of the things I saw then I’d get fired on the spot,” says our waiter, delivering a flight of whiskies – I’m losing track, but one is Irish, one is Scottish, one was kept in champagne barrels and one is, er, Californian?
Downtown Los Angeles, which is a short distance from the hotel
GETTY IMAGES / DUTCHERAERIALS
Our spot of the speakeasy was apparently Harvey Weinstein’s favorite when this hotel was still the Montage Beverly Hills. Thankfully, everything has now changed: Weinstein is in far less comfortable surroundings, and the hotel has been completely renovated (“including new sofas”, the waiter assures us) and now has the Maybourne Hotel Group as owners, as have Claridge’s, the Connaught and the Berkeley in London.
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The breakfast tea is the best I’ve had in Americaand the interiors – hats off to the Irish London-based designer Bryan O’Sullivan – cast guests into the home of an uber-tasteful Hollywood bigwig with a seemingly limitless budget for scented candles, coffee-table books and flowers.
Los Angeles has plenty of iconic hotels – the Beverly Hills Hotel, Hotel Bel-Air, the Beverly Wilshire – but the Maybourne is the new kid on the block, and it’s a great block too: Rodeo Drive is a two-minute walk around the corner. The designer stores all have their doors open, blasting icy waves of air conditioning into the 35C heat; everyone seems to be in monster-sized cars with idling engines or clutching iced coffees in plastic cups – Greta, Beverly Hills needs you ready.
Far more interesting than Rodeo Drive are the nearby residential streets, which have a wonderful mishmash of architecture – Spanish colonial, modernist, art deco and faux Tudor – and impressive front gardens full of roses, cacti or bougainvillea (or all three). On Roxbury Drive, one of the swankiest addresses, there’s a woman dressed as Jessica Rabbit who is posing for photographers and has a large lizard on a lead. Elsewhere a dog-grooming van is moving between the mansions’ driveways. I also find myself on the street where, 18 months earlier, I’d interviewed Paris Hilton then suddenly needed a pee after leaving her home; too embarrassed to go back, I crouched behind a palm tree as a Ferrari whizzed past.
Walking around Beverly Hills, it feels as though this wonderfully silly city is sometimes laughing at itself too. For example, on one street there’s an avocado toast bar next to a hole- in-the-wall cupcake dispenser, next to a psychic’s parlor next to an eyelash-extension “studio”. A sandwich board outside one bar reads “Bagels, Beer, Botox – we sell 2 out of the 3”.
Less than an hour’s walk from the Maybourne – you can walk around sections of Los Angeles if you’re prepared to put the steps in (I topped 27,000 on one day) – is the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, aka the Oscars Museum, designed by the starchitect Renzo Piano and opened last September after years of delays and problems. There is a hiccup when I visit too – there’s no working wi-fi, so the gift shop and the Oscars Experience are out of action.
The latter, which costs £ 12 on top of the £ 20 entrance fee, allows visitors to pose on a fake stage while holding a real Oscar statuette in front of a digital cheering audience. A 14-second video of this is sent to you so you can post it on social media (naturally). Despite it being temporarily closed, I persuade an employee to sneak me in, let me hold the Oscar and give my best actress acceptance speech. “I want to thank Ryan Gosling, my co-star. . . “
Unsurprisingly the props in the museum are world class: ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; some nunchaku used by Bruce Lee; Leonardo DiCaprio’s prosthetic chest covered in bear “wounds” from The Revenant. Bruce, the only surviving fiberglass shark from Jaws, hangs in the lobby, and the fashion is a treat – Cher’s Oscar headdress outfit from 1986; Emma Stone’s dress from La La Land (2016); Marilyn Monroe’s costume from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Walk across the Barbra Streisand Bridge for views of the city and the Hollywood sign.
At Fanny’s – the museum restaurant, named after the comedian Fanny Brice, played by Streisand in Funny Girl – the cocktails pay tribute to this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture. The waitress recommends a King Richard, a blend of dry vermouth, gentian amaro, lime and shiso granita (explainers on a postcard please), honoring the film for which Will Smith won his best actor award after slapping Chris Rock. “Unfortunately a lot of people are now reluctant to order it, but it’s really good,” she says.
I head back to the hotel – via a walk along West 3rd Street and a visit to OK, a brilliant homeware shop – with a list of films to watch: Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves; Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises; Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver.
See Dorothy’s slippers at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
JOSHUA WHITE / JWPICTURES / ACADEMY MUSEUM FOUNDATION
March the streets of LA and you’ll always discover things that you didn’t know existed. For me, on this visit, it was platform-heeled Crocs, chewable “gummies” to boost your libido and Bunda, a gym chain dedicated solely to getting a bigger bum.
Tearing myself away from the Maybourne’s rooftop pool, I drive half an hour west to Venice Beach. After the pampered luxuries of Beverly Hills, I soak up this neighborhood’s rougher edges: the street art; ripped bros at Muscle Beach; the crystal healers and hawkers, selling tat and “Puck Futin” hoodies. The Venice canals – part of a mad plan hatched by the developer Abbot Kinney, who wanted to transport Italy to America – provide a quiet respite. Stop for lunch at the scenesters’ favorites – Great White or Gjelina – then hire a bike, Rollerblades, a scooter or, if you must, a Segway and travel north along the beach boardwalk to the fairground at Santa Monica Pier. In Los Angeles you can dip into all sorts of fantasy lands.
Laura Pullman was a guest of Maybourne Beverly Hills, which has room-only doubles from £ 998 (maybournebeverlyhills.com). Fly to Los Angeles