stories from the road
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Elaine, the Road Sage

West Hollywood Weekend

(Filed from San Francisco, California at 11:49 a.m. on August 4, 1999)

Fen and I arrive in L.A. early Friday night.  We arrive in Hollywood, to be more precise.  I encourage Fen to take the Sunset Boulevard exit off Highway 101 so that I can see the billboards that line this fabled thoroughfare.  And quite the sign parade it is, glam gals and buff boys hawking everything from Tommy Hilfiger to DKNY.  Even Lucy and Ricky are plugging Apple.  We've chosen L.A. as the place to wrap up our month-long jaunt since it is, well, America on steroids.  If this isn't the place to find every little bit of wretched excess our hearts desire, I don't know what is.

Dinner on our first night in Tinseltown is at Diaghilev, the tony Russo-Franco dining room at the Hotel Bel Age.  Dmitri, the tuxedoed maitre 'd, greets us and whisks us past beautifully-clad diners to our table.

"Do you want to sit across or side by side?" Dmitri asks.

It's a good question, since the side-by-side option means that we'll get to sit close by on a silky, love-seat-like banquette.  We decide to rub elbows (with each other).

In short order, we are treated to a parade of waiters (they're all men) pouring water, bringing silver(ware) and bearing bread.  Our waiter, Ronaldo, appears next, and along with Dmitri places four cut-glass decanters on our table.

"We have four flavors of vodka here," Dmitri intones.  "Orange, lime, green peppercorn and tea.  Which would you like?"

I choose orange, while Fen picks the green peppercorn.  Fen's vodka tastes, at least to me, like the world's strongest tequila.  He slurps it all down.  I notice that the single red rose on our table is the longest rose I've ever seen.

Our first course, make that the chef's whim, is a dollop of salmon caviar perched on a skinny little pancake.  It's incredible.  I savor the flavors while I observe the room.  Diaghilev is tres elegant in an old world sort of way, taupe tones and low lights blending just so with the gilt-edged paintings that line the room.  A Russian czar might have lived here and he certainly would have dined here.  The many waiters all wear double-breasted, band-collared shirts like the one Omar Sharif wore in "Dr. Zhivago."  I'm sure the doctor would have eaten here, too.

An appetizer platter comes next, a procession of tastes tailored to tantalize my tastebuds.  It works.  The house-smoked salmon is perfection and the potato salad appears to be perfumed by eau de caviar.  Even the cabbage tastes fresh!  I skip the beet salad but Fen digs in.  Unfortunately, some of it winds up on our starched white tablecloth, leaving a tell-tale red stain.  I don't tell.  I do, however, tell Fen that I find it odd that most of the diners are considerably older than we are.  It's a question I pose to Dmitri.

"Ninety-nine percent of our customers are repeat customers," Dmitri tells me.  "They've been with us a long time and keep coming back."  I surmise that youth is more fickle.

Next up is the soup course.  Unable to decide, Fen and I decide to have both the hot (red) and cold (yellow) borscht.  The chilled borscht is wonderfully light while the hot broth is richer and intensely flavorful.  Fen manages to spill a few more drops of the red stuff on our tablecloth, which is starting to look like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Dmitri walks by just as I'm pointing out the painting to Fen.

"It's beautiful," Dmitri coos.  As if on cue, the piano/clarinet duo start in on "Strangers in the Night."  I know all the words, which I proceed to coo to Fen.

Next up, at least for me, is a visit to the ladies room.  I motion Ronaldo over and before I have a chance to say a word he whispers softly "I thought it was about that time."  He discreetly motions to a hostess at the far end of the room who proceeds to walk me to the loo.

Our entrees arrive as soon as I return.  I sample Fen's first, salmon with sturgeon mousse in a puff pastry.  The bite melts in my mouth.  The chicken Kiev placed in front of me is equally delectable.  We race through our plates in utter amazement -- this food is good.  Mission accomplished, Ronaldo swoops in and retrieves our plates.  His footman wipes away the few crumbs in our midst and lays an unfolded white napkin on Fen's side of the table.  It covers his art en rouge .

Dessert, on Ronaldo's recommendation, is a wild berry and rhubarb tart served with vanilla ice cream.  It's huge -- as in perfect.  I gasp in delight as I eat the last bite.

"Can I make you another one?" Ronaldo asks.

I ask Ronaldo a question of my own, that being who is behind the food at Diaghilev.  Turns out the chef if Andreas Nieto, a young Italian who's been at the restaurant for only two years.  I thought the chef had been perfecting these dishes for a lifetime.  Why everyone in L.A., both young and old, isn't talking up (and eating at) Diaghilev is a mystery to me.

Fen and I take the elevator seven floors up and retire to our room at the Bel Age.  Not quite up to the luxe level of Diaghilev, our room is nonetheless comfortable and spacious.  It actually reminds me of my mother's house thirty years ago.  For better or for worse, this retro chic won't last for long since the Bel Age is about to undergo a multi-million dollar renovation.  The best news, however, is that the renovation won't touch the multi-million dollar view of L.A. from our balcony.  Come to think of it, the view is priceless.

*     *     *     *     *

We wake up to bright light and hunger.  First order of business is breakfast at Nate 'n Al's in Beverly Hills, a five-minute ride away.

The hostess at this old-time deli takes our name and commands us to wait twenty minutes.  Fortunately, it's only fifteen before we're seated at a snug two-person booth.  The four-person booth right next to us is occupied by a family of four right out of Ozzie and Harriet, albeit more dysfunctional.  The boy whines about summer camp while the girl refuses to eat her eggs.  Mom and dad grimace.

"Are they for real?" I whisper to Fen.

"They're probably actors," he replies.

I order and egg and onion scramble while Fen chooses the corned beef hash.  We both ask for bagels and cream cheese.  A shift change takes place at the table next door, with the Oz-sters leaving in favor of an older gentleman and his younger (and good-looking) pal.  The new duo starts talking business in no time flat.

"Geez, Marty," the young fellow says.  "I'm shootin' a picture, I got writers, I'm makin' major money and I hate it!"  Marty seems oblivious to this complaint, since he's busy asking the waitress (no waiters here) about the lox.

"Your buddy, he's a shmuck," Marty says.  "He doesn't read anything, he doesn't know anything..."

A parade of guys stops by Marty's table to say hello.  He must be somebody.

My eggs are soft, just like I ordered them, and my bagel is lightly toasted, just like I wanted it.  I notice that Marty's pal has spread jelly all over his omelette.  We order a third cup of coffee and eventually pay the bill, then head over to Rodeo Drive, just to look.

Rodeo Drive is the heart of the Golden Triangle, that Beverly Hills shopping district which can make grown men cry.  Once they look at their American Express bill, that is.  The gang's all here, that's for sure:  I see Boss, Bijan, Hermes and Polo Ralph Lauren in one fell swoop.  That other ambassador of casual, Tommy Hilfiger, occupies nearly half a block at the far end of Rodeo.  I also spot Frette (European linens), Fogal (Euro hosiery) and La Perla, the best lingerie around.  A merry widow in La Perla's window catches Fen's eye.  I convince him that I should try it on.  Three hundred dollars later, it's mine -- make that his.

Walking over to the Museum of Television and Radio a block away, the scent of money is unmistakeable.  Truly.  Beverly Hills smells rich.

The Museum of Television and Radio is a "screening museum," which means that you can choose, and watch, any of the over 100,000 programs catalogued in the museum's vast library.  You even get your own private (well, sort of) screening room in which to view.  Unable to decide what to watch, and unwilling to spend hours doing so, Fen and I opt for a visit to the museum's gift shop, which is a treasure trove of TV videos.  We spot "I Spy," "That Girl" and "Bewitched."  "The Green Hornet."  "The Fugitive," with David Janssen sneering on the cover.  "The Beatles -- The First U.S. Visit."  I even see "Duel," my favorite TV movie of all time and the film which helped launch Steven Spielberg's career.  The one and only video I buy is "A Tribute to Charles Kuralt," the esteemed Mr. K being one of my heroes.

Exiting this TV hall of fame, Fen and I pop into the Coffee Bean a few doors down for some cool refreshment.  We notice that everyone here seems to be slurping some type of slurpee coffee drink.  Turns out the specialty of the house is ice-blended java so we order two #4's, the Decaf Ice-Blended Mocha.  We specify no whipped cream lest we receive a mountain of white fluff.  I pronounce our coffee beverages a 10.

Next on the agenda is a stroll along the Sunset Strip, which happens to be right outside our hotel.  I've chosen the Bel Age mainly for its chi-chi West Hollywood location and it certainly appears to be living up to the billing.  The mile of real estate adjacent to our place is chockablock with haute shops, trendy eateries and clubs-of-the-moment.  We cruise by The Whisky (think Jim Morrison), the Viper Room (the late River Phoenix's last stand) and 02, actor Woody Harrelson's hopelessly hip oxygen bar/cafe.  Book Soup winds up being my favorite, since the selection of books is unbeatable and the newsstand carries both British Elle and British Vogue.  At Sunset Plaza, a low-slung, outdoor mall a few blocks away, we see long-legged lasses shopping at Anna Sui and Herve Leger while older men sit at sidewalk cafes and ogle the endless parade.  Everyone is talking on a cell phone and no one seems to be eating their lunch.  Fen and I stop in at the Coffee Bean on Sunset and order two more #4's, no whip. 

Last stop of the afternoon is Melrose Avenue, where the boutiques are much edgier and the skirts considerably shorter.  Tattoos are also bigger and brighter here and piercings far outnumber Pradas.  At Gatto's Clothing Company, Fen finally finds a skirt which is short enough (and cheap enough -- a mere twelve bucks) to show off my shapely legs.  I pull the inch or so of fabric over my tush and hope that no one I know will see me.

Dinner on this evening is at Asia de Cuba, the table of the moment in West Hollywood.  Our concierge at the Bel Age must have done somersaults to get us a table and a mighty fine table it is, at the far end of the outdoor patio with a view of everyone inside and the L.A. skyline out.  I let Fen have the better chair.

Our waitress, Diane (there are both waiters and waitresses here), briefs us on the menu and tells us how things work:  we should order two appetizers, one entree and one side dish since everything is meant to be shared.  What Diane doesn't tell us is what a scene Asia de Cuba is but we quickly figure it out.  We see the most beautiful girls with guys.  Beautiful girls with girls.  Beautiful girls everywhere.  A sophisticated game of table-hopping seems to be going on wherein everyone shifts tables every fifteen minutes or so.  I'm certain that no one (save for us) will leave with the person they came with.

Fen and I sample our food and pronounce the ropa vieja of duck suitable.  The rest of the food is neither Asian nor Cuban, merely a mishmash of odd flavor combinations.  At Asia de Cuba, however, it hardly matters, since I'm sure Fen and I are the only ones eating our food.  After a while, even we don't seem to care, since the side show is truly mesmerizing.  We pay the check and sail away into the hazy L.A. night.

*     *     *     *     *

Sunday morning has us pining for the beach so we head west on Sunset Boulevard and straight for the Santa Monica pier.

The L.A. smog seems to be less of a factor along the area's beaches, which is yet another good reason for braving the traffic to get to the sea.  We inhale the fresh breeze as we stroll along Santa Monica's spacious boardwalk, pausing to admire the many bikers and bladers in our midst.  It's quite the scene.

On the drive home to San Francisco later in the day we do a bit of quick math:  roughly ten percent of our travel expenses during this month-long sojourn went toward lingerie while twenty percent of the tab was expended in L.A.  Unable to draw any conclusions from these statistics, we simply smile.  It was quite the ride.


© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California

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