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George Christy Talks About The Hotel Bel-Air, Wolfgang Puck And More!

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Welcome to the new Hotel Bel-Air, the onetime horse stable that Texan Joseph Drown converted into a paradisiacal estate with lush landscaping and deluxe suites and bungalows in 1946. An oasis amid the greenery along the twisting Stone Canyon Road, the hotel beckoned royals and the celebrated and nice folks as their getaway from the honking traffic of the city. During these past two years, it’s undergone major renovations, and opened this month with gala fanfare, with Wolfgang Puck launching his looked-forward-to Dining Room with an “eclectic French” menu, as the Website describes it. Wolfgang is serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, along with room service.

Where Wolfgang goes, so goes his partnering chef Lee Hefter. And where Wolfgang and Lee go, so does our Sherry Yard’s sweet table. If, by chance, those of you who wine and dine often in our town and don’t know who Lee and Sherry are, you have lost your mind.

Lee is there – wherever! — planning menus and cooking gloriously with maestro Wolfgang, the empire builder who’ll open a restaurant in London or Dallas with a wink of an eye, and Sherry’s the gifted pastry chef at Spago, whose dessert recipe books are overnight bestsellers. And, yes, wherever Wolfgang goes, count on his welcoming Tracey Spillane, a major domo within Wolfgang’s dining empire. If you’ve dined at Spago on occasion and don’t know who Tracey is, you, too, have lost your marbles.

To his generous credit, Wolfgang, through the decades, has embraced a fine and strong family of colleagues. They attend to his dining empire, which was launched with the original Spago on Horn Avenue in West Hollywood in 1982, and where we met and have best memories of Tom Kaplan, the original Spago manager. Tom is now based in Las Vegas, launching and overseeing Wolfgang’s successful properties thereabouts.

“So how do you find these wonderful people?” we asked Wolfgang during a visit to his Cut steakhouse in The Beverly Wilshire. “Somehow, we manage to seek them out,” he answered. “The trick, George, is keeping them!” May we also mention Wolfgang’s extraordinary administrative assistant Maggie Boone, who, like the others, is family-friendly. Calm and collected and invariably at the ready with the answers.

Our proud history with Wolfgang dates to 1982 at Spago, and that first week when he, with his winning boyish smile, and fashion-savvy designer wife Barbara Lazaroff opened the doors. Knowing he cooked at Maxim’s in Paris and at L’Oustau de Baumaniere at Les Bains de Provence, this was a special opening for Beverly Hills. Sizzle was in the air, and we were there.

Irresistible food. Innovative décor by designer Barbara. A nightscape view of the Sunset Strip fit for the movies. We wrote an entire column about this great addition to the scene in the Hollywood Reporter, mentioned the phone number in the first sentence, assuring our readers this was It.

It didn’t take a Ph.D. graduate to figure out Spago would be the hottest spot in town, with Wolfgang at the open kitchen and Nancy Silverton baking breads and preparing the sweets. She later created the infamous La Brea Bakery.

Yes, Spago was on fire. Not only good food but an exciting people-watching atmosphere. Not only did the locals flock for Wolfgang’s “California cuisine,” but scenesters arrived from abroad. As they do today at the Spago on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills that opened in 1997 after the original Spago closed. Happily for the world at large, Wolfgang has since opened Spagos hither and yon and then some. Spago, by the way, was named by award-winning composer Giorgio Moroder, translating as “string” in Italian. String? Giorgio swore it would bring good luck. It did.

How Wolfgang does it, and where he finds that rock-hard energy while multitasking remains a mystery. Yet he’s a dedicated family man, true to his Austrian family genes. Always there, driving his sons to school over the years. Sons Cameron and Byron with mother Barbara Lazaroff, and Olivier and Alexandre with mother Gelila Assefa Puck.

Invited we were the other evening to join the Ivy’s Lynn von Kersting and Richard Irving, daughter India and beau Mario Rivelli for dinner at the new Wolfgang Puck Dining Room at the Hotel Bel-Air. Lee Hefter, Tracey Spillane and Sherry were there, save for Wolfgang who was in Dallas. And, of course, there were other loyal Spago employees – Patty Stevens as the maitresse d’hotel, and Andre Godzhik, the dining room’s general manager.

The roasted kohlrabi-turnip soup with autumn vegetables with a tickle of horseradish ($14) nourished the soul on a chilly night. Ditto the organic Jidori chicken with its trimmings ($33), the Dover sole ($56), the loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass, $36), the Campbell Ranch Sonoma lamb with spices ($48). Great steaks at varied prices.

We joyously pigged out on Sherry Yard’s desserts, with the Ivy’s Richard Irving passing compliments. Sherry’s sweets ($14 each) included toasted almond cake with raspberry sorbet and red currants. Soufflé of huckleberries, blueberries, lemon gelato. The Concord of toasted cocoa meringue, chocolate cremeux and coffee milk glace.

The young staff is eager to please. Dining room tables are nicely spaced, the look overall is minimalist sleek. We did offer a polite suggestion that evening. The lighting from the clear glass filament bulbs on the walls requires re-thinking. Not flattering and a disservice to our lovely ladies, with Sherry Yard informing that the famed restaurant designer Adam Tihany is in agreement. Additionally, the lighting in the room is so low that the small font on the menus is difficult to read. Without flashlights.

About those long black chains dangling and covering the men’s room walls, we have one word: Why? The fabled Hotel Bel-Air lobby bar remains lively and crowded with the late-nighters.

For those born in Los Angeles and for those of us who came from elsewhere, the Hotel Bel-Air is an idyllic institution with its Spanish Colonial architecture. It’s among the Dorchester Group’s worldwide luxury properties owned by Hassani Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, which include The Beverly Hills Hotel.

While there are decorative changes at the hotel, the white-winged swans remain. Surrounded by the beautiful gardens, they float reverently alongside the water lilies in the serene pond, harboring elegant memories for Hotel Bel-Air friends of times gone by.

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