The amber votive candles flickered with their usual sexy sophistication. As ever, the pillows on the beige suede banquettes had been perfectly plumped. A peek inside the reservation ledger revealed that nothing had changed about the clientele: studio moguls, fashion designers, literary agents, A-list movie stars.
But something was different about the famed Tower Bar on a recent visit.
Wait. Could it be? Was that … the former Condé Nast editor Gabé Doppelt, a publishing stalwart trusted by Anna Wintour and trained by Tina Brown, behind the hostess podium?
“Believe it, darling,” Ms. Doppelt, 58, told me in her precise South African accent, as she dispatched a waiter to tend to a troublesome table. “Magazines are over!”
“And we call it a maître d’,” she said, giving my arm a you-poor-thing pat. “We really must get you out more.”
For the past 13 years, ever since the Sunset Tower Hotel was painstakingly restored to its Art Deco glory, nobody has gotten a power table at its restaurant without going through one man: Dimitri Dimitrov, a Macedonian immigrant and career maître d’ who was once described in a New York Times profile as “so ostentatiously courteous it conjures up a Slavic geisha scripted by Mel Brooks.”
As Jeffrey Klein, the young hotelier behind the Sunset Tower said recently, “Dimitri is an institution.”
But the theatrical Mr. Dimitrov, 68, is moving on. Mr. Klein is turning a druggie, clothing-optional motel a few blocks away into a stylish private club called San Vicente Bungalows. He has asked Mr. Dimitrov to run the club, scheduled to open later this year.
And so Ms. Doppelt, with no prior experience in restaurants, is taking over at an expanded Tower Bar, after a three-decade career at publications like Vogue, Mademoiselle, W, The Daily Beast and Tatler.
“I remember saying to her, ‘Oh, my God. How did this happen? What are you doing?’” Ms. Brown said by telephone. “And her saying, ‘I’m done with magazines. I’m just done. It’s not what it was at all. It’s not interesting anymore.’”
Seating Stevie Wonder
Ms. Doppelt’s new career is certainly not dreary. At 6:45 p.m. on an August Monday, she was standing in a backless black Miu Miu dress near the check-in podium. All of a sudden, Michael Kors turned the corner and walked toward her with outstretched arms.
“Who says that chic doesn’t exist on our planet!” he said in a near shriek.
They hugged — Ms. Doppelt had met Mr. Kors multiple times when she was a fashion editor — and she guided his entourage to a prime corner table.
Channing Tatum arrived soon afterward, as did Stevie Wonder, who sat down at the piano and sang “Happy Birthday” to one of his sons.
Who can blame a former magazine queen for preferring such a scene? Ms. Brown has long moved on to conferences and books. Condé Nast is selling three of its 14 titles, including W. Joanna Coles quit on Aug. 6 as chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, which owns Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Marie Claire. Competing with Instagram for millennial eyeballs is a royal drag.
“I was really burned out,” said Ms. Doppelt, whose last media job was at The Daily Beast, under Ms. Brown, where she served as West Coast bureau chief. “We were posting something like 40 or 50 pieces a day, once you include photo galleries and video blogs. It was all about maintaining or increasing traffic. There just isn’t enough good stuff to keep up that pace, frankly.”
When she was laid off in 2013 — the same year Ms. Brown left the website, which had embarked on a disastrous marriage with Newsweek — Ms. Doppelt freelanced a bit. She then helped a friend, Grace Coddington, the creative director at large of Vogue, develop and market a perfume. Needing full-time work, Ms. Doppelt struggled to figure out what to do next.
“The idea of coming back to publishing was so horrific to me,” she said. “And then the phone rang, and it was Jeffrey. We’ve been friends forever. He sounded frantic — Jeffrey being Jeffrey. And he said, ‘Dimitri is leaving, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”
The changing of the Tower Bar guard amounts to an earthquake in the Los Angeles power dining scene, on par with the 1993 departure of Bernard Erpicum from Spago, or perhaps Craig Susser’s decampment from Dan Tana’s in 2011.
The more closely a restaurant is associated with one person, the harder it is to recast and move forward. In Mr. Dimitrov’s case, the entire Sunset Tower is associated with him; every time guests turn on the television sets in their rooms, the first thing that pops up is a welcome video starring a purring Mr. Dimitrov.
A new welcome video featuring Ms. Doppelt will take its place, and she may well develop her own cult following. But heat in Hollywood is ephemeral. A few scrunched-up celebrity noses — “Tower Bar just isn’t the same” — could send customers looking elsewhere for air kisses and $42 lobster Cobb salads.
Mr. Klein is also tinkering with the 81-room Sunset Tower at a moment when Hollywood administrations are changing, which can result in new migratory patterns for A-listers. Old movie studios like 20th Century Fox are fading as streaming giants like Amazon ascend.
At the same time, new boutique hotels will be competing for travelers’ dollars. The 105-room Kimpton La Peer opened earlier this year. In June the West Hollywood City Council approved a hospitality and shopping development called Robertson Lane. Coming soon: Edition, the high-end chain conceived by Marriott and Ian Schrager.
San Vicente Bungalows will also have a see-and-be-seen restaurant and nine hotel rooms. Mr. Dimitrov is already selling it hard. “I’m so excited to be trusted by Mr. Klein with the new project, which is going to be magically special, an oasis, amazing luxury, covered by every architectural magazine in the world,” he said in his over-the-top way.
Aware of the stakes, Mr. Klein has spent more than a year working on what he calls “Sunset Tower 2.0” — the smooth transition to Ms. Doppelt from Mr. Dimitrov; renovating the spa, gym, pool and guest rooms; and turning an underwhelming events space into a Tower Bar annex, complete with dark wood paneling, pink suede chairs and potted palm trees.
“It’s crucial to evolve,” he told me during a tour in May, when construction was still underway. “I won’t let the Sunset Tower become some old relic.” (The hotel’s co-owner is Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born billionaire.)
Just then, an interior designer, Lisa Koch, arrived with five swatches of puce-ish fabric to show Mr. Klein. She laid out the pieces on the floor, and he got down on his hands and knees to examine them.
“This one’s a little too bubble gummy,” he said, moving on to another. “I like this one, but the peony print has always bothered me,” he continued, looking up at Ms. Koch. “It’s just a tiny bit too bright.” It was decided that the peony would be reprinted 30 percent lighter.
“I’m just listening to the bones of the building,” Mr. Klein said, standing up and brushing dust off his blue trousers.
‘Spread the Attention’
Go ahead and roll your eyes. I did, right to his face. But longtime customers say that Mr. Klein’s instincts and obsessive attention to detail are what makes the Sunset Tower special. “With due respect to Dimitri, the only irreplaceable element of the Sunset Tower is Jeff Klein,” said Bruce B. Bozzi Jr., the executive vice president of the Palm Restaurant Group.
Mr. Bozzi, who is married to Bryan Lourd, the Creative Artists Agency kingpin, added that Mr. Klein’s decision to hire Ms. Doppelt was “a stroke of brilliance,” coming as women assert themselves in Hollywood as never before.
No less a tastemaker than Ms. Wintour appears to agree. Ms. Doppelt first worked for her at British Vogue in the late 1980s.
“Gabé’s superpower was knowing what was going on at all times — being in the middle of everything, seamlessly connecting everyone,” Ms. Wintour, who edits Vogue and serves as Condé Nast’s artistic director, wrote in an email. “As if by magic, everyone would somehow end up meeting exactly who they were supposed to.”
Indeed, Ms. Doppelt insisted her hairpin career turn was actually a lifetime in the making.
Her father owned a restaurant in Pretoria, South Africa, where she lived until 1974, when she moved to London to attend a “crammer” specialty school. (She dropped out and ended up getting a job as Ms. Brown’s assistant at Tatler in 1979.)
In Manhattan in the 1990s, around the time she took a break from magazines to help VH1 create its Fashion Awards, Ms. Doppelt lived in the Royalton Hotel for nine months. At that time, Brian McNally’s 44, located inside the Royalton, was a lunchtime hot spot with editors and fashionistas.
“I would often sit with Brian in the mornings and we would sort through the booth gridlock — Anna, Donna, Calvin,” Ms. Doppelt said.
Mr. Klein first approached her for the Tower Bar job in 2004. She accepted, planning to quit her job at W, but got cold feet at the last minute, according to both of them.
The job has been much harder than she expected. “Every boss I’ve ever worked for sweats the small stuff, and I had no idea how much small stuff goes into making Tower Bar run,” she said. “I thought I would just be walking around, chatting to my friends and making new ones.” Instead, Mr. Dimitrov started her out folding napkins and polishing silverware.
And her gabbing got her in trouble.
“I love Gabé, such a creative mind, but I had to tell her, ‘You cannot go on and on with one table,’” Mr. Dimitrov said. “You must spread the attention across the entire room. Short bursts.”
The hardest adjustment has been the physicality of the job, the diminutive Ms. Doppelt said. Her shift starts at about 5 p.m. and can stretch until 2 a.m.
“Working eight hours a day on your feet in four-inch heels — I beg of you to try it,” she said one night earlier this summer. “So I have developed a system. I start out in Prada flats. Then I move to four-inch Gucci heels. Then we go down an inch to Miu Miu heels. Then back to the Prada flats.”
In fact, it was time for a shoe change right then.
“I’ll be back in a minute to fluff my room,” she said. I gave her a puzzled look. “Like fluffing in porn, darling. Except not.”