L.A.’s Legendary Century Plaza Hotel is Reborn
By R. Daniel Foster
I’ve always loved traveling as far away from my home in Los Angeles as possible––to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, among other
spots. But 2022’s string of summer airline and travel meltdowns that later erupted with volcanic force during the holidays made me rethink.
What’s in my own Southern California backyard that I’ve overlooked?
I set my sights seven miles west to Century City, L.A.’s “city within a city,” and its march of skyscrapers and small business parks.
The area, about six miles east of Santa Monica, dates to the early 1960s when the 180-acre 20th Century Fox backlot was sold to make way for massive development.
Century City: A Cold Place
Century City always struck me as a bit cold––skyscrapers packed with bankers, attorneys and entertainment execs. But the quarter also has a certain studied glamour, which attracts me. There is (or was) some cultural polish––the famed Shubert Theatre opened in 1972; its premiere production was Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical, “Follies.”
The Shubert shared space with the original ABC Studios at the iconic address: 2000 Avenue of the Stars. The complex was demolished in 2002 to make way for a $400 million office building anchored by Creative Artists Agency.
But it was the property across the street that most epitomized Century City’s steely elegance––the Century Plaza Hotel as it was called during its heyday; it’s now become the Fairmont Century Plaza. During earlier decades the property was the premier destination for presidents and celebrities, along with such notable events as the Emmy and Grammy Awards. Now, some of that panache is returning.
Built in 1966, the property recently reopened after a five-year $2.5 billion renovation: a mixed-use development with two 44-story residential towers that now back the hotel like looming sentinels.
Minoru Yamasaki’s revolutionary design
The hotel’s original midcentury design––the essence of which has wisely been left untouched––was mastered by Minoru Yamasaki (1912–1986); the cognoscenti called his striking concave design “The Hotel of the Future.”
Yamasaki also designed New York’s World Trade Center, which opened in 1973. The architect, who pilloried the 1960s’ glass-rich skyscrapers (he called them “tasteless”), was forever guided by the idea of “beauty over function.”
That’s wholly evident in the Fairmont Century Plaza, perhaps even more so after extensive renovations.
The modernist 19-story structure graces Avenue of the Stars with its original eye-catching crescent shape, an invitation to enter, and even be to be embraced amid the march of cool glassy skyscrapers that surround it. At night, the balconies are illuminated a serious crimson, making for rows and rows of red rectangles strewn across the shape.
It’s a bold statement for the 400-room hotel. No wonder President Ronald Regan threw his birthday parties there, along with presidential inaugural bashes. During his two terms in office, the Century Plaza was known as the “Western White House.”
A star-studded property
Over the years, stars were drawn to the hotel like streaking comets plummeting to earth. Elton John staged a performance in a Century Plaza ballroom in 1978, and Sonny & Cher performed nightly, recording their first live album at the hotel in 1971; they also lived in the hotel for a time.
Paul McCartney joined Brian Wilson for a concert in 2002, ending their set with a duo, “Let it Be.”
When the hotel opened, it boasted cutting-edge luxury––central air and heating (advanced for its time), electric blankets, radios in nightstands, and ice machines. It was the first hotel in America to have color televisions in rooms.
No Radio in the Room
During a recent two-night stay, the radio on the nightstand had vanished, at least in my suite with its balcony overlooking 2000 Avenue of the Stars. Designed by Yabu Pushelberg, the rooms are fully modernized. The living room sofa converts to a double bed, which is a nice touch, although none of my friends crashed in my room after drinks in the lobby bar.
At around 670 square feet, the room had ample space. The decor was minimalist and no-nonsense with its beige and tan palette, which helped warm the space a bit.
During the renovation, the total number of rooms in the hotel was pared from 720 to 400, making for larger layouts.
Downstairs, upon driving up to the hotel, guests are greeted with a new centerpiece: Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s sculpture “Laura.”
At 23 feet tall, a head created from metal mesh rises from a pool of water like a sentry, or perhaps a totem. The work is lit at night, greeting drivers as they round the semi-circular drive.
Exiting one’s car, the revamped hotel presents a wholly new accessible street-level facade. Enormous retractable windows that tower to the ceiling open to reveal a lobby done in natural elements of wood, stone, and fire features that appear to float.
There’s also a green wall of plants near the zinc bar that helps complete the feeling of inviting the outside in.
What the Century Plaza staff had to say
As with all hotel experiences, I was most interested in what the staff could relay about the inner workings of the hotel, and any inside scoop they might have.
At lunch, I chatted up Lumière restaurant host Rachel Scala who worked at Century Plaza from 2010 until it shuttered for renovations in 2016. After working as a Food and Beverage manager for a Wolfgang Puck Express located at LAX airport, she returned to the Century Plaza.
She rightly deems herself the face of the restaurant. “Being in Century City, we get a nice mix,” said Scala who lives with her daughter Georgiana in West Los Angeles. “A bit of Hollywood and also people visiting from around the world.”
Lumière is the hotel’s French-inspired brasserie just off the lobby that endeavors to simulate 1920s Paris. The spot has a Bohemian polish that’s at once eclectic and inviting. The entry doors, which sweep open to penny tile flooring, were salvaged from a French chateau built several hundred years previous.
The Parisian brasserie host stand, which Scala commands, hails from early 20th-century Paris. There are other touches––the zinc bar was fabricated in France by the same atelier performing metal restoration at Versailles––but what fixated my attention was the antique patisserie case lined with croissants and pastries. I had some for breakfast one morning—highly recommend it.
But it was Lumière’s parties that I was most interested in––I had heard about them, especially a recent Netflix bash for a series release. “Ahh, I missed that one,” Scala told me, taking a break from her station. “I was here for the Critics Choice Awards party––the film ’King Richard’ was a big part of that.
The Williams sisters were here along with their family (the film is based on the story of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams). The main event was in the ballroom, and the after party was here, in Lumière.”
And what was the after-party like? “Oh, a carnival atmosphere,” Scala laughed. “Stands around for food and cabanas outside on the patio. The charcuterie station was very popular.”
The cafe’s outdoor patio, set with antique church steeples, is lined with magnolia trees and vined with jasmine and lavender.
A Dedicated Century Plaza Doorman
Christian Alcantara has worked as a Century Plaza front doorman since 2022, shortly after the hotel re-opened. “I’m a Beverly Hilton baby,” Alcantara told me, his friendly face topped with a signature fedora; he wore a pale violet short-sleeve shirt that hung loosely.
It was the more casual of two doorman outfits (the other includes a top hat), and it was optimal for a hot day in Los Angeles.
I sat with Alcantara, age 44, in the lobby; he occasionally glanced back to this station to make sure all was going smoothly. He explained that he had previously worked as a doorman for Beverly Hills’ Beverly Hilton hotel for a decade.
“I had my eye on this property since 2011,” said Alcantara who was born in Batangas City, Philippines. He now lives in L.A.’s Koreatown. “It’s just so famous. I knew people who worked here, and of course, knew the doormen here––we all know each other in this city. My friend Jack Milos had been a Century Plaza doorman for 45 years. Very energetic, full of life. He’s 75 now, but stronger than me!”
I had observed Alcantara chatting up guests during the day. He told me enjoys knowing about guests’ families, their hotel experience, and anything they want to discuss.
“I’m the first and the last person you’re going to see, and whether you’ve had a good or bad experience, I can turn that around in just a split second,” he said. “I like to engage with guests if they’re up for it.”
A stellar Presidential state dinner
After chatting up the staff, PR Director Daniel Harpaz gave me a tour. The 14,000 square foot spa was impressive. I was disappointed, however, that the Himalayan salt room and hammam were found only in the women’s spa, not the men’s.
The fitness center was extensive at 1,080 square feet, and craving workouts, I appreciated that it was open 24 hours. Machines are by Technogym. The hotel also delivers gym equipment directly to rooms. And there are a few Hypervolt percussion massage guns (by Hyperice) near the entrance should you need to work out a few kinks.
After Harpaz’s tour, I cooled off in the hotel’s rooftop pool with panoramic views of the Hollywood Hills and the Pacific Ocean. Poolside with a mojito, I studied some more on the hotel’s history.
Most notable amid the hotel’s extensive history is an event that was held on August 13, 1969. The first and only Presidential state dinner held outside of the White House––billed as “The Dinner of the Century”––was held at the Century Plaza.
President and Mrs. Nixon hosted the dinner to honor the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts. The bash was attended by 1,440 people, including more than 50 members of Congress and representatives from 83 foreign nations.
Dinner at Lumière
Later that night, I had dinner at Lumière with a friend. We tried fresh baguettes, delivered by La Tropézienne located nearby on La Brea Avenue. The bakery is deemed as having “the best croissants in L.A.” La Tropézienne was founded in France in 1992, and moved to Los Angeles in 2017.
The fluffy bread was served with delectable Beurre de Baratte, a high-end French butter so luscious that famed restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote a Los Angeles Times feature about it in 2014.
In truth, I was expecting Lumière’s offerings to be less than outstanding; hotel restaurants aren’t known for having notable cuisine. But Harpaz told me that during the hotel redesign, management decided to treat the hotel as a separate entity, apart from any hotel influence. That move included the initial hiring of chef Ramon Bojorquez, whose numerous credits include La Jolla’s Nine-Ten and The Marine Room.
Westfield Century City Outdoor Mall
When not enjoying the hotel’s amenities, I explored the neighborhood. Century City is adjacent to Beverly Hills, and it’s all very walkable. The Peninsula Beverly Hills is about a 15-minute stroll away, and Beverly Hills City Hall is less than two miles away. Built in 1932, the building is done in the distinctive California Churrigueresque style, a sort of fussy Rococo suffused with Baroque.
The Westfield Century City outdoor mall is right around the corner from the Fairmont Century Plaza. The place is vast, clocking in at 1.3 million square feet. The mall is anchored by an AMC multiplex, a Gelson’s supermarket, Nordstrom and Bloomingdales.
Westfield was born about the same time Century City was, in the early 1960s. In 2004, it underwent a $160 million renovation, and in 2015, it was radically expanded at a cost of $1 billion.
Eataly in Los Angeles
The latest additions, finished in 2017, include an Equinox fitness club and spa and the Italian marketplace Eataly, where I had dinner one night at La Pizza & La Pasta. The Westfield location is the West Coast’s first Eataly.
I took along some new luggage on my trip, a trial run of a carry-on case from the Ebby Rane line. I was interested in the Toronto-based company given that it’s the world’s only luggage firm founded and headed by a woman, Aynsley Wintrip Harris.
It’s also all-women staffed. I took chose the rolling Quartermaster case, a handsome piece trimmed in caramel-colored leather. It comes in black or white, the latter designed specifically for women.
The Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, 90067. 310-424-3030
Room prices range from $481 to $635, with variable add-ons, such as breakfast.
This story was written with the assistance of the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel; the opinions are the author’s own.
R. Daniel Foster is an award-winning filmmaker, documentarian, and writer whose essays and articles are regularly published in the Los Angeles Times. He specializes in world culture and image. www.rdanielfoster.com