Beloved host Dimitri Dimitrov spent 18 months training ex-magazine editor Gabé Doppelt to take over his perch. The duo, along with owner Jeff Klein, talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the seating strategy, his new hyper-exclusive private club San Vicente Bungalows and the real reason Vanity Fair's Oscar party moved out of the venue.
When Jeff Klein installed Dimitri Dimitrov as the maitre d’ of his new Tower Bar more than a decade ago, neither Dimitrov’s success nor the restaurant’s was assured.
A fixture at L.A. spots like L’Ermitage and Diaghilev, the Macedonia-born host was out of work when he went to see Klein at the Sunset Tower Hotel for a meeting engineered by their mutual friends Mitch Glazer and Tom Ford. “We made a very strange pair,” recalls Klein. “He was this polite, formal, Old World guy from Macedonia, and I was this manic gay kid from New York. But we immediately hit it off.” Though the restaurant struggled its first two years, Klein never wavered. “I bet on Dimitri," he said. “And my gamble paid off.”
Twelve years later, Tower Bar is Hollywood’s hottest restaurant, a clubby refuge for Jennifer Aniston, Steven Spielberg, Bret Easton Ellis and Elon Musk, and the soft-spoken 68-year-old host has become something of a star himself. For five nights a week, he has loomed over the lounge and dining room like a ringmaster, making sure his demanding guests are happy, gossiping brightly as he guides them to their tables. Not surprisingly, when Dimitrov announced his pending departure from Tower Bar 18 months ago, regulars reacted with genuine alarm. Starting in November, he’ll preside over the San Vicente Bungalows, the hyperexclusive private club that Klein is opening on the former site of a sketchy West Hollywood motel.
At first glance, Dimitrov’s replacement at Tower Bar seems an unlikely choice: Gabé (pronounced “Gabbi”) Doppelt is a well-connected Brit who has worked as a high-profile editor in London, New York and L.A., at glossy outlets including Tatler, Vogue, Mademoiselle, W and The Daily Beast. “I don’t even know how to boil water,” she says of her experience with restaurants.
After spending the past year and a half in a grueling apprenticeship under Dimitrov, Doppelt officially takes the reins as Sunset Tower maitre d’ on Oct. 16. Dimitrov starts at the San Vicente Bungalows a few days later. THR gathered the trio for one last conclave before the changing of the guard.
Dimitri, your last day approaches. Have people been coming in to say goodbye?
DIMITRI DIMOTROV Yes, so many people are coming in very emotional. They hug and kiss me. I tell them it's OK. I'm not passing away. Just moving a few blocks down the road. (Laughs.)
Gabé, how did a nice editor from New York end up in a place like this?
GABÉ DOPPELT Jeff and I have been friends for years. He tried to hire me when he first opened the Sunset Tower, but it didn’t work out. This particular adventure started five years ago when Jeff dragged me and Dimitri to see a property he was thinking of buying, the San Vicente Inn. He failed to mention that it was a gay bathhouse where clothing is strictly optional. (Laughter.) So when Dimitri and I sauntered in one lunchtime, we were presented with quite a sight. Horny, nude men everywhere, and a huge bowl of condoms as you check in. Poor Dimitri didn’t look up once!
DIMITROV It’s true, I looked only down!
San Vicente Inn was a notorious meth and sex motel. How did you come across it, Jeff?
JEFF KLEIN (Laughs.) Very innocently! I tried to buy it in 2008, when it first came up for sale. But my then-partner at [Sunset Tower] refused. He was straight, and the gay sex stuff freaked him out, I guess. We ended up passing on the property, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s a strange, serene oasis in the middle of the city, an incredible maze of beautiful gardens and little bungalows. I loved it, even though it was a real dump. For years, I kept calling the owner begging to buy it, and he’d always hang up on me. One day, he said yes.
You’ve often said that Dimitri was essential to Tower Bar’s success. Do you worry it will lose its magic without him?
KLEIN At first, maybe. When people heard that Dimitri was moving, they freaked out. “He’s such a fixture! Who can replace him?!” Nobody expected Gabé. But we gave people lots of time to prepare for Dimitri’s exit. I thought hard about the right replacement. I didn’t replace him with a young girl chewing gum! I’d watched Gabé as a customer, talking to tables, to people, being playful with them. The Tower Bar will be in good hands with her. Gabé has a different shtick than Dimitri. She brings a party to the restaurant — she’s naughty, gossipy and funny. Dimitri has this profound, old-fashioned sense of how to take care of guests. What’s been so neat is watching them the past year. It took a while for Dimitri to teach her the ropes, but she’s now ready to fly on her own.
Dimitri, presiding over Tower Bar would be the highlight of any career. Do you have any misgivings about leaving?
DIMITROV Not at all! I’m very excited. The moment I saw San Vicente Inn, as scandalous as it was, I saw its potential. Jeff is a genius. If he hadn’t asked me to go, I would have begged him to take me. People ask me, “What will you do, Dimitri, if San Vicente doesn’t make it?” But I do not think that way. It will be a great success. There is no failure in my vocabulary.
Gabé, going from editor to maitre d’, what’s been the hardest thing to adapt to in your new job?
DOPPELT The hardest thing was just learning the job. Before I got here, I thought that my only function was to seat people and chat. I had no idea about the many levels of operation a restaurant like this requires. I also didn’t expect the physical toll, not just exhaustion but actual pain. It’s no fun running and carrying things in spike heels! But the way Dimitri taught me was brilliant. He started so slowly. I spent weeks just learning how to properly place a tablecloth. On my first day, he told me to leave after an hour or two. It was all I could cope with. I realized early on that I could never be Dimitri, and if I try to be Dimitri, I would fail. I don’t have his layers of experience, his Macedonian charm. My biggest challenge was earning his trust.
What’s his syllabus like?
DOPPELT Dimitri stresses the basics: polishing silver, folding napkins, the nonglamorous stuff. On my second day, I came to him with the evening’s guest list and he just blew me off. “Irrelevant!” I didn’t glance at a guest list again for weeks. It took me that long to master the tablecloths.
DIMITROV People don’t realize that something as unremarkable as a tablecloth is a crucial element. If you can’t get that right, what makes you think that the steaks will come in the right temperature? If someone gets a dirty fork, no chef can repair that mistake! So I tell Gabé, take care of the foundation first and then you can gossip with the guests.
Gabé, are former media colleagues surprised when you hand them a menu?
DOPPELT Yes. (Laughs.) Some are very surprised. Every day those elevator doors open and out walks somebody from my past — from MTV or British Vogue or Tatler. L.A. is growing so rapidly, everybody in the world treks through this city and this hotel. But everyone realizes we are at a cultural turning point where certain industries are collapsing. I got very, very lucky. You need an angel, like Jeff, in your life.
At Tower Bar, you have a ringside seat to the most powerful people in L.A. Has the nature of Hollywood power changed since working here?
DIMITROV There are so many more circles of power now, not just Hollywood, but also fashion and business and art. I know someone has real power in L.A. when two different tables at Tower Bar are gossiping about them at the same time. Right now, it’s Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. In a few months, it will shift to somebody else.
KLEIN Actually, this isn’t an ideal time to be powerful. Powerful men must feel a bit queasy right now; they have a target on their back. Take Les Moonves. There were rumors about Les for over a year, but Dimitri and Gabé knew the hatchet was coming down weeks before Ronan Farrow did, because they constantly overhear stuff. They know far in advance which actor is going to land that big movie, or which studio head is about to lose his job. They are the best-informed people in town.
DOPPELT It’s one of the perks of working here. You walk past a table, get a whiff of an interesting conversation and mentally file it away.
Has #MeToo fallout affected the way people act?
DIMITROV Yes! There is a strange new energy I cannot pinpoint, but it’s definitely there. A certain timidness among some of our men!
Have you banned anyone because of scandal? Is Harvey Weinstein still welcome here?
DOPPELT Harvey is out on bail, dragging a ball and chain on his ankle, so I don’t imagine we’ll be facing that dilemma very soon.
KLEIN It’s tricky because we’re not a jury. Some of these people might actually be innocent. It’s my biggest fear, getting accused of something I didn’t do, which has happened to me in the past. Harvey is different because he’s now the poster boy of this movement. It would be far too disruptive if we seated him. But others are trickier. I don’t think it’s up to us to determine if Brett Ratner is guilty. Let the courts determine that.
DIMITROV I also feel conflict about Kevin Spacey. He was here on many occasions, and he’d often stay deep into the night. He was a dazzling man. He’s a great, funny mimic, he will perfectly imitate you or me or Sean Penn within a second. A great talent. I’m not defending him, but once a talent like that disappears, it’s hard not to feel a sadness.
What’s your policy on Donald Trump?
DIMITROV His daughter, Miss Tiffany, was just here!
KLEIN Trump used to come in with Steve Mnuchin before he was president. Again, it’s not our place to make political judgments, but the truth is, all political people are incredibly disruptive. Having a president in a restaurant is the worst! When Nancy Reagan dined here, the Secret Service would shut us down for hours looking for bombs. Then she’d waltz in with eight bodyguards, and you’d have to seat them at a prime table next to her. Of course, they don’t order a thing! (Laughs.)
I know you guys keep computerized notes on your regulars. Do you ever write, “Beware, this guy is a dick”?
DOPPELT I don’t think I’ve ever written, “This guy is a dick,” but we have ways of discreetly signaling that! (Laughs.)
DIMITROV But the notes are really not about people’s private life. It’s about their deepest wants and desires!
KLEIN “Don’t cook the chicken paillard one minute more than medium rare!”
DOPPELT “He’s alcoholic, so skip the wine list!”
“Keep him away from blond waiters!” (Laughter.)
KLEIN That happens, actually. But we always take the waiter’s side. A few years ago, one of our longtime customers tried to bribe a bartender to come home with him. We haven’t let him back since.
Gabé, have any of your editorial skills been transferable to your new career?
DOPPELT The choreography of a room is very similar to the choreography of a paginated magazine. It’s all about the mix. If somebody wants to be looked at, you know where to put them. You don’t want lots of all-female tables in a corner, you need to have some kind of sex appeal happening, same as you’d want in a magazine. It also helps that the guests and industries we serve are the same ones I used to cover. So I know what everyone is doing, where they are in their careers. I mean, it’s only polite to know that.
DIMITROV A major part of this job is keeping up with the guests. I try to see their movies and read their books. I read the trades and top magazines: Us Weekly, People, The Economist.
How much time do you spend on seating?
DIMITROV A lot! Before I arrive here, I am online. Throughout the day, I am on the phone several times to see what’s developing. Every night I take home the reservation book so I’m not surprised by who shows up the next day.
Are there any rules — do you seat rival agencies in separate corners of the room?
DIMITROV We certainly won’t seat them on top of each other. But no rules, more traditions. Like, two guys who are here to discuss business get a certain kind of table. Lovers we usually seat in the corners. When we get two gorgeous actresses, I display them in the middle of the room! Or Amal and George Clooney. If I have to choose between displaying or hiding big stars, I always prefer to display! (Laughs.)
KLEIN You develop a third sense. It’s counterintuitive. You don’t seat Steven Spielberg next to Jerry Bruckheimer, because that would bore both of them. But if you sit Spielberg next to the Rodarte sisters, they all have the most fabulous evening of their life. Spielberg goes home and tells his daughter, “Oh, I sat next to these strange sisters.” She’s like, “Dad, are you kidding? They’re the coolest fashionistas on this planet.” Then the Rodarte girls go home and tell their hipster friends about meeting Steve Spielberg. Everyone is happy!
DOPPELT Dimitri is a master at that kind of sorcery. I remember one night Barbara Davis arrived early and she was sitting in a corner booth, all on her own. Then Lee Daniels came in early for his dinner, too. So Dimitri seated him next to her. Mrs. Davis, dressed to the nines in her jewels and Adolfo, next to Lee Daniels in his sandals, sweats and T-shirt. It was so strange and funny. They got immersed in this intense conversation that everyone was dying to hear. I learned this from Dimitri early on.
What’s your idea of a perfect guest list?
DOPPELT You want an interesting combination. A socialite and a business leader. A studio head, an actor, an artist and a tech billionaire. My favorite night was when Tom Ford, Elon Musk and Sean Spicer were all in one room.
I know Elon Musk is a particular favorite of yours, Dimitri. Are you surprised at the public tumble he’s taken? Has he been behaving erratically at dinner?
DIMITROV Nothing surprises me these days! People are really out for blood, but Mr. Musk will be back on top. Let's face it: Elon Musk is not a conventional man. He can seem strange and eccentric sometimes like all those guys. But he is a very kind, quiet man and of course he is a genius. I don’t know many well-adjusted geniuses, do you?
If Kim Kardashian and Julia Roberts were battling for the same table, who would get it?
DIMITROV Julia Roberts is family, so she gets preference. She, Eric Roberts and Emma Roberts are always here. But Kim Kardashian was here last year.
KLEIN We are always keeping our eye out for the next big thing. Take Timothee Chalamet. Before Call Me by Your Name was released last year, Jerry Bruckheimer and his wife invited us to their home for a screening. Afterwards, I realized that I was seated with the star of the movie; I was sure he would be huge. At dinner, he happened to mention that he was staying at my hotel. On my way home, I called in to ask, “What room is that Chalamet kid in?” It was 506, the worst room in the hotel. I told them to pack his bags immediately and move him to the penthouse tonight. Now he’s a regular.
DIMITROV It’s not just celebrities we look after. It’s also agents and their assistants. I’m a student of the kids who are in the mailing room at places like CAA and WME. I closely follow their promotions and their ups and downs
KLEIN Dimitri and Gabé and I have been obsessed with Franklin Latt, a kid who used to be a junior assistant to Kevin Huvane. The day he got promoted to junior agent, he came here to celebrate. Now he brings his client Meryl Streep here for dinner.
Do any of you ever get starstruck?
DOPPELT Movie stars don’t faze me. But if [tennis player] Rafael Nadal walked in, I’m not sure I could control myself.
KLEIN I get starstruck by much less respectable people. B-list TV stars. Housewives!
DOPPELT The staff is continually amazed at who Jeff thinks of as a celebrity. (Laughter.)
KLEIN It’s true! Brad and Angelina came in one night, and the staff was hyperventilating: “Mr. Klein, come meet Brad and Angelina.” I’m like, please don’t bother me, Lisa Vanderpump is here! But afterwards, I’ll be driving home and realize, “My God, we shouldn’t even allow Lisa Vanderpump into the restaurant!” (Laughter.)
People say that Vanity Fair’s Oscar party put Sunset Tower on the map. Why did they move it?
KLEIN I can tell the truth now; I don’t think Graydon [Carter] will mind! It’s because that party went downhill. It used to be this intimate, hyper-exclusive event. They wouldn’t let advertisers in. But as the media market collapsed, Conde Nast corporate ordered Graydon to open it up. The party ballooned from 600 to 3,000 people, much more than we could fit here. They now sell tickets to the event. Apple sponsors it! It’s sad because they forced Graydon to turn his party into something he didn’t want it to be.
What’s the coolest event thrown here?
DIMITROV The Golden Globes party from CAA. No question.
DOPPELT It’s like high-grade cocaine!
KLEIN People say that Vanity Fair made us. But it was CAA. They endorsed this place before anybody did, they got their clients to stay with us, and they throw their unbelievable Globes party here, with the most famous people in the world tightly packed in one room. Vanity Fair had famous people, but mixed in with random people like Betsy Bloomingdale. The CAA party is so exclusive that some of their agents can’t get in!
Jeff, you’re handpicking 500 members of your new club. Are you prepared for blowback?
KLEIN It’s already started. It’s awful. But Dimitri and I have zero to do with it. There is an anonymous committee of 12 people: three each from the art world, tech, Hollywood and fashion. Their job is to determine those first 500 members, who get to invite another two people and so on. I have nothing to do with it. But people are already harassing me!
A version of this story appears in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.