Hollywood’s Celebrity-Soaked Tower Bar Turns 10: A Dishy THR Oral History
Everyone from Maureen Dowd to Kevin Huvane recounts stories behind the beloved insiders' watering hole, where Tom Ford's distaste for "fat girls" spawned the town’s most famous maitre d', and Bill Murray iced Lance Armstrong ("it was karmic").
This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
If ever there was an instant classic, it’s the Tower Bar. Celebrating 10 years this month, the cozy (30 tables), wood-paneled restaurant inside West Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel — an art deco building dating to 1931 that Frank Sinatra and John Wayne once called home — has emerged as a key nexus for industry relationships in all of their permutations. George and Amal Clooney celebrated their first wedding anniversary there in September. Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall revealed their engagement at CAA’s Golden Globes party in January. And Katy Perry went public with new beau Orlando Bloom in February, at a birthday dinner for manager Aleen Keshishian also attended by Tower Bar regular Jennifer Aniston. While it built an international profile with its five-year stint as the site of Vanity Fair‘s Oscar party (and the Sunset Tower became the hotel of choice for many nominees), Hollywood considers it a “canteen,” says owner Jeff Klein. It doesn’t hurt that Klein’s husband is producer and entertainment scion John Goldwyn and that the restaurant’s clubby vibe captures the industry’s work-social zeitgeist (witness L.A.’s Soho House, NeueHouse and upcoming Arts Club). To celebrate Tower Bar’s first decade, Klein, revered maitre d’ Dmitri Dmitrov and two dozen power-player regulars reveal its origins and dish on snubs (Candace Bushnell is involved), imitation games (Mick Jagger approves of Andy Samberg’s moves) and more.
JEFF KLEIN: Nobody wanted to buy this hotel. It was like a bad Miami Vice set. They couldn’t give the building away. A Taiwanese investor bought it out of bankruptcy, and in 1986 it became the St. James Club. They spent what was like $60 million on this building. It was a private membership club like Soho House. The St. James people came from London. It was a little bit before its time with the private membership clubs. Whoopi Goldberg told me she was a member. You could buy a really nice house in Beverly Hills for a lot more money today. There are these awful Mohamed Hadid houses for $60 million. And [the ownership] couldn’t give it away for 18. By the way, when I say $18 million, I didn’t write a check. I borrowed about 80 percent of that.
PAUL FORTUNE, the hotel’s interior designer: I knew the building well from the ‘70s. My drug dealer lived there. It was really dumpy. You had to walk up 10 flights of stairs to get coke. It was redone as the Argyle, and it was horrifying. They had done sort of a late ‘70s, early ‘80s version of deco, which was really nasty.
KLEIN: I didn’t want something trendy. That’s not what I was feeling, because at the time it was the Mondrian and the Standard. This was 12 years ago. Those were hot and what everybody was talking about — with the DJs in the lobby. Everybody said, “You will go bankrupt unless you paint everything white and make it really trendy and hip.” I said, “But the building doesn’t call for that.” Bugsy Siegel lived in what is the Tower Bar today. He had this beautiful apartment. We found a picture of it with wood panels. So that’s how this wood paneling came in.
SHERRY LANSING, former Paramount chief: I remember Jeff saying to me when he was starting it, “I want the establishment, the people who have been around a long time. They are loyal customers.”
The space now occupied by Tower Bar once was home to Bugsy Siegel.
CORNELIA GUEST, author and actress: I think Jeff wanted to bring a little New York glamour to it. And New York was famous for Doubles and Le Club and El Morocco, with the little nooks and crannies, hidden yet seen. He wanted that, yet modern.
JOHN GOLDWYN, producer and Klein’s husband: [Publicist] Nadine Johnson once said to me that a good hotelier re-creates the experience they loved in their youth. And Jeff is a good boy from Park Avenue. He re-created the 21 Club.
LANSING: The paneling is so New York. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful room. I’d never seen anything quite like it in L.A. You felt enveloped when you were there. It felt like you were stepping back in time.
ALEX ISRAEL, artist: You feel like you’re on Hollywood’s chartered ship, a White Star or Cunard. It feels boatlike because of the deco and the wood and the gold trim.
ALLISON SHEARMUR, producer: As soon as it opened, those wooden panels, the fireplace, the soft suede cushions, the bar and everything about it had this warmth and kind of a feeling as if it had been there for decades. I always loved that there was a piano player in the bar. And it reminded me of the Carlyle, too. It just conjured up memories of my favorite places in New York.
KLEIN: It was not just the room. It was the uniforms I picked out. It was that old-school white jacket, crisp cream. Everybody at the time was wearing all black and T-shirts. Nobody had these white jackets. I had to get them custom-made because nobody wanted white jackets anymore. It was such a thing of the past. It’s funny: The uniform company now makes them again.
FORTUNE: We hung all these weird photographs of old loser wannabe stars on the walls. I remember there was an old store on Hollywood Boulevard that had all these 8-by-10s of old movie stars. I bought a whole box for a few hundred bucks, all these pictures of people who came to Hollywood 80 years ago, 100 years ago. They came to be a star, and then they never were. I stayed up one night and drank a bottle of Armagnac and put captions on them to make them silly.
KLEIN: What’s so cool is it’s everybody who never made it. Everywhere else has all these tacky pictures — you know, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. I don’t want that shit. I loved how you couldn’t recognize anybody.
LISA EISNER, photographer and jewelry designer: It feels like it’s an old ‘40s restaurant or bar. Like the Brown Derby — which by the way I never went to.
KLEIN: Tom Ford came up to me one night, and he said, “I love your restaurant. But if your hostess” — I only had hostesses at the time — “sits me next to another fat girl, I’m never going to come back.” I was looking at him like, “Are you kidding me?” He handed me a card that he’d already written Dmitri’s number on. He said, “Call this guy. He’ll be your maitre d’.” I went home to John. I was like, “You know what? I’m not friends with Tom Ford anymore. Who the f— does he think he is telling me how to run my hotel?” I actually was considering not hiring Dmitri just so that I wouldn’t have to grovel to Tom. It was the next night that Mitch [Glazer] separately brought Dmitri up, independent of that.
KELLY LYNCH actress: Mitch had introduced Tom to Dmitri at Diaghilev.
KLEIN: Diaghilev was this funny Russian caviar house [in the former Bel Age hotel, now the London].
DMITRI DMITROV, maitre d’: Diaghilev was a restaurant of elegance and quietness. Sean Penn would be there, Johnny Depp would be there. Tom Cruise, just A-listers and some others, but it was under the radar.
“The only thing that irritates me is that I can’t resist dessert, an ice cream with toppings,” says Meyer.
MITCH GLAZER, producer: Lynch’s husband Diaghilev was wacky-formal. It was Dmitri. When we were writing Scrooged in ’87, he would come over, “Mr. Mitch Glazer, Mr. [Richard] Donner, you need to meet Mr. Peter Coyote over at the bar.” There’d be Charlton Heston and some white rapper. And you’d walk past the bar, and it’d be Oliver Stone. For years we would go back and have dinner and bring everyone there, including Bill [Murray] and definitely Tom Ford. It was such a function of Dmitri’s personality. It was Russian-French with two harpists.
KLEIN: Diaghilev had closed, and people wouldn’t touch Dmitri with a 10-foot pole because a maitre d’ was a thing of the past. He was at L’Ermitage and they had, you know, 10 customers. They didn’t respect him; they didn’t understand him.
GLAZER: You know what I do when I’m depressed? I do something without agenda for someone. That’s what Bill Murray taught me. And I walk into L’Ermitage in the afternoon, and Dmitri looked so wrong in that tux. It broke my heart. Three days later I told Jeff about Dmitri.
DMITROV: [Klein] thought I would be glamorous. He didn’t know I don’t take vacations, I work 14 hours a day, last to leave. That’s unknown. I’m not the classic maitre d’, just at 11 o’clock goes home. No, no, no.
KLEIN: At first he used to fold everybody’s napkin when they got up. I’m like, “Don’t do that, stop.” He used to walk people to the restroom. “Don’t. We don’t need all that.” I don’t want to be fondled all over. I don’t want every five seconds people checking on me. “Is your seat comfortable?” Just leave me alone. There is a balance, and he finally got that, but at first it was not tuned.
MAUREEN DOWD, New York Times columnist: I’ve always wanted to go up into the screen, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, and be part of a ’30s or ’40s movie. Jeff re-created that ambiance, and he did it with the design and lighting and music but most importantly with Dmitri. I felt like he walked out of a Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movie, which always featured fantastic character actors in glamorous deco settings with sly humor and fantastic schemes.
GLAZER: From that moment on, Dmitri was in the room, so I had this vested interest in it working. We’d be there four times a week. Plenty of times it was empty.
KLEIN: It took us 18 months to two years to become a thing.
GLAZER: It was almost embarrassing. I didn’t know if Bel Air and Beverly Hills people would embrace it. I didn’t know what the audience was for it, in show-business terms. Just like Diaghilev, Kelly and I would relentlessly bring everyone there, from Tom Freston to Tom Ford.
KLEIN: Kevin Huvane made it his mission in the early days. I don’t know why, but thank God he did. He would recommend us to all his clients for dinner and for a hotel, and they would all stay here. And they still do to this day. I mean that’s why Sean Penn stayed here in the first place. It’s why Jennifer Aniston stayed here in the first place. And all of a sudden his office is calling and saying Julianne Moore is tired of her hotel, and now she’s here. John just said, “Stay the course. It’s going to work. When Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Ford and X, Y and Z love this place, I promise you, other people will love it.”
LAUREN ZALAZNICK, producer: I was chatting with Jeff one day, and he had very recently gotten together with John. John walks in, and we have a warm, incredible mini-reunion embrace because John Goldwyn was my Paramount executive on the original Zoolander movie when I was at VH1. I go, “Oh how weird. What are you doing here?” “Jeff Klein is my boyfriend is what.” And cut from that scene early on to me and my husband at Jeff and John’s wedding at the Tower.
COLLEEN CAMP, actress and awards-season hostess: John and I were married for 18 years. When I met Jeff, John and I had been divorced for two and a half years. It was very, very, very fresh. I think Jeff Klein is fantastic. I thought he had a tremendous amount of class, taste, a great sense of humor. When the Tower Bar opened 10 years ago, I brought in Kirstie Alley and Bob Balaban. And then I did a dinner for Alejandro Inarritu and Rinko Kikuchi from Babel. Charles Shyer and Frank Darabont were there. Over the years, I’ve utilized the Tower Bar for a lot of things, whether a book party for Leslie Zemeckis or a party for David O. Russell for American Hustle. I did a dinner for Lee Daniels there for Precious. I did a dinner for Lily Tomlin, which was really nice. Adam McKay and Jane Fonda and I threw it. I did a party for David O. Russell and Will Smith for Joy and Concussion. It was fun. I did it with the Bruckheimers. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.
KLEIN: Probably around year two, Candace Bushnell, who at the time was really celebrated because of Sex and the City, had her birthday party here. All of a sudden this woman walks in with a fur coat and sits down at a table near Candace. She had all this eye stuff on. And Candace comes over to my own table like, “You really should not let people from the Valley into your restaurant. You’re going to ruin yourself.” And I knew who the woman was. I just said, “Thank you for your advice.” She goes back to her table. Then Jeff Koons comes and sits at the table with this woman. Tom Ford comes, Lisa and Eric Eisner come, David Geffen comes, Karl Lagerfeld comes. It’s this incredible table. On the way out I said, “That’s Carine Roitfeld, you dumb bitch.” The chicest woman on Earth. It was before having smoky eyes was a thing — Carine Roitfeld always knows three years before.
KEVIN HUVANE, managing partner, CAA: This is what the Brown Derby or Chasen’s must have been like in its heyday. You walk in and feel like Bogart and Lombard were there.
“The food is kind of like the old Chasen’s, not formal at all,” says Harris. “But you’re not there for the haute cuisine.”
JACQUI GETTY, costume designer: When you run into someone, it’s someone you want to see.
JENNIFER MEYER, jewelry designer and wife of Tobey Maguire: It’s like the Cheers song: Everyone knows your name.
LIZ GOLDWYN, producer, author and Klein’s sister-in-law: It’s a very fancy Cheers. Unlike places that focus solely on Hollywood, there are people there from the art world, fashion, politics.
JOHN GOLDWYN: You’d see Casey Ribicoff having dinner with Nancy Reagan and at the next table Akiva Schaffer having dinner with Andy Samberg. A few tables over you’d see Maureen Dowd with Aaron Sorkin and at other tables would be Clive Davis and Chris Dodd.
DMITROV: Mick Jagger would be in one corner with Dave Stewart. Then the SNL kids would see he’s walking by to the bathroom and they’d start singing “Satisfaction.” He laughs. Those are moments.
DOWD: I’ve been there with Bill Maher, and we discuss our love lives. I’ve been there with Jon Favreau, President Obama‘s former speechwriter, and we discussed life after Obama. I’ve been there with Aaron Sorkin, and we talked about my magazine piece about the inequities for women in Hollywood. I’ve been there with Tim Robbins, and we discussed politics. I’ve been there with Scott Berg and Kevin McCormick, and we discussed Charles Lindbergh, Woodrow Wilson, Sally Field and James Franco.
KLEIN: In the early days, Sue Mengers would come. She would never get out of her house, but she would come here. Ed Limato would, too. A lot of places think they don’t want those old people, but I love them because I have the young people. Young people’s fantasy is that this is where they’re grown-ups. It’s very cool to have Nancy Reagan sitting next to Jennifer Lawrence.
DMITROV: Kate Mara, Emma Roberts — they see Betsy Bloomingdale and just respect her tremendously. Meanwhile, Betsy Bloomingdale just adores the young things around her. So that all works.
GRAYDON CARTER, Vanity Fair editor: You cannot beat the room. It radiates old Hollywood glamour and pulses with new Hollywood excitement. It looks as good today as it did a decade ago.
GLAZER: It has a warmth and a glow to it, with a combination of materials and lighting. It’s the kind of restaurant where someone sitting across from you says, “Gosh, you look great! You look young!” I brought Graydon there when it was still under construction. I’d called Jeff and told him Graydon was looking for a place to move the Oscar party, and we spent an hour there. He understood the glamour of it. It’s an alchemy. It’s a really difficult thing to describe and to pull off.
HUVANE: We chose the hotel for our Globes party because it’s private, and it’s intimate, and we didn’t want it to be in a ballroom.
KLEIN: I’ve said this to Kevin: The CAA Golden Globes party is really what molded us more than Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair was the party that introduced us to the middle-class woman in Minnesota because it got so much coverage. But the CAA Golden Globe party: It has no press, no photographs. It’s a real party. Rupert Murdoch walks in to it with Jerry Hall and tells everybody they’re engaged and then bumps into Leonardo DiCaprio, who drops his drink and says, “What the f—?” to Rupert Murdoch. I still can’t believe that this is my place.
BOB GREENBLATT, chairman, NBC Entertainment: I go there three or four nights a week. When you think about going someplace at the end of the day, it’s immediately the place I gravitate to. There’s no paparazzi. It’s like you’re going to your friend’s house for dinner, but everything’s taken care of. Or being in your own dream living room. I love that alcove right by the fireplace.
KAREN ROSENFELT, producer: Even though you don’t necessarily know the people at the table next to you, it’s got such a cozy, homey atmosphere, you feel like you’re dining among friends.
TRACEY JACOBS, co-head of talent and partner, UTA: It’s a great place to do business. Once they know you and you know them, it’s the next best thing to being at home.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN, director, producer and Lansing’s husband: When you come in, and you go straight back where the window curves, that’s our table.
LANSING: I’ve spent many a romantic Valentine’s Day with Billy there.
LYNCH: Mitch has a table, and apparently it also is Jennifer Aniston’s table. And she knows that. She’ll come over and say, “Only for you!”
KLEIN: This is why I worship Dmitri: The second that people start saying I want to sit in this area, he puts Johnny Depp on the opposite side of the room. He evens out the scale. The truth is, people like Johnny Depp never say, “I need to sit in a certain place.” Bryan Lourd doesn’t care. It’s the people below them. So when they see that Bryan Lourd’s on the other side of the room, they’re demanding the table on this side of the room, then all of a sudden it’ll be the other. There’s no Siberia.
“While you’re here in the dining room, it is never about me. It’s about you. I’d like you to have a good time, maybe more than you do,” says Dmitrov (right), photographed with Klein on Feb. 11 at Sunset Tower.
DMITROV: If you thought that this is Siberia, I will just seat the coolest people there. Suki Waterhouse here, John Mayer on the other side. Kevin Huvane wants the talent to be secluded. Other times, someone has a guest from Europe and they want to be seen and be in the mix.
ZALAZNICK: My favorite table is wherever Dmitri puts me. Usually it’s one of the corners in the first alcove.
MEYER: Dmitri makes you feel like he’s been waiting days for you to come. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. We all want to feel loved. He says, “We’ve been waiting for you!” Why would I ever go anywhere else?
JOHN GOLDWYN: Dmitri’s elevated sycophancy to statecraft.
DOWD: I love the way he makes you feel that he’s protecting everyone’s privacy while he simultaneously whispers dish about where the sparklies are so you understand how special you are to be in such a starry firmament. He’s a more astute diplomat than John Kerry. He should be negotiating with the Iranians.
EISNER: He’s from central casting. He always says, “We missed you, there were so many people last night,” sort of drops a few names.
LYNN HARRIS, producer: He’s as delighted to see one of his regular clientele as he is to see a movie star. What he cares about is loyalty and consistency and kindness.
JACOBS: He looks like he knows every secret that’s ever been told.
LYNCH: You try to say “thank you” after Dmitri, and it’s impossible. It’s like a party game. It’s like a staring contest. You won’t win.
CHRISTINE VACHON, producer: When Dmitri is doing his thing, he’s making sure everybody is comfortable but also making some really fascinating introductions. He’s sat me down at a table with Anjelica Huston or Julie Taymor.
LYNCH: Not all of the meetings work out. But they’re always interesting. Dmitri’s a cycling fan, and Lance [Armstrong] was a huge guest. He’d broken up with Sheryl [Crow] around the time she’d been diagnosed with cancer, which I thought was a character-assessing moment. Years later, Dmitri came over with Lance, and Bill [Murray], who was at our table, made that gesture with his fingers to just turn around. We didn’t speak about it and went on with our dinner. It was karmic because when Bill Murray doesn’t like you, it’s like a dolphin that doesn’t want to swim with you.
KLEIN: I say it’s like a diner for rich people. It’s a bit of a clubhouse, and the food reflects that. I never wanted something where people had to think too much about what they’re eating. Really simple and really clean and easy. The people here have had a really hard day at work and they may have had a movie star pull out on them. They don’t want to deal with, like, you know, “Oh, f—, am I going to have snails in, you know, whatever?”
GETTY: You can eat something light and clean but yet there’s something comforting, too — macaroni and cheese. You know it’s got the best macaroni and best cheese.
STEVE TISCH, producer and owner of the NFL’s New York Giants: I like the simplicity of the menu. A couple nights ago, I had, and this is going to sound not very exciting, I had a fantastic bowl of turkey chili.
DMITROV: Mr. Klein told me, “Tower Bar will be comfort food, food where there needs no explaining. But we will never give up on the kitchen! We will make sure that everything is done perfectly right.” We have some of the best organic farm produce delivered to us, but we don’t promote it, we don’t talk about it.
HARRIS: You feel like you are Jeff’s friend. You feel like he invited you for dinner. It’s his great skill set.
DOWD: It’s like they’ve created a time capsule of what Hollywood once was and should be and never will be again. But what a shrine!
KLEIN: I’ve been asked to do Tower Bar elsewhere, twice in Dubai. I could probably retire if I accepted that deal. Once you start doing that, you poke at the integrity of the place. This is an authentic, honest place. It would feel like I’m selling out a best friend.