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This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Every night at around 2 a.m., right after work, Dimitri Dimitrov wearily slumps into a banquette at the Sunset Tower Hotel and starts working on the next night’s seating list. With the Tower Bar’s reservation book on his lap, he moves L.A.’s A-list around the room as deftly as a master chessman: Up in front, the Oscar-nominated actress scores a prime table next to the billionaire tech guy; the deposed network president and the ingenue-of-the-minute get a less exalted spot closer to the back.
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With his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood’s hierarchy and quirky old-world manners, the Macedonia-born Dimitrov has become the dean of Hollywood’s gatekeepers — a tiny fraternity that stands guard at the city’s most exclusive restaurants and hotels. Part diplomats, part bouncers, part cruise directors, they are the front-line arbiters of Hollywood society, rewarding favored clients with a plum ringside perch while banishing the less fortunate to that table by the bathroom (after 10 p.m.). In a city where one’s seat is an all-too-public signifier of one’s status, Dimitrov and his brethren wield a power far beyond the grasp of mortal maitre d’s. But what do they dish about in private?
To find out what makes them tick, THR gathered five of the city’s most important gatekeepers at Blind Dragon in West Hollywood on Feb. 5 for a rare conversation. Besides Dimitrov, there’s Philip Pavel, the longtime managing director of Chateau Marmont who oversees the hotel’s constant carnival of movie people, musicians and celebutantes. Bruce Bozzi, the well-connected heir to The Palm restaurant empire, expertly juggles the crush of industry heavyweights who converge daily on his eatery’s new Beverly Hills outpost. At Thomas Keller‘s Bouchon, longtime manager Justin Williams is as deft at dealing with cranky stars and execs as he is with fanatic foodies. And Tim Geary, the founding membership director of Soho House in L.A., was instrumental in turning the club into the hottest meeting spot in the city. (He recently left to join NeueHouse, a hip work collective and private club for creative entrepreneurs that is opening this summer in Hollywood.)
As the guardians of Hollywood’s most exclusive establishments, your job requires you to take the measure of people every day. How do you decide who gets the best table and who gets turned away?
BRUCE BOZZI We all have regulars who we prioritize, but after that, you have to discriminate. You start with the fixtures, then you fill in the rest. It’s a science as well as an art. You’re constantly sizing up the chemistry and the temperature of the room. I like to throw in a few surprises — Hollywood’s newest hotshot or some legendary old studio head. The secret is in the recipe.
DIMITRI DIMITROV At Sunset Tower, I don’t even make a lot of the seating decisions. For regulars, there is kind of assigned seating — everyone knows his place. Cassandra Grey has her favorite table; Jerry Bruckheimer and Bryan Lourd sit in the same spot. But it’s good to mess it up. Tonight, for example, Nicolas Ghesquiere of Louis Vuitton will have our prime table — I’m placing him right in front.
Williams calls the shots at Thomas Keller’s hot spot Bouchon.
What if a regular wants that table?
DIMITROV Most likely, when they see who I’ve sat at their table, they will immediately understand. (Laughs.) You know, I am not a shallow man. The other night, Bryan Lourd said, “Dimitri, what is with you and celebrities?” And yes, we fall over them to make them happy. But we also have great doctors who come here all from Cedars — they are solving all kinds of diseases. Eric Schmidt comes in from Google. And Elon Musk, who is sending rockets to Mars. These people are geniuses. I worship them! But even serious people like celebrities. So I place the pretty actress in the middle to lighten their life. Everybody is happy!
PHILIP PAVEL It’s a balancing act. Lots of places cater to the most recognizable faces. But smart people know you can’t build a successful business on celebrities. You can’t disdain the normal people who are your bread and butter. You have to have some sort of elegance and moral compass. You don’t drop people as soon as they’re no longer hot because you never know when they’ll be back.
BOZZI It’s true. The doctors and lawyers may get less buzz, but they’re the key to our success. A few months ago, when I opened The Palm at its new location, many of our old clients walked around in a fog. They wandered in and tried out a bunch of different seats and tables. They had to adjust to the landscape. Nine weeks later, Brian Grazer has to have Table 43. Sherry Lansing prefers Booth 41. (I have a crush on her so she gets what she wants.) People made themselves at home. Tonight, Brian’s coming in with Les Moonves; last night it was Katzenberg. The tricky part is when they all descend at once.
DIMITROV Oh God, are you trying to make me jealous?!
BOZZI We’ve all had to listen to Dimitri brag for years now. Oh, John Goldwyn was in today! Angelina stopped by for drinks! (Laughter.) We also have great customers who have hit hard times because of bad decisions or terrorist acts, but they are still A-plus customers to us.
TIM GEARY Things at Soho House run a bit differently because all our members have been vetted by a committee before they walk through the door. There’s no first among equals, so you’d have the head of a network waiting irritably in the wings while the schlubby writer whose TV show he just rejected gets waltzed to a great table. That made a lot of people furious, including some folks mentioned here, but that was half the point.
Geary turned Soho House into L.A.’s most popular meeting place.
How much research do you do for this job? Are there things you read every day?
BOZZI You have to know what’s going on: who got nominated for what, who has a huge project coming up, who’s getting divorced or fired. So the trades are vital. Also the gossip magazines — I have a natural interest in that subject. (Laughs.)
PAVEL You also pick up a lot of information just living here. I moved to L.A. in 1991, and everyone I knew who was then a personal assistant is now running this town. I’m solid on the entertainment industry, but I work hard to keep up on the art world and the London social scene because those things are important to [Marmont owner] Andre Balazs. Since the hotel has this bohemian vibe, I have to cast my net a bit wider than just old-school Hollywood. I watch IFC to keep track of what actor or film director is coming up. They may not have real power or money yet, but I want their energy in the hotel.
The tech revolution has created a breed of moguls who are upending the Hollywood hierarchy. How are the Silicon Valley stars integrating with the old establishment?
GEARY It’s an awkward marriage. The Silicon Valley people don’t really frequent the traditional Hollywood places, but to a large degree the powerful individuals that dominated the old Hollywood are fading. The biggest stars today, the Kardashians of the world, are those who can effectively capture a huge audience. They don’t need a studio head or a superagent to reach their audience. Moving forward, the whole scene will be a lot more democratic. The most interesting rooms will be those where old and new will collide, where you’ll have a writer seated next to a celebrity next to an artist next to a YouTuber.
With all these egos stuffed in one room, there must be explosions. How do you handle bad behavior?
BOZZI You try to maintain a professional demeanor, but people don’t make it easy. Not long ago, I had words with this one gentleman — a guy who once had a big career. He arrived at The Palm 20 minutes early, so we asked him to wait for a table. You would have thought we punched him in the face! He started screaming at the manager with this horrific language and kept asking, “Do you know who I am?” Finally I said, “Listen, guy, no one’s starving on Canon Drive!” and kicked him out. He came in with Christopher Lambert, who was lovely. But the guy was just a monster!
DIMITROV People think I am always calm, but even I get angry four or five times a year. Even then I try to behave enchantingly. Some man will call me names, and I say, “Thank you, sir. Have a nice day, sir. Shall I call your car?” The next day a chauffeur with a present will arrive at my door. “I’m sorry!” It’s true. Their favorite thing to say is, “Do you know who I am?” And you want to say, “I do, and I don’t care.”
People still say that unironically?
BOZZI, PAVEL Oh yes!!!
JUSTIN WILLIAMS I hear “Do you know who I am?” at least five times a day.
Chateau Marmont’s Pavel is the major domo of Hollywood’s hippest hotel.
GEARY At Soho, the host would always say: “Can anyone help this gentleman? He seems to have forgotten his name!” (Laughter.)
How well do you know your regulars? Do you know if they’re furious with their boss or if they’re cheating?
BOZZI Sure. You do know things like that. Not because they tell you, but because you see them coming with a woman who’s not their wife.
PAVEL Wait. No skillful adulterer will bring his girlfriend to the same place he brings his wife!
BOZZI Oh, not true! That is not true.
GEARY That’s so not true. The brazenness with which married men bring successive women who aren’t their wives to the same place is astounding. I simply can’t understand the psychology of it.
Chateau obviously draws patrons of a higher moral caliber. (Laughter.) Have any of you been offered a bribe for information?
DIMITROV Yes, the tabloids are always asking, but I became so angry that now they don’t dare.
PAVEL It’s not always money, either. They’ll offer favors, dinners, that kind of thing. It’s relentless.
Do different agencies prefer different restaurants?
BOZZI I guess each agency has its own sort of hangout, but all of our places are pretty mixed. I love throwing them all together in a provocative way. Like yesterday, I put Tracey Jacobs of UTA on Table 15 and CAA’s Richard Lovett on Table 14 and waited for an explosion. (Laughs.)
DIMITROV Oh yes! Sometimes it is fun to be wicked! It is a little bit like being a director, this job. The customers are actors who have to be arranged. The other night, a gorgeous man came in with a beautiful model on a quiet date, so I gave them a table in a corner. But first they had to be punished because beauty must be displayed! Before dinner, I sat them at the bar where everyone could see them. And then I hid them away. It’s all creating magic and mood.
Is there a celebrity who makes the room with their presence?
DIMITROV Bill Murray. He is so rare, like an anti-celebrity. He just sits in his T-shirt like an ordinary man, and girls surround him for his autograph. He’s very flirty. Just magic! You definitely don’t hide him in a corner.
WILLIAMS Mike Myers is like that. He’ll be quiet and relaxed, and suddenly he’ll break out into Austin Powers or some character. He loves center stage. You put him there and let him do his thing.
What’s the most important attribute in a maitre d’?
WILLIAMS Being nice.
PAVEL Grace. Discretion.
BOZZI Enjoyment. A lot of people who work in restaurants hate it. So you wonder: “You’re obviously a sociopath. Why did you choose service as a career?”
GEARY If you break down the people who like this job, you’ll find an interesting mix of ego and humility. It’s fairly rare because if you have too much ego, you will start making decisions based on your own prejudices, and you’ll never last. But there’s definitely a showman aspect to the job.
What’s the most important ingredient in a hot restaurant? The crowd, the decor or the food?
GEARY L.A. is strange because the quality of the food here is extraordinarily high. There are so many great restaurants. But the people we’re talking about prefer to frequent places where the quality of the food isn’t as important as its predictability. They all need their chopped salad, and they need it with precise modifications.
WILLIAMS At Bouchon, it’s all about the food, but there’s also a Cheers aspect to this job, right? Whether you’re a nobody or a star, when you go to a restaurant or a bar three times a week, you want somebody to remember your name.
PAVEL See, you’re thinking Cheers, and I’m thinking it’s more like the court of the Sun King. Everyone’s walking around and checking to see if they’re still in favor.
Bozzi, the boyish heir to The Palm restaurant empire, guards the door at the restaurant’s clubby new Beverly Hills outpost.
What do people get most upset about? Getting an inferior table?
BOZZI That’s the biggest complaint. But if you let them abuse you and your staff, you’re not doing your job.
GEARY Absolutely right. It’s wonderfully satisfying to kick out a powerful person because they’re abusive to a staff member. One of the joys of a membership club is that if somebody is repeatedly nasty, you don’t renew their membership. I had a conversation recently with a very, very powerful agent whose membership was not renewed. He kept calling till he got me on the phone. He says: “Listen. I’m not an asshole. Just go and ask that waiter. He loves me.” I’m like, “I did speak to that waiter. He really doesn’t.” So he says: “Well, then talk to the manager. She likes me.” I told him: “I already spoke to her. She’s not a fan.” Finally there’s a long silence, and he says, “Well, I guess I am an asshole then.”
DIMITROV People think money can excuse everything. Foreigners especially. A few years ago, the restaurant is full, and a Saudi prince enters. I assign him a table for four. Sophia Loren is next to him. Tom Ford is on the other side. But the prince is furious. He is telling me that he wants the table next to his for his bodyguard. I said, “Sir, I can’t do that. Tom and Sophia also have their bodyguards. They’re sitting at the bar. Maybe your bodyguard can join them?!”
Dimitri, you’ve said this is the only job in the world that you’re qualified to do. Do you really believe that?
DIMITROV It’s obvious, no?
What would you do if you weren’t doing this?
DIMITROV I can’t think of anything. In three weeks, Bill Murray and Mitch Glazer are flying me to do a TV Christmas special [directed by Sofia Coppola], but I’m playing myself, not a character. This job is everything to me. I’m here till 2:30 in the morning. My job is to serve. Even when I see guests outside Tower Bar, my job is to make them feel important, bow to them, because that’s what they expect from me.
PAVEL Maybe I’d open a rehab. I figure I see all these people on their way down, it would be nice to see them on the way back up. (Laughs.)
WILLIAMS Restaurants also run in my family. I feel about them like Dimitri does. I started washing dishes in Sacramento when I was 13. Since then, my travels have taken me from Italy to New York, to L.A., to Napa. Thanks to Thomas Keller, I’ve gotten a first-rate education. I wake up in the morning and happily spend my waking hours at Bouchon. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
BOZZI To hear Dimitri say that just fills me up. But he represents a vanishing breed because people are looked down upon in the service business. But the truth is, everyone in this town is in the service business. If you’re a studio head or a superagent, you’re in the service business. The Palm is a family business that’s 89 years old, and I feel responsible for its survival. But I don’t know if it’s my life ambition. If there’s a second act for me, I think it would involve booze. (Laughs.)
What advice do you have for people who yearn for entree to your establishments?
GEARY Just be nice. And patient. At Soho House, one of the most important things we did was turn away some of Hollywood’s most powerful people because they were jerks. Explicitly, all of us pick favorites because of their character. If you are kind and polite and remotely accomplished, we’ll let you in or give you a table.
PAVEL It’s funny how many people still don’t understand that. They puff themselves up and throw attitude and bark orders. They don’t understand that the easiest way to get treated well is not to be a jerk.
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