Alphonzo Bell, an infamous oil mogul of the early 20th century, was a Los Angeles native with deep family roots in this fine city’s history. In 1923, Bell made an investment in approximately 25,000 acres of what now make up the hills of Bel Air. Bell had lofty goals for his new property. He began selling parcels for what he called “gentlemen estates” and promoted his new project, the Bel Air Estates, as “The Exclusive Residential Park of the West.” Estates ranged from $7,500- $30,000, but one required more than money to buy land in Bel Air. Bell was a religious man and he wanted to ensure his new utopia was held to the highest standards. Therefore, all potential new residents were subject to a strict application process, including referrals and letters of recommendation. One thing Bell was clear on is that no “movie people” were allowed, as he believed them to have questionable morals.
Unfortunately, Bell wasn’t able to keep the Hollywood elite out of his little utopia for long. With the opening of the Hotel Bel Air in the mid-1940s, the neighborhood became a hot spot for rock and movie stars alike. In the same decade, film moguls like Walt Disney began buying homes in neighboring communities, including Holmby Hills.
Today, Bel Air is still known to be a fairly exclusive place to live. As a mainly residential neighborhood, there are a select few local restaurants and bars. However, those that do exist and have stood the test of time tell the stories of the stars that have spent time within their walls.
Hotel Bel Air
In 1946, Alphonzo Bell sold the land that held his stables to a man named Joseph Drown, a Texan known for his work in the hotel business. Drown had ownership stakes in various high-class hotels across the country, including the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Unlike Bell, who had never intended Bel Air to become a celebrity hot spot, Drown envisioned his new hotel as the ideal getaway for the rich and famous, a protection of sorts from the hustle and bustle of city life. Well, Drown certainly got his wish. Frequent visitors to the hotel in the early years included Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart and Paul Newman to name a few. Hollywood starlets Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe both lived at the hotel for a time and would often spend their days walking the beautiful gardens. The hotel was refurbished a few years ago, but thankfully, the old-fashioned charms remain. One of the most iconic may be Swan Lake, which has been the backdrop for many weddings, including that of Farrah Fawcett, who was married there in 1973. In more recent days, the hotel has been home to the modern Hollywood elite, including Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Elton John and Russel Crowe. While brunch at the hotel’s Wolfgang Puck restaurant won’t put too large of a dent in your wallet, a stay in the newly refurbished Presidential Suite definitely will. In this 7,000 square foot room complete with a private pool and a chef’s kitchen with seating for 10, just one night will put you back $13,500. Better start saving now!
Hotel Bel Air: 701 Stone Canyon Rd., (310) 472-1211
Hotel Bel Air – Wolfgang PuckPhoto: Courtesy of Christopher Auyong/@gourmandentist
The Bar & Lounge at Hotel Bel Air
Part of why the Hotel Bel Air has become such a haven for celebrities is the anonymity offered. The suites are private and the staff is famous for their discretion, making the hotel a true getaway in the city of tabloids and paparazzi. As the story goes, once Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison were all staying at the hotel at the same time and not one of them was aware, all due to the staff’s silence. However, not every part of the hotel is meant to hide you from the world. In fact, The Bar & Lounge at Hotel Bel Air has always been the place to see and be seen, where everybody is somebody and you never know who may sit at the table next to you. The bar is exceptionally cozy, with leather chairs and a crackling fireplace. In the evenings, hotel guests and local visitors alike can listen to the grand piano play live as they sip on classic cocktails. Until the recent renovation in 2009, Antonio Castillo del la Gala had played piano in the bar for almost 12 years. Paul McCartney was a fan and often, during his visits at Hotel Bel Air, would sit and listen to Antonio’s renditions of Eleanor Rigby and other Beatles classics. Today, the bar holds a spectacular collection of Norman Seeff portraits featuring celebrities such as Cher, Tina Turner and Keith Richards. Perhaps the most wonderful about The Bar & Lounge, however, is the fact that, whether you’re a movie star, a guest or simply visiting for brunch, the staff is unwaveringly friendly and inviting, making you always feel at home in the midst of such glitz and glamour.
The Bar & Lounge at Hotel Bel Air: 701 Stone Canyon Rd., (310) 472-1211
Bel Air Foods
One might expect that with a name like Bel Air Foods, a trip to this local market in the hills would be an exceptionally glamorous experience. Instead, the vibe you get when visiting Bel Air Foods is more akin to a small town general store. Founded in 1952, this tiny neighborhood market prides itself on its unique, if sparse, collection of local, Southern California brands and suppliers. The signature deli, open Monday through Friday, makes gourmet salads and sandwiches from scratch each morning. Locals also know that a few days a week, chef Gabby makes fresh barbecue on the market’s outdoor grill. This little store hasn’t changed much since the early days — enjoying a freshly made sandwich on the picnic tables outside feels like a scene out of a 1950s family film. And if the decor isn’t enough to bring the feeling of a sleepy town, the fact that the store closes daily at 8 p.m. will.
Bel Air Foods: 2323 Roscomare Rd., (310) 472-5010
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Eliot
Bel Air Country Club
The Bel Air Country Club, founded and financed by Alphonzo Bell himself, is one of the oldest features of Bel Air. The club opened in 1925 and the golf course followed soon after in 1927. Throughout the years, the country club has remained exceptionally exclusive, with past members including the likes of Ronald Reagan, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Fred Astaire. The first female member was Brooke Knapp, the woman famous for a 50-hour, 22-minute flight around the world in 1983. More recently, members of the club have included Jack Nicholson, Luke Wilson, Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise. It isn’t hard to see how this club has kept its posh and private reputation with an initiation fee of over $150,000, not to mention the annual dues. For those who can’t afford the high price of membership, we will just have to wait and hope you’re invited to one of the dozens of weddings held at the club each year to get a glimpse inside this historic and iconic Los Angeles landmark.
Bel Air Country Club: 10768 Bellagio Rd., (310) 472-9563
Photo: Courtesy of @flavio_delcid via Instagram
Bel Air Bar & Grill
Bel Air Bar & Grill was first established in 1998, and while that may not seem especially old in the grand scheme of Los Angeles, for Bel Air, this was one of their first public, full service restaurants. Until then, locals had to leave the confines of their tight knit community to find options not in a hotel or country club. Located shouting distance from the famous Getty museum, for many years Bel Air Bar & Grill offered a free shuttle service, sending diners up to visit the collections after their meals. Susan Disney Lord, niece of Walt Disney, bought the restaurant in 2007, and five years later she renovated and expanded the popular local haunt, adding various touches of her famous family as she went. If you visit the restaurant today, you will find the walls lined with art by students of Cal Art College, which was founded by her father Roy Disney. The art changes often so you never know what you may see. Be sure to keep your eye out for some hidden Mickeys, a familiar sight for any true Disneyland fan.
Bel Air Bar & Grill: 662 N. Sepulveda Blvd., (310) 440-5544
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