Beverly Hills was always a place that existed more in my imagination than in any real way, and in this I am not alone. With so many televisual references filling our psyches – from Mr. Brady's office to 90210 – it's often hard to see the forest for the pop-culture trees. And while the actual Hollywood can seem a little down at the heels, it's Beverly Hills that's home to the real glamour associated with the "H" word.
So when a last-minute invitation to an anniversary gala in Beverly Hills came my way, I decided a proper visit was in order.
For a non-driver who finds Los Angeles daunting in its sprawling splendour, Beverly Hills proved a perfect fit. It's essentially a small town for the wealthy, a luxury village (twinned with Cannes) with a surprisingly intimate feel.
My visit began, appropriately, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Known as the "pink palace," the resort-like property, currently celebrating its centennial, began life as a bean field, before becoming the epicentre of Hollywood glam. While still channelling the ghosts of screen legends Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Norma Shearer, and boasting the bungalow where Marilyn Monroe romanced Yves Montand, the hotel remains the place to see and be seen.
As I stumbled up the entranceway in a slightly jet-lagged stupor, I spotted Warren Beatty, and caught myself gawking. I played it cool an hour later when I walked past Julia Louis-Dreyfus, taking a meeting in a booth at the legendary Polo Lounge (celebs mainly come for the power lunches or breakfasts, while the evening crowd is a bit more subdued).
But Ms. Dreyfus, dressed in an elegant black business suit, took a long look at me. Initially I was flattered – until I caught my reflection and realized my Vancouver boho chic ensemble of orthopedic black biker boots, yoga pants and a striped top needed an immediate upgrade.
The next day's task was to render myself gala-worthy in a few short hours. Thanks to a tip from some young Canadian actresses hanging at the famous hotel pool, I found the wonderful Beverly Hills Nail Design, an emporium of all things mani-pedi, and a favourite with locals and celebs alike. A walk-in costs a mere $36, and additional massage at $1 a minute.
Lacking the budget of Julia Roberts's character in Pretty Woman, I avoided Rodeo Drive, but found a plethora of charming boutiques – including Philippe Derey (philippederey.com), where I managed to score a $99 gown in David Hockney-esque 1970s technicolour for that night's gala.
The next day, I took in the Paley Center for Media on North Beverly Drive. Housed in a gorgeous Richard Meier-designed building, the Center is shrine to all things televisual. Highlights include the diner booth from Seinfeld, a Gen X-nostalgic collection of cartoon lunch boxes, and a sing-along TV theme area. The whole experience reminded me of how far-reaching American pop culture can be – especially for my generation of latch-key Canadian kids weaned on the boob tube.
Sometimes though, as the centre director reminded me, humour doesn't translate so well. Case in point: Everybody Loves Raymond bombed in Russia, until they changed the character Robert's profession from policeman to something more culturally benign. Programming at the centre also includes evening screenings (that night's was a documentary about Johnny Carson, with legendary comedians and ex-wives in attendance).
I walked to the nearby Grill on the Alley to meet a friend for lunch (there's a network of back alleys in Beverly Hills where much of the insider action takes place) and ended up bumping into Larry David. No longer able to play it cool, I chatted with him about my favourite episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but when I reached into my downsized-for-chic little purse, I realized I had no business cards. I scrawled my name and temporary 310 mobile number on a napkin and said, "call me."
What can I say? I left my heart in Beverly Hills, and I'm keeping that number artificially alive until Larry calls me, or until my next visit – whichever comes first.
The Insider: An art-collecting sheriff
Richard Silverman, an 80-year-old art collector and volunteer West Hollywood sheriff who was friends with Leonard Bernstein, has been in Beverly Hills for nearly three decades.
"I'm afraid I don't do mornings – but if I did I'd go to Nate and Al's for the corn rye toast. George Burns used to eat breakfast there every day.
"For lunch the Polo Lounge and the Grill are classics, but I like to go to Ed's Coffee Shop on Robertson in West Hollywood for their homemade soups and burgers – it's an institution and a favourite for architects and designers. The Beverly Wilshire hotel coffee shop is great, and they change their menu every week.
"Wolfgang Puck's The Cut – also at the hotel – has the most incredible Kobe steak and is a good choice for dinner. But the Ivy in West Hollywood is the place to go for dinner if you want to watch cat fights between the Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan sets.
"I wouldn't be caught dead going into a gallery on Rodeo Drive – they're a bunch of overpriced phonies – but the jewellery's the thing. I love the Bulgari store. It's even better than Tiffany's. Beverly Hills has great public art and some fabulous architecture – like the city hall, which is across from the new Annenberg arts centre (under construction).
"It's one of America's best planned and maintained cities, but people still drive too much – and the old joke about the only people walking being the maids and the gardeners is still somewhat true – but it's starting to change."
The bohemian heart of Beverly Hills
The entire 400 block of North Beverly Drive is the bohemian heart of Beverly Hills – full of long-term tenants from before the days of sky-high retail rents.
Beside the Paley Center for Media is the incredible Cheese Store of Beverly Hills (cheesestorebh.com) – complete with regular wine and cheese tastings, a secret loft/late night rock legend recording studio upstairs, and a private room off the back alley for special musical tasting sessions.
The upstairs neighbour, an opera-singing custom bookbinder, presides over the Beverly Hills Bookbinding Service (beverlyhillsbookbinding.com) and is known for his impromptu arias.
Next door is the Organic Pharmacy (theorganicpharmacy.com), which offers everything from facials to homeopathic prescriptions. Across the street is the legendary Nate 'n Al's deli (natenal.com), which has been serving the same delicious Reuben sandwiches since 1945.
Nearby M Café offers vegan delights, while a few blocks south the Persian eatery Aram (aram-restaurant.com) offers delectable cuisine. (Half the people I met in Beverly Hills were either Iranian or Israeli, which leads me to believe that in addition to being a great foodie centre, the city could also hold the key to world peace.)
For a day out, the Greystone Mansion and Park (greystonemansion.org) is a worthy excursion and pairs nicely with a post-outing cocktail at Marilyn Monroe's one-time abode, the always elegant Avalon Hotel (avalonbeverlyhills.com).
For some modernist classics, check out the art and architecture walking tour of Beverly Hills (lovebeverlyhills.com) and the much anticipated new book Over the Top (trousdale-overthetop.com), about the fabulous midcentury glam of Trousdale Estates.
For good old unabashed luxury, the Peninsula Hotel is a must. Take high tea in the lobby and sip Earl Grey under bohemian chandeliers, or get a gemstone treatment at the spa and lounge poolside on the roof deck post massage, with the intoxicating aroma of diamond body oil on your skin. After all these years, they still are a girl's best friend.