The bartender gracefully slides a crisp menu under my nose. I scan the cocktails, most of which tout ingredients that make my head loll slightly to one side. Dimmi? Dolin Dry? Lillet? Linie? I feel a little uninformed and ill-prepared to order a drink, but I try to act cool because that’s what you do at this sort of place. On the periphery of my vision, I see the bartender unleash a stream of beer in a glass, serve it to a customer, then casually meander from one end of the bar to the other, presumably waiting for me to wag my tail when something strikes my fancy. For a second there, I’m tempted to order a gimlet, which isn’t even on the menu. Don’t be that person, I scold myself. Just try something new. There’s no wrong drink, I remember reading somewhere. There might just be a better one.
“I’ll take the Cherry Red Bici….” I trail off, my voice dropping an octave.
“Bicicleta,” the bartender lends a helping hand. He nods, with a smile and a look that can only mean: coming right up.
I’m sitting cross-legged by the circular bar on the ground floor of newcomer Santa Monica Proper, a 271-room luxury lifestyle hotel that occupies two buildings side-by-side buildings in the city. One, a 1920’s Spanish Colonial Revival structure, and the other, a contemporary dwelling facing 7th street. From my high-top, padded-leather perch, I read the space. First, from left to right. Then, like in my second language, Arabic, from right to left. This is celebrity designer Kelly Wearstler’s playground, a place where she let her imagination run amok. (But, you know, with taste and in the best way possible).
The place is painted in a sandy, neutral palette, with brushwork that oscillates between loose and fluid, and tight and broken. Here, Wearstler performs some audacious experiments in form and texture, mixing patterns and peppering the space with indoor palm trees. And really, why wouldn’t she? There’s so much space—a wealth of it. There’s enough breathing room for every design element to exist—no, to live, thrive, sing—in harmony with others. And of course, the abundant sunlight that’s pouring from the floor-to-ceiling windows opens up the whole area even more.
An odd chair that also doubles as a vase holding palm fronds catches my attention. I think of how bizarre and out of place it looks, but also, how much it belongs to what’s around. Which leads me to ponder the thoughtful balance of it all. What’s hardened is softened. Where there’s old, there’s new. The whole space, when looked at as a complete body of work, simultaneously projects coolness and warmth. In that sense, Wearstler has a way of not just dragging you into her unnatural, natural world, but even more impressively, out of your own. This is California cool—but fresher, cooler and with so much soul.
My cream-colored cocktail arrives in a martini glass, the surface speckled with cinnamon. There’s a maraschino cherry—the dark, good stuff—on a knotted cocktail pick gently placed on top. The concoction unfurls in stages, in layers. First, I’m hit with the tequila, who’s first on the floor. Then, the cinnamon tickles my tongue, almost playfully. And lastly, the cherry joins the dance. My friend Eunice, who I’m here to meet, is stuck in traffic, so I try to drink lightly—a difficult thing to do when your drink is this good. I think, If I take a sip every five minutes, maybe I can drag this wonderful thing out until my friend arrives.
My plan works. When there’s only about an inch of cream-colored cocktail left in my martini glass, Eunice arrives. I leap out of my seat with the bounce of a toast popping out of the toaster. Finally, I have someone to gush about this place with. I’ve been sitting here tight-lipped for too long, collecting design notes in my head.
Eunice orders up a Daily Ritual—a concoction made of Los Vecinos Mezcal, pineapple, lemon, sage and yet another herbal liqueur I’ve never heard of, strega. I’m still riding the buzz from my bicicleta, so I hold off on ordering another drink. We sit and chat at the bar for what seems like an hour. Then, we finally decide to add a little height to our afternoon and make our way upstairs to the rooftop bar. Because we’re here, and we want to leave no corner unexplored, no stone unturned. We take the elevator to the 7th floor, and as soon as the steel doors slide open, we’re hit with a strong gust of wind. Ah, that Santa Monica cool.
This level houses a medditereanean-inspired bar and eatery, Calabra, as well as an adjacent rooftop pool. The scene is buzzy and hot, but really, you can be any kind of imbiber you want to be here. You can sidle up to the circular bar and partake in all the chatter, or you can withdraw and cocoon yourself in a well-cushioned nook, of which there are plenty of. We hole up in the latter.
For added comfort, we order a shareable plate of just-charred-enough pita bread, and a helping of hummus, which comes topped with an olive tapenade and chili oil. Ideal for when you’re in sort of a snacky, salty mood. Then, if that slightly sugary, something-sweet craving makes a timely arrival—and it always does—there’s a dessert menu. We pick the first thing off the list, burnt honey custard with orange-blossom apricot tucked underneath kataifi, or in other words, string pastry spun like a bird’s nest. Some cherries and dollops of candied ginger give the whole dish a certain photographic appeal. I mean, how can anyone resist snapping a shot of this?
It’s not until I see the sky turn ten shades darker that it hits me: I’ve been here for five hours. Five hours. I’m like that guest at a party who just bums around long after the paper plates are tossed and the food is stowed away. There’s a bit of a lull in my conversation with Eunice, a telltale sign that we’re both thinking the same thing: It’s about time we go home. As we make our downstairs to the ground floor, I pass by a host who, I’m pretty sure knows I’ve been here all day. “Yes, we’re still here,” I remark and giggle. He smiles at me knowingly, as if to say: You’re not the first guest who’s never wanted to leave this hotel (in) California.