Dimitri at the Sunset Tower

Mr Porter, Jan 2016

If you dress well, and you’re polite, he might seat you next to Katy Perry.

Dimitri-at-the-Sunset-Tower

Photo by Bill Gentle

Also at Mr Porter

It’s not often a Maitre D’ is flown to New York to star in a Bill Murray movie. But Dimitri Dimitrov, the Maitre d’ Hotel of the Sunset Tower in Los Angeles, is in a class of his own. Friends with Tom Ford, Warren Beatty and Nancy Reagan, he inspired the Ralph Fiennes character in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and he remembers Sofia Coppolla, the director of A Merry Murray Christmas, when she was a young girl.

“I love Bill!” he says, in his high pitched Macedonian accent. “Last week when he was at the restaurant, he gave me a gift.” He pulls up the sleeve of his sharp grey suit to reveal a cheap Timex, not the vintage Baume Mercier that he usually wears. “Bill said, ‘your watch is garbage, throw it out!’ And all because it doesn’t do this.” Dimitri pushes a little button on the side of the watch and the face lights up electric green. “That is Bill! He is my friend!”

A small, slight man, dapper in a suit, Dimitri is a throwback to when hotel service was more than a stop-gap for actors trying to break into the biz. Always the last to enter an elevator, and the first with a compliment, Dimitri’s is the hand at your elbow, gently encouraging, “please sir, after you, welcome.”

But his submissive manner belies his power. In a city obsessed with status, Dimitri holds the keys to the most exclusive tables in town. Awards season finds most LA establishments bracing themselves for a celebrity onslaught, but for Dimitri, this is business as usual. “These people are our regulars,” he shrugs.

The elite of Los Angeles traditionally congregate in only a handful of places in town, each run by men like Dimitri who understand their particular needs. Morton’s used to be the spot, or the Polo Lounge, and before that Chasen’s. But today, under Dimitri, the Tower Bar has become the place where Elon Musk and Johnny Depp hold meetings, where Jeffrey Katzenberg and Betsy Bloomingdale rub shoulders with Katy Perry and Kanye West.

“We are like the coffee shop for the social elite,” he says. “The menu is bistro, comfort food, everything is familiar. We are not experimenting with gingers and vanillas, no no no, this is plain food. People come for a fast dinner and then go.”

Simplicity is key. At Hearst Castle, the then-richest man in America, William Randolph Hearst, would host the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable with ketchup and mustard on the table. The truly accomplished like to remember their childhoods, a life before money, when they could be themselves. They’ve no interest in molecular cuisine and bells and whistles, which is more about the chef anyway. “We are only about the guests,” Dimitri says. “It’s not about us, never!”

A case in point: Ringo Starr was in the other week with Dave Stewart, and the kitchen knew in advance that he doesn’t eat salt or butter, just some lightly steamed vegetables. The kitchen’s list of high profile dietary habits is long.

Naturally, his high profile guests get special attention. When Ringo Starr was in last week with Dave Stewart, he didn’t have to mention that he prefers lightly steamed vegetables, no salt or butter – the kitchen already knows.

“I look after them because they enhance the pleasure of everyone else,” Dimitri says. “If you have young girls, so beautiful – Katy Perry was here the other day – well you can’t hide them, so put them in the centre! They give such a buzz and vibe. But not just entertainment people, no no no. Elon Musk, I adore him. If people see him, they are just ‘oh my God’, and the memories last forever.”

Dimitri likes to mix it up, between the old glamor and the new – to sit Kate Mara next to Betsy Bloomingdale, who is in her nineties. And he’s a walking Who’s Who in southern California, or as he puts it, “a student of social structure.” Required reading includes People, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He knows which star is with which agent, who just got promoted and who’s getting divorced – and he seats them accordingly.

Take Johnny Depp, for instance, a regular. “Regular he has come 60, 70 times, and these people, it’s more their restaurant than mine! But beyond him, you have to know Tracy Jacobs, his agent, and Jim Berkus, who is head of UTA. And these people also have their people.”

And when he can’t recognize someone, there are other cues. “Clothes can tell you about status, but also the skin, the texture. I can see who uses the spa, this is part of what I do. Successful people are very humble, I find. And they have the confidence which is unforceful. No one placed them at the top, they earned it.”

There are those that haven’t earned it, of course, like a certain Saudi prince who created a scene when Dimitri didn’t give his bodyguards their own table of four. “Oh my God, I just had to step on the ground!” he says. “Because you cannot buy us. If you misbehave we don’t want your money. Manners, behavior is very important. And please dress well. You must respect the place.”

Another value of Dimitri’s – when he sees someone’s star fall in this sometimes cruel city, he continues to treat them as though they were at their height. The ex-Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, used to come in with assistants and bodyguards and got the full treatment. “He’s not mayor now, but I don’t want him to notice a difference,” says Dimitri. “He may be governor in the future, you never know.”

No doubt, Dimitri’s star has risen and risen. His story is one of dreams that come true, so far beyond his imagination, that to think of it today, he shakes his head and holds his hand to his heart. “I get goosebumps, it makes me cry,” he says. He was a boy growing up in communist Macedonia, a modest upbringing, with a housewife for a mum, and a father who made shoes. “Not even shoes, only slippers!” And he would dream of Hollywood. “I knew that Los Angeles had bright colors, something positive. And we were just in this grey atmosphere. I would read about Warren Beatty when I was 10, and today he is my friend. My life has been incredible.”

He went to London and devoted himself to the service industry, starting in Covent Garden in the 70s, and then moving to the Ritz Carlton in Montreal, where he served Queen Elizabeth and Indira Gandhi. He still harkens back to that era of service. He came to Hollywood in the 80s, and ran a Russian restaurant Diaghilev, and it was there that he met Tom Ford, who changed his life.

When Ford became Gucci’s chief designer in the early 90s, he held a party at Diaghilev. Then a decade later, unbeknownst to Dimitri, the owner of the Sunset Tower, Jeff Klein, was asking Ford who he should hire as his Maitre D’. Ford recommended Dimitri.

Since then, Dimitri’s life has become the stuff of fables. He has hosted the Oscar party last year, and he will host the Golden Globes party this year. He counts as his friends the Coppolla family, the Beatties, the Bloomingdales, the Reagans.

“This is the most important lesson of life,” says Dimitri. “Kindness. I treated Tom Ford with kindness and respect at Diaghilev, and it came back to me in this wonderful way. Everything is connected.”