Industry Insiders: Andy Hewitt, Music & Menu Magnate

Andy Hewitt combined his talents (and his contacts) to produce two of the hottest restaurants in West Hollywood — Il Sole and Luau. With rock ‘n roll manager Arnold Stiefel (who still manages Rod Stewart), Hewitt transformed Il Sole into an atypical, low-key Hollywood slip-in and provided a reincarnation for Luau — the legendary tiki outpost — with famed chef Makoto Tanaka (Mako, Robata-Ya). Along with his long-term partner Bill Silva, Hewitt has the exclusive contract on contemporary music for the Hollywood Bowl. Since 1991, he’s booked acts from the Rolling Stones to Luciano Pavarotti. Hewitt gave us some tutelage in merging rock ‘n roll with hospitality.

You’re balancing full plate these days. How’d you get here? I couldn’t have been anything else. My childhood friend in Coldwater Canyon was [film producer] Bill Gerber. We met on the school bus, and his father was an agent in the music business. We started going to concerts at young age, so I was touched by the music business early. Billy went to work for David Geffen and introduced me to enough agents to get me going. I was naive enough to think that that there were all kinds of promoters who were well-established and thought I’d be able to book shows in LA, and even Billy told me I’d never be successful in LA. Maybe in Tucson or Fresno. But I didn’t know any better, and I succeeded. Years ago, I met [music promoter] Ian Copeland at my nightclub in Redondo Beach and started buying shows from his agency. I got my start in that side of the business from Ian, his brother Miles, and Gary Kurfirst — who managed the B52s, Talking Heads, the Ramones. I still see Linda, Johnny’s widow, at Il Sole. I went out on my own in 1991, formed a partnership, and sublet the Hollywood Bowl. Peter Morton gave me the contract to book the joint. The Rolling Stones said Peter and I brought rock ‘n roll to Las Vegas. We were the first to bring all ages shows there for punk acts like Nine Inch Nails and Depche Mode, all because Peter allowed it to happen.

Where do you go out? I like Harry’s Bar in Venice because I love how the restaurant keeps with the city. It all ties together somehow. There’s nothing like taking a little boat over from the Cipriani Hotel, or walking next door from the Danieli. When I asked a friend where I should go on my first trip to Italy, he said I had to go to Harry’s Bar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In New York, I like Masa. He may be the greatest chef in the world, and I miss him no longer being in LA. In LA, my favorite is Cut because it’s so perfectly simple and delicious, and I’ve always felt comfortable surrounded by Richard Meier’s extraordinary, contemporary décor. And when you watch Wolfgang Puck work the room, there’s nothing like it. He treats those visiting for the first time the same way he treats Mick Jagger. He and chef Lee Hefter have done an amazing job with a rather uncomplicated menu.

Who do you look up to? James Nederlander, my greatest mentor, had great faith in me and allowed me to blossom to whatever I am today. My great, late friend Ian Copeland showed me how you can do a great job in your business. He loved the artists that he represented and the people he worked with, and he made it all work.

What’s going on in your industry these days? We’re all paying that much more attention to our guests having a positive experience and getting great value. If we buy the highest quality of sole for Il Sole we try to do the same with Luau. I think the quality of food in almost every city in this country is at a much higher level than in the past, and you can go to cities that aren’t known for great cuisine and really get a good cappuccino or espresso and a good bowl of pasta. That didn’t happen 10 years ago. You couldn’t find good food or a decent hotel in Malibu 15 years ago. So much has happened since then.

Anything negative? I discovered tiramisu in my early 20s, and now my friend’s four-year-old orders it for dinner.

What is something that people might not know about you? How much I care about what I do on a personal level; my work with George Malouf and his family at The Palms or Peter Morton and the Hard Rock. It’s what I want to do. Getting to book the Hollywood Bowl and putting the Stones and the Police on is an honor.

What are you obsessed with? My favorite sport is Formula One, and my favorite track is Monza. My favorite cars are Ferraris and Porsches. My game is Monopoly. I’m a secret collector of many types of antiques. I live in a Spanish revival home and love to collect post-Impressionist paintings and Tiffany lamps. And yes, I love my garden, but I like to supervise gardening even more.

Any non-industry projects in the works? I don’t talk about philanthropy. I just do it.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going to have a massage and watch the stack of Netflix I’ve been trying to get to for a week and a half. I’ll probably order in from my favorite Indian restaurant, Flavor of India.

Los Angeles: Mid-Range Dining Is the New Upscale

imageTons of Los Angeles bars and restaurants are running various deals that make light of the economic downturn, and we can get behind that. The cheeky discounts get pretty complicated, too, with algorithms and whatnot utilized in the name of savings: Luau and Il Sole now price their drinks according to daily changes in the Dow. It’s mathy. But a good number of chefs who traditionally do upscale are opening mid-range restaurants, changing their existing restaurants, or joining up with less expensive venues. That is to say, they’re making some permanent changes pretty much independent of the economy. Mid-range is hip, y’all.

All’Angelo, upscale since day one, has transformed from ristorante to trattoria. That just means cheaper food and no tablecloths. Could be worse. Wunderkind Andre Guerrero has turned his classic, fusiontastic Max into a bistro with beer. In this he’s much like Govind Armstrong, who has done fine dining in the past, but with 8 oz. is venturing into burgers and beers — with fancy ingredients, of course. Guerrero’s also signed on with the upcoming Boho, the new pizza/sandwich place soon to be appearing next to the Arclight theaters. And best of all, Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide, is now head chef at Church & State, turning out the same quality food for about $100 less per plate. And he’s still gonna blow your culinary mind. The man makes tasty food. That’s the combo more restaurants are adopting: fine-dining chefs cooking good-quality nosh for the masses. It’s almost as if — gasp! — they want people to eat their food.

Luau LA: Rum Goes Upscale, Tiki Tags Along

A new tiki joint opened this week in Beverly Hills, and there’s nothing ironic about it: Luau is taking itself seriously, from the food to the décor to — yes — even the huge rum drinks served in coconuts. What gives this restaurant the right to indulge in pupu platters and glass puffer fish hanging from the ceiling with nary a smirk in sight? Well, besides the fact that the fish are actually pretty cool, it all comes down to the rum.

Last year, gin was the tipple of choice among dedicated scenesters and the barkeeps who keep them lubed up. But now, rum is now taking over as the booze to get picky about. Jeff Berry, the mastermind mixologist behind Luau and other tiki temples around the world, says “Hip, cutting-edge bars in Manhattan like Death & Co, Please Don’t Tell, and Milk and Honey are all now putting tiki drinks on their menus.” The drink menus attest to that: At Death & Co, rum shares space with gin on the first page of the cocktail menu, and Milk and Honey offers rum pours for tasters.

“Boutique, artisanal rum distilleries are popping up all over the country,” adds Berry. Said distilleries are in such decidedly non-tropical climes as Oregon and Delaware, attesting to the (nationwide, perhaps?) desire for a more full-flavored liquor than vodka or even gin. But purists, don’t stress: Some of the best-selling new sipping rums are coming from the highlands of Guatemala.

Back up north, everything’s in place for tiki to make its comeback as a straightforward bastion of cool, as it was in the Rat Pack days. Call it the “Mad Men” effect. Everything mid-century is hip again, from the umbrella-ed drinks to the juicy Vargas girls on display at the Mahiki in London. And on a more contemporary note … pupus are really just tapas, are they not? So Luau’s got the food factor going for it as well.

Luau will be joined in tiki glory by the upcoming Trader Vic’s Downtown, which will be met with outpourings of joy. When the original in Beverly Hills closed down recently, there was genuine grief. The new Downtown location speaks to high hopes for the new Trader outpost, as only the insane, the brave, and the cool venture into that part of town, business-wise. In the South Bay, Kona is trying its very hardest to become a viable restaurant, with a new menu matching the drinks and giant wood totems in exuberance. (If only Damon’s, with its profound love of coconutty secret rum recipes and fantastic faux-Gaugin murals, could rouse itself to give a damn about the food. Which is vile.)

Those who haven’t been clued in to the tiki trend will no doubt embrace it now that it’s going mainstream and awesomer than ever. Just start slow, as rum is one grog that the liver needs some getting used to.