This story is part of Image issue 22, a meditation on the many definitions of the city’s favorite word: luxury. Read the whole issue here.
I do my damnedest to play the part. To at least seem like I’m polished enough to warrant someone parking my car for me. Valet is a luxury that takes some getting used to. It’s the kind of experience that requires practice. How elegantly should I step out of the driver’s seat? Are my keys ready for the handoff? Which pocket will I put the ticket in to avoid losing it? These are questions that demand answers before you arrive. No matter how much I prepare, I inevitably fumble for my keys in my left pants pocket. Something will get caught on the fabric and I’ll struggle to get them out, or worse, drop them on the ground, necessitating I bend down to pick them up. I’ll assure the valet that I have in fact driven a car before and usually I’m quite skilled at it.
There are few experiences more luxurious than having someone else park your car. Valet is the pinnacle of aspirational L.A. living. Here, a car is a sanctuary, a second home and a status symbol. Your car is as private as a bedroom or a dining table, but for a few hours at a time, it doesn’t quite belong to you. It’s ferried away to an undisclosed location by a complete stranger whom you trust with one of your most valuable possessions. That might sound more like a massive stressor, but what if I told you the alternative was driving around the block seven times and reading street signs longer than a CVS receipt? Doesn’t sound so bad now. I don’t have someone to wash my clothes for me or pay my cellphone bill, but for a price, I can get someone to park my car before dinner. That’s true luxury.
“Luxury” is a word now almost solely associated with objects and conspicuous consumption — a stand-in for “expensive” that ignores the feeling of luxury found in the small micro-luxuries of everyday life. Valet is a small act of kindness you can do for yourself. The finest valet stands are like a portal or waystation on a journey. The valet is the first person who greets you at a club, a restaurant, a bar, a movie premiere or one of those fancy parties in the hills where there’s no street parking that I don’t get invited to nearly enough. The valet welcomes you, like St. Peter, to whatever heavenly festivities you’re about to revel in.
The best valet stands in town rewire your brain and set you in the proper mood for the night. The valet at Musso & Frank leads you down that iconic stairway past the kitchen and pay phones like you’re in “Goodfellas.” Dan Tana’s is stubbornly still cash only, befitting an old-school red-sauce joint. The Academy Awards valet at the Dolby Theater is also a chance for security to check if you’ve got a bomb in the trunk. The valet at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills is a wide circular driveway that ushers you through giant glass doors with crystal Lalique door handles. The Beverly Hills Hotel valet puts you on a sumptuous red carpet. These are little moments to cherish. Whenever I can, I valet. But it’s not always about fabulous carpets and bomb-sniffing dogs. Sometimes, you just need a place to leave your car. In Los Angeles, we have more automobiles than we know what to do with. So, we have to get clever — playing a never-ending game of “Tetris” with our vehicles. There are the unfussy, transactional valets in weathered strip malls. Or the valets in downtown, Brentwood or Koreatown there to help you get off the street. Valets in T-shirts checking their IGs or playing “Hungry Shark” on their phones. Then, there are the valet stands that magically sprout from the ground at the start of dinner service. These valets, with their coned-off public street parking spots, serve only to make life harder for anyone who can’t afford the convenience.
But the most illogical valet vibe is the mall valet. The popular social media account Americana at Brand Memes famously coined the phrase “Park at the Galleria and walk to the Americana.” In other words, don’t pay to park at the glitzy Americana when you can park for free at Glendale Galleria, the fading 20th century indoor mall across the street. Rick Caruso, the owner of the Americana, clearly was taking into account the inherent laziness we all succumb to on a regular basis in this town. Surely, people will never realize that free parking is only a block away. Why would anyone in L.A. walk an entire city block? Well, unfortunately, Mr. Caruso underestimated how broke people my age actually are. As long as the Galleria parking garage remains free, we’ll walk.
The Galleria doesn’t have valet. Pretty much every modern mall in L.A. has a ground-floor valet service: Westfield Century City, the Grove, Beverly Center, Americana at Brand. It’s a convenience that attracts the well-heeled shopper who can’t stand winding their way around a circuitous garage maze in the vain hope that something is open near the elevator. Beverly Hills, which is itself a sort of outdoor mall that resembles a city, has valet pretty much everywhere. I went to Crustacean, a modern Vietnamese stalwart on Bedford, for a solo dinner while I was in the area. Besides having a lovely meal, I valeted my car with ease, which allowed me to stroll down the block for a post-dinner constitutional without having to remember which public garage I parked in.
But usually, I don’t avail myself of the mall valet. I like to stay positive when it comes to a parking garage. I will gladly use the modern convenience of the digital open-space counter that tells you how high you have to travel to safely deposit your vehicle. But a restaurant is another story. The valet is part of the night’s activities. If I know I must go out to dinner and a valet is available at the spot, I engage in a cleaning ritual beforehand that ranges from a quick collection of random trash to a full-on car spa, depending on how chic the restaurant is. The state of your car is a reflection of who you are inside. Or at least you can pretend it is. I’m doing great, look how clean my leased Audi is! Your life might be in total shambles, but you don’t want the valet to know that.
If we’re being truly rational, the period from the time you surrender your keys to the moment you collect your vehicle should be an interregnum that fills the heart with dread. Your car could be damaged. The valet might fiddle with all your presets, move your seat or adjust your mirrors. Most of the time, the valet shuts off my oppressively cold air conditioner, forcing me into a readjustment period to get the temperature back to 68 degrees before I can speed off into the evening. I get why they do it, though. They want to be comfortable, like an Airbnb guest taking a holiday in your house. In a sense, your car is their car for 20 minutes. I have to accept that as part of the process. The more comfortable they are operating the vehicle, the less likely they are to plow into a fire hydrant or scrape the curb.
I’m usually pretty reasonable about all of that, dismissing the idea that someone is going to do key bumps of cocaine or lick the steering column while they have my car. But recently, I found myself in a sweaty panic over the state of my poor leased Audi. I had a meal at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main in Santa Monica for the restaurant’s 40th anniversary. It was a raucous night and the restaurant was packed with regulars, former staff and Wolfgang himself. I love an old restaurant with all its original decor intact and warm, attentive service. But when I pulled up with 10 minutes to spare before my reservation, the valet had the shell-shocked look of a triage nurse on his face. He said the valet was closing soon, but he’d accommodate me. There was no stand to hold keys, no ticket for me to hang on to. Just a nervous man asking me for my car.
I obliged, just as he was telling me that when the valet officially closed, he’d find me in the restaurant and give me my keys so I could take my car myself. For the next hour, my teeth chattered, my knees shook and my girlfriend periodically checked in to make sure I wasn’t having a legitimate panic attack. Bella, the longtime host at Chinois, told me I would be fine — and to stop craning my neck to see if the valet was approaching with my precious cargo.
When the meal was finally over, we walked out onto Main Street, hoping our guy was still around. Usually, the valet pickup is a beautiful shared experience where you meet your fellow patrons, maybe bum a cigarette and converse. It’s an oddly communal situation where you brush up with strangers for a fleeting moment. There was none of that. Just a near-empty parking lot where every car looked like mine. For a second, I thought my Audi might be sinking to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Then, the valet appeared out of the shadows like Batman creeping up on us. He dangled my keys in front of me and I smiled. We chatted about how busy the night was at the restaurant and my own fear that my car would be gone. He laughed as I sat down in the driver’s seat. “Umm … did you pay,” he asked me. I said no, I didn’t even have a ticket, and no one told me how much the valet cost. He shrugged, saying it was no big deal. In the midst of all that chaos, the money was an afterthought. That might be the greatest luxury of all.
Producer: Ashley Woeber
Lighting director: Jeremy Jackson
Photo assistants: Tamar Kasparian, Gabe Aragon
Set design: Daniel Luna
Models: Dru James, Natalia Lemper, Bianca Lexis, Xylah Swan
Makeup: Eden Symone
Hair: Kayla Casey
Nails: Lila Robles
Lighting gear and grip provided by Jeremy Jackson and Tamar Kasparian
Location provided by Jovita Lovelis and Luis Perez
Chevrolet El Camino provided by David Luna
Special thanks to Jonathan Lovelis