Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
The undisputed grand old dame of downtown L.A. -- but its best days are (60 to 70 years) behind it
When the Biltmore opened, in 1923, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago. It quickly became a Southern California institution, hosting eight Academy Awards ceremonies in the '30s and '40s. (Check out the photos in the Historic Corridor, off the lobby.) But then the Oscars moved, and so did the rest of the action, and downtown Los Angeles devolved into a veritable ghost town, a designation it has only recently -- and only partially -- shed. (See Location, below.)
The Biltmore, meanwhile, remained an icon. In 1969, it was designated a Historic Cultural Landmark by the city (you can find the plaque near the side entrance: "Milestone in the Significant Architectural, Economic and Cultural Development of Los Angeles"). The hotel's press packet includes an exhaustive 11-page list of every movie (Wedding Crashers, Spider-Man, Ocean's Eleven), TV show (Mad Men, 24, The West Wing), miniseries, movie-of-the-week, reality show, commercial, music video, and photo shoot ever filmed on the premises. The Ghostbusters caught their first spook -- remember the slimer? -- in the Biltmore's ballroom. The week of my stay, Ewan McGregor was shooting a film at the hotel.
And yet the Biltmore no longer feels very glamorous. The hotel was renovated in 1987, but that was the last major renewal. That outdatedness manifests itself most noticeably in the rooms, which, aside from periodic updates in technology, bedding, and the like, are now more dowdy than atmospheric. For example, in 2012, the hotel announced that it would soon be embarking on a two-to-three year renovation that would include restoring the historic ceiling plaster work in the lobby and replacing carpeting in the hallways. By comparison, the historic Hilton Checkers, right across the street, recently underwent a massive renovation, and now bests the Biltmore in almost every facet. If you need to be downtown, you might also try the Omni or the Westin Bonaventure, both of which are similarly priced yet boast superior rooms.
Competent but unexceptional
The Biltmore won't impress you with its service the way some of its more luxurious neighbors might (the Omni and Hilton Checkers come to mind), but they handle the basics well.
Located downtown, amid the city's only skyscrapers, the Biltmore is great for travelers who want to check out the city's art scene or catch the Lakers or Kings (at the nearby Staples Center), the Dodgers, or a rock concert. But it's sleepy at night and on weekends, and if you're visiting L.A. for sunshine, beaches, or Hollywood (actual or proverbial), you're better off staying in a different neighborhood.
There's nothing terribly wrong with the rooms at the Biltmore -- yours will most likely be reasonably clean and reasonably comfortable, and they're spacious enough. But they don't hold up against those of its competitors downtown, namely the Hilton Checkers, Omni, and Westin Bonaventure. The main problem is that they haven't been fully renovated since 1987. Those 20-plus years reveal themselves less in the cleanliness issues, which are minor (some mildew stains in the shower, small nicks on the furniture), than in what the rooms lack compared to more modern ones. Outlets, for instance. There aren't enough of them in the rooms, especially near the desks. Or double-paned windows, which have never been installed. Thus, noise is an issue. (To the Biltmore's credit, they leave ear plugs on the nightstand.) The showers, meanwhile, resemble college-dorm showers. There wasn't even enough shelf space to place shampoo or conditioner alongside the soap.
As a hotel that caters largely to corporate travelers, the Biltmore puts a big emphasis on its business-related amenities. Boasting 17 meeting and banquet rooms and 70,000 square feet of total space, the hotel hosts dozens of events per year, big and small. The non-business highlight is the Roman-style indoor pool and Jacuzzi. Like the hotel itself, the pool area has seen better days, and it could use more regular upkeep -- used towels were strewn about when I was there -- but it's a pleasant enough place to take a quick dip or swim some short laps.
Fine, but not great, for families
Because of its grand-old-dame atmosphere (antiquish furniture, conservative decor), financial-district location, and large number of corporate guests, the Biltmore isn't ideal for families. Still, there's no reason in particular not to take the kids. At the least, they'll like the pool.
Some problems, but nothing egregious
Overall, everything was tidy, functional, and hygienic, but the Biltmore hasn't been fully renovated since the mid-1980s -- an eternity by major-hotel standards. Some of issues include:
Multiple options on-site, but the area isn't great for dining
The hotel's website lists three restaurants (Smeraldi's, La Bistecca, and Sai Sai), but Smeraldi's is the only place that serves breakfast and La Bistecca is open only for dinner, so the options aren't as extensive as they may seem. The hotel further confuses the issue by tossing in a fourth name, the Rendezvous Court, which is actually just the site for afternoon tea at La Bistecca. As for the food itself, sushi at Sai Sai wasn't great -- a bit warm -- and breakfast at Smeraldi's was mediocre. Eating off-site might be wise, but there aren't a whole lot of options in this part of town.
It's grand (683 rooms, stately decor) and old (opened 1923), but this dame, which hasn't been fully renovated in more than 20 years, has seen better days. If you're not visiting L.A. on business, there's little reason to stay downtown; if you are, most of the Biltmore's neighbors -- notably the Hilton Checkers -- offer more for the money.