“Welcome to Mama!” chorus two women on reception as I pull my suitcase towards them. “Mama says hello!” reads the registration form. Later, at dinner, it gets a little more combative. “Mama will drink you under the table,” threatens the drinks menu.
Mama Shelter isn’t your standard Los Angeles hotel. For a start, there’s the price: it’s unusual to see rates this affordable beyond LAX. Then there’s the hint of the continent – the registration form is bilingual in English and French, and a selection of books to borrow or buy sits by reception. Hollywood biographies they may be, but it’s still the first time I’ve seen the printed word on such prominent display in Tinseltown.
Yet, at the same time, it’s as LA as it gets. The sceney restaurant with kale and burrata for dinner, and Angelenos pouring in for brunch. The scrum for the valet. The hipster bar, its ceiling one giant blackboard. And the view from the rooftop hangout, from the Hollywood sign to the Pacific.
Mama Shelter LA is one of five hotels for the rapidly expanding French brand. Mama was born in Paris, revolutionising the city’s budget chic offerings with her hotel in the 20th arrondissement. Yes, you could have Philippe Starck design and a fashion vibe at an affordable price – as long as you didn’t mind staying out near Père Lachaise. Then she went south to Bordeaux, Marseille, and Lyon, and east to Istanbul (which has since closed). In 2015, she crossed the Atlantic. Now she’s set up an outpost in Rio de Janeiro, too.
The American venture has taken the trusted Mama Shelter approach: a smart hotel in a less obvious location, in this case a 1923 building between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, said to have hosted Jimi Hendrix and Ava Gardner in a previous incarnation. It’s loud, though: around Mama Shelter, there are cars, streetwalkers and sirens galore. Stay in a front-facing room, looking towards the Hollywood sign, and you’ll hear them all.
Downstairs, at least, the buzz from the restaurant cocoons you from the outside, with the French hotel’s pitch perfect rendition of a must-visit SoCal restaurant. Wait staff in trendy slashed-shoulder aprons whirl between mismatched chairs and tables. Music thunders (weekends see a resident DJ). Black and white photos of old Hollywood stars are clipped amid fake foliage above the open kitchen. The food – steak tartare, rocket (or arugula, as they say here) salad, brussels sprouts as a delicacy – is every bit as good as any highfalutin place in West Hollywood; yet, like the rooms, better priced. Over the other side of the glass-walled lobby – past a table football stand and a knowing board of post-it notes proclaiming love for Mama – is the bar. Its rooftop twin (open Friday to Sunday), meanwhile, has views from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific. No wonder Mama’s in demand.
Despite the romance of the name, Hollywood’s hardly LA’s must-visit destination, as any disappointed Walk of Fame visitor will tell you. It’s changing, though, and quickly: there’s a great weekend farmers’ market, Mama’s arrival is cleaning up its immediate vicinity, and it’s in the middle of a hotel boom with the much touted Dream Hotel opening next month, as well as brands Kimpton and Thompson moving in. Having said that, for now, Hollywood is still largely somewhere to drive through, not to. It’s not unsafe – it’s just that, beyond the hotels, you’ll struggle to find much of a scene.
After dinner, a creaky old lift, quite possibly from the Hendrix era, hoists me upstairs to my corner room. It’s big – not for LA, necessarily, but definitely for the price. The design is simple but chic: hangers on an open rail instead of a cupboard, a low-slung bed and a huge desk. It’s Thierry Gaugain, Philippe Starck’s protégé, at work here, and the effect is Starck-lite – there’s a liberal scattering of his guru’s motifs like carnival mask lampshades, oversized wall mirrors, jewel-coloured goblets and trippy monochrome carpet. The bathroom’s small but well equipped: a huge rainfall shower, organic toiletries with sassy slogans (“Mama wants to cream you up”; “Mama loves you from head to toe”) even milled into the soap. There’s a bowl of jelly beans to snack on, and scripts – Pulp Fiction, Swingers, The Big Lebowski – on the desk. An iMac streams all the entertainment you could want, including free porn. A real mama’s hair would turn grey.
But then there’s the noise. The bed’s comfortable and I’m exhausted, yet still I drift in and out of consciousness, woken every few minutes by a siren rushing past, boy racers revving at the lights, and a group of women cackling and shrieking from their patch – my corner room is cantilevered two floors above their street corner. Earplugs ($1 downstairs) make little difference. At 4am, I call Mama for help. Some people like the noise, the receptionist says – it makes them feel in the middle of things. She hands me the key to a standard room, warning me that it doesn’t have a view. She’s undersold it – there is a view, a typical urban LA landscape. It may not be the Hollywood sign, but it’s silent. I thank Mama, and fall blissfully asleep.
There were other issues when I stayed, during the hotel’s first year. Customer service was inconsistent – some staff couldn’t help enough, others displayed that peculiarly Californian enthusiastic indifference. My first room hadn’t been cleaned thoroughly (though the second was spotless). I had to reserve a slot to collect my car, as there was only one valet and the carpark was some distance away, but even having done so, I had to wait 15 minutes – a long time when you’re rushing for a flight.
Yet there’s nothing that can’t be fixed, and the prices remain unbeatable for Tinseltown. On a budget? You should definitely come to Mama. Just ask her for a room with no view.
Mama Shelter, 6500 Selma Avenue, Los Angeles (001 323 785 6666; mamashelter.com). Doubles from $169 (£139), room only.
Access: Four wheelchair-accessible rooms
Value: *****Reuse content