The last days of The Hills are upon us. Say what you will about the show — it's superficial, it's annoying, the characters talk about nothing — but for six years, the half-hour television reality program defined Los Angeles nightlife. The central plotline is simple, classic: Its star, 19-year-old Lauren Conrad, moves to big-city Los Angeles from Orange County, small-city Laguna Beach. She gets a job at Teen Vogue. She has a best friend named Heidi, some boyfriends and friends. They're all gorgeous, and they fight, they love, they cry, they laugh. But mostly they go out. A lot.
The best-known of The Hills' nightclubs is a place called Les Deux on Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood. Here, a whirl of gnats circles lazily in a shaft of sunlight. A squirrel scampers across the patio. Like an aging starlet without makeup, Les Deux doesn't look like much in daylight.
But looks are deceptive. The place has good bones, and manages to pull itself together at night when candles are lit and the red walls glow and champagne flows. "I guess you could say it's like a Skybar now," says owner Sylvain Bitton. "Just a cool bar."
Bitton was friends with Conrad and Heidi Montag before The Hills began airing. They came first to his nearby restaurant, Bella. Then to Les Deux, a once-drowsy little café that Bitton and his partners in the Dolce Group purchased, rehabbed and reopened as a nightclub lounge in the summer of 2006. He was 26, Conrad was 20 and Montag was 19.
"From the night we opened we had the biggest, most powerful celebrities. It wasn't normal celebrities," he says.
Les Deux's nightly guest list reads like the IMDB catalog: Mischa Barton, Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Donald Trump, Mick Jagger, Sting, Leonardo DiCaprio, and on and on. "It's where normal people felt like celebrities, and celebrities felt like normal people," Bitton likes to say.
MTV lugged its cameras in a few months after the club opened. "Every kid in Iowa or Kentucky or Nebraska that watched The Hills wanted to come to Les Deux," he remembers. "For those kids to come here, they'd feel like they had a piece of it."
Teenybopper girls arrived in droves during the day to take pictures. But at night, forget it. Les Deux ran the tightest door in town.
"Why are all these people here?" Bitton asks, with something close to awe. "There's nothing special about this place. Les Deux is in the middle of a parking lot. It's an old house. So it's a house party, it's a European house party right in the middle of Hollywood. There's no sign, no red carpet, no smoke or fog, no moving lights. It's just a home away from home, a way to get out and leave your problems at the door."
The truism that personal relationships are the most valuable currency in business is never truer than in the Hollywood nightclub sector. Bitton recently threw a 30th-birthday party for himself. He invited Conrad, Montag, Audrina Patridge, Spencer Pratt, Brody Jenner and the rest of the Hills cast: "I said I'm going to throw a very cool party, if you guys want to come. They said, 'Of course, we would love to.' " And voilà, MTV filmed his birthday.
It was a private affair, with 400 of Bitton's closest friends and a couple of tigers prowling the patio. Montag also celebrated her birthday there. So did Conrad. So did Adam DiVello, the show's creator. "I always say, behind every great victory is a weapon, and our weapon here is our personal relationships," Bitton says. Doing time in the trenches of the clubs was like having gone to war.
He doesn't pay or receive pay to be featured on The Hills. "We let them use the space, and we get the exposure," he says. "They helped us, but we helped The Hills, too, tit for tat. We had nights where there were princes from different countries here. So it put the show at a different caliber."
The Hills and Les Deux made their names together. "Our heyday was when the Lindsay Lohans, Paris Hiltons, Olsen twins and the Duff sisters were going out religiously. All of those girls would be here three or four nights a week," Bitton recalls.
Those were great times for celebrity implosion. Montag fell in love with the "evil" Spencer Pratt. She and Conrad stopped being BFFs, splintering the blogosphere into Team Lauren and Team Heidi. Paris Hilton went to jail. Britney entered her trouble time. She shaved her head. She asked for a job application to work at Les Deux.
Smelling blood in the water, the paparazzi circled. Celebs began to stay home. Then, the economy tanked.