Ride-sharing and the threat of driverless cars could challenge the future of the movie staple – the valet parker. But there’s hope...
They wear smart white polos and light khakis at Nobu in Malibu, just a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from Pepperdine University where some are students. At the former warehouse in downtown LA where foodie mecca Bestia set up shop six years ago, they don white button-ups and black waistcoats and speak a Spanish that flits from the robust accents of northern Mexico to the softer, slower dialects of Central America. At Hollywood Hills parties they’re more casual but just as professional, reaching into a massive lockbox with hooks from which dangle the keys of Mercedes G-Wagens, Tesla Model Xs and, the unofficial car of LA, the Toyota Prius. They live off your tips. So be cool.
The prices range from $5 on a Monday night to $25-plus on a weekend, and fluctuate thanks to the basic economics of supply and demand. The service is friendly and as quick as the parkers can manage. I’ve seen one take off at a sprint down the block after retrieving my keys from behind the valet stand. He then reappeared five minutes later in my four-door hatchback, still slightly out of breath. I climbed in and noticed the seat slightly lower, the radio tuned to bumping old-school Tupac via KDAY. I slip them the $2 tip anyway. KDAY is a cherished LA institution.
The metropolis offers subtleties in parking behaviour and style. Venice valets are appropriately beach ’hood chill, somehow finding parking gold in the narrow streets around that traffic magnet, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. At the Chateau, expect to see your rental parked next to mint-condition Porsches from the 1980s and the occasional Audi R8. Valets at Topanga Canyon’s mystical restaurant, the Inn of the Seventh Ray, fit cars into complex geometric patterns on a limited lot and line narrow Old Topanga Canyon Road.
Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach’s app developers have so far failed to do much to the parking game. Two valet-focused start-ups – the comically named Luxe and Zirxe – shut down their attempt to create an on-demand platform matching cars and parkers. The investment to acquire spaces was too significant, the margins too unpredictable.
The threat comes from ride-sharing services (or are they cabs after all?) such as Uber and Lyft. You don’t need to pay someone to park your car if you don’t have one. Hell, that Lyft driver might be a former valet parker himself. But that would mean a sea change in the way the US thinks about car ownership. And even if that happens, who wants to bet that LA will be the one city to hold out until the bitter end?
Well, you’ve certainly played your cards right, peeps: for one night only I am the designated driver. So sure, I’ll nurse a glass with supper and quaff a beer later but I’m the man behind the wheel for your night in Seoul where we’ll find that driving’s the thing if you want a bit of everything. The valets. Have you seen the parking valets in Seoul?
I’m looking at the angle of the bow, the smartness of the uniform, the starchiness of the collar. In valet-parking land the details are everything. At the Four Seasons, for example, you waft out of your car like a spirit and they do the rest. It’s almost spooky.
In valet-land the rest can be all sorts of things: chuck your keys to the old dude dressed in hiking gear (for all weathers, it’s that kind of job) and watch as your car is swallowed into something that looks like a tower block on the outside but on the inside is a take on a gigantic vending machine. See your wheels elevated 11 storeys by pumps and pistons and gantries that spin. And hope that you didn’t leave your cigarettes in the glovebox.
I’m a clean-living angel this evening and (unlike you) there’s no blur in my vision but on receipt of our motor I swear it’s been cleaned. Or at least dusted. I’m impressed and we get bowed away like nobody’s business. And now? Now we shall dance because I’m damned if I’m glugging all this lime and soda as you slurringly critique your Old Fashioneds, kids, without a boogie in the evening’s headlights.
Down in naughty old Itaewon we go, where the late places lie, where the car’s like a shark in shallow water and the streets are wet and warm and thronged with people. This is where the valet scene gets untucked and self-styled and cool. These guys are earning tips to get through college and keep themselves in Nike hightops and Supreme hoodies. They’re clockwork, too, these kids: they’ve got it down. I toss the keys to a guy who must be keeping Tony Moly’s haircare in business and we make for Cake Shop for cocktails and hip-hop, Pistil to funk it up and UN for some reggae and soul – and to chill the night right down. Because guess what? Your driver’s tired and is fumbling for a ticket to ride. Man, that valet dude’s cool. They’ve got their own tunes playing now from phones set to max: G-Dragon and Epik High and Ice Cube, of course.
We hear it ringing in our ears as we spin one last time back to Gangnam for sunrise barbecue at Saebyukjib. Garlic, after all, keeps the morning-after vampires at arm’s length. And the last thought that I think before my eyes close as quickly as the hotel blinds: did they really clean my car?
Summers in Beirut are sticky. The only respite comes at night when the smell of jasmine mingles with the sound of car horns as thousands upon thousands of people motor down from the surrounding mountains into the city to eat, drink and be merry.
Beirut is a car city. The near-total absence of public transport and hilly terrain mean that driving is unavoidable, particularly for the huge number of people who live in cities, towns and villages just outside the capital. At night, when the air transforms from suffocating to balmy, everyone converges on the same few streets to enjoy happy-hour cocktails. Most people are either in Mar Mikhael, where an international crowd downs doo-doo shots (a vodka concoction) on the pavement; Hamra, where students party alongside a more upmarket crowd to Arabic music; or Downtown, with its high-end rooftop cocktail bars and sweeping city views. But where to park in this crowded, tiny city? Don’t think about it – just pass the keys to the valet.
There are the hotels and the attendants in uniform and then there’s the rest of the city, where a valet invariably means a surly man in a polo shirt. But the valet is an integral part of life for many Beirutis, albeit not an especially enjoyable one. Most people have a valet-related story. There’s the guy who makes himself at home in your car by changing the seat setting or rifling through the glove compartment. Or the guy who slams the car door so hard that the window shatters. Or the guy who considers the pavement his private car park. But in a city where space is at a premium and public parking is scarce, the valet is often the only option, even if they are considered a mafia of sorts.
At their best, of course, they can make light work of an onerous task. Valets tend to know Beirut’s Google Maps-defying streets back-to-front and can find a parking space where none seems to exist – although usually to the detriment of pedestrians. Their pervasiveness can also occasionally be useful. One friend’s handbag was saved after a valet heroically hopped on his scooter to chase down someone who had just mugged her. The valet working next to my former flat often helped me and my partner carry furniture into our apartment and occasionally parked my rental car for me when the only spot available looked impossibly small.
Ultimately, when the dancefloor is calling, valet means the impossible task of parking is just one less annoying detail to worry about. You just pray you don’t get the guy who can’t find your car at the end of the night. That’s happened too.