How L’Auberge was built, part III

Presented by

Joe Jelley

After much convincing and negotiating, plans for L’Auberge Del Mar made it through the planning process.

In 1989, Jim Watkins’ $40-million dreamboat hotel opened in the summer of 1989.

“We tried to bring back the old Del Mar Hotel ambiance as much as possible, and one of the main features was a grand fireplace, so the fireplace in L’Auberge is an exact replica of the old hotel fireplace,” Watkins said.

He carried his Hollywood theme for the inn to naming rooms after celebrities.

“Jimmy Durante’s wife wanted the bar named after him, so we named the bar after Durante. We named the ballroom after Bing Crosby and most people don’t know this but Desi Arnez was a brilliant person and also a fine writer,” Watkins said. “He used to teach at San Diego State. So we named the library after him.”

The L’Auberge had casual dress attire before it became commonplace.

“We had a black-tie event on the beach: bathing suit with black tie and tux,” Watkins recalled. “Conferences came down and did stuff like that and fell in love with Del Mar and the hotel.”

Another popular event was Wednesday Night at the Opera. “Every Wednesday night I’d have Opera Night. We’d have two- to four-hundred people in the lobby and a dozen opera singers. One would start and then point to another and they would join in and you’d have half a dozen singing in harmony,” Watkins said.

Though Watkins had succeeded in creating the old Del Mar Hotel of his dreams, the world had changed. The go-go economy of the 1980s sputtered and real estate took a big hit.

“In ’92 or ’93 the whole real estate environment went in the tank,” said David Winkler, who developed the Del Mar Plaza across Camino del Mar. L’Auberge opened just in time for the recession.

“It was a commercial success,” Watkins said. “The community loved it. People enjoyed it. It was ranked by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leach as one of the great hotels of the world.”

But Watkins’ dream lasted five years.

After opening in 1989, Watkins sold L’Auberge to Lowe Enterprises in 1994, “for less than I paid for it,” he said.

“The timing was wrong, but the project was right for the community and for the market,” Watkins said.

He said there’s a difference between a hotel built to satisfy a market and one built to satisfy a longing.

“L’Auberge was not done as I would normally do a hotel,” said Watkins, who has developed a dozen hotels along the California coast, “because profit was not the motivation.

“So we threw caution to the wind and did whatever it took to make it a great hotel. As Walt Disney once said, ‘Success depends on dreams, make your dreams come true.’ ”

Editor’s note: This article, written by Richard Arcello, is reprinted from the “Del Mar Picture Book,” published by Joe Jelley. Contact him at