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Is This the Fancy New Hand Soap of Choice for Cool Restaurants?

Best known for its cultishly adored Santal 33 fragrance, Le Labo might be giving Aesop a run for its money

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Le Labo soap and lotion in the bathroom at Estiatorio Louka in Beverly Hills
Courtesy of Estiatorio Louka

The importance of a restaurant bathroom cannot be overstated: If it’s gross, diners may never return, and if it’s wonderful — sporting, say, Ryan Gosling wallpaper or a bar serving free Champagne — it will almost certainly achieve Instagram fame. Great restaurants consider every last lavatory detail, right down to the hand soap. The distinctive cream-and-black pump bottles from Australian brand Aesop have been the pricey soap of choice for numerous trendy restaurants over the past few years — and at $39 for a 16.9 fl oz bottle of hand soap, a true guilty-pleasure purchase for diners who’ve shelled out for it after discovering it in a tony restaurant bathroom. But it seems luxury fragrance brand Le Labo may be nipping at Aesop’s impeccably moisturized, heavenly scented heels.

New York-based Le Labo is famous for its cultishly adored fragrance Santal 33, the unisex, sandalwood-y dream worn by Justin Bieber and every cool fashion person in Brooklyn. Though the company was founded in 2006 and Santal 33 was unleashed in 2011, its hand soap is a much newer phenom: It was launched about a year ago, but didn’t really start showing up in restaurant bathrooms until six months ago, after the company designed a custom metal bracket to keep sticky-fingered patrons from taking the soap and its coordinating hand lotion home with them — a tempting prospect, as the soap is priced at a hefty $22 for 250 milliliters or $38 for 500 milliliters. (Restaurants, however, do get cheaper wholesale pricing.)

With that company-sanctioned theft protection device in place, Le Labo’s minimal white pump bottles can be found adorning bathroom walls at various big-city hot spots such as Kopitiam, the red-hot Malaysian restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; Misi, the Williamsburg pasta destination from chef Missy Robbins; Barbara Lynch’s Menton in Boston; and NYC’s Mission Chinese.

“It’s the only kind of soap I’ve ever used that makes you want to smell your hands,” says Matthew Kenney, the chef-owner of Plant Food and Wine in Venice, California, who also used to run a vegan cooking school. “I think it’s a nice touch.”

Le Labo’s hand soap comes in two scents: Hinoki, which is “inspired by the Buddhist temples of Mount Koya in Japan” and Basil, a “citrusy and vegetal” scent. Both smell subtle but also expensive, in a way that $3 bottles of Softsoap or Bath & Body Works anything simply cannot. (Tragically, Santal 33 is not available in liquid hand-wash form — only in a $48 bar soap, which would obviously be much less sexy for a restaurant bathroom.)

Like Aesop, which cultivates an air of exclusivity by making restaurants sign a lengthy agreement in order to display its hand soap (promising, among other things, that it won’t refill the bottles with a cheaper product, lest the company stop supplying them), Le Labo is selective about who it works with, gaining most of its restaurant clients simply via word of mouth.

“I really appreciated that Le Labo had to approve our restaurant in order to officially have a corporate account with them,” says Theana Kotsiovos, co-owner of Estiatorio Louka in Beverly Hills. “They take pride in their brand and are cautious of making sure it is placed in companies they respect.”

Who buys $40 hand soap anyway, other than extremely hip restaurants? At least four people, according to the reviews posted on Nordstrom’s website, where one purchaser says Le Labo’s Hinoki version “SMELLS & CLEANS GR8!!!!”

For Kenney, the cost is worth it: “Little details like that,” he says, “can make such a difference in people’s minds.” Indeed, the whole point of dining out — for many diners, anyway — is to enjoy things they can’t have at home (like someone waiting on them hand and foot, or a dessert that looks like an avocado but is actually not!). Apparently that now includes multiple ultra-hip options for washing preciously expensive products down the drain.