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Manhattan's new hotels are hip by design
By Matthew DeBord
Over the past two years, more than a dozen new hotels have been unveiled in Manhattan, and if a single trend unifies them all, it can be summarized in one word: design. And make that a capital "D."
Hotels -- particularly boutique hotels of fewer than 200 rooms -- can no longer debut as mere glamorous getaways. Today, they must offer a sharp visual edge -- a prerequisite that has led to the creation of dramatic semipublic spaces that attract out-of-town guests and savvy locals alike.
The gauntlet has effectively been thrown down to some of the world's most talented designers and architects. They have taken up the challenge all over town, resulting in hotels as diverse as the luxurious Benjamin in Midtown, the airy Bryant Park and the aggressively contemporary 60 Thompson in SoHo.
In the process, the boutique hotel has become to early 21st century Manhattan what the nightclub was to the city in the 1980s. Nary a vacant architectural gem or gutted hulk sits for very long without a hotelier locking it in his entrepreneurial sights -- and then getting a designer on the phone. These days, if a hotel doesn't feature at least one superhip bar, decorated to resemble a modern-day souk or the escape pod of a starship, it seems dull.
Of course, if a night aboard Battlestar Galactica isn't for you, there are plenty of new hotels that provide more traditional virtues. Midtown's ThirtyThirty delivers sharp styling at budget prices, while the Flatiron neighborhood's Hotel Giraffe splits the difference between serious chic and simple comfort.
But back on the superstyled front, the thrills begin in the lobby. Gone are yesterday's reposeful vestibules. Today's lobbies are conceived as party time advertisements. They are explicitly intended to draw trendsetting urbanites who might never glimpse the guest rooms, but who will still spend money and help make the building a destination.
If, by chance, you are interested in checking in for a few nights, you'll be glad to find that hotels have begun to push the envelope on amenities and services. To robes and stationery have been added contemporary telecommunications hardware and high-speed Internet access. Besides offering extensive catalogs of movies on demand, televisions are enabled to surf the Web, and many are outfitted with DVD players.
Traditional concierge service has been supplanted by elite teams of hospitality commandos who will scour the city to satisfy any request. Nondescript soaps and boring shampoos have been replaced with products containing exotic botanicals never tested on animals. Lighting is low. Minibars stock gourmet junk food.
New York is on a pace to boast more than 63,000 hotel rooms by 2002, a 5 percent increase over 1998 levels. Occupancy has soared to as high as 84 percent. Currently, the average room-rate is just under $240 per night. That's steep, but in many cases the expense seems justified, given the range and quality of services. And besides, it's New York, where few pleasures come cheap.
The hotels listed here are the top seven of the class that has opened in the past two years, in our view. Bear in mind that rates vary depending on season.
52 E. 41st St.
Telephone (212) 338-0500
Fax (646) 227-1206
Web site www.dylanhotel.com
The former Chemist Club building has undergone a $30-million renovation that added four floors to the original ten and brought the structure into the 21st century without sacrificing its unique architectural appeal.
The chemistry theme has been somewhat preserved through the inclusion of Pyrex glassware in the bathrooms, which also contain cone-shaped porcelain sinks and chrome fixtures. At the top of the price range is the sprawling Executive Suite, the floor of which is made entirely of Italian marble. But it is the Alchemy Suite that stands completely apart from every other room in the hotel. Relatively tiny, this Gothic aerie comes complete with a vaulted ceiling and a 1932 stained-glass window adorned with alchemical symbols.
The two-level hotel bar overlooks a hall with a reverently preserved 1903 fireplace. Hidden away on a slightly gloomy block, the Dylan might be your secret weapon when all the city's other boutique hotels are booked up.
356 W. 58th St.
Telephone (212) 554-6000
Fax (212) 554-6001
The Hudson redefines the New York hotel experience. A block west of Columbus Circle, the former Henry Hudson Hotel has been outlandishly renovated to a design by Philippe Starck, on a $110-million budget. A bunkerlike facade confronts new arrivals. The entrance breaks every rule of basic hospitality. Austere detailing, bathed in corrosive green light, ushers one toward the glass-enclosed escalators that ascend to the lobby.
The design shifts here, abandoning the UFO vibe for a postmodern Bavarian hunting-lodge aesthetic. Guests can choose between two watering holes -- Hudson Bar or The Library. The first showcases a ceiling painted by Francesco Clemente, the second a purple pool table. Chef Jean-Baptiste Mondino oversees Cafeteria, the hotel's eatery, where subversive comfort food is consumed tavern-style on slablike refectory tables.
The small guest rooms are accessed through dim corridors. A deluxe studio is a tight cube paneled in makore wood, the simple platform bed adorned only by a studded, white leather headboard. It is not so much a place to sleep as a place to crash. Likewise the hotel itself, for most mere Earthlings, is a place to visit rather than stay.
288 Madison Ave.
Telephone (212) 983-4500 or (877) 793-7322
Fax (212) 499-9099
Web site www.libraryhotel.com
A lot of hoteliers would be content to unveil a project as welcoming and comfortable as the Library Hotel, but Henry Kallan, who owns three additional Manhattan hotels, wanted something more. Enter his architect's son, Jordan Jacobs, a set designer. "We were having dinner one night," says Jordan's father, Steven Jacobs, "discussing how overused the library theme was. That was when Jordan came up with the Dewey decimal system."
Remember the Dewey decimal system? At the Library Hotel -- a short walk, by the way, from the main branch of the New York Public Library -- rooms are organized numerically from 300.001 (Communication) through 1200.006 (Ancient Religion), with a wealth of other bookish themes interspersed. Mathematics (500.001) contains an algebra textbook. The Love Suite (1100.006, on the Philosophy floor) shelters a copy of the Kama Sutra.
The cozy hotel is also crammed with common space, from the Poetry Garden terrace to the mahogany-paneled, fireplace-warmed Writers Den to the second-floor Library. There is an Executive Inspiration Boardroom on the penthouse floor for conferences. In the lobby, guests can relax on a pale sage sofa, browse more books (all of which are for sale, at $50 a pop) or ponder the hotel's sole piece of kitsch, a statue of an ape contemplating a human skull.
147 Mercer St.
Telephone (212) 966-6060
Fax (212) 965-3838
Of New York's recently opened boutique hotels, The Mercer sets the standard by which all others must be judged. The entrance is virtually invisible, the lobby an homage to the domestic fantasies lived out in the million-dollar lofts that define SoHo real estate. Ample chairs are slipcovered in cream, the sofa in tomato red. The bookcases harbor art books both stately and risqué (sample title: Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends), and here and there are placed weathered African totems and ravaged Oriental rugs.
Designer Christian Liaigre's rooms are, according to the hotel staff, styled for sex. Hefty keys (rather than antiseptic electronic pass cards) admit, with an illicit click, guests to suites in which texture, from the sumptuous linen comforters to the slowly stirring ceiling fans, is everything. Bathrooms are equipped with dimmable lighting, condoms and strategically positioned mirrors.
In the bar, upstairs from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Mercer Kitchen, the guys who hang out slamming espressos resemble Belgian conceptual artists. You could pound the cobblestones all day and not find a better forum in which to gauge the vicissitudes of New York cool.
The Regent Wall Street
55 Wall St.
Telephone (212) 845-8600
Fax (212) 845-8601
Web site www.regenthotels.com
A bit old-school by the standards of most of New York's new hotels, The Regent Wall Street might have them all beat in terms of sheer comfort. And then, of course, there's that 12,000 square-foot ballroom with the 70-foot ceilings and the Wedgwood-inlaid dome. Takes your breath away.
The rooms are more conservative CEO than dot-com IPO. Chenille, silk damask and velvet set a quiet, dignified mood, and the Italian marble bathrooms are immense. High rollers looking for a thorough pampering can opt for the Grand Deluxe Loft Suite, where an elevated living area opens onto a private terrace.
Renovation of the 1842 Greek Revival landmark added a spa and fitness center, as well as a restaurant, 55 Wall. Privacy-craving executives will especially appreciate a remnant of the building's former life as a bank: The safe has been converted into a conference room -- just in case the market crashes and you need somewhere to hole up until it all blows over.
2 Avenue of the Americas
Telephone (212) 519-6600
Fax (212) 519-6700
Web site www.tribecagrand.com
Sister to the SoHo Grand, the TriBeCa Grand fills a gap in a neighborhood that is long on trendy restaurants but short on lodgings.
Guests enter via a stone-paved wedge and are greeted by bellmen who speak into microphones concealed, Secret Service-style, in their sleeves. The majestic atrium is topped by a skylight and separated from the lobby by a curved screen that glows undulantly in the manner of a lava lamp. All rooms are outfitted with insulated doors (to shield guests from the din that rises through the atrium). Each bathroom comes with a rubber duck -- a black rubber duck -- and a selection of toiletries from Kiehl's.
The basement-level Hudson Room is set up for film premieres, as is the adjacent 100-seat screening room. At Church Lounge, diners can sample the cuisine of chef Rob Miketa, quaff Belgian beers at the bar, or drift back into the smoking lounge, called Chambers. It's a laid-back scene that perfectly suits this casually wealthy corner of the city.
W New York -- Union Square
201 Park Ave. S.
Telephone (212) 253-9119 or (877) 946-8357
Fax (212) 779-0148
Web site www.whotels.com
The 20-story Guardian Life Building has been evocatively reworked by designer David Rockwell, who has brought a fantastical dimension to Starwood Hotels & Resorts' fourth New York property. The 1911 Beaux Arts structure now features an entrance fringed by bamboo curlicues in oblong planters. A grand staircase rises to a ballroom that overlooks Union Square.
Ornate passageways connect rooms furnished with padded leather headboards and lavender throws. Bathrooms are filled with Aveda bath products. Guests have 24-hour access to a crack team of concierges and a private cardio-fitness center.
Wall-covering topiaries festoon the first-floor lounge. The restaurant, Olives, is helmed by Todd English, whose Boston eatery of the same name has earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Should you choose to dine out, you'll be glad to know that the hotel resides at the epicenter of one of the city's culinary hot zones. Within easy walking distance is a who's who of Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners, including Gramercy Tavern, Union Pacific and Veritas.