Just how many luxury hotels can a single small island support? With the number of hotel rooms in New York City set to soar past 90,000 next year, and with the Manhattan landscape changing fast to accommodate the most luxurious, it’s possible to imagine a time when the steel and glass canyons of the central grid system will be populated almost exclusively by well-heeled short stay visitors and businessmen. Welcome to the new New York City…
This year has seen the opening of an astonishing amount of five star deluxe properties: two Andaz hotels, a new W, a new Gansevoort, an Intercontinental, the Trump Soho, and the Chatwal. Each is attempting to bring more to the city than just a decent square footage of bedroom with en suite. In an echo of the 1920s, when New York social life revolved almost exclusively around hotels, these new – or in some cases reinvented – properties are cultural magnets for tourist and locals alike. They raise the bar, make headline news and reinvent whole districts.
The new Andaz and W hotels that opened this year are integral to the rejuvenation of the financial district after dark. The Andaz Wall Street is one of the finest, and most progressive hotels in the city – complimentary minibars and wifi come as standard, and the rooms are immense. Instead of a TV shoved against a wall, there’s an island work station that enhances the feeling of space. It’s a sleek, pared-down, modern residence. The BLT Bar & Grill at the new W, a few blocks away, is perhaps the best restaurant in the neighbourhood, serving refined but muscular comfort food: filet mignon; macaroni and comté gratin… It’s all done so perfectly, and is a blessing for the hedge funders who recently snapped up real estate in the area. If everything in the vicinity of Seaport is off your radar, readjust your sights.
Just as the Meatpacking district (or MePa, as some are determined to call it) seemed to have peaked and was being handed over to the declassé bridge and tunnel crowd, Andre Balazs’s Standard (technically ‘thestandard’, and if we’re being pernickety that should be read upside down) developed a spectrum of intense social scenes this year and rebooted it. From its beer garden to offbeat bingo nights and the rooftop Le Bain ‘invited guests’-only parties ‘curated’ by Le Baron’s André Saraiva, Balazs creates buzz after buzz. He also continues to court notoriety: although The Standard has stopped actively encouraging exhibitionism by its guests in glass-fronted bedrooms overlooking the new public High Line park space, the New York Post’s website still has a gallery of past peepshow escapades.
Far away from the bottle service and velvet ropes of the Meatpacking district, the Ace Hotel has its spiritual home in the indie-rock hipster milieu of Portland Oregon. The new New York outpost is no different, but it’s anything but a slouch. Think of it as a Chelsea Hotel for the ambition-driven 21st century. Along with the painstakingly studied letterpress-style typography, the urban art in the lobby and the industrial-chic utilitarian bedrooms, the Ace has imported the Stumptown Coffee crew. That line that you see snaking out of the door and along W29th street every morning is for the best latte in the country, served by bearded, tattooed, flat-cap wearing boys in braces. The Ace has injected high style adrenalin into a previously dead block of perfume wholesaler and florists. On-site are the pitch-black booths of the Breslin and John Dory Oyster Bar – Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s newest installments in their growing foodie empire. Next door are branches of Project 8 and Opening Ceremony, two of the most directional of the city’s boutiques. The Ace is a microcosm of contemporary New York City: a midtown, glossy redux of downtown cool.
There was a time when genuine downtown hotels were a rarity. When the Soho Grand opened in 1996, it was almost shocking to be able to bed down between the lofts and galleries. Now the area is infested with boutique properties alongside Banana Republic, J Crew and Apple. The Soho Grand’s designer, William Sofeld – who also works regularly for Tom Ford – remembers that it was a difficult as well as radical addition to the area. ‘There was a lot of resistance to development in the neighbourhood,’ he says. ‘But people were relieved when we opened. We respected the roots of what was unique to the neighbourhood, incorporating the works of local artists and artisans.’ The industrial-plush bent of the interior, including the Grand Street sidewalks’ round glass tiling, has always been in sync with SoHo, and this summer Sofeld returned to create a sumptuous Club Room and a floor of masculine, plush suites, with cine-screen Macs and coffee tables made from recycled newspaper. The hotel has never slipped off the cultural radar for festivals and, in particular, Fashion Week parties. ‘The paramount rule in my book is to create something that has a legacy,’ says Sofeld.
The new Manhattan hotel scene is radically different from the Ian Schrager era, when your room was the size of a postage stamp and you couldn’t actually visit the bar in your own hotel because of a private event. There’s too much choice out there for that to have remained the status quo. It’s now all about rooftop pools, shopping (The Plaza’s Assouline book store is the best thing about it), public bars and restaurants. Celebrity chef Todd English’s August opening at the new Intercontinental on Times Square, Ça Va, is his best kitchen yet, with a confident American take on classic brasserie fare, like roasted lamb ‘French dip’ that appears burger-like, with a side order of mildly curried potato chips. At the same time, the best ultra fine dining restaurants in the city are within the confines of the most polished hotels. The two Michelin-starred GILT (no lower case letters for this restaurant!) at the New York Palace Hotel is housed within the most imposing wood-panelled room of the old Villard Mansion, and Justin Bogle’s degustation menu, from hamachi sashimi to chocolate Liège waffle, represents the city’s most reliable excuse to dress up for dinner. Meanwhile, taking a kitchen-counter seat at the Manhattan outpost of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, on the second floor of the Four Seasons, is to be ringside for the finest chefs in action in the city. Keith McNally may be able to command a hipper, impossible-to-book scene downtown, but the food within the classic, I.M. Pei designed Four Seasons is superlative – you’ll know and worship the burger and the butter-rich potato emulsion already from London and Tokyo, so try the sea bass with lemongrass foam and amadai in yuzu broth. This is food sorcery and practical magic. Then of course there’s Adour at the St Regis, still the most enjoyable, sophisticated but relaxed dining experience in the Ducasse empire.
Many of the best hotel dining experiences replicate or interpret European classics, but it’s always refracted through a New York lens. Upper East Side native Tony Chi may well be the most Manhattan of hotel and restaurant designers, and certainly one of the most prolific. His designs for the new Andaz 5th Avenue, opposite the iconic New York Public Library, are typically clean, with high ceilings, huge windows and modernist expanses of uninterrupted surface, structurally ‘a reference to pre-war New York apartments’. His design for Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental – still one of the most consistently impressive Asian-fusion restaurants anywhere – treats the Central Park South vista as an opera, and the dining tables as a cloud level dress circle. ‘I’m trying to make design less visible,’ says Chi. ‘Invisible design is what touches you rather than what you see.’ Brunch at Asiate is a definitive only-in-Manhattan experience.
If there’s one style that continues to define Manhattan, it’s Art Deco. New York City as we know it was invented in the 1920s and 1930s, when industrialists forged it with ego-driven skyscrapers, gilt and streamlined marble lobbies. Some of the newest hotel projects are a sensitive update on the look, each of them with the sheen and glow of a beautifully crafted jewel box. The Chatwal recently opened within the chaos of Times Square and the theatre district; its lobby is reminiscent of a fin de siècle ocean liner, and the fittings in its rooms echo vintage fine leather steamer trunks (but the Toto Japanese washlet toilets are very 21st century). General Manager Joel Freyberg believes deco has an emotional significance for the city. ‘It harks back to the end of the great depression,’ he says. ‘The mood of the city was on the rebound. People wanted to relax and enjoy all that life has to offer. It’s timeless and chic.’ The Mark hotel on the Upper East Side reopened recently after an extensive refurbishment by Jacques Grange – famous for his work for YSL and Pierre Bergé. It’s an exquisite experience, with black and white striped marble bathrooms and lobby, and a Jean-Georges Vongerichten dining room that is incandescent with glamour; impeccably coiffed old money and visiting celebrities tuck nightly into refined versions of steak house classics and Grand Marnier soufflé. A short stroll away, Le Caprice has set a radically different visual pace for the reopened Taj Pierre hotel: step away from the Italianate trompe l’oeil lobby and into the bold monochrome outpost of the London original. The transition is as dramatic as a scene from Peter Greenaway’s The Cook The Thief; the new room is cool and long, with shiny black walls and David Bailey photo flourishes from the 60s. Eating fish and chips after a dry martini (gin based, of course) with a plate of Pimms jelly to follow at Le Caprice might be a quintessentially London experience, but here on Central Park, surrounded by Condé Nast fashion editors and society grand dames with immaculately Elnetted hair-dos, it becomes quintessentially Manhattan. And that’s the magic of the best hotels in New York – you can’t get that high gloss, dynamic Gotham feeling anywhere else in the world.
Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Delta Airlines. Delta now fly three times daily, direct, from London to New York with fully flat bed seats, each with direct aisle access, in BusinessElite. www.delta.com; 0845-600-0950