The Eclectic Big Apple

Dec. 21, 2004
Try a getaway at one of New York's quirky, romantic small hotels.

Step into the Age of Innocence at the Inn at Irving Place. Edith Wharton and Henry James would have felt at home in this 12-room lodging converted from two elegant 18th-century townhouses. Situated in Manhattan's arboreal and historic Gramercy Park neighborhood, the entrance to the Inn goes unmarked (which makes it a trifle hard to find) so visitors can act as if they're walking into their own brownstone. In Lady Mendl's Tea Salon or the parlor, sitting in front of an open fire in well-stuffed easy chairs, guests can sip tea or coffee from fine bone china and imagine horse-drawn carriages have replaced honking yellow taxis. Each guest room is different, but decorated with a Victorian-style dresser, four-poster bed, and fixtures. Guests call the service prompt and friendly, but assure that privacy is respected. Executives used to attending conferences in massive, impersonal New York hotels might refuse to believe these small hotels exist. After all, quaint accommodations -- often with 100 or fewer rooms -- are, well, Manhattan's hidden gems. Their existence even surprises some locals. Owned by New York families or eclectic entrepreneurs, these boutiques in exclusive residential neighborhoods pamper guests in thick, fluffy robes, towels, and duvet comforters. They keep well-stocked libraries, antique writing desks, and humidors. Even though picturesque, these hotels still offer amenities demanded by today's executives: two-line speaker phones, meeting rooms, grocery-shopping service, data ports, and fax machines. Best of all, their busy staffs possess some measure of that quality limited in the city: friendliness. Luxury does not come cheaply, but guests won't pay much more than at a major hotel chain. Since occupancy reaches its peak from October through early January, it is best to book early or in the slow season -- the summer -- when many small hotels offer deals. Sometimes a room can be found by calling in the early evening when managers know of late cancellations. If the price seems high, negotiate. Another tiny hotel is the Box Tree Inn found in the Turtle Bay district. Imagine stepping into a Faberg egg: Each guest room offers furnishings from a different country including France, Egypt, and Japan. The Zagat Survey guide praises the hotel's expensive French restaurant set "in an art nouveau room dripping with romantic energy." Some of New York's smaller hotels arrange themselves around themes. The Roger Smith Hotel, for example, bills itself as the art lover's paradise. Indeed, it is perhaps the only hotel run by an artist, whose sculptures mark the lobby, that also has ever-changing exhibits in its public spaces as well as its own storefront gallery. "Our mission is to expose emerging artists," explains Jill Brienza, the Roger Smith Gallery's director. Each month Brienza organizes artist suppers, lectures by critics, and other events in the hotel's penthouse suite. Some are by invitation only, but guests inquiring in the gallery are sure to receive a pass. A giant bronze sculpture, Dog by Fernando Botero, marks the lobby of the Kitano New York, owned by a Japanese construction tycoon and art aficionado. The Kitano also runs a gallery off its orchid-scattered lobby. For adventurous guests, the hotel offers one Japanese-style Tatami suite, complete with a ceremonial tea room. Its renowned Nadaman Hakubai restaurant is devoted to the exquisite Kaiseki cuisine that includes such delicacies as fugu, the puffer fish that can prove deadly unless processed correctly. If Roger Smith means art, and the Kitano mixes art with exotic Japonica, Morgans Hotel is the place to see and be seen. A suspicious number of employees look like models or movie stars. So do many guests. The first New York hotel cofounded by maverick entrepreneur Ian Schrager, a creator of Studio 54, Morgans feels minimalist and contemporary. Regular Concorde flyers might recognize the hand of Andree Putman, the jet service's interior designer, who also created Morgans' funky guest rooms with large TVs, low beds, original Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, and miniature bathrooms. Some visitors complain Morgans promotes style over service. The hip crowd packs the hotel's Asia de Cuba restaurant, so making a reservation can prove challenging. If Morgans is where New York meets Hollywood, the theater district's Hotel Casablanca offers visitors a taste of Morocco. Guests quickly realize someone behind the hotel's launch loved the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic. It turns out the owner, Henry Kallan, adored the film. A free continental breakfast is served in Rick's Cyber Caf. The hotel also offers complimentary coffee, tea, and snacks throughout the day. Spanish tile in Moorish designs give its public spaces a cheerful feel. Antique Berber textiles hang from walls. Since the Casablanca sits practically beneath the spot where the Times Square ball is dropped on New Year's Eve, seekers of serenity might choose to stay elsewhere at that time of year. The Lowell hotel, in an art-deco landmark building, organ-izes a few of its 44 suites around themes. In the late 1980s when Madonna stayed there, the hotel built a gym at her request. Today, complete with the latest workout equipment, it's called the gym suite. The Lowell also offers a garden suite with a terrace that's landscaped to bloom in the spring, summer, and fall. For dining, the hotel's Post House restaurant wins top reviews for its seared steaks. Locals line up for brunch and fresh-baked goods at Sarabeth's Kitchen at the Hotel Wales in Manhattan's mansion district of Carnegie Hill. One block from Museum Mile and Central Park, the Hotel Wales attracts culture mavens, but proves a long commute for executives conducting business in midtown or on Wall Street. On Sundays musicians play chamber music in its second-floor parlor. These gems are all tucked away in Manhattan's corners but are definitely worth searching out to add interest to what could be just another hotel stay.

Boutique hotels during the holidays
Rates vary by season and can be negotiated. Inn at Irving Place, 56 Irving Pl., 212/533-4600, $300-$400. Box Tree Inn, 250 E. 49th St., 212/758-8320, $200-$350. The Roger Smith Hotel, 501 Lexington Ave., 212/755-1400, $215-$315 (for better rates book over the Internet, The Kitano New York, 66 Park Ave., 212/885-7000, $300-$1,350 (visit the Web site, Morgans Hotel, 237 Madison Ave., 212/686-0300, $200-$1,800. Hotel Casablanca, 147 W. 43rd St., 212/869-1212, $245-$375 (cheaper rates available on request via the Web site, The Lowell, 28 E. 63rd St., 212/838-1400, $325-$1,800. Hotel Wales, 1295 Madison Ave., 212/876-6000, $219-$329 (discounts available for reservations via the Web site, For more choices or information, visit or call Central Reservation Service at 800-555-7555.

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