I’ll take Manhattan… again

I’ll take Manhattan… again

Senior editor Sarah Gilbert Fox visits a pair of classic Big Apple hotels— one old, one new.

I spent my summers as a kid on the steamy streets of New York City. Dive-bombing the unsuspecting below with seltzer water from our 6th-floor apartment. Eating what was then considered exotic Chinese food and daring my dad to try the sea cucumber. Taking in pizza off a Broadway street curb, followed by Italian ices off Columbus Avenue then jumping in the water blasting out from the fire hydrant to cool off.

There were also the more elegant times, when Dad took me to F.A.O. Schwarz to pick out a new toy; to drink tea at The Plaza Hotel, then head over to The Pierre to watch the debutantes parade in; to Café Carlyle to check out Bobby Short checking himself out in the mirror while he sang Cole Porter and Jerome Kern songs; to the Kennedy Center, Broadway, the Met. Those were my New York days so many years ago. And it’s that combination of new and old that I’m trying to get back each time I return.

So when I heard that The Pierre Hotel had reopened after closing its doors for a $122 million renovation, and that Tim and Kit Kemp, the sui generis hot new hoteliers of London, had opened their first American property, the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, I knew I had to return.

The Pierre HotelI decided to stay first at The Pierre, the neo-Renaissance hotel built in 1928 by celebrated architects Schulze & Weaver that stands on Fifth Avenue and the southern tip of Central Park. One of four crown jewels of the luxurious Roaring ’20s (the other three being the Waldorf-Astoria, the Sherry-Netherland and the now-defunct Savoy), it went bankrupt during the Depression, but was saved by J. Paul Getty when he added apartments into the mix. For many years thereafter, it was the spot for famous celebrations, weddings, etc. In December 2007 the hotel closed for renovation, and reopened in June 2009. Now, once again, guests can sleep in the same rooms and suites that once hosted the likes of Howard Hughes, Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Elton John, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Queen Elizabeth II.

The renovation— a tour de force by three of Manhattan’s big leaguers: Alexandra Champalimaud & Associates, Brennan, Beer, Gorman & Associates and James Park & Associates— has transformed the hotel entrance into that of a NYC apartment building, where guests are invited to feel as if they’re entering their place of residence, taking the elevator with their favorite lift attendant, on their way to their own private pied-à-terre on the Upper East Side. The hotel has succeeded in this mission. The understated, elegant Manhattan hotel that’s about old money and good manners— a tradition that, in the last 20 years, has fast been pushed aside for the more robust new Wall Street money—stands firm with The Pierre.

The Pierre HotelOf the 140 guest rooms, 38 suites and 11 grand suites, I’m awarded the Presidential Suite. The designer touches begin at the door, but are immediately set aside for the enormous views of Central Park. There’s The Dakota, where John Lennon was shot. There’s the Wollman skating rink below. A bit ahead, I can spot the Jackie Onassis Reservoir, and right below me, almost touchable, is Hermès— ooh la la! Through another window, the horse-drawn carriages line up with the yellow cabs along Central Park South. These are to-die-for views out of windows that actually open.

But back to the designer touches. Agra wall-to-wall sculpted wool carpet in whites, beiges and golden hues meet large, twin tufted sofas and matching coffee tables. A Louis XV desk and a pair of demi-lune rose-colored Italian marble tables stand under 14-foot ceilings. I have two bedrooms from which to choose: one with twin beds fit for royal children, and a master suite with the loveliness of white-on-white arabesque cloth on the walls, and, really, the best view from any bed in the city.

I do what any breathless guest does. I order room service— cappuccino and a pastry— and enjoy it while I relax in the luxury bathroom, with its built-in TV above a roomy tub that rises up on a platform, with a huge picture window in front. The walk-in shower— large enough for four people— has a rain shower head built in the ceiling. Between the shower and the bath, it’s hard to stay dry in my room. But I must towel off, because I have a reservation at Manhattan’s newest, hottest restaurant, Le Caprice.

To get there, I walk through the famous Rotunda on the first floor of The Pierre — a domed room with a trompe l’œil mural climbing up the walls to the ceiling, where 3-D clouds float. The art is just this side of kitschy— with Erik Estrada and Jackie O painted in togas— but somehow, because it’s The Pierre, it’s also very “Jean-Honoré Fragonard” artsy.

Le CapriceWalking into 70-seat Le Caprice is almost culture shock after the Rotunda. Inside, the restaurant looks like a Chanel compact, with everything black and white and shiny. It’s a Richard Caring creation (the genius behind some of London’s most successful restaurants like The Ivy, Sheekey, Daphne’s, Bam-Bou and Urban Caprice), and his first foray in the Colonies. He doesn’t let down. I order the lobster salad, with shaved fennel and asparagus, and a wild mushroom risotto; then I have the Thai-baked sea bass and coriander-infused rice with a Gewurztraminer Domaine Paul Blanck wine. I have a happy palate, but still have to try the Scandinavian iced berries with hot white chocolate sauce. And voila, the final analysis: the experience of eating at Le Caprice starts with the look and ends with the good spirits in the stomach.

The best way to end the evening is at Two E, the bar/lounge with Jesse Torres, the head bartender, at the helm. “We’re going back to the 18th and early 19th centuries with our drinks,” he tells me. He’s studied under Dale DeGroff, the man who invented the term “mixology,” and does indeed bring a new twist to the older drinks. His Manhattans are made with Punt e Mes Italian vermouth instead of the typical sweet vermouth. His PierreTini uses Captain Morgan’s rum mixed in with the gin. And the Gin Gin— designed for fashion week and worth a trip by itself— is made with Domaine de Conter, Fever-Tree ginger ale, Hendrick’s cucumber-infused gin, fresh mint, fresh lime juice and fresh cucumber juice. It’s become a universal hit, and it was born right here at The Pierre.

Crosby Street HotelI picture myself a young Audrey Hepburn, getting ready to hit Barneys, Bergdorfs, Bloomingdales and Bendels, because I’m smack in the heart of it here. But three and a half miles south, I get my Edie Sedgwick on in SoHo at the spanking new, gorgeously imaginative Crosby Street Hotel. Coming here is a lot like heading to the Museum of Modern Art — I almost forget there’s a room waiting for me. The first thing I notice in the lobby is the South American sculptor Jaume Plensa’s 10-foot-tall head made up of white, metal letters — seemingly the alphabet floating into the shape of a man’s head. It looks as if a kid can climb over and inside of it. Two life-size papier-mâché dog sculptures made from Beano magazines (an English cartoon from the 1940s) by Justine Smith are seemingly at the ready to jump up happily to greet me. In the drawing room, just next to the lobby, is an enormous dog painting by Francois Bard, picking up on the theme of being eagerly welcomed by a best friend. And hello to the Andy Warhol take on four Queen Elizabeths in different colored hats. My favorite sculpture is the grouping of 12 old, black, rotary-dial phones, mounted to the wall, with their cords and receivers shooting out at different angles, impatient to be answered. Kit Kemp must do eclectic-meets-art better than anyone else on the planet. Wherever you go, you’re met head-on with a creative take on something.

It takes me a while to get to my room, because there is just so much to see. I have to shimmy past the 99-seat cinema, with its bright orange leather seats and purple felt walls. There’s a multi-purpose to this club. Guests get to bring friends, and people get to come in off the street (for the price of a standard movie ticket) and talk about the new to-do in Manhattan. And this is a space dynamic enough to talk about, too.

Two Es restrauntMy lodging for the night is a one-bedroom suite, an edgy study in black and white. The 10-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling window looks out toward Broadway and over the skyline. There’s a terrarium on the corner table and a fireplace in the living area. There are sculptures and paintings of cats, cows and horses throughout. The bed is a Frette-sheeted wonder, and the black and white dotted fabric headboard against the bold black wall complements the fabric on the dressmaker’s mannequin stationed next to the nightstand. On my desk is a mini-dressmaker’s mannequin light that, when illuminated, is blue.

The other rooms in the hotel are different in color (some are brilliantly flashy) and accessories (one comes with a giant silver penguin statue and matching penguin mirrors, another with a whitewashed ironwork chandelier paired with corresponding delicate candelabras), yet all have the same component found in all the Firmdale hotels: the dressmaker’s mannequin. It’s Kit Kemp’s signature— her first hotel, the Covent Garden, is a center for fashion and design companies; and it works especially well in the fashionable SoHo neighborhood, of which the hotel has become an extension. In keeping with the hip, the hotel has earned the first LEED gold certification for a designer hotel in America, by installing energy-efficient lighting, using low VOC finishes and FSC certified wood, and by recycling the refuse from the former building and parking lot that used to stand in the same spot.

The Crosby Bar offers some of the best food I’ve ever had in N.Y.C., which is odd, as the hotel does not claim to have a restaurant, per se. But executive head chef Robin Read oversees the most amazing scallop sliders, au goût fish and chips with minted pea puree and a gourmet free range chicken breast with braised savoy cabbage and bacon. And good luck deciding between the passion fruit crème brûlée, pear and poppyseed crisp with crème fraîche sorbet or the fig tart with fig ice cream and whipped vanilla mascarpone.

Sure, my weekend trip to Manhattan has been a step above the blasting fire hydrants and jaunts to F.A.O. Schwarz during my Upper West Side days. But spending time at The Pierre and The Crosby gives me exactly what I wanted: a return to my favorite memories of Manhattan and a chance to make new ones.

The Pierre Hotel
2 E. 61st St. at 5th Avenue, 212-838-8000, http://www.lhw.com

The Crosby Street Hotel
79 Crosby St., 212-226-6400, http://www.firmdale.com

PLAY
> Winter Antiques Show, 337 Alexander Ave., Bronx, 718-292-7392, http://www.winterantiquesshow.com; Jan. 22-31, 2010. A major antique happening. Find the most beautiful antiques, jewelry, paintings, rugs, chandeliers, furniture and silver one can imagine. This is where the hoi polloi and designers mingle.

> Shen Yun Performing Arts at Radio City Music Hall, 1260 6th Ave., 212-465-6115, http://www.radiocity.com; Feb 13-21. Controversial, yet exciting classical Chinese story-based dance.

> Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark at the Hilton Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St., 212-556-4750; http://www.hiltontheatre.com. The Edge and Bono come together to create what director Julie Taymor calls her “circus rock ’n’ roll drama.”

>Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, 100 Frost St., Brooklyn, 718-349-5033; http://www.thebrooklynkitchen.com. 7,000 square feet of cooking school-meets-butcher shop-meets brewing and winemaking.

>Le Caprice, 795 Fifth Ave. at 61st Street, 212-940-8195

 

Written for Baltimore Style magazine, January 2010

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