June 4, 1998 -- The calls come at all hours of the day and night now. On weekends, weeknights, holidays and even during the last episode of Seinfeld or during a time-out of a crucial NBA playoff game.
The callers are friends, friends of friends and acquaintances of friends of friends. At 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., the callers are always desperate and they always want the same thing: a hotel room in New York City. "Joe," they say, sounding more like strung-out junkies than business travelers, "can you help me out? I gotta have a room."
In case you hadn't noticed, it's almost impossible to get a room in Manhattan. There are days--and sometimes even weeks and entire months--when they might as well hoist a big, red, neon No Vacancy sign on top of the Empire State Building.
But that's not all. On top of the occupancy crunch, Manhattan has other problems. By American standards, New York hotel rooms are ferociously expensive. On many nights, $250 gets you a hovel. And you could still get a dog of a room at $400 a night. Worse still, many of the city's best properties are not affiliated with any of easy-to-book major chains. And some of Manhattan's most storied hotel marquees are nothing more than an old-fashioned New York rip-off.
Worst of all, there is a stark reality that must be acknowledged: New York does not have a truly great hotel. Even Manhattan's very best properties often lack a critical amenity or have scandalously small guest rooms or public areas. Due to the vagaries of New York real estate, and despite the stratospheric prices, a hotel stay in Manhattan is most often a matter of compromise than a visit to Valhalla.
So what do I tell all the desperate callers looking for a New York hotel? Here are some highly subjective opinions.
TOASTS OF THE TOWN
If money isn't the issue, I send my best friends to The Mark, the nearly flawless little hotel just off Central Park on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The staff is remarkably well trained, Mark's Restaurant is an undiscovered jewel and I always wish I was as sophisticated as a stay at The Mark makes me feel. The lobby and Mark's Bar are too small, but the guest rooms and services are impeccable. Should you prefer a midtown hotel, the Palace on Madison Avenue will do nicely. The public rooms in the historic Villard Houses are dazzling, Le Cirque 2000 is one of the house restaurants and the 55-story tower of guest rooms has been discretely segregated into what is the equivalent of three elegant, smaller hotels.
MONEY FOR NOTHING
If The Mark and The Palace rule the Manhattan lodging heap, what about big-name places like The Plaza, the St. Regis, the Four Seasons and the Carlyle? The Plaza is wildly overrated, overpriced and overflowing with gawking tourists. The Carlyle assumes it does you a favor by allowing you to stay. The charm of the St. Regis simply eludes me. And while the Four Seasons has gigantic guest rooms by New York standards, the prices are unconscionable even by New York standards. Besides, when Four Seasons execs from other cities visit New York, they stay at The Pierre, the gracious Fifth Avenue doyenne also managed by Four Seasons.
THE SUITE LIFE
Real-estate realities virtually preclude all-suite and extended-stay properties in New York. But a local chain, Manhattan East, has an array of suite-like properties. The little-known Dumont Plaza may be your best bet of the Manhattan East lot. And don't ignore the newish Trump International, the elegant suite hotel carved out of the old Gulf+Western office building.
New York has its share of gigantic hotels that make you feel like a nameless, faceless drone. I don't mind these "factory" hotels as long as the location is right, the price is fair, the service is okay and the room is decent. New York's most flourishing factories? The Grand Hyatt atop Grand Central Terminal, the New York Hilton at Rockefeller Center and the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
ONLY IN NEW YORK
Ian Schrager has hit it big with projects like the Paramount and the Royalton. But Schrager stresses style over substance and the staff is trained to be ruder-than-thou. If you want hotels with a better New York attitude, try any of Bernard Goldberg's hotels. Goldberg's Gotham Hospitality Group has taken down-at-the-heels properties like The Shoreham, The Mansfield and The Roger Williams and revitalized them with hip architecture, cool design and friendly staffs. Prices are fair for New York (usually $200 or less) and include lovely perks such as free breakfast and in-room CD players and VCRs. Meanwhile, it's still okay to skip The Algonquin, the long-ago home of the wits of the Round Table. Even a recent renovation hasn't help this place.
VALUE FOR MONEY
The Sheraton-Russell on Park Avenue south of 42nd Street is homey and nicely redone. Every room is outfitted with a printer/fax/copier machine and lots of other useful work-in-your-room business amenities. The Roosevelt won't dazzle you even after its multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation. But the rooms are large and newly decorated, the location adjacent to Grand Central is prime and the price is right. And the Crowne Plaza on Broadway is comfy, unassuming and reasonably priced, which is just short of a miracle in Manhattan.
My choice as the most serene spot in the nonstop maelstrom that is Manhattan? The gracious lobby of the Kitano, a handsome, understated hotel on Park Avenue that serves mostly Japanese travelers. It's blissfully quiet here and the service and amenities are excellent. And the Millenium Hilton, adjacent to the World Trade Center near Wall Street, is wonderful. It boast large rooms with great views of New York Harbor; Taliesin, a slick gem of a restaurant; an indoor pool, a Manhattan rarity; and a staff and services attuned to the needs of the high-powered brokers and investment bankers who often overnight here.