The Palace Hotel, Midtown NYC
When your business empire is about to crumble like a cookie, what should you do? Commission an extravagant building, of course. Preferably one that is architecturally important, carries your name and will some day be consumed by a skyscraper.
This is exactly what Henry Villard, one-time president of the Northern Pacific Railway, did in 1868 when he commissioned what would become one of New York’s best-loved buildings: the neo-renaissance Villard Mansions on Madison Avenue. It was designed by Stanford White, who would eventually meet his end by being shot point-blank in the face by the millionaire husband of his 16 year-old mistress. What Villard would have made of this, or indeed the fact that his pride and joy was eventually extended upwards by way of a 55-storey black glass monstrosity, is anyone’s guess.
The Mansions now serve as the grand entrance to the five-star New York Palace Hotel, home to the two-Michelin starred restaurant, Gilt. Part of the Dorchester group, the Palace holds the torch for the more traditional school of luxury, with grand proportions, marble bathrooms and elegantly decorated rooms. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the hotel at times feels a little tired. Staying at the Tower (the highest floors of the hotel) gives you access to a private reception, dedicated concierge and the 3,800 square foot Towers Club, complete with bar, on the 39th floor.
On paper this sounds good, but the Tower’s ‘executive’ breakfast room feels like an airline lounge, where a mediocre buffet gets pecked at by mid-level executives and their children.
This is easily avoided, however – just take breakfast in your room. On the 49th floor the city soundtrack below is barely
audible and you’re free to enjoy the brown-grey vista of New York in peace.
I’d been told that Gilt “redefines tradition”, and was keen to see what this PR-heavy description meant in practice. The restaurant is dark, lit in rouge tones. In another setting this could have been terrible, but here the execution is perfect.
The food, which is described as “new American”, brings with it expectations of a haute-cuisine take on the hamburger, or foot-long amuse bouche. We shouldn’t have worried. Dinner is a wonderfully orchestrated, innovative and exciting combination of flavours and textures. The fluke tartare with green apple, beet and hippy favourite, quinoa, is simply spectacular. Meanwhile, the bespectacled sommelier Patrick Cappiello was fantastically geeky – just as I expect my experts to be – he took us on a surprisingly informative journey through new world wines as we savoured the tasting menu.
Just a few blocks north-west of the Palace, at 128 West and 44th, is Stanford White’s other architectural creation, the Chatwal. The recent refurbishment promises boutique luxury with a traditional twist, and the art deco theme is certainly striking; the lobby and bar envelope you in chrome and red leather, whisking you back in time to the Great Depression, which seems an ironic name for the period considering the decadence of the style. The rooms are small but arranged tastefully. Staff at the Chatwal are immensely proud of the Toto toilets: new-fangled Japanese technology at play as you relieve, rinse and blow-dry your rear-end in a slightly unnerving remote-controlled bathroom ritual.
The Lamb’s Club, the hotel’s restaurant and bar, didn’t live up to expectations, however. There was little to recommend the grill menu – indeed everything we ordered seemed to come with a layer of cheese. Breakfast was more civilised, better than that offered by the Palace, complete with luxurious table service, linen and cutlery.
Despite sharing an architect these two hotels have little in common. If you choose the Palace you are going for grandeur and breakfast in your room. The Chatwal, meanwhile, gives you suede walls, modern rooms and impressive rectal cleansing. If find yourself in the Chatwal for dinner, don’t bother – I know a restaurant a few blocks south that’s definitely worth a visit.