By Terry Trucco
At a glance: Even in the daytime the Empire reminds me of a nightclub.
The soaring lobby of this classic brick West Side hotel, standing across the street from Lincoln Center, is a glamorous black-and-gold lair with high-backed velvet sofas, animal prints galore, a bold black-and-white stone floor and gold silk curtains stretching from the mezzanine to the ground floor like a Badgley Mischka gown. And the grand staircase framed by a curtain is perfect for your entrance if you’re a bride, a hip-hop queen, Serena Williams (I saw her at a party here prior to the US Open) – or a guest with panache. Drinks are served in the dark, moody/glam bar to the side.
The mezzanine boasts more of those golden velvet sofas, so there’s always a place to sip a cocktail, leaf through a magazine or scan an often-interesting crowd that includes a mix of Europeans and Americans and lots of hip/young (the rooftop bar is a private-party mecca).
But the hotel’s last deep-dish renovation was in 2007, and the Empire needs to hit the refresh button. The hotel has looked tired and worn for a while with gently worn carpeting and a broken sofa seat on the mezzanine.
The result is rock bottom prices — a steal given the hotel’s superb Lincoln Center location. But if you’re picky or plan to spend hours on end in your room, look elsewhere.
Best detail: The iron-and-brass chandeliers, fabricated in France, that look like Noguchi sculptures — or gigantic earrings.
Rooms: Romantic and chic (if brown and gold are your colors). Queen rooms are extremely small — and can be dark on low floors — but make every inch count. A handsome leather headboard backs the Frette-sheeted bed (a soft throw is folded at the foot), the brown leather desk is big enough for work, and an ultra-suede curtain covers the compact closet. A flatscreen TV is mounted on the wall and a starburst mirror, the ultimate mid-century-mod detail, winks from a wall. Bathrooms, small, cool and outfitted with L’Occitane toiletries, resemble Finnish saunas. The tiles look like wood, and showers have rainfall heads and wood-slat floors.
King-bed rooms can be oddly shaped but are more spacious. Crave direct light? Most rooms with two full beds overlook the street. But rooms large and small are showing signs of wear.
Food: Ed’s Chowder House, the agreeable mezzanine restaurant, overlooks Lincoln Center and the pretty vest-pocket park across from it, depending on where you’re seated. Specializing in seafood, Ed’s serves up upscale seafood including lobster rolls, several varieties of chowders, oysters and a classic seafood tower. The dining room is large, light and airy with big windows. Reservations are a must pre-theater.
The building also houses P.J. Clarke’s, a branch of the famous New York Midtown pub, that’s bustling and comfortable and serves up serviceable American fare like hamburgers and oysters.
Drink: The aforementioned lobby bar serves coffee in fine china, though with Starbucks next door you see more green-emblazoned paper cups, as well as stiffer drinks.
But the showstopper is the Rooftop Bar 11 stories above ground, another jumping Jeffery Chodorow creation (he also oversees Ed’s Chowder House) serving drinks on the deck or in a window-lined room. I love the big EMPIRE HOTEL signs in red neon letters suspended above the terraces. But the place gets noisy.
Amenities: The rooftop plunge pool, available only to guests, is the marquee amenity even if it’s so narrow it looks like a stripe and is closed during the winter (it isn’t heated). It’s known to close without notice, so contact the hotel before you book is swimming is important to you. The wood deck features private cabanas guests can rent, outfitted with flatscreen TVs, mini fridges and daybeds. Free WiFi. The fitness room is small but nicely appointed. A small business center with computers is off the lobby. Pets allowed ($100 non-refundable).
Surroundings: Culture heaven. The hotel is across the street from Lincoln Center and is close to several movie theaters, Time-Warner Center (up-market mall shopping, Jazz at Lincoln Center and one-of-a-kind restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Per Se) and Central Park, and is not far from midtown shopping and Broadway theaters. The area around the hotel is saturated with restaurants, from low-key (Landmarc) to marquee (Picholine). Bus stops are a block away. The subway is a short walk.
Back story: The Empire dates from 1915, and like the neighborhood –West Side Story was set here — has had a zillion incarnations. I first stayed here in 1990 during the hotel’s chintz-covered mid-priced period, when the lobby was Tudoresque with no place to sit, rooms were outfitted with dark wood TV armoires and awash in floral prints, and electric outlets were scarce (to listen to the radio I had to unplug a lamp). The place degenerated into a scary budget hotel, changed hands once or twice, closed for extensive renovations and reopened in late 2007, much improved. The current owner, real estate mogul Joseph Chetrit, owner of the iconic-but-troubled Chelsea Hotel, came on board in May 2011.
Keep in mind: The website photo of the pool gives no indication of just how small, narrow or shallow it is. As mentioned above, the hotel is ripe for as refit and is looking worn upstairs and downstairs.