By Terry Trucco
At a glance: I can’t think of a better location if you’re a museum buff: the American Museum of Natural History is across the street, the New York Historical Society is a block away, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art stands directly across Central Park. And following a much-needed renovation, completed in 2010, this moderately priced neighborhood hotel looks fresher — and more loved — than it has in years.
The new room decor — a typical if timely take on tradition, with towering headboards in tufted ultrasuede and wood, and an urbane palette of brown, white and gold — suits this dignified 1920s hotel to a T (or an E). The spruced-up brick exterior, complete with a new chocolate brown awning, looks spiffy, too.
The contemporary take on tradition extends to the expansive, wood-paneled lobby, with two ample seating areas flanking the polished wood check-in counter. The lobby renovation was smart. No one disturbed the pink marble floor or the dark wood paneling that feels in tune with the building’s Roaring 20s origins. But the outdated oil landscapes in heavy gold frames and fussy sconces are history, replaced by bevel-edged mirrors, clean-lined contemporary sconces, flatpanel TVs tuned to news channels and best of all, a fleet of up-to-date, high-sided club chairs and sofas in artfully faded plum velvet, good looking and comfortable.
On the second floor another seating area awaits, more Old World than the lobby with leather wing chairs and a brocade sofa. It also offers a compact children’s playing area.
The vibe is more homey than grand (or hip). You see guests in sweatshirts and baseball caps sprawled in the club chairs after a day on the town or poring over guidebooks and maps. The effect, like the hotel’s West Side surroundings, is pleasingly unpretentious.
Rooms: To borrow a political phrase, change can be good. Fresh paint, new wallpaper in a discreet cafe au lait hue and glamorous new headboards bedeck the rooms, which range from snug to spacious. LG flatpanel TVs and flirtatious skirted side chairs that swivel are standard issue, even in the smallest rooms.
The room I saw was spotless, and white sheers pulled back to reveal a lovely view of the Natural History Museum and Planetarium. (Plum rooms overlook the museum and the surrounding park or the back garden, but beware of anything facing the extremely dark air shaft.)
Room layout hasn’t changed much over the years, and the Excelsior has good 1920s bones. The smallest rooms lack entryways but are just about big enough for two people and come with twin beds or a queen. In the more spacious suites, French doors separate the sleeping area from the sitting room.
Bathrooms, renovated in the late ’90s, display pedestal sinks and spotless white tiles embellished with floral reliefs that reminded me of Heidi, the little Swiss peasant girl, not Klum. Befitting an older hotel, you get tub-shower combos — and though tubs look freshly resurfaced, I saw porcelain patches on one.
Food and drink: Calle Ocho, a lively Latin fusion restaurant serving nightly dinner and weekend brunch, moved to the hotel from nearby Columbus Avenue in 2011 and is jammed most nights, mostly with locals. Named for the main drag in Miami’s Little Havana, it’s menu brims with bright inventive fare like lobster ceviche teamed with passion fruit chili, succulent Peruvian adobo chicken and plates of sweet and green plantains. The restaurant, splashed with equatorial hints of orange, yellow and turquoise, is spacious, upbeat and noisy in a good way, if you like the sound of people having a good time.
Amenities: WiFi ($9.95 for 24 hours), free in the lobby and conference rooms. The fitness center, billeted in a large wood-paneled room, is mirrored, with a variety of apparatus and free weights. There’s a small business center where you can use computers.
Surroundings: Besides the Natural History Museum, the Rose Planetarium is across the street, and the New-York Historical Society, a savvy history museum, is a block away, as is Central Park. Lincoln Center, the East Side’s Museum Mile (the line-up includes the Guggenheim, Jewish, Cooper-Hewitt Design and Metropolitan museums) and Midtown shops and business are slightly further afield but easy to reach. The hotel is also convenient to Columbia University. And the area is chock-a-block with restaurants including some, like nearby Dovetail, a beacon of fine dining. The subway station is half a block away as are bus stops.
Back story: Built during the 1920s, the Excelsior started out as a residential hotel (rooms still had kitchenettes when we first stayed here in the early ’90s). It was a congenial budget hotel with layers of old paint on the walls, simple furniture and $75 rooms until the late 1990s. It also had a terrific old-fashioned coffee shop ($2.25 for pie and coffee) overseen by a hostess who looked like Tallulah Bankhead and wore evening gowns and marabou boas when seating jean-clad guests for bagels and eggs. The hotel received a radical redo in 1997, which moved it up-market and increased the comfort level (there was no place to sit in the lobby when I first stayed) but kept prices relatively reasonable. But that was then, and given the hotel’s current price structure, the recent renovation is welcome.
Keep in mind: Rooms have either a queen or two twin beds but no kings. The staff can be brusque.