At a glance: Royalton reminds me of a supermodel who’s aged gracefully.
No longer the hippest hotel on the planet, this limestone pile, lionized as “the hotel of the ‘90s,” is still interesting (I love the lobby’s raw indigo leather wall),still appealing (who doesn’t like tufted leather love seats?) and still turning heads.
And though I miss the old, iconic Philippe Starck lobby with horn-shaped lamps, baroque, white, slip-covered chairs and Royalton blue runway (sniff), times change. And I do like the moody-chic Africa-inflected look the hotel wears following its extreme 2007 makeover, courtesy of the New York design firm-of-the-moment, Roman & Williams, the new go-to team for hip hotels (other New York creations include Ace, The Standard HIgh Line and Viceroy).
The vast midnight blue lobby, visually warmed by a glass-encased gas-jet fireplace and carved into three distinct seating areas and a bar, is still a great place to meet, drink, flirt and scan the crowd (mostly slim and stylish, lots of Europeans).
By day, it’s quiet, ideal for a coffee and a tete-a-tete. And at night it morphs into what it’s been for years, a pulsating nightclub.
Rooms: There’s fresh paint (cool ice-blue/gray), 300-count Egyptian cotton sheets and LG flat-panel TVs, but rooms aren’t de-Starcked like the lobby (the little horn pulls still adorn the triple-door closet), perhaps because they were designed by Charlotte Macaux Perelman, a former Starck associate. In the room I saw, the head of the bed fit into a glossy mahogany niche like a Lexus in a carport and was lit by a glass pendant. Velvet curtains kissed the floor. And while standard rooms are small (the flat-panel TV swings out of the wall to save space), larger rooms are plenty big for two people, and the coolest sport handsome stone fireplaces.
The bathrooms, always a plus, are newly tiled in slate and mirrors. Ask for one with a Roman soaking tub.
Food and drink: After closing for a three-month revamp, the lobby restaurant reopened in October 2010 with a slimmed down name — Forty Four — and a new mission. Contemporary American fare devised by executive chef Scott Ekstrom is still at breakfast and lunch. But dinner consists of small-plate bar offerings, albeit stylish ones, like pork belly soft tacos and Parmesan risotto poppers. And with the addition of a new bar in front of the dining room, the restaurant turns into a cocktail lounge after 6. Drinks — a clever mix of hotel classics like the Singapore Sling and originals like the Red Pepper Daisy — come courtesy of the team overseeing the bar, six bartenders from across the country dubbed the Cocktail Collective by the hotel.
As for the room, with its rope arches and ship-shape curves, the restaurant always reminded me of an urbane cousin to the Rusty Scupper, and that hasn’t changed. Replacing the dirt-magnet cream leather banquettes is handsome gray upholstery, a more practical and sophisticated choice. The designers wisely kept the blown-glass pendant lights and added souped up dimmers for evening.
As before, an additional bar commands the front of the lobby. When the lights dim, the Royalton becomes the biggest hotel cocktail lounge in midtown.
Amenities: Korres bath products, Bose iPod speakers in rooms, WiFi ($10 a day). The fitness room is well equipped but small. Fitness-minded guests can also get a VIP pass from the concierge to visit a full-service Equinox gym; passes include discounts on personal training sessions and 15 percent off spa services. Pets allowed but not encouraged: You need pre-approval from the manager and pay a $300 non-refundable cleaning fee. Ipads with a virtual concierge program.
Surroundings: A terrific block packed with hotels (six), clubs (Harvard, Mariner, Penn) and some appealing architecture, including the imposing limestone facade of Royalton. Times Square and the theater district, Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library and Bryant Park are nearby. Rockefeller Center, Fifth Avenue shopping and the Empire State Building, slightly further afield, are walkable. Bus stops are around the corner, subway stations several blocks away.
Back story: Royalton, opened in 1898, operated, sequentially, as a posh residential hotel and a derelict dump before it was transformed into the coolest hotel in creation in 1988 by disco-king-turned-hotelier Ian Schrager and a then-obscure designer named Phillipe Starck. The lobby was conceived as a gathering place extraordinaire, a wildly successful template that boutique hotels the world over followed like lemmings. And it aged a lot better than shoulder pads and power suits. So why spend $17.5 million to gut it and start over? “It wasn’t an aesthetic decision, but more an ethos,”Morgan Hotel Group vice-president Mari Balestrazzi told an interviewer at the time. “We are a company that wants to push the envelope and find emerging talent.” Seven years down the pike, it was a smart move.
Keep in mind: The lobby gets rowdy after dark; noisy Europeans, drinks in hand, were festooned across the big, bed-like sofa one night we visited. The good-looking staff is friendlier and less clueless than in earlier times, but the old Royalton attitude still surfaces.