By Terry Trucco
At a glance: The Surrey’s 2009 deep-dish makeover cost a cool $60 million, we’re told. Costly improvements to older buildings are often hard to see, like the new heating/cooling system in this Roaring 20s building.
But the Surrey’s most delectable upgrades are in plain sight, from the suavely elegant black-and-white bar and the full-service spa to the mosaic tile insets in my bathroom’s marble floor. The splashiest investment was in art. The hotel boasts more than 30 contemporary works sprinkled throughout, from the graphic Jenny Holzers behind the check-in desk to Chuck Close’s tapestry portrait of Kate Moss by the elevators.
The art is a fitting homage to this 1926 hotel’s legacy as an art world player. Though art and antiques galleries no longer dominate this stretch of Madison Avenue, plenty are still around. And Les Pleiades, a legendary art world canteen, once flourished where the Surrey bar now stands.
The renovation, devised by interiors architect Lauren Rottet, is one of the most elegant, and disciplined, visual statements I’ve ever seen at a hotel. The Surrey sports a sophisticated wardrobe of black, white and gray, leavened by dashes of chocolate brown — chic, understated hues that complement the hotel’s chic, understated Upper East Side locale and are soothing to boot.
By New York standards, the 190-room Surrey is a small hotel, and there’s minimal public space. The fetching lobby, outfitted with a silvery velvet sofa and club chairs, reminds me of the good china used for special occasions – you can alight while awaiting a friend, but you don’t settle in with the Sunday papers. I didn’t care since I felt like I’d walked into a glamorous, black-and-white Horst photo upon entering. The Art Deco vibe is palpable.
Staffers were friendly, eager to please and less formal than at some Upper East Side establishments. (Too informal at check-in — I waited, ahem, until the attendant had finished a chat with a friend).
More old school was the service at Café Boulud, the multi-starred hotel restaurant overseen by uber-restaurateur Daniel Boulud (yes, they provide room service). As for thoughtful hotel touches like the oshibori on a silver tray at check-in, the chocolate-dipped Madeleines at turndown and the witty little bedside photo book entitled Sleep, delightful.
Rooms: With white walls, white bed linens, a white TV armoire and sheer white pull-down shades, decorative serenity figured large in our room’s DNA. And it worked. If comfort is the ultimate luxury, my Deluxe “salon,” ie a room that isn’t a suite, had luxury in spades, with soft Sferra sheets, thick Pratesi robes, coffee table books stacked in the bedside tables and, the ultimate luxury, a king-size Duxiana bed that was truly heavenly.
The luxury didn’t extend to space. Though not small, at 330 square feet the room wasn’t especially large and felt full with a sleek ebony desk, slightly scuffed, a comfortable club chair with footstool, a TV armoire/bureau and that bed eating up the space. The closet, billeted in a handsome build-in wood hutch that included a bar, was also less than large, but I liked the mirror insets on the doors.
The look blended traditional elements (bedskirt, curtains, carpeting, tassels) with contemporary style (chocolate leather rectangular headboard; a white-skirted table lamp I loved). In short, the room sang in perfect tune with the classy, polished style of this Upper East Side neighborhood.
Even the bathroom had perfect pitch. The look was updated Downton Abbey – white marble, a generous washstand and an elegant mosaic tile inset on the marble floor. Though outfitted with a stall shower instead of a tub, the shower was generous with a stationary shower head and a hand shower, both excellent. I also liked the bathroom speaker so I could hear the TV when washing up.
Food and drink: Café Boulud, the hotel restaurant, is a more relaxed, low-key incarnation of Daniel, uber-chef Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant. The haute nouvelle French cuisine, with seasonal inflections, is as stylish as the clientele, who tend to include more locals than hotel guests. (It’s a rich, pricey canteen if you’re having all your meals there.)
The décor marries clean, modern lines with tradition (white tablecloths, fresh flowers on the tables). I breakfasted on a superb Peeky Toe Crab Benedict, one of the best, most imaginative Benedicts I’ve ever eaten. (The coffee was good, too.)
Café Boulud cooks up room service and also supplies the nibbles at Bar Pleiades, the hotel’s gorgeous black and white bar. With a spacious back room of tables whimsically numbered, elegant velvet chairs and the odd bold-face name socialite in the crowd, the bar is good looking and amusing.
My companion and I gave the food a 10 (juicy beef sliders, an excellent arugula salad) but the drinks a 6 – too stingy. But the Old Fashioned is appealing if you like sexy drinks and don’t mind paying – yikes! — $22.
Amenities: In addition to minibars, rooms come with a selection of small batch libations in full-size bottles, and you can request a bartender to come up and mix drinks. WiFi ($14.95 a day). Pets allowed ($75 a day). Good-looking full-service spa with five treatment rooms. The fitness center, accessible with a keycard, is clean and well-equipped. The private roof top garden comes with a butler. Lauratonatto bath products.
Surroundings: Extremely desirable if you crave the established silkiness of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Though on a residential side street, the hotel is steps from a stylish stretch of Madison Avenue populated by shops (the new Ralph Lauren, Frederic Malle’s fragrance boutique, Morgenthal-Fredrics eyeglasses, cool pharmacy Zitomers), fine art and antiques galleries and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The hotel is also near Fifth Avenue’s Museum Row, a formidable line-up including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt and more. Midtown shopping is walkable if you like walking (Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, etc) and easily reached by bus (stops are a block away) if not.
Though most nearby restaurants are pricey, Madison boasts coffee shops like Viand and Five Guys and deli-like outposts like Dean & Deluca. Lincoln Center is a cab ride away across Central Park. The subway station is several long blocks away. But taxis cruise Madison Avenue regularly.
Back story: As you surmise from its between-the-wars brick exterior, the Surrey was built in 1926 and started life as a residential hotel, like its chic East Side neighbors the Lowell, Mark and Carlyle. Guests included Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert.
But as the years passed, the hotel lost some gloss. Though never down-at-the-heels – the neighborhood is too spiffy – it shifted to a shabby/genteel mode, serving as a way station for East Siders in the midst of a divorce or a place to put up relatives for a long stay.
With a preponderance of suites with kitchens, it joined the erstwhile Manhattan East Suite Hotels, a group comprised of comfortable, modest-but-nice suites in vintage buildings. In 2008, the Surrey was purchased by the Denihan Hospitality Group (Affinia Hotels, the Benjamin), a small, smartly managed group known for excellent service, pet friendly properties and pillow menus. The hotel closed for a renovation overseen by architect Lauren Rottet and reopened, clean and glittering, in November 2009.
Keep in mind: Deluxe rooms like mine, ie the smallest, only have stall showers; for a stall shower and soaking tub, you need to book a suite. For an old building, hallways aren’t as wide as you’d expect and walls aren’t as thick; I heard the people above us walking around their room.