Prime Square, New York

11th January 2011 (Last Updated January 11th, 2011 18:30)

New York is home to some of the world's most luxurious hotels, incorporating styles from a variety of global locations. Recently, a bold new wave of Manhattan hotels have become exciting destinations in their own right, says Mark O'Flaherty.

Prime Square, New York

How many luxury hotels can one small island support? With the number of hotel rooms in New York set to soar past 90,000 next year, and with the Manhattan landscape changing fast to accommodate the most luxurious properties, it’s possible to imagine a time when the steel and glass canyons of the central grid system will be populated almost exclusively by well-heeled short-stay visitors and businessmen. Welcome to the all-new New York City.

2010 has seen the opening of an astonishing number of five-star deluxe properties: two Andaz hotels, a new W, a Gansevoort, an InterContinental, the Trump Soho and the Chatwal. Each is attempting to bring more to the city than just a decent square footage of bedroom with en suite.

Echoing the 1920s when New York’s social life revolved almost exclusively around hotels, these new – or in some cases reinvented – properties are cultural magnets for tourist and locals alike. They raise the bar, make headline news and reinvent entire districts.

“New York’s new hotels are cultural magnets: they raise the bar, make headline news and reinvent entire districts.”

The new Andaz and W hotels that opened this year are integral to the rejuvenation of the financial district after dark. The Andaz Wall Street is one of the finest, and most progressive, hotels in the city – complimentary minibars and Wi-Fi come as standard, and the rooms are immense. Instead of a TV shoved against a wall, there’s an island work station that enhances the feeling of space. It’s a sleek, pared-down, modern residence.

The BLT Bar & Grill at the new W, a few blocks away, is perhaps the best restaurant in the neighbourhood, serving refined but muscular comfort food: filet mignon, macaroni and comté gratin. It’s all done so perfectly and is a blessing for the hedgefunders who recently snapped up real estate in the area. If everything in the vicinity of Seaport is off your radar, readjust your sights.

Places to be seen in

Just as the meatpacking district seemed to have peaked and was being handed over to the declassé bridge and tunnel crowd (New Yorkers who live out of Manhattan but travel in to enjoy its nightlife), Andre Balazs’ The Standard developed a spectrum of intense social scenes this year and rebooted it.

From its beer garden to offbeat bingo nights and the roof-top Le Bain’s invited guests-only parties ‘curated’ by Le Baron’s André Saraiva, Balazs creates buzz after buzz. He also continues to court notoriety: although The Standard has stopped actively encouraging exhibitionism by its guests in glass-fronted bedrooms overlooking the new public High Line park space, the New York Post’s website still has a gallery of past peepshow escapades.

The Ace Hotel has its spiritual home in the indie-rock hipster milieu of Portland Oregon. The new New York outpost is no different, but it’s anything but a slouch. Think of it as a Chelsea Hotel for the ambition-driven 21st century. Along with the urban art in the lobby and the industrial-chic utilitarian bedrooms, the Ace has imported the Stumptown Coffee crew; that line that you see snaking out of the door and along W29th street every morning is for the best latte in the country.

The Ace has injected high-style adrenalin into a previously dead block of perfume wholesaler and florists. On-site are the pitch-black booths of the Breslin and John Dory Oyster Bar, while next door are branches of Project 8 and Opening Ceremony, two of the most directional of the city’s boutiques. The Ace is a microcosm of contemporary New York City: a midtown, glossy redux of downtown cool.

Soho’s downtown speciality

There was a time when genuine downtown hotels were a rarity. When the Soho Grand opened in 1996 it was almost shocking to be able to bed down between the lofts and galleries. Now the area is infested with boutique properties alongside Banana Republic, J Crew and Apple. The Soho Grand’s designer, William Sofeld – who also works regularly for Tom Ford – remembers it was a difficult as well as radical addition to the area.

“There was a lot of resistance to development in the neighbourhood,” he says. “But people were relieved when we opened. We respected the roots of what was unique to the neighbourhood, incorporating the works of local artists and artisans.”

The industrial-plush bent of the interior, including the Grand Street sidewalks’ round glass tiling, has always been in sync with SoHo, and this summer Sofeld returned to create a sumptuous Club Room and a floor of masculine, plush suites with cine-screen Macs and coffee tables made from recycled newspaper. The hotel has never slipped off the cultural radar for festivals and, in particular, Fashion Week parties.

Manhattan: good enough to eat

The new Manhattan hotel scene is radically different from the Ian Schrager era, when your room was the size of a postage stamp and you couldn’t visit the bar in your own hotel because of a private event.

“The best hotel dining experiences replicate European classics, but through a New York lens.”

There’s too much choice out there for that to have remained the status quo. It’s now all about roof-top pools, shopping, public bars and restaurants.

Celebrity chef Todd English’s August opening of Ça Va at the new InterContinental on Times Square, is his best kitchen yet, with a confident American take on classic brasserie fare, such as roasted lamb ‘French dip’, which appears burger-like, with a side order of mildly curried potato chips.

However, the best ultra-fine dining restaurants in the city are within the confines of the most polished hotels.

The two Michelin-starred GILT at the New York Palace Hotel is housed within the most imposing wood-panelled room of the old Villard Mansion, and Justin Bogle’s degustation menu, from hamachi sashimi to chocolate Liège waffle, represents the city’s most reliable excuse to dress up for dinner.

Meanwhile, taking a kitchen-counter seat at the Manhattan outpost of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon on the second floor of the Four Seasons is to be ringside for the finest chefs in action in the city. Keith McNally may be able to command a hipper, impossible-to-book scene downtown, but the food within the classic, IM Pei-designed Four Seasons is superlative. Then of course there’s Adour at the St Regis, still the most enjoyable, sophisticated yet relaxed dining experience in the Ducasse empire.

Many of the best hotel dining experiences replicate or interpret European classics, but it’s always refracted through a New York lens. Upper East Side native Tony Chi may well be the most Manhattan of hotel and restaurant designers, and he’s certainly one of the most prolific. His designs for the new Andaz 5th Avenue, opposite the iconic New York Public Library, are typically clean, with high ceilings, huge windows and modernist expanses of uninterrupted surface, structurally ‘a reference to pre-war New York apartments’.

Chi’s design for Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental – still one of the most consistently impressive Asian-fusion restaurants anywhere – treats the Central Park South vista as an opera, and the dining tables as a cloud level dress circle.

“I’m trying to make design less visible,” says Chi. “Invisible design is what touches you rather than what you see.”

Art deco’s timeless style

If there’s one style that continues to define Manhattan, it’s art deco. New York City as we know it was created during the 1920s and 1930s, when industrialists forged it with ego-driven skyscrapers, gilt and streamlined marble lobbies. Some of the newest hotel projects are a sensitive update on the look.

The Chatwal opened within the chaos of Times Square and the theatre district. Its lobby is reminiscent of a fin de siècle ocean liner, and the fittings in its rooms echo vintage fine leather steamer trunks. General manager Joel Freyberg believes deco has an emotional significance for the city.

“Andre Balazs’ The Standard developed a spectrum of intense social scene.”

“It harks back to the end of the great depression,” he says. “The mood of the city was on the rebound. People wanted to relax and enjoy all that life has to offer. It’s timeless and chic.”

The Mark hotel on the Upper East Side reopened after an extensive refurbishment by Jacques Grange, who is famous for his work for YSL and Pierre Bergé. It’s an exquisite experience, with black and white striped marble bathrooms and lobby, and a Jean-Georges Vongerichten dining room incandescent with glamour.

A short stroll away, Le Caprice has set a radically different visual pace for the reopened Taj Pierre hotel: step away from the Italianate trompe l’oeil lobby and into the bold monochrome outpost of the London original. The transition is dramatic – the new room is cool and long, with shiny black walls and David Bailey photo flourishes from the ’60s.

Eating fish and chips after a dry martini with a plate of Pimm’s jelly to follow at Le Caprice might be a quintessentially London experience, but here on Central Park, surrounded by Condé Nast fashion editors and society grand dames with immaculately Elnetted hairdos, it becomes quintessentially Manhattan. And that’s the magic of the best hotels in New York – you can’t get that high gloss, dynamic Gotham feeling anywhere else in the world.

Mark C O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Delta Airlines. Delta now fly three times daily, direct, from London to New York with fully flat bed seats, each with direct aisle access, in BusinessElite. www.delta.com; 0845 600 0950.