The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC
The Surrey is one of a cluster of high-end boutique hotels nestled in Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side. The natural delights of Central Park are a block away to the west, the hedonistic pleasures of the shops and galleries of Madison Avenue are only a short stroll in the opposite direction. The Mark and the Carlyle, two other icons of tasteful luxury, are literally a stone’s throw away in what is otherwise a delightful, leafy residential area of classic New York townhouses. MOMA, the Whitney, The Guggenheim, the Frick and other prime destinations are all within a short walk.
The Art of ‘Boutique’
In the rarefied world of the high-end New York boutique hotel, perfection is mandatory; with the goal of making guests feel relaxed and at home the minute they step up to the building. A good boutique hotel will ensure that service is courteous and impeccable, but at the same time warm and accommodating. Where big luxury hotels achieve status through sheer opulence and range of amenities, the boutique strives for something luxuriously different: charm, chic, atmosphere, comfort and quiet.
Where boutique-style hotels are concerned, much of the secret is in planning the welcome so that staff greet you by name, handle your luggage efficiently, seat you comfortably for the check-in, and offer a glass of Champagne. Kids get special attention. Cut flowers should be everywhere, often from gardens on the property. Beds should be supremely comfortable, and amenities complete, down to details like shaving mirrors, hair dryers, irons and ironing boards, plush robes and slippers and high-end toiletries. They should serve by the cardinal rule, which is that snootiness is the antithesis of great hospitality.
This is the basic formula that has been fine-tuned by the Relais & Chateaux group over the past 60 years—first in France, then in the rest of Europe, and now around the world. To boot, many of the Relais & Chateaux hotels have on-property restaurants that are Michelin-starred; many are world-famous.
Which brings us back to the Surrey in New York, because it is the only Relais & Chateaux member hotel in the entire city. For me, the Relais & Chateaux group has always been the benchmark when it comes to reliably comfortable accommodation and often spectacularly great dining.
On this sixtieth anniversary of the association’s founding, I was curious to see how the core concepts of the association would translate to Upper East Side sensibilities. (We were unable on this trip to sample the Michelin-starred restaurant, Café Boulud, managed by chef Daniel Boulud. Its predecessor, the Pleiades was a famous watering hole and meeting place for the New York art crowd of the 1970s and ‘80s.; the Bar Pleaides off the hotel lobby, also run by Boulud, carries on the name.)
The Art & Glamour: From JFK to Kate Moss
The Surrey was built in the Beaux Arts style as a residential hotel back in 1926, and over the years has seen many a famous guest, from JFK to George Clooney, and plenty of other celebrities whose desire for discretion the hotel has respected.
The design of Bar Pleiades, the lobby bar, harkens back to the romance of the Roaring ‘20s, but with a decidedly modern twist and lots of quilted odes to Chanel. The lobby itself is a compact, well-proportioned limestone and marble space featuring a quirky, mosaic-tile interpretation of a Persian rug on the floor and contemporary photography and art on the walls. The view through the lobby past the twin elevators ends in a shock of recognition with what is perhaps the most memorable feature of the hotel’s reno: artist Chuck Close’s enormous, black-and-white Jacquard tapestry of the face of Kate Moss, close-up and in high definition, wrinkles and all.
Kate Moss, the “anti-supermodel,” is of course emblematic of our era’s fashions and foibles; “the ideal beauty of the moment,” in Marc Quinn’s phrase. But the way photographer Chuck Close has depicted her shines a spotlight on her vulnerable humanity. It’s a mesmerizing piece and it sets the tone for the hotel’s design in both sensibility and color palette.
Other artist’s works, more than 30 in all, are sprinkled through the hotel’s public spaces: works by Cecily Brown, Jerry Halzer, Richard Serra, Imogea Cunningham, William Kettridge and more. Each is worth a visit.
Both the public spaces and the rooms are decorated with a muted and relaxing palette of silver, black, grey, sepia and cream, with occasional chocolate accents. All of the hotel furnishings were custom-made in New York to designs created by Lauren Rottet, many stenciled and hand-painted. “We were kind of design schizophrenics,” she told an interviewer, “moving through all the styles from 1925 to 1940. It’s beaux arts revival, art nouveau and art deco, traditional and contemporary, all together.”
We were in an “Ultra Deluxe Suite with Skyline View”, and it was indeed deluxe in every respect. The large windows overlooks the Manhattan skyline and a window seat is decorated with a long grey cushion on which is stenciled: “Through these windows lies the soul of the city, across Madison and down 5th Avenue…” The king bed—mattress by Duxiana, sheets by Sferra, pillows in all shapes and sizes—was heavenly; the marble bathroom has a stand-alone tub, an opening window, and the shower is a high-volume, high-pressure pleasure dome.
We couldn’t leave this modern touchstone of hotel design without asking for a tour of the two principle suites; the presidential suite and the penthouse. The presidential suite, a floor a floor down from the 17th floor penthouse, is bright and airy, with coffered ceilings, great views all ‘round and its own wraparound terrace. There’s a small library of books by the living room fireplace that actually look interesting, a mammoth his-and-hers bathroom (plus two others); a full kitchen, bar, formal dining room, a baby grand piano, and of course a pair of sumptuous bedrooms with the same Dux mattresses and Sferra sheets we’d enjoyed.
The penthouse shares many of the same amenities, minus the baby grand and Olympic-sized master bath, but including a gas fireplace and kitchen like many of the hotel’s thirty smaller suites. Because it shares the top storey with the hotel’s rooftop bar, it’ smaller than the presidential suite, but it’s enough space to raise a family, though of course it’s used mostly for receptions and other functions.
On the hotel’s second floor there’s a round-the-clock exercise room with all the latest equipment (empty when we looked at midday), and a Cornelia spa, with five treatment rooms, each impeccably decorated to induce a feeling of serenity. During our stay the internationally-celebrated hair stylist Billy Yamaguchi was making a guest appearance and his trademark feng shui consultation, color, cut and style was going for $800. at the spa.
My treatments at Cornelia Spa made me feel like a royal being pampered in my English estate. The waiting room and exceptionally-large treatment rooms are designed to make you feel right at home, with plush seating, bedroom-like wardrobes for your clothing and robe, soft duvet blankets and patterned cushions. And for those who aren’t into sharing bathrooms, each treatment room comes luxuriously equipped with its own vanity area (filled with Cornelia Signature products), toilet and shower.
The treatments are all designed to fit your specific needs. For example, during my facial, the therapist asked me what my specific concerns were, and since I have wrinkles and dry skin in some areas, and oily skin in others, she customized a delicious-smelling blend of creams and serums to balance my skin and protect it from the harsh New York City environment (which I had a hard time remembering I was still in). The bed, smells and treatment was so relaxing that I may have even drifted off a couple of times (not that I’d admit it!) Afterwards, I was handed some tea, sorbet and Prosecco, and told I should feel free to spend some time in the spa’s “relaxation area”. So I did; soaking in the bliss, having a gratis glass of white wine, and munching on the feast of fresh fruit and nuts that were neatly laid out. If I could have stayed all day, in that plush curtained nook, I would have.
Next to the spa, my favorite part of the Surrey experience is their rooftop bar. It is, like the rest of the hotel, near-faultlessly designed for quiet relaxation, with wood decking, lavender-filled planters, miniature boxwood topiary and lots of English ivy. Seating is spaced widely, for private conversation. Subdued background music leans to Tony Bennett and Sinatra. It is an altogether delightful space and unlike popular rooftop bars at many other Manhattan hotels, will likely remain that way because in order to go there you have to be a hotel guest, or a member of the Surrey “Patron’s Club,” which will set you back $1000 a year.
Relais & Chateaux and its sixty-year-old benchmark for comfort and general well-being are well-represented in Gotham, where the Surrey adds a quintessentially modern twist to the classic, old-world luxury that the Upper East Side is known for.