Growing up in suburban Connecticut, Grand Central Station was the treasured portal to a destination I always found vastly more vivid, vital and interesting than my bucolic hometown: New York City, the place that got my pulse jumping.
Happily, some things never change, either, since emerging from the great limestone caverns of one of the most beautiful public buildings in North America and hopping into a yellow taxi cab was as exciting on a recent Friday afternoon as its always been, maybe even more so, in fact, since I was sharing a weekend in Manhattan with my French partner.
The big difference this time round was the uptown address I gave the driver. As we headed up Park Avenue, we passed the handsome red brick building where my Aunt, Uncle and cousins lived for many years and where I’d spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases in their softly lit living and dining room, and turned left towards Central Park. After a brief glimpse of this bower of greenery, we pulled up in front of the Surrey Hotel, where the smiling doormen at the elegant limestone-lined doorway with a metal portico overhead reminded me of those nice men with their Irish brogues I once knew so well at the entrance to my relatives’ Park Avenue building.
The entrance hall at the Surrey didn’t register as a hotel lobby either, since it’s small and intimate and the natural warmth and graciousness of the staff made me think I’d been here before even though I was a first-time visitor. Instead of checking in, my arrival felt as though I’d come to stay with some friends. And it was while I was mulling over my unexpected first impressions of the Surrey on the way up to our room in the lift that I first perceived the unique charm of this delightful property, which is that it so subtly succeeds at translating the art de vivre of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a place with its own codes and aesthetic, into a hotel experience that’s authentic and not a pastiche.
Like all great hotels, the Surrey not only tells the story of a particular place but allows you to become part of it. The staff at the Surrey also discreetly school you in the mores of the natives, and by doing so, makes the experience of staying on the Upper East Side, one of the world’s plushest and most storied urban neighborhoods, almost anthropologically interesting in the most good humored of ways. This is doubtless why the locals frequent the hotel as much as they do, too—they feel welcome, understood and at home here.
Indeed the elegant ladies dining on salads at the sidewalk tables out front on a sunny Indian summer afternoon exhibited that particular mixture of impeccable grooming and athleticism that surprises visiting Asians and Europeans, while the Pleiades Bar was busy with well-groomed neighbors meeting for a glass of wine or a coffee. That evening when we went down to dinner at the Café Boulud, the animated dining room had the crackle of local social energy, too, since at least half of the tables were occupied by people from the neighborhood who’d come to dine on the excellent cosmopolitan seasonal cooking of chef Aaron Bludorn, who trained with chef-owner Daniel Boulud, and pastry chef Ashley Brauze.
Upstairs, though, our suite was a place to roost in, and the views from both the living room and bedroom brought back that tantalizing visual warp-and-woof of private and public spaces that make living in a town as dense as Manhattan so electric. The rooms themselves, with their thick carpeting, potted white orchids, reassuringly solid wooden doors and moldings, soothing color scheme of earth tones tweaked by polite accents of powder blue, dove gray, and celadon, and non-chalant good taste recalled my Aunt’s Park Avenue apartment, a great warren of rooms leading off of the living room, where the plump feather cushions on the damask covered chairs and sofas sighed when you sat on them.
The difference, though, is that this eternal good taste is made deftly contemporary at the Surrey with clever accessories and witty, often puckish details (at my Aunt’s the only feint at humor were a few framed original cartoons from The New Yorker). In fact, the flawless good taste of the Surrey one ups itself with its tongue-in-cheek awareness of its flawless good taste, a sensibility that’s expressed by details like the ‘graffiti’ on a steel gray chaise lounge in one of the suites and contemporary art like the blown-up photo of Kate Moss in the lobby.
I also loved the other guiding theme of this hotel, which is essential luxury, or those carefully curated comforts that really matter. What this means is an assiduous but appealing low-key attention to all of the small touches that create real comfort. You know, the marble counters in bath rooms stocked with superb toiletries by Diptyque, the famed Parisian producer of scents and scented candles; fluffy white robes by Pratesi; piles of intriguing art books in the living room; an espresso machine, sumptuous bedding; and impeccable lighting everywhere. Weather permitting, the Surrey also has the sexiest roof top bar in Manhattan, a place that would appeal as much to the late Brooke Astor, the city’s grande dame socialite and philanthropist for many generations, as it would to some like the late Andy Warhol or his pal Helmut Newton.
Though I willfully ignored it during our weekend stay, the hotel also has an excellent gym, but the amenity that perhaps surprised me the most about the Surrey is its location. When I left New York over twenty-five years ago, moving first to London, and then to Paris, my home for over more than two decades, I was a pugnaciously downtown kind of a guy. Oh, to be sure, I’d occasionally head uptown for the museums or, more rarely, a visit to my aunt, but my life was lived below 23rd Street.
Imagine my surprise then, as aonetime New Yorker, at being so charmed by a neighborhood I once disdained as hopelessly stuffy. This time round on the Upper East Side, I fell in love with the neatly tended miniature gardens with black metal ring fences at the bottoms of the trunks of the trees that shade the sidewalks and provide some human scale in a huge heaving city. I was also intrigued by the neighborhood’s architecture, and I loved its ambient good manners, settled civility and quietness.
It was also bliss to be within walking distance of most of the best museums and galleries in New York, plus a lot of its best shopping (on Madison Avenue—don’t miss the Thomas Maier store or the 1883 Perrin boutique), and to have Central Park as our back garden, but most of all the Surrey made me feel right at home again at the same time that it showed me a completely different side of a city I thought I knew inside and out. It’s been a longtime, in fact, when I felt so melancholy about checking out of a hotel, but I’ll on the other hand, I know I’ll be back.