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NEW YORK CITY'S FRIENDLIEST SMALL HOTELS : Trendy to Traditioal

October 21, 1990|JERRY HULSE | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

NEW YORK — Alas, poor Hamlet has bit the dust, Mohammed has taken leave of The Wyndham and Mimi Russell has abandoned the Stanhope.

What each of these individuals share (or has shared) is a role in New York's burgeoning hotel industry. And that, not so coincidentally, is the subject of today's essay: Manhattan's small, friendly hotels. Some are very trendy. And some are not trendy at all. Just homey.

I'll return to Hamlet, Mohammed and Mimi, but first our survey of New York's little hotels. In a word, it has been a one-man treadmill test, hoofing it over a course that covered ground from the theater district to the Upper East Side. What with more than 57,000 hotel rooms spread across Manhattan, it goes without saying that one poor, foot-weary wretch, during a week of sleuthing, couldn't possibly peer into each and every bedroom, bathroom or bar. Or even a fraction thereof.

As a result, what we've come up with is a selection of hotels that, to repeat, represent both the fashionable and the traditional. Some are affordable, others are in the $200-and-up range that seem more suited to the expense-account crowd. In other words, guests with plastic to spare. Taxes are extra--and they're hefty: a 13.25% New York state tax, a 5% New York City tax and (who dreamed up this one?) a $2 occupancy tax.

Among hoteliers is Ian Schrager, the one-time operator of Manhattan's Studio 54 disco who now holds forth at Morgans, the chic little mid-Manhattan hotel that attracts pop stars, rockersand other trendy types with rooms (small though they be) that feature window seats for snugglers, loads of black and white tile and stainless-steel sinks like those found on a 747 jumbo jet. The fact is, Morgans took off like a jet shortly after its opening, and it has been flying high ever since.

Schrager insists that Morgans is "the American version of a small European hotel." Possibly, but I have a difficult time comparing it with the little St. Louis in Paris or the Scalinata di Spagna in Rome. The lobby is somber, as are the halls. But the combination works. What with 24-hour room service, valets, a concierge, a cassette and video library, telephones in the baths, refrigerators and nightly turn-down service, it's crowded constantly, a slick little boutique hotel where guests' preferences are computerized for future reference.

Schrager's goal was to "create a hotel that was new, novel and completely devoid of ordinary formulas."

He succeeded.

A similar formula proved successful at the 205-room Royalton, another Schrager property that faces the venerable Algonquin on West 44th Street, an avant-garde caravansary that Schrager considers the "hotel of the '90s." With surreal rooms and opaque hallways, The Royalton would knock the socks off the cast of "Star Trek." William Shatner and company could soak together in one of The Royalton's huge, 5-foot-wide oval tubs. What's more, the long, narrow lobby (where bellmen sport black mandarin uniforms) could accommodate a Super Bowl game. A landmark since 1898, The Royalton has hosted the likes of Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando.

I noted few gray hairs when I stopped for lunch at 44, The Royalton's posh restaurant where my hamburger and Diet Coke figured out to $20.05.

The yuppie crowd was out in force.

Guests at the refurbished Royalton play checkers, dominoes and chess in the lobby; post cards are changed twice daily in the rooms, and the hotel's film library has a selection of more than 300 movies. At 5 o'clock, crowds gather for champagne and caviar in a small and inviting bar with padded walls. Just bring plenty of cash.

Facing The Royalton, the Algonquin Hotel is being restored top to bottom with an emphasis on perpetuating the gracious, Old World mood of the lobby, the Oak Room and the Oak Bar. Much of the hotel's fame was borne of its Round Table and the writers and celebrities who gathered there in the '20s and '30s: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Marc Connelly, Alexander Wolcott, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman and Franklin P. Adams. These and others.

Ghosts of the great are sensed in every corner.

Fresh flowers brighten the Oak Room. The familiar grandfather clock ticks away the hour. And guests seated on sofas still ring librarian bells to summon the waiter.

Within the oak-paneled walls of the Algonquin, a sense of solace survives. In the lounge, literary figures, politicians, businessmen and others sink into sofas surrounded by polished oak, red velvet, crystal and an air of blissful comfort. In a city dwarfed by glass and chrome, the Algonquin remains an anachronism, a landmark of social well-being. Former managing director Andrew Anspach suggested that the Algonquin possesses "all the endearing qualities of a fine inn."

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