By Terry Trucco
It was just a matter of time. The Surrey, a small 1920s hotel, occupies a prime spot steps from Madison Avenue’s high-end boutiques, art galleries and the Whitney Museum of Art. For years it was a dependable if frowsy place where East Siders put up visiting relatives or moved in after a divorce if the nearby Carlyle proved too pricey.
But let’s face it, it was too well located to continue on that path.
And it didn’t. The hotel closed for renovations as a shabby dowager and reopened in 2009 — as what? We recently checked in for a night to find out.
The lobby, an elegant mix of black, white and gray with an exquisite mosaic tile floor, all but screams that the Surrey is dowager no more. It’s a beauty, a mix of Art Deco, Woman of the Year glamour and East Side chic. Irving Penn could have posed his glamorous subjects here, sprawled on the small velvet sofa next to the fresh white roses.
As for the flameless pillar candles lined up on the mirror-backed shelves behind, sweet.
We had plenty of time to drink in these details as the ebony check-in counter crowned with veined black marble was deserted when we arrived late afternoon. We watched a woman in a stylish black uniform dash past us and hug another woman who had just walked in. They chatted animatedly. We waited (ahem). Presently the woman in black stepped behind the desk, beamed as if we had just appeared and check-in commenced. “You’ll need your key card to operate the elevator,” she called as we headed off.
An enormous black-and-white textile portrait of Kate Moss by Chuck Close – one of more than 30 meaty works of contemporary art sprinkled throughout – greeted us by the elevator. Like nearly everything on view – from the bar to the fitness room to the elevators paneled in artfully aged mirrors – the art perfectly complemented architect Lauren Rottet’s carefully curated monochromism. The effect was soothing, sophisticated — and wildly disciplined. We couldn’t help wondering what would happen if someone deposited blood-orange tulips in the lobby, just for fun.
We found our room easily at the end of a pristine black and white hallway and, upon opening our black front door, were shocked – shocked – to discover a feast of black and white, leavened by dashes of gray and cocoa brown. With windows overlooking Madison Avenue and the back of 75th Street, light blazed in, even with the sheer shades lowered for privacy (both exposures looked onto buildings).
The room was neither snug nor huge at 330 square feet but brimmed with clever details. A wall of built-ins included a bar with an impressive selection of small-batch whiskey and scotch in sealed full-size bottles (a bartender will come up and mix cocktails upon request, a swanky touch).
A cushioned window seat fronted the large window so you could curl up and gaze out at the Carlyle. Beside it stood an upholstered armchair and matching footstool. The sassy silver table lamp sported a white skirt.
The large ebony desk, paired with a wheeled leather chair, doubled as a vanity thanks to a mirrored panel you could raise (too bad it was scratched). Smooth jazz filled the room, emanating from the flatpanel TV nestled in a updated take on a TV armoire, a big white box with metal-tassel drawer pulls and silver curlicues painted on the sides
We plopped onto the centerpiece and didn’t want to get up. It was a king-size Duxiana bed, piled with pillows, swathed with immaculate Sferra linens and crowned by a towering leather headboard. Magnificent.
Two little tables flanked it, laden with goodies — coffee table books, an old-style alarm clock, a cordless phone and a miniature black-and-white photo book entitled Sleep, a visual Ambien in case the bed didn’t do the trick. (And if that didn’t work, chocolate-dipped Madeleines arrived at turndown.)
We considered holing up for the night then and there (white Pratesi robes piped in black beckoned from the closet). But we had promised to meet a friend for drinks downstairs in Bar Pleiades, named for its predecessor, a bustling art world canteen back when Madison Avenue was the art world’s epicenter, and reluctantly headed out the door.
Memo to filmmakers: check out the bar if a swanky-retro backdrop is required for your next movie. The inspiration for this sprawling lounge was a Chanel bag, but we envisioned a tuxedo. Consider: the black lacquered walls, crisp white trim, gray velvet armchairs, sleek crystal chandeliers. And kudos to whoever decided to keep the French-inflected murals from the old Pleiades.
Bar food is prepared by Café Boulud, the hotel restaurant (they do room service, too) and a
popular link in uber-chef Daniel Boulud’s stylish French/seasonal chain. Two juicy little beef sliders topped with caramelized onions, blue cheese and arugula ($18) proved delicious as did the surprisingly substantial arugula salad garnished with grapes, Fontina cheese and toasted walnuts.
Inspired by the bar’s glamorous retro feel, we ordered Old Fashions. Sparked with orange bitters and poured over one beautifully rounded ice cube, this was the Old Fashion equivalent of a Cosmo, a camera-ready, Sex and the City drink. We liked it, but at $22, it was skimpy. “They’re pouring for the house,” intoned our male companion, who nonetheless liked the look and feel of the bar. So did we. It buzzed, mostly with locals, including a wraith-like socialite we saw on a recent visit to the Carlyle. “Stick with wine or beer, and this is a great place,” our companion declared.
Stick with the food, as well. Breakfast the next morning at Café Boulud was bliss. With modern lines but white tablecloths, the restaurant, which was not part of the 2009 renovation, updates tradition in all the right ways. Presented in a bowl, our Peeky Toe Crab Benedict consisted of a meaty crab cake on a bed of spinach topped with poached eggs and a generous helping of Sauce Cheron ($19). We savored every bite.
Back in our room, light streamed through the windows, and we didn’t want to leave. We called down to the front desk to see if we could stay a bit past check out. This time, the check-in person wasn’t distracted. A pleasant voice gave us an extra half hour. We took it.
The Surrey 20 East 76th Street, New York,, New York 10021 (212) 288-3700