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New York Isn’t Dead. And Its Hotels Are Better Than Ever

The reports of the death of New York City, it turns out, where way premature. Anyone who knows New York—a city that I called home for 20 years—could have told you that. 

New York is the global capital of resilience and reinvention. While it’s true that about 3.57 million people left the city in 2020, according to data from the location analytics company Unacast, it’s also true that some 3.5 million new people moved in and took their place. 

So no, New York isn’t over. It’s just different. At least that’s what I saw when I swung through the city last week, at the end of my vaccination trip and on the way back to my adopted home in Portugal (and on the eve of the city’s fuller reopening this week). The city was practically crackling with optimism and relief.

I could feel it during my stays at two very different hotels, both of which have found ways to innovate and adapt while remaining comfortingly true to their luxury DNA. Both felt like safe cocoons when I wanted them to, and like places coming back to life when that’s what I craved. 

The Langham, New York, a quiet sanctum of understated elegance in south midtown, is the only luxury hotel in the neighborhood to have remained open through all of 2020 and 2021. That was mostly to accommodate several long-term guests and residents, but also because some things didn’t stop. Some people still needed to travel, and hospitality means looking after a guests’ needs. 

So it was ready as the city began waking up. Its Michelin-starred restaurant, Ai Fiori, took on a more sumptuous feel, as social distancing guidelines meant that diners now had a great luxury of space. Bar seating had just returned during my stay, and those who got those stools appreciated them all the more. 

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So did head bartender Pete Stanton, who had been preserving the social aspect of his job by working the room, masked and distanced, and checking with guests that their drinks were okay. And those drinks were very likely more than okay, as Stanton makes complex cocktails with obscure ingredients like genepy and alkermes. I hear that he even stumped some of the city’s best-known spirits writers.  

But the greatest innovation was finding a way to offer outdoor dining in a busy and not particularly lovely neighborhood where sitting on the sidewalk isn’t terribly appealing. Because a number of the 234 rooms have enormous terraces, they were able to convert some of that outdoor space to the Ai Fiori Sky Terrace.

It’s quirky, to be sure. You enter the “restaurant” by walking through a hotel room on the 11th floor. The menu is stripped-down and simpler, with a focus on dishes that can survive an elevator ride up from the main restaurant’s kitchen, like antipasto platters, chilled poached shrimp and burrata with serrano ham. 

But ultimately, it works, and pandemic or not, dining or drinking on a rooftop in Manhattan has always been something to be savored. 

So is dining or drinking in a garden in Manhattan, something that has always been a high point of the High Line Hotel, in west Chelsea. The hotel, in a former seminary that now feels like something between a private residence and a clubhouse, barely has any indoor common areas. Instead, in summer, guests use gardens in the front and the back as their place for relaxing, working and meeting. 

The back garden has always been private, a quiet little oasis only for hotel guests that happens to have very fast wifi. It’s a great alternative to working in a café or even in one of the 60 comfortable and stylish guest rooms, which—lovely as they are—are from another era (that’s kind of the point) and have tiny little writing desks. 

Although the hotel has managed to stay open since late last year, the lobby bar has been closed for the duration. No matter. The garden in front of the hotel has blossomed in its place. It was a pop-up last summer, and now it’s just up. 

In the morning, Intelligentsia serves coffee from a vintage 1959 London double-decker bus. Mid-afternoon, the greenery-filled space becomes Daisy’s Cocktail Garden, serving a good selection of wines, the hotel’s signature frozen negronis and simple food like tuna sandwiches and kale-quinoa salads. 

For now, it closes at 8pm. After everything New York has been through, no one needs to be told to seize the day.

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