A Winter Weekend At The Hotel Chelsea
Who hasn’t dreamt of being Eloise at the Plaza? I did just that this weekend at the freshly renovated Hotel Chelsea. Besides a jaunt to the theater (Spamalot: hysterical), I never left the building.
It’s not ridiculous to pretend it’s home, as the Chelsea still houses about 20 rent-controlled tenants, making the historic hotel all the more fascinating. Here’s the kooky thing in a nutshell. Unable to oust the tenants that lived there, the current owners renovated around them.
While the residents had to live through a long and arduous reno, they now reside in a schmancy hotel at rent-controlled prices. They can enjoy the luxurious amenities that I did: several chic restaurants, a glamorous bar, rooftop gym, and a sybaritic spa.
Home to Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Edie Sedgewick, and many more artsy and illustrious characters, the current Chelsea stands up to its reputation as a bohemian enclave, and it’s entirely intentional. A sensitive reno has kept the elegant but slightly eerie atmosphere intact. From the original marble mosaic floors, the frescos (in the “ladies” tea room), and gargoyles in the bar, it’s impossible to know what’s original to the 1884 building and what’s a copy.
The previous owner, Stanley Bard, was an eccentric fellow who was known to trade art for rent and actively curated the tenant mix. Most of the collection (some great, some not so much) lines the lobby and stairwell walls. He created a (relatively) safe place for artists with a rigorous system for who got to live where. As you became more successful, you could live on a higher floor with larger apartments and lofty ceilings, or if you caused trouble, you might find yourself relegated to the first (easier to carry you out if need be). How do I know all this? I took a fascinating historical tour with “William” whose knowledge of the history and its residents is breathtaking. I highly recommend you do, too.
At check-in, I was offered an (inexpensive) upgrade to a suite, and in an expansive mood, I grabbed it. As I clip-clopped down the wide marble hall on the 9th floor, it was plain to see which were apartments and which were hotel rooms. Most doors are painted black, but here and there, you’ll see a turquoise one, or a wreath, or a sign to remove your shoes. FASCINATING. (The staff is mum about who lives here and protects their privacy no matter whom you ask!).
My room was exquisite, with a full kitchen, living/dining area, small bedroom, and a marble-clad bath (a rain shower AND soaking tub). While I didn’t expect to use the LaCanche range, it would have been handy for warming up leftovers!
The details and textures of the space place you firmly in old New York. With high ceilings, elaborate moldings, a fireplace (for mood only), plush wool rugs, a mohair velvet sofa, and a chic white plaster chandelier, it was a luxurious spot to hide out during the monsoon that was raging outside. There’s a local connection, too. Old Lyme resident, Daniel Berglund, designed most of the lighting in the rooms. See his work here: https://www.instagram.com/danielberglund1/
I fully intended to use the gym, and I heard the Respira Massage, a blend of Swedish, hot stones, and scalp stimulation (for anxiety and sleep issues!), is sublime, but I managed to mainly eat and drink and lounge my way around the place for two days, starting with dinner at the historic El Quijote. This Spanish restaurant has been carefully restored but left mainly untouched since the days when Warhol held court at the window table. With original murals, wrought iron, and red banquettes, this spot has an old New York vibe with a new chef, turning out delicious tapas and massive paella (it will easily feed four for $72). We feasted on Tortilla de Patate, Shrimp Ajillo, Patatas Bravas, Atun en Sofrito Vinagreta (slim slabs of raw tuna) and that classic paella studded with cockles, muscles, and giant prawns. We should have tried the famous sangria (with a hint of balsamic) but stuck to white wine. Next time. Considering the Lobby Bar offers $30 cocktails, this spot seemed a steal.
But the bar is a mandatory stop, whether you find a snug velvet nook or sit at the bar to get a better view of the talented tenders, shaking and mixing and pouring all manner of potions. I suggest the Viva Superstar, a heady blend of gin, cachaca, and passion fruit with a sidecar of Blanc de Blanc (two drinks in one!). The story goes that Warhol’s muse, Viva, a resident for years, thinks she should get residuals on this one. You can have a nosh at the bar, too.
For breakfast, head to the Cafe Chelsea, a French bistro brimming with authentic atmosphere. The gooey Croque Madame topped with a perfectly runny egg is a no-brainer. According to our server, we must have the French Toast next time. We chose oysters, lemony pasta, and roasted chicken for an early and quick pre-theater dinner (it’s open all day). Perfect.
While I didn’t run into a single famous face, the place was rife with characters, and I fit right in. If you don’t take the historical tour, I suggest heading to the tenth floor and walking down the staircase (apparently the feature of a few attempted suicides), roaming the halls, and imagining all the shenanigans that occurred here. The only plaque you’ll find on any door is that of Dylan Thomas, which simply states: Dylan Thomas Stayed Here. There is definitely more to that story!
Curiosity about the inhabitants got the best of me because I couldn’t peek into any of the occupied apartments, and I immediately ordered “Hotel Chelsea, Living in the Last Bohemian Haven” when I got home.
Good to know: rates are low right now ($280 for a basic room), but start climbing in April, so consider a winter getaway. It’s an easy walk from Moynihan Hall, and the subway is on the corner.