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Midafternoon at The Ace Hotel in New York. The ACE is one of many hotels trying to boost the bottom line by turning its lobby bar into a chic, see-and-be-seen meeting spot in midtown Manhattan. (Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail)
Midafternoon at The Ace Hotel in New York. The ACE is one of many hotels trying to boost the bottom line by turning its lobby bar into a chic, see-and-be-seen meeting spot in midtown Manhattan. (Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail)

Lobby bars

New York's best place to schmooze - bar none Add to ...

When other hotels are in wind-down mode, greeting their last few convention stragglers, the lobby at Ace Hotel New York is usually crammed to the rafters.

Stopping by West 29th and Broadway for a visit this past week, there wasn't a single available seat at the lobby bar, which takes up the entire back wall, nor anywhere else for that matter. Tourists, students, artists and Wall Street types sitting on giant 1970s-style sectional sofas and vintage wingback chairs were sipping cocktails and chatting, leafing through hardcover books from a small lending library, or typing on laptops, all while velvety compilations by Seattle DJ John Richards played.

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The Ace has become a midtown hot spot, and the entire softly lit lobby feels like an extension of its bar, which is why Manhattanites choose to linger.

Around the world, architects and designers are reinventing hotel lobbies; dreaming up ways to make them more inviting, warmer spaces, with bars that are the hub of a buzzing social scene.

"It's a hotel's first priority," interior designer Brent Swanson says, adding that it's as important for major hotel chains as it is for boutiques like Ace, since a trendy bar can modernize a hotel's image and fill up rooms. Swanson kept this in mind when his firm, Moureaux Hauspy + Associés, designed the new Montreal Airport Marriott, which opened last August. "My challenge is, how do you get people in?"

For Montreal, Swanson created a fluid fourth-floor reception area with a cozy double-sided fireplace, modular lounge seating throughout, and a sunlit corner bar.

Thriving lobby bars at other major chains include, Starwood's W Hollywood, W New York Downtown and the Los Angeles Marriott Downtown, near the Staples Center, which was packed during this year's National Hockey League draft.

Overseas favourites include the lounge at Venice's Hotel Centurion Palace and The Stravinskij Bar at the Hotel de Russie, in Rome.

The best lobby bars often start with a welcoming barkeep and benefit from a hotel's "innate glamour" compared with ordinary bar settings, says Dina Nishioka, director of public relations for Provenance Hotels, a smaller chain in the U.S. northwest.

"Attitude is huge," Nishioka says, referring to her top picks: the Redwood Room at The Clift San Francisco, and the St. Regis in that city. "These are destinations, rather than just a room to walk through when checking in."

Such is the importance of lobby bars, hotels are furiously renovating to freshen up older models or add new ones. In their 2008 revamp of The Allerton Hotel Chicago, Vancouver's Hager and Associates actually moved the lobby of the nearly century-old building to a different floor to be able to accommodate a new resto-lounge. The Hotel Le Germain Toronto recently stripped away a glass wall between fine-dining restaurant Victor and the adjacent lobby to "capture more of the energy of a lounge with great food," said the hotel's food and beverage director, Michael Sullivan.

Other hotels are turning to technology to give their bars a boost: Foursquare is a location-based app that uses the GPS in iPhones and BlackBerrys to find nearby participating hotels. Using their phones, members of Foursquare "check in" (to the bar) at places like The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee, Mondrian West Hollywood, Hotel deLuxe in Portland, Hotel Max Seattle, New York City's Roger Smith Hotel and, next month, The Gladstone in Toronto; in return, they receive freebies, discounts, gift certificates, or special drink or menu items. Users can also discover who else has "checked in" to their hotel, in case everyone wants to meet up. The hotel (in return) becomes an instant buzzed-about hot spot.

Booyah.com's My Town app, Gowalla.com, Brightkite.com, Whrrl.com and Loopt.com are competing variations of Foursquare. So is Facebook's Places feature - now in Canada - which lets "friends" report their locations, but doesn't yet offer freebies.

Collectively, they're helping build buzz around the lobby bar, but it's too early to tell which app will prevail, says Allison Mooney, vice-president of emerging trends at New York consultancy MobileBehavior. Free drinks, Mooney says, are "an easy perk that's low-overhead and makes people feel special when they come to the hotel, even if they're not staying over."

Social media won't make or break a lobby bar, though. History and tradition play roles as well. And then something else, something ineffable, is at work to create the really storied ones, such as the King Cole at the St. Regis New York.

At The Gladstone, Toronto's oldest continuously operated hotel, karaoke Friday and Saturday nights at Melody Bar have kept the neighbourhood - and visiting actors such as Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling and the Baldwin brothers - coming around for years. And earlier in the 20th century, when liquor licensing rules often restricted women from entering "indecent" taverns, "the chic place was always the hotel; that's where you went for a drink," owner Christina Zeidler says. "So we're all taking a page from an old playbook."

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