W PARIS - OPERA 4, rue Meyerbeer, 75009, Paris, 33-1-77-48-94-94; 91 rooms from $447 (€340); wparisopera.com. No eco-rating.
Baby carrots and dip. That was the surest sign that I was not in a Paris hotel, even though I was in Paris. At the newly unveiled W Paris - Opera hotel, this is the snack that accompanies the cocktails. And while the bar – and those manning it – seemed ready to receive a steady crowd of pretty young things on what was an ordinary Friday night, my guess is that locals and guests alike were patronizing venues that felt decidedly less glossy.
Which is not to suggest that the hotel, which officially opened earlier this year during Paris Fashion Week, hasn't been generating buzz (even if no one knows its precise location).
Unlike other W properties that flaunt the 23rd letter of the alphabet in massive signage, this one remains remarkably discreet and respectful of its environs – mere steps from the landmark Opera Garnier. It shares a heritage, Haussman-era building with Paris's Apple store.
Once inside, however, the message is much louder: This is what results when an American chain of hotels tries to appropriate and contemporize Parisian flair (see below).
The W Paris - Opera (hyphen-ated, one assumes, to allow for additional locations in the future) has recruited 27-year-old Cécile Rummler to be the official "Insider," blogging about events (art, fashion, music) both within and outside its 19th-century walls. This is a clever strategy in creating a perception of hipness; because in reality, the hotel arrives as more of an interloper amid well-established nightspots and boutique hotels. The question remains: Will it be welcome in Paris?
Whereas the public areas are awash in a predictable palette of black, silver and red, the rooms go bolder in teal and tangerine. Some design elements aspire to be whimsical: mouldings that have been broken up along the ceiling and decals of cats dressed as Marie Antoinette. Some decorative touches are been there, done that: objects (feather pens, strands of pearls and toy cars) placed under glass-dome cloches. Some subtler details are undeniably smart: carpets that mimic herringbone floors.
Perhaps the designer, Diego Gronda of the Rockwell Group Europe, wanted to achieve a certain wow factor; but he clearly wasn't adhering to the Coco Chanel school of style whereby one always removes a piece of jewellery so as not to appear overdone.
Inside every doorway, a black wraparound wall panel studded with LEDs creates a type of twinkly statement increasingly common in swank restaurants and retailers. While the shower and toilet in the standard rooms (approximately 344 square feet) are separately enclosed, the sink area resembles an open galley kitchen and is topped with a large swivel mirror to create a division of space. While a nighttime view of the Opera is sure to inspire beautiful dreams, it can't redeem some blatant design flaws. I'm thinking, in particular, of a wall of what seemed like mirrored closets. In fact, two doors were a trompe l'oeil, opening instead to the structural wall; the other revealed a waist-high cabinet, leaving no room to hang full-length clothes. The shelf in the shower had not been properly mounted so the bottles of Bliss Spa shampoo slid right off. The Extreme WOW suite (think Presidential, W-style) features an unusual circular bed frame that must be opened like a puppy kennel to get to the mattress.
When you hear "fitness centre," a narrow strip of attic space with five cardio machines and a set of free weights doesn't exactly come to mind. Strictly speaking, SWEAT is a hotel gym; but it's a teeny tiny one. Guests would be better advised to burn off the baguettes in the Tuileries, the sublime garden grounds of the Louvre, just five minutes away. There is no spa, but there are two meeting rooms the size of studio apartments that can be combined to create an intimate event space.
Most of the front-of-house staff speak fluent English – which, surprisingly, is not a given in Paris, but imperative for a hotel that will attract a predominantly North American crowd. Those posted at the bar give off an initial haughty mien that, at least in my experience, quickly turns more personable. Croissants in the morning and spiked ice tea or fruit juice in the evening are offered upon arrival – a thoughtful touch.
A hotel cannot even consider playing in the Paris big leagues without recruiting a big-name chef. Here, Michelin-starred Sergi Arola oversees Arola, where he elevates Catalan specialties such as Iberian pork and sardines while respecting French tradition (he trained under gastronomy demigods Ferran Adria and Pierre Gagnaire). Arola encourages a "pica pica" style of dining, which most of us recognize as tapas. Flavours extend to the breakfast menu, which includes a bean and cheese tortilla that is shockingly less guilt-inducing than the butter-oozing pastries. The mini-bar tray is a smorgasbord of random novelty snacks: mojito drink mix, mini cured sausage, a jar of chocolate spread and American-style granola bars.
Presence in Paris lends a certain amount of cachet for the W Hotel brand and the hotel will undoubtedly draw devotees (not to mention those who are looking to take advantage of their Starwood rewards program). But in a city that boasts a hotel on just about every block, this one cannot win against others that convey genuine French ambience and spirit.