1301 North State Parkway, Chicago, 312-787-3700, publichotels.com/chicago. 285 rooms from $135. No eco-rating.
A pair of tall flames encased in glass cylinders flank the entrance of Chicago's new Public hotel. They are a dramatic, welcoming statement and also a reference to the hotel's glory days when it was known as the Ambassador East.
Back then, the hotel's Pump Room was the hottest restaurant in the country, both for its star-studded clientele and its unique brand of service. Ronald Reagan and Jane Russell made the scene, and the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra immortalized the restaurant in his classic version of My Kind of Town) would buy out the whole restaurant to dine in peace at booth No. 1. Beyond the dazzling clientele, the hotel's claim to fame – and, I think, the reason for those flames at the front – was that nearly all of its food, from olives to hot dogs, was served kebab-style on blazing swords.
While the hotel had a good ride, by the time people's taste for flaming kebabs ebbed, much of the hotel's original glamour had faded as well. That's when hotelier Ian Schrager stepped in. After a complete remodelling, he reopened it in October as the first Public hotel, an attempt to create a luxury hotel for the masses.
Arriving in the clean white lobby, I can't help but think this will be a popular wedding destination. The antique and new mirrors, vintage chandeliers and soaring ceilings edged with delicate filigree make the place look a bit like the inside of a wedding cake.
A giant old train station clock behind the front desk runs backward, perhaps signifying a return to a simpler time. While I call this area the lobby, but the hotel refers to it as the "living room." In fact, the whole main floor has been divided into such living areas.
As its name suggests, the Library features a hand-picked selection of books and games (chess, crib, dominoes) as well as newspapers and magazines displayed on wooden rods. Hendrik Kerstens's photographic portraits of his daughter in the style of the Dutch masters hang on columns throughout the space. Dimpled chesterfields and sheepskin-covered club chairs are scattered promiscuously around the room.
A secret door at the back of the library opens into the screening room, easily my favourite space in the hotel. During the day, the windowless wood-panelled room resembles a plush harem with its huge couches, overstuffed settees and abundance of candles on low side tables. In the evening, however, when drinks are served and the room fills with a young, gorgeous crowd of revellers, it takes on the tone of a grand salon.
The white-on-sand colour scheme, accented with blond wood, creates a sense of tranquillity. Black and white photos of a jersey cow modelling a fancy hat, Minnie Pearl-style, provide comic relief. The joke is a sly one, though, as the cow pics were snapped by famed fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
The bed sits low to the floor Japanese-style and is clad in the requisite Frette linens. The bathrooms are simple – white subway tiles, white sinks, good towels – clean and basic if not exactly showstoppers. The generic toiletries – shampoo, body wash, soap – are unbranded but effective. Mini-bars are not so mini, with half-bottles of wine and spirits replacing those depressing little airplane-size containers you normally find.
The hotel's service mantra is "essential" service. Turn-down service is not offered as a rule, but if it's something you'd like, it's available. Rooms aren't equipped with robes, but a quick call downstairs has one delivered to my room in a jiffy. The telephone's near-magic guest services button directs you to someone trained to act as a combination private secretary, personal attendant and concierge.
Wi-Fi is complimentary throughout the hotel and, in addition to the 24-hour business centre, a communal work station in the lobby is outfitted with sleek iMacs. The gym on the 11th floor offers the kind of city views that just might inspire one more mile on the stationary bike. For a more dynamic workout, borrow one of the complimentary chrome bikes for a spin around the city.
The flaming swords, crabs Casanova and cherries jubilee are gone. But with Jean-Georges Vongerichten developing the menu and overseeing the kitchen, the Pump Room meets modern-day standards of culinary excellence. Instead of feathered hats and white gloves, servers wear black denim and Converse sneakers, their casual style belying a sophisticated menu. Anyone who has eaten at the much-lauded ABC Kitchen in New York (James Beard Award-winner for Best New Restaurant in America in 2011) will recognize Vongerichten's style, layout and many of the dishes. The crab toast with lemon aioli is exceptional.
Breakfast can be taken in the library, where they offer pastries and excellent coffee, in the Pump Room (try the brioche French toast with roasted peaches) or through room service. The hotel is pioneering a new in-room dining service it calls Public Express. Breakfast is delivered in a big paper bag emblazoned with a picture from the hotel's archives (mine shows Robert Wagner dining with Natalie Wood).
The main advantage here is the lightning-quick speed at which food arrives. My organic egg sandwich with jalapeno jack cheese, spinach and bacon, plus coffee, juice and a banana, arrived in less than 10 minutes.
Public succeeds in bringing the elegance and energy of a luxury hotel to a much wider audience. By emphasizing the right components, grand public spaces, excellent food and polished design, and packaging them in a way that is accessible to everyone, the new Public hotel is worthy of its grand predecessor.
Special to The Globe and Mail