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Checking Out the Inn Crowd

It was a rough assignment: rubbing elbows with celebrities, lounging around in frette bathrobes, eating Dean & Deluca chocolates from the mini-bar. Rating New York City's new boutique hotels required a connoisseur's eye for mid-century modern furniture and industrial lighting, plus the ability to really understand luxury -- before totally surrendering to it. Difficult, yes. But the boutique hotel is a New York art form and requires close study. We slept around -- so you won't have to.

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W UNION SQUARE
DAVID ROCKWELL'S BAMBOO,
TODD ENGLISH'S OLIVES
SERVICE: 8 * DÉCOR: 9 * HIPNESS FACTOR: 8

When you check in at the hotel's front desk, known in W-land as the Front Lawn, it's clear David Rockwell has created yet another "It" gathering space where no one wants to get off the velvet couches. While similar in feel to its sister locations (W at 541 Lexington Avenue, the W Tuscany and W Court at 120 and 130 East 39th Street), this outpost is the largest and the lushest. The 1911 building, which was once home to Guardian Life Insurance, is a mixture of landmarked features like the mosaic-covered elevator banks and a gilded-ceilinged ballroom, plus trademark W greenery: A block of twisted medusa bamboo climbs by the front entrance, and the "living room" lobby area is encased by topiary walls. Olives, Todd English's much-heralded Mediterranean boîte from Boston, which unfortunately offers no priority for hotel guests, is tucked around the corner. Apple-martini abusers can head one flight down to Rande Gerber's Underbar to score one of the intime curtained alcoves. A fitness room dubbed Sweat is open all night long (guests can also take classes at the midtown W's Away Spa), as is the business center -- referred to as Wired, of course.

Guest profile: Graying hipsters who are serious about their socializing and equally serious about getting their wake-up calls.

The room: In W-speak, accommodations are divided into Wonderful, Spectacular, and Mega. Our Wonderful room was large, well-equipped, and almost entirely for sale. (Everything from the bed to the ice bucket is priced to move in a convenient catalogue.) Overall, the gray-and-white décor was surprisingly sober compared with the whimsy of the lobby. But the fantastic view of the park and the Con Ed building on Irving Place made up for it, as did the Aveda products in the bathroom. High-speed data ports are in every room, and for $9.95 a day, guests can surf the Web TV sets.

Service: That the W is indeed a chain hotel is all too annoyingly in evidence. When we called the Union Square's number for a reservation, we got someone at the W Court, were hung up on three times, and were quoted three different rates. Room service was well-meaning but managed to forget an entire dish and service set.

Inside info: Suites with fax machines come with guest business cards. Deep-pocketed travelers may want to reserve the Extreme Suite ($1,600-$1,800): a corner two-bedroom, three-bath apartment with Jacuzzi. South-facing quarters have the best views.

201 Park Avenue (212-253-9119; www.whotels.com). 270 rooms, from $299 to $550; suites start at $799.

THE TRIBECA GRAND
HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON
SERVICE: 10 * DÉCOR: 8 * HIPNESS FACTOR: 9

Guests at the Tribeca Grand don't need to venture very far to sample New York's nightlife: The eight-month-old Church Lounge in the lobby has already become a choice watering hole for the local working class (the cashmere and pinstriped variety, that is: venture capitalists, designers, and entertainment executives). Coming-and-going guests always feel as if their hotel is the center of it all. Laid out beneath a dramatic eight-story atrium suffused with an orangy-red glow that gives even the paunchiest midwestern zhlub a kind of candlelit sex appeal, the lounge is the glowing hearth of the hotel. Downstairs, there's a 98-seat theater where private screenings are held for the likes of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke.

Guest profile: Business travelers, mostly entertainment-driven. Miramax players like Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz.

The room: The smallish rooms upstairs couldn't be more different from the throbbing lobby lounge. Blending ergonomics with aesthetics, designer Calvin Tsao has created a soothing traveler's nest, layered with muted hues of cream and blue. A hideaway fax machine and Web TV for checking e-mail don't seem odd or obtrusive, and the stainless-steel sink and counter in the bathroom are both cool to look at and satisfyingly functional (there's a miniature TV mounted in the wall so you can tune in from the toilet). The bathroom is loaded with Kiehl's goodies. Each room has a Bose CD player-clock radio. And there's a menu of CDs to choose from.

Service: Several of the concierges moonlight at fashionable clubs and restaurants and are quick to wield their connections; all have encyclopedic knowledge of city shopping, nightlife, and restaurants.

Insider info: Inspect your bill; we found mistakes at both Grands (which were quickly and easily rectified). Three room lines open into one another, so families can create their own suite.

2 Avenue of the Americas (212-519-6600; www.tribecagrand.com). 203 rooms, from $429 to $999; suites start at $749.

THE SOHO GRAND
IT'S ONLY ROCK-AND-ROLLERS, BUT WE LIKE IT
SERVICE: 10 * DÉCOR: 9 * HIPNESS FACTOR: 9

If you're feeling lonely, the staff at Soho Grand will put a pet fish in your room to keep you company. And when you check out, they'll happily bag your new friend to take home. Not that Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, or any of the other rock stars, record executives, and entertainment types who stay here need more friends; it's just one of the many ways the Soho Grand showers its guests with affection. After ascending the suspended cast-iron staircase to the main floor, guests are met by the cheerful, faultlessly well-informed staff at the check-in desk. Mixing old New York Victorian grandeur with seventies artist-loft chic, William Sofield's design flatters the guest's good taste. In the lobby (which bleeds right into the bar), the clientele skews young but otherwise defies categorization: a Rasta with his socks pulled over his jeans, two fortyish women en route to Body & Soul, a huddle of laptop-tapping German suits. Barn jackets and running shoes are as common as Manolos and fur-trimmed tweed.

Guest profile: It's Radiohead's favorite hotel; Cypress Hill, Limp Bizkit, and the Taco Bell dog have also passed through.

The room: They run small but are chock-full of many of the same luxuries as its sister hotel, like Frette linens, Veuve Clicquot in the mini-bar, and Kiehl's products. The Howard Greenberg Gallery photographs on the wall are for sale.

Service: In-room pet dining offered. (The Soho Grand may be the most pet-friendly hotel in New York, to the delight of many a miniature-dachshund-toting fashion editor.) There's a 24-hour business center and the best hotel gym we've ever seen.

Insider info: Grand corner rooms like 1604 are sunniest; high floors on the northern side have sweeping views of the midtown skyline at night.

310 West Broadway (212-965-3000; www.sohogrand.com). 365 rooms, from $374 to $529; suites start at $1,299.

HUDSON HOTEL
A NIGHTCLUB, WITH SOME BROOM CLOSETS UPSTAIRS
SERVICE: 2 * DÉCOR: 9 * HIPNESS FACTOR: 10

Checking into Ian Schrager's latest is like getting a room above Studio 54, complete with a Sex and the City crowd and a gaggle of shag-haired bellhops imported from Carnaby Street. The check-in desk is nestled between Jeffrey Chodorow's Hudson Cafeteria (reserve your table today, or forget it) and the cozy Library Bar, a double-height space where hipsters sip Merlot by the fire while perusing David LaChapelle's coffee-table tomes. The Hudson Bar, with the swirling Francesco Clemente ceiling mural and glowing yellow dance floor, is the hub. But a tree-filled courtyard -- think the Sky Bar at Schrager's Mondrian in Los Angeles with heat lamps -- provides a fourth drinking option in warmer weather. Private parties thrown by Anna Wintour, Jennifer Lopez, even Hillary Clinton, can make a stay feel like a trip through a 3-D "Page Six" item. Still, the conference rooms draw a steady stream of suits, who seem out of place powering through the lobby at 8 a.m., when it feels like the D.J. is still smoking his last cigarette. An Agua Spa is promised by the end of the year, as is a David Barton gym, which will have a pool and a bowling alley plus archery and basketball courts. Until then, for $20 a day, the Balance-bar set can make the trip to Prescriptive Fitness at 54th and Fifth.

Guest profile: A mix of mohawks, Burberry's skirts, and English accents. Business folk are more of the Prada-man-purse variety.

The room: By encasing the vending machines in dark-wood closets, Philippe Starck makes shelling out $5 for Skittles seem glam. Each room's mahogany-paneled rec-room vibe is like a Nest subscriber's dream, despite obvious tricks (mirrors on every possible wall, bed below knee level) to hide the fact that most are smaller than an office cubicle. One eleven-by-nine-foot chamber has only a three-foot-wide bathroom, which means those with legs longer than a munchkin's have to ride the toilet sidesaddle. (Ours didn't have toilet paper; maybe they thought there wasn't room.)

Service: Don't bother calling downstairs for anything; after ten unrequited calls, we began to feel like we were harassing a date who was trying to ditch us. Luckily, there are some things you don't need to call for -- the mini-bar includes an "Intimacy kit" with two condoms. While the room-service menu makes a lot of promises, from Cubano sandwiches to banana splits, the kitchen can't keep them. An entire main course was missing from our breakfast. The concierge, a Joan Jett impersonator, ticked off good native destinations, like Eatery and Brico, Fifth Avenue shopping, and Bergdorf's. There's a Zagat in the mini-bar, but you have to buy it to use it.

Insider info: The impressive $95 rate (this was supposed to be Schrager's discount hotel, remember?) isn't always available. As the reservationist explained: "It's kind of like the airlines." Request a room that doesn't face the courtyard so you won't be awakened by the roar from one of Jennifer Lopez's all-night parties. The paint is drying on two penthouse "apartments" with Sub-Zero fridges, ivy-covered glass ceilings, and Hudson River views.

356 West 58th Street (212-554-6000; www.hudsonhotel.com) 1,000 rooms, from $95 to $350; suites start at $225.


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