If you ask any fashionable Londoner what hotel he or she considers the chicest, inevitably the answer will include names like Charlotte Street, Soho Hotel and Haymarket. The three are part of the five-property Firmdale Hotels, which operates one of the most popular and successful boutique hotel brands in U.K. hospitality. The company is in the process of expanding with its first North American outpost, Crosby Street Hotel in New York's Soho. Slated to open in early 2009, we take a closer look at what makes this chain so popular on the other side of the pond. And what to expect from the new New York hotspot. First impressions Five Firmdale Hotels are scattered throughout London with an emphasis on the city's media centers. Everyone seems to have a different favorite, with quieter travelers gravitating to the Covent Garden Hotel with its bookworm-theme lobby and wood-paneled décor. Showier travelers and star-gazers tend to prefer Charlotte Street Hotel or Soho Hotel with their lively lobby lounges and celebrity clientele like Scarlett Johansson that call the hotels home while shooting in London or on the West End stage. Haymarket is the newest of the hotels, located in the former European headquarters of American Express with a more subdued lobby and basement pool with glittery sky. Scene from a lobby Firmdale owners Tim and Kit Kemp believe that "hotels should be living things, not stuffy institutions." Thus each hotel sports a different lobby scene that inevitably goes on to become a certified city hotspot. Each is outfitted with an on-site eatery and adjacent lounge never more than a few long-steps from the lobby. Bright and airy, the signature spaces are defined by high ceilings, wood floors with heavy patina and oversize industrial windows that overlook the surrounding neighborhood even if the views or weather are hardly optimal. The décor is contemporary English in a mix of modern and antique furnishing.
I'd like to check in Sleepy-eyed guests arrive to an efficient reception located at a traditional plank-wood reservation desk that hits you mid-chest. A fresh-faced staff in slim vests and matching trousers navigates a straightforward check-in, as a bellman looks on ever so patiently, advising of each hotel's gym and lobby facilities. Old-fashioned cubbyholes contain laser-cut room keys with leather chains and embossed-gold numbers. With yours in hand, you pass through to a stainless-steel elevator well-stuffed with you, your bellman and wheeled entourage of luggage. Right this way to your room You're in England, which you're reminded of as you navigate the narrow interior hallways of the hotel with occasional step-down, step-up and unexpected turn that reveals your guest room. The heaviest door you will ever open in a hotel swings to reveal a crisp and bright room with wallpaper wainscoting, striped drapery, upholstered sofas and plaid chairs that you would never think really work but do. Oversize flat-screen TVs are opposite super-fluffy beds tucked 16 inches high with feather pillows and small bottles of aromatic sleeping fragrance that fills the room in a single jasmine-freesia spritz. Bedside tables include chunky modern radio, art-house books and a personal note from housekeeping as well as the on-site manager. Bathroom scoop We've stayed in three of the five London hotels, and virtually every bathroom is identical. Either a marketing ploy or really good mind game, a familiar sight of speckled gray granite welcomes the foreign eye to an all-stone space with white basin sink surrounded by Miller Harris toiletries in a refreshing lemon verbena scent. Rain showers are nothing short of bliss, like the luxury version of a Silkwood scrub to wash away any long-haul travel woes. Soaking tubs are complimented by recessed plasma-screen TVs with surround sound and additional second chunky radio playing the local classic music channel anytime the housekeeping makes its morning or evening pass-through. In-room dining Who doesn't like a 1a.m. raid of the mini-bar? Firmdale stocks its hotels with a high-end collection of gourmet treats, high-end chocolate and premium alcohols well-priced to encourage noshing. Those looking to indulge a more intense craving flock to an all-day dining menu offering morning continental breakfast, mid-day sandwich or 3 a.m. burger presented in no more than 30 minutes under silver-domed plate and tray. All on-site restaurants are open till around midnight, as are the in-house lounge or lobby honor bar that tests the honesty of heavy-handed drinkers. Coming to America Firmdale's Crosby Street Hotel is an all-new construction with 85 individually designed rooms in a loft interpretation of floor-to-ceiling warehouse-style windows. Like all other Firmdale properties, the hotel's interior design is by Kit Kemp, who creates her stylish hocus-pocus over an outdoor garden, drawing room, gym and a 100-seat screening theater room much like the one found at Soho Hotel. Utilizing the latest in environmental building materials and recycled products, the hotel is attempting to attain gold LEED status. The hotel will be managed by Jakob Hansen, formerly of Charlotte Street, who is looking to duplicate the Firmdale experience from housekeeping to the lively lounge scene that have made them a London cult phenomena.