Browsing the website of one of the big travel magazines, your editor came across a list of the Best Hotel Chains which was frankly indistinguishable from the Most Expensive Hotel Chains. And it got us thinking: sure, you get what you pay for, but sometimes what you’re after simply isn’t for sale at the mainstream luxury hotels.
Our own list of the best hotel brands would look a little bit different — some of the usual luxury suspects would make an appearance, of course, but so would some of the more inventive and personality-driven budget and mid-price brands. In fact, it would look a little something like this:
If there’s one thing that makes us wish we found our way down to Texas a lot more often, it’s Liz Lambert’s portfolio of fun, funky, and perfectly localized boutique hotels. From Austin’s more-chic-than-shabby Hotel San José and the upscale-yet-chill Hotel Saint Cecilia to the colonial romance of San Antonio’s Hotel Havana, they never put a foot wrong. (If you’re ever in Marfa, check out El Cosmico, a “nomadic hotel” made up of trailers, teepees and tents — not on Tablet, but we’ll forgive you if you go over our heads on this one.)
From humble beginnings in Seattle this most tuned-in of hotel brands has built something of an empire, monopolizing the youthful end of the hotel market in places like Shoreditch, Portland and the resurgent downtown Los Angeles. A resort in Palm Springs and the classic American Trade in Panama expand on the original concept, and their next opening signals a revival in Pittsburgh, of all places. And we’ve heard whispers of future plans, which we wish we were allowed to share….
It takes some nerve to call your hotels Standard when you’re counting on them being perceived as anything but. Bold moves have always come naturally to André Balazs, the bad-boy hotelier who always seems to get away with (strictly metaphorical!) murder. The Standard Downtown L.A. anticipated the city’s renaissance by at least a decade; the Miami installment is deliciously anti–South Beach in its chilled-out seclusion; and the New York Standards, especially the High Line, continue to test the limits of decency (in the best possible way).
There’s no explicit branding, no name for the umbrella under which the Bowery, the Ludlow, the Maritime and the Marlton operate. But there’s definitely a unifying aesthetic, a certain nostalgia for prewar New York and a bohemian edge that’s done a lot to chase away minimalist design, and attract a colorful crowd from the fashion, art and entertainment worlds. None of them are quite as old as they feel, but they’re arguably even better than the real thing.
Park Hyatt is one of the big corporate chains, no two ways about it. But it certainly doesn’t stop them from getting most everything right. In fact that’s the Park Hyatt’s appeal — they’re not going to blow your mind with inventive new concepts or envelope-pushing design. They’re just going to show you what tasteful luxury and world-class service look like. From the classic, conservative Tokyo outpost made famous by Lost in Translation to the new, swanky, stylish Park Hyatt New York, it’s quite possibly the safest bet in hospitality. And sometimes a safe bet is exactly what you want.
Until the advent of New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, the Firmdale hotels were entirely a London phenomenon. Now they’re a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. Kit Kemp’s design sense is unmistakable, the luxurious trappings are unimpeachable, and the services and amenities are un-second-guessable — here a perfect little garden, there a private cinema, and at Ham Yard, a bowling alley, a retail village, and a delightful rooftop terrace.
Stylistically, they’re a bit more diverse than most brands. But there are common threads unifying the various Viceroy hotels. The locations are well-chosen — from the Maldives to Miami, from Zihuatanejo and the Riviera Maya to Santa Monica and midtown Manhattan, there’s always a Viceroy on offer. And while the 20th-century classic design you’ll find stateside differs from the thatched-roof vibe in the tropics, but the design is always front and center — and always on trend.
Another Hyatt offering, and one which we admit we greeted with some skepticism when the brand was first introduced. The big chains have tried before to co-opt the design-hotel trend, with very mixed results. But the Andaz hotels combine luxury-chain savoir faire with a remarkably tasteful visual sense. It might be a nicer story if they were owned by a lovable eccentric rather than a global mega-brand, but there’s no arguing with results.
We love the 21c Museum Hotels not just for their product — though all of them are fine ones indeed — but for their whole philosophy. Nobody takes the role of “art hotel” quite as seriously as they do, and nobody else is quite so fearless about location. Louisville, Cincinnati, and Bentonville, Arkansas (home of Wal-Mart!) are not exactly boutique-hotel hotbeds, but these cities are experiencing a renewal that’s driven by high culture — and the 21c hotels measure up to the best boutiques in any big city. (And we’ve just caught word of a fourth, in Durham, North Carolina, which we’ll get signed up post-haste.)
And sometimes, quite simply, you get what you pay for. Amanresorts operates some of the most expensive hotels on the planet, but they’re practically a bargain, because they’re also, every one of them, among the very best. Phenomenal locations, stunning design, top-shelf luxury, first-rate food and beverage — they’ve got it all. They’re largely a resort phenomenon, but with Aman Tokyo they’re establishing an urban presence as well. Some people literally don’t stay anywhere else. We wouldn’t go quite so far, but if we had the means, it’d be hard to resist….
We can’t stop at ten, of course. Regional brands like Germany’s 25hours and Southern California’s Paligroup could easily have made the cut on a different day. Philippe Starck’s Mama Shelter has spread across France and cropped up in Istanbul and Los Angeles. And boutique-hotel fans everywhere owe it all to the various Morgans hotels, and to Ian Schrager personally, who’s now collaborating with Marriott on the various Edition hotels. Asia has its own ecosystem of excellent hotel brands, from the Alila resorts to the Mandarin Oriental luxury hotels. And the hotel brands of the future are just starting to take shape — the Sydell Group, though far from a household name, is behind some Tablet favorites, including NoMad, the LINE, the Freehand hotels, and the Saguaros in Scottsdale and Palm Springs. Would you believe us if we said we love them all?