I’ll level with you. When I first told Mr Smith I was taking him to the Ace Hotel, his response was muted. ‘Two words’, he said, clicking through the website. ‘Bunk’ and ‘bed.’ Another mouseclick. ‘Also it’s in an up-and-coming area’. Universal real-estate shorthand for a zip code that spells L05ER. ‘Relax,’ I purred, ‘It’s actually boutique. And I’ve booked us into a deluxe’. But a voice within did wonder if this boutique bolthole – however cool – would turn out to be tucked away in a shifty Manhattan side-pocket. And bunk beds? In our time, Mr Smith and I have shared dorms in Chengdu and cold showers in Cusco, but we’re longer in the tooth, and NYC is meant to be a romantic minibreak…
So why the Ace? I like lots of things about New York, including how areas are named after a geographical description (Upper West Side, Lower East Side) or given a neat acronym (SoHo for South of Houston, NoLiTa for North of Little Italy). You know where you stand and it kind of acts like a satnav should you head a few blocks in the wrong direction. I’d booked us into the Ace, largely because it was in a newly nicknamed neighbourhood (NoMad – No Man’s Land North of Madison), not far from the Empire State Building, nudging the Flatiron District. ‘I read that up-and-coming NoMad will soon be hot property, I assert, stepping out of our yellow cab and hoping that the owners of the Ace have got it right. And whaddayaknow? We walk into the lobby and it’s instantly obvious they know exactly what they’re doing.
A landmark 1900s building (originally the Hotel Breslin), conceals rooms at wide-ranging price tags: the Ace being a canny product of our financial times. Yep, that includes Bunk (credit crunch), as well as Deluxe (credit card), the beauty being that whichever you stay in, Ace’s communal areas ooze ‘no expense spared’. We’re straight into the grand low-lit reception with its period mosaic tiles, old-school wood panelling and towering pillars. The corner bar conjures the library of a traditional Park Avenue apartment, complete with distressed Chesterfields, twinkling chandeliers, stacked bookcases, and even a touch of taxidermy. But that’s where traditional features end: the Ace is all about big bold modern graphic design. Quirky fonts pop up everywhere, from the oversized black-and-white type of the corridor signposts to the street-style stencilling on the walls. Even the key cards are covered in large, shouty writing. It’s all very youthful, intended as a home from home for creatives and would-be rockstars (some rooms come with Music Hall turntables and boxes of old vinyl, others have Gibson guitars, blank sheet music and chalkboards. Well, you never know when you’ll need to scribble that score.) Suite furnishings are a lottery and I’m secretly happy to skip the teenage-boy-fantasy guitar scenario.
It’s all pretty low-key, but the graphic designers have still been busy. Pop Art motifs emblazon a hairdryer bag and ironing board. Little lettering on coat hangers whisper, ‘You look good in that’ – especially welcome after an eight-hour flight. An exercise in sleek minimalism, the walls to our room are white, the lamps over the king-size bed are black and angular, and an open clothes rail is fashioned from exposed pipes in the petite-but-chic tiled bathroom. And for all its industrial edges, boy, is it ever comfy. I rejoice in each high-end brand unearthed: hip Rudy’s Barbershop products in the drench shower, a soft Pendleton blanket on the bed, and two Wings + Horn hooded bathrobes to boot. Mr Smith finds an Ace Survival Manual telling us how to access free WiFi and the nearest ATM. User-friendly extras are everywhere – like the option to review your room bill via your flatscreen TV, or the PC stations in the corridor where you can check-in for your return flight online and print boarding passes. The Ace hotel couldn’t be more helpful if it tried.
And – oh my! – what foodie pedigree the minibar has. Taza stoneground chocolate, steep.com tea in matchboxes and, brilliantly, packs of Korean pot noodle for a kitsch late-night snack. Smith opens the industrial-looking refrigerator. Another frisson in the room-design roulette? The possibility of a Smeg fridge. We don’t get one, but who cares when we’ve got hip miniatures of Hendrick’s gin, 10 Cane rum and Crop organic vodka. The teeny trendy bottles look almost too good to open. Almost. Our body clocks think it’s two in the morning but the draw of a nightcap is too strong – we head for the lobby bar.
Stars and Stripes may dominate the wall but the soundtrack is straight out of Manchester circa 1980, all Joy Division and Johnny Marr riffs. The joint’s in full swing, oiling a crowd of fabulous-looking 30-somethings. So boxfresh is the Ace (it opened a few weeks before our visit) that the lobby restaurant is still under wraps, but there’s already a buzz about the Breslin. April Bloomfield’s name will be above the door (she of hallowed West Village gastropub, the Spotted Pig, fame). The barman also reveals that the first NYC outposts of Seattle-based Rudy’s Barbershop is on its way as is Portland’s Stumptown gourmet coffee emporium. Then we order more drinks. And we chat some more.
We wake implausibly early bearing the scars of jetlag and wine flu but the Ace comes to our rescue in the form of a thoughtfully provided pack of helpineedhelp.com aspirin (each quirky white pill stamped with ‘Help!’). I throw open the window to peer at 29th at Broadway then we head down for our croissant breakfast with Tiffany (it turns out that that’s the receptionist’s name – too perfect.) Outside it’s smack-in-the-face, summer-in-the-city humid. There’s a subway on 28th that’ll take us down to Soho or up to Central Park, but we opt to stroll with iced lemonade. There’s so much to see and do. We wander the High Line, the recently opened park built into the old elevated railroad high above Chelsea, hit the Soho sales, and check out the New Museum at Bowery. And the restaurants! We queue with half the city for addictive steamed pork buns at restaurant-of-the-moment, Momofuku, we hit Co for slices of peerless pizza pie.
Later, it's time to play Spot-the-Celebrity: we glimpse Barbra Streisand on Fifth Avenue then share a lift with Madame Bonkers herself, Heather Mills (and resist the urge to mention rat's milk which she once suggested would help save the planet - yes, really, Google it). And later still, we hit the bar at 230 Fifth. It’s on the 21st-floor, a short skip from the Ace, and offers 360-degree views of Manhattan – great for Kodak views of the Empire State Building but oddly soulless, so we debunk to the rooftop pool bar at Soho House. Here we gawp, glass in hand, at eye-popping electric storms exploding overhead. And suddenly, tragically, in a flash of lightning, our jaunt comes to an end. At daybreak when we check out, the hotel plays its final ace card, discretely slipping the bill under our door with a handwritten note hoping to see us again. It drives home just how personable and professional the place is. Nevermind ‘up and coming’, we decide in the cab back to JFK, NoMad’s Ace Hotel has well and truly arrived.