Boston is a city of sack suits and Chevrolets, of dowager aunts and students with backpacks, all of them stubbornly indifferent to the vagaries of style. Even Back Bay, the Gilded Age quarter rescued by an influx of fast money in the eighties, lacks the glamour of New York or Los Angeles. But while it may be standoffish, Boston will always give you a proper welcome; just be aware that the emphasis, depending on where you stay, may well be on the word proper.
To stay at the Ritz-Carlton—the 1927 original—is to experience Boston firsthand, for this is the rare sort of hotel that not only captures the essence of a city but serves as its social hub. Luxurious as the new Ritz-Carltons may be, they lack the distinctiveness of this one. The first thing you notice is its lack of grandeur. Understatement is the rule. The lobby is sumptuous but small, the ceilings low, the street entrances scaled for pedestrian traffic rather than for vulgar displays of automotive wealth. All this is very Boston.
The Ritz-Carlton dates from the moment when the Jazz Age collided with Brahmin society, and although its standards have relaxed considerably in the past few years—men without jackets can now be seen in the bar—it still walks the line between compromise and propriety. The old fastidiousness lingers in a certain snippiness of tone. A sign at the café proclaims that jeans and athletic shoes are not considered appropriate attire at the Ritz-Carlton, Boston. Off-putting to some, this sort of thing reassures Bostonians: it shows that boundaries still exist, and that here at the Ritz-Carlton, one can be certain of being on the right side of them.
Which is why so many occasions of note take place there. Have dinner in the second-floor dining room—a gracious, white-columned banquet hall graced with crystal-and-cobalt chandeliers—and you¼ll be surrounded by Bostonians celebrating weddings, anniversaries, what have you. After feasting on scallops with crayfish and leeks, I was facing down the dessert cart—a massive silver vehicle that could do double duty as a battering ram—when the pianist broke into "Happy Birthday" for the eighth or ninth time. The good news is that despite the waiters' starched collars, the place is too festive to be stuffy.
There are, of course, other options: the cozy, lobby-level Ritz Café (try the supremely unadorned chicken salad for the full Boston experience); the dark and clubby Ritz Bar, home to 36 single malts and countless oil paintings of dogs and Pilgrims; and, in summer, the newly renovated Ritz Roof, which puts on a casual Sunday brunch and a black-tie-optional dinner dance three nights a week. Personally, however, I saw little reason to leave my room. True it was smallish, the bathroom verging on stingy, but it was also old-fashioned and genteel—its damask-covered walls a mutable cream, its furniture appropriately subdued, its windows looking across the treetops to the Public Garden.
Other rooms—there are 278 in all, including 39 suites with wood-burning fireplaces—face the boutiques of Newbury Street or the green swath of Commonwealth Avenue. The latter accommodations, in the 1981 addition, have larger bathrooms and huge bay windows, but the best views are in the original building. From there, looking across to Charles Bulfinch's gold-domed State House atop Beacon Hill, you can see why Boston once fancied itself the Hub of the Universe.
15 Arlington St.; 800/241-3333 or 617/536-5700, fax 617/536-9340; doubles $260-$415.
Four Seasons Hotel
The Four Seasons is everything the Ritz-Carlton is not: glitzy, modern, uninhibited, relaxed. The Ritz whisks your shiny black Mercedes 500 SL convertible to its garage around the corner; the Four Seasons lets it sit curbside for a while, basking in envious stares. The Ritz has white-gloved attendants to run its perfumed yet clattering elevators; at the Four Seasons the elevators beam you up with a soft whoosh and a muted chorus of electronic beeps. The Ritz treats you like an honorary Brahmin, deserving the comforts of a private club; the Four Seasons handles you like an executive who might well be in Singapore tomorrow.
The Four Seasons could be anywhere, in other words, yet just happens to be in the center of Boston. Its Boylston Street location was considered rather dicey when the place opened 12 years ago, but now it's verging on trendy—next door to Biba and Escada, just down the street from the Mercury Bar. It was late when I checked in, so after a brief look at my room (there was a lot of it) I beamed myself down to Aujourd'hui, the second-floor restaurant. It was big and padded and dark, full of corporate types conferring in muffled tones. The tables were too far apart for me to pick up any trade secrets, so I amused myself by contemplating a large and rather hokey-looking pair of Y'ing dynasty horses (or was it Y'ang?) until dinner arrived. Then I forgot everything except what was before me—fresh asparagus sprinkled with truffles; roast squab with chestnut risotto and fava beans; warm chocolate cake with cherry ice cream and créme anglaise sprinkled with pistachios.
Aujourd'hui, I was to discover, is much like the Four Seasons itself: luxurious, casual, up-to-date. I was equally taken with the top-floor fitness center, which, with its 44-foot lap pool and wall of windows looking over the Public Garden and the Common, is several cuts above the usual hotel exercise closet. The 288 guest rooms are done in stockbroker-traditional, with wing chairs, brass lamps, lots of mahogany, and big marble bathrooms: no place for faded gentility here. Just try to land on the Boylston Street side, where the views make the most of what some would consider the Four Seasons' best feature—that it's in Boston, but not of Boston.
200 Boylston St.; 800/332-3442 or 617/338-4400, fax 617/423-0154; doubles $335-$495.
If the Four Seasons is a Lexus, sporty yet solid, the Charles would have to be a Volvo, the sensible, intelligent choice. This, after all, is Cambridge, the brainy side of Boston, and the Charles Hotel is at the heart of it, between Memorial Drive and Harvard Square. The look is rustic, contemporary, and unpretentious: you won't feel underdressed in Birkenstocks and chinos. Century-old quilts adorn the elevator landings; starkly geometric patchwork beckons at the end of long, dramatically lit hallways.
It doesn't take a semiotician to read the message: here's a hotel that wants to be seen as simple yet artful. It succeeds. My sixth-floor room, while plain, was entirely pleasant—pine bed, blue-and-white-striped wallpaper, nicely upholstered chairs, Bose clock radio with concert-level sound. For a view across rooftops and cupolas to Back Bay, ask for a Harvard-side room on an upper floor.
In addition to its 296 guest rooms, the Charles has a pair of restaurants, Henrietta's Table and Rialto, each wonderful in its own way. Henrietta's is a big, sunny place that goes for the farmhouse look—creamy walls, glossy white wainscoting, watering cans on the hutch, gleaming Cibachromes of tomatoes and radishes and melons. Rialto is one of Boston's premier restaurants—a romantic spot, playful yet serene. This is Michela Larson's new establishment, and it's very much in the spirit of Michela's, the northern Italian eatery that helped upend Boston's restaurant scene in the eighties. The food, which this time is Italian in inspiration only, is as lively and unpredictable as the ambience: barely seared pepper-crusted tuna with artichoke hearts and capers; lobster salad with potatoes and beets in a lime-ginger-kumquat dressing; sea scallops and bacon on a rosemary-branch brochette with capers in a port wine reduction. The only discordant note was the TV set at the bar, tuned to a Celtics game. But, hey, did I forget to mention that Boston's a sports town, too?
1 Bennett St., Cambridge; 800/323-7500 or 617/864-1200, fax 617/864-5715; doubles $295.
FRANK ROSE is a contributing writer at Fortune.