La Caravelle, Lutèce, La Côte Basque. The names evoke a time when, in midtown Manhattan, luxury sat on a gilded throne and spoke only French. In these restaurants, the cuisine was always rich, the flowers were always extravagant, and the waitstaff was always impeccable—the patrons’ manners, not so much. (See Truman Capote, Answered Prayers.)
La Grenouille is all that remains of that temps perdu, though it’s not entirely intact. After 40 years, the maître d’ extraordinaire, Charles Masson, has forsaken it to become the director of Chevalier, the signature brasserie of the sparkling new Baccarat Hotel & Residences New York (doubles from $899).
Turns out the taste for refined French style did not disappear from the city; it’s simply been lying low since the 1980s. And at the Baccarat, the first-ever hotel from the heritage crystal brand, the grandeur is back with a dazzle that is undiminished, but surprisingly not overwrought.
The development is the brainchild of Starwood Capital Group’s Barry Sternlicht, who created W Hotels 17 years ago. For the design, Sternlicht had the good sense to hire native speakers. The vocabulary of Paris-based Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier fluently employs traditional architecture and artisanship in service of a 21st-century interior. “We wanted to mix the two cultures: the elegance of Paris and the boldness and unrestrained glamour of New York,” Boissier says.
The combination kicks off in the sleek streetlevel entrance, where a display of more than 2,000 Harcourt goblets serves as a shape-shifting light show before one ascends in near total darkness to the second floor lobby. (The contrast is a bit severe.) Behind the check-in desk, a wall of fractured glass, like pyrite exploded in scale, catches and releases fragments of reflected spaces.
The public rooms—the Petit Salon, the Grand Salon, and the Bar—line up in a palatial enfilade, the sight lines provided by doorways punched through walls covered in pleated silk and fumed-oak paneling. The floors, too, are oak, laid in classic Versailles parquet and herringbone patterns that frame inset carpets. Nothing to trip a Louboutin heel here.
In a departure from codified formal French interiors, there’s hardly a hint of gold. But who needs it when you have a million points of light from a material that emerges from fire: 17 chandeliers, two 1909 crystal and gilded bronze amphorae on loan from the French government displayed in a vitrine the size of a Damien Hirst shark tank, and a wall of prismatic glass that transforms the Museum of Modern Art across the street into an animated screen of shifting shards?
For such an unforgiving material, one that requires perfection in both manufacture and maintenance (never have standards of housekeeping been so critical), the effect produces a liveliness that in turn reads as warmth. A hospitable staff plays no small part, too, in cushioning the edges.
If the public spaces are like a dramatic punch bowl, overflowing with cheer, the 114 rooms are like a glass of champagne—quiet celebration released in tiny refined bubbles. Pendeloque motifs are woven into jacquard sheets, a framed smoked mirror hides the TV, and a red lacquer box holds the mini-bar’s Baccarat glasses. There are also three lighting scenarios, ideal for day, cocktail hour, and night—just one of the features operated at the touch of a compact tablet. An intuitive integration of service and technology? Now that’s rich.
What’s not so swellegant? Rainshowerheads that no woman, or her blowout, likes (give us the good old American Speakman Anystream) and the absence of tubs in many rooms. The Louboutin-wearing set still want to soak their polished toes in perfumed waters. And when will shower taps placed at a comfortably dry distance from the head become de rigueur for five-star properties?
Nevertheless, no one understands luxury quite like the French, and the Baccarat is well aware that its audience, for all its love of luxe, has changed—formality is in many ways just a formality, and dressing down in an over-the-top environment is ever ascendant in the 21st century. Those dedicated to a certain New York traditionalism will still turn to the Carlyle. Those who prefer moodier dens and their denizens will still favor the Bowery Hotel. But the Baccarat will appeal to and embrace diplomat and celebrity alike, along with oligarchs, capitalists, consumers of the highest order, a curator slipping away from MoMA, and, soon enough, other smart New Yorkers who treasure a one-of-a-kind bolthole when they find it, whether for an hour or a night. They’ll come in for facials at the Spa de La Mer or to try chef Shea Gallante’s coquilles St. Jacques at Chevalier. Or to sit at the bar and drink to la vie en rose with a champagne-based cocktail so named.
Just to get things started, the hotel ordered 15,000 pieces of drinkware. Even the guest bathroom glass, the holder of that most plebeian tool, the toothbrush, is a cut-crystal tumbler. It’s a small symbol of a killer formula for our time: haute sans hauteur.