Cigar Aficionado

Four Seasons, New York City

The Four Seasons Hotel New York, which opened this summer on Manhattan's sleek East 57th Street, has everything--including details so fine-tuned that it's hard to find anything amiss. This 367-room, $360 million hotel is so new, perfect and expensive that you wish everyone on both sides of the reservations desk would lighten up just a little. But why bother? Perfection has its price.

The impressions of grandeur are everywhere--from the glowing French limestone facade, outfitted in the same stone that the hotel's architect (none other than I.M. Pei) selected for his recent renovation of the Louvre Museum, to the silk-covered walls of the guest rooms. The Four Seasons is out to proclaim itself a bastion of luxury and comfort. And from its commanding height--at 962 feet, it's the tallest hotel in New York City--to its cigar-friendly bar, the messages are of power and presence.

Apparently, both messages are getting through to the targeted smart-set clientele, which clearly agrees with what Pei himself described as the three-legged stool of a great hotel: location, service and design. The setting is superb. Aside from being close to the office towers that line Third to Sixth avenues, the Four Seasons is a block or two from such shopping meccas as Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany & Co. and boutiques such as Chanel and Hermés; directly across the street from the Pace Gallery and next door to the Fuller Building, which houses other important art galleries, and a short walk from sites as diverse as Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Great restaurants abound. There is La Caravelle for classic French fare and Dawat, the best Indian restaurant in town. And if perchance you can't stand your room (average size: 600 square feet, the city's largest, which cost the hotel chain an estimated $1 million each), you can always check out and go to one of the other well-known retreats in the neighborhood: The Plaza, the St. Regis, the Peninsula, the Sherry Netherland, the Ritz-Carlton....

With rooms starting at $295 and rising--along with spectacular midtown and Central Park views--to $4,000 for the 3,000-square-foot presidential suite that occupies the entire top (52nd) floor, service keeps pace with expectations. The staff appears warm and friendly, but that's all part of the Four Seasons' corporate heart. They project an omnipresent efficiency that is a bit unsettling, but at the same time somehow reassuring.

That awesome perfectionism embedded in the material presence of the hotel is carried on throughout the edifice. It begins as you enter the grand foyer. This columned, 33-foot-tall, limestone-encased, onyx-ceilinged entryway, with stairs leading away on three sides, combines cathedral calm, corporate formality and hotel showtime.

If you get bored in your room staring at the signed Le Corbusier or Léger prints or playing with gadgets like the bedside buttons that operate the electronic curtains or the high-pressure faucets that fill the huge bathtubs in 60 seconds, hang out by the revolving doors and listen to the gasps of new arrivals. Once you've crossed the intricate, inlaid foyer and ascended six stairs to the blond English sycamore reception desk, you can turn left, right, or forge straight ahead to a comfortable dining, drinking or puffing establishment. The same sycamore wood is everywhere, and it, too, spreads a warmth that lowers the formality a notch throughout the hotel.

At the hushed, expansive Lobby Lounge, smokers are ushered to a designated area where they are permitted to light up cigars and pipes as well as cigarettes. The restaurant, 57-57, described as an American grill, allows only cigarettes in its smoking sections, but it is just steps away from the bar, where carte blanche for smokers prevails throughout the 16-table room. That may send some patrons scurrying to the Lobby Lounge, but judging from the after-work crowds that gather in the standing-room-only space to munch on olives and toasted almonds and order from the nine concoctions listed on the "Martini Menu," the loss is negligible.

"A little bit of the theater in a hotel doesn't hurt," says Pei. Indeed, the Four Seasons is enjoying a strong start at what its operators hope will be a very long run. The high-end tickets may prove one of its biggest draws, and the performance, already top-notch, should continue to be polished and refined.

-- Peter Slatin is a free-lance writer based in New York City.