Dignified yet comfortable, the Carlyle is exactly what one should look for--but might not expect to find--in a hotel on Manhattan's sleek, genteel Upper East Side. After all, in recent years Madison Avenue has become a showboat shopping alley as it moves north from East 60th Street toward the Carlyle, at 76th Street. Upscale mass merchandisers such as Calvin Klein, Prada and Ann Taylor have rushed to the street since Barneys opened its flagship store there in 1993, bringing more of a high-end mall feeling to a special neighborhood of luxury boutiques and fine restaurants, art galleries and museums.
But the Carlyle, now 66 years old, has held fast to its Jazz Age influences without flaunting them. It is neither a tacky retread nor a shell spiffed up to suit a marketplace. Rather, it has kept its poise through New York City's high times and low. Instead of letting itself go and then shutting for a costly overhaul, the Carlyle has stayed in shape through regular refurbishments and maintenance. Chances are it will outrun some of Manhattan's more youthful hotels.
For one thing, the Carlyle offers something presently out of fashion in hotel design--privacy in the lobby. Although they can easily be reached from the lobby, off 76th Street, the hotel's celebrated bars and its warm restaurant are entered from Madison Avenue. Hotel guests, who include permanent residents as well as those renowned or unsung guests who rent by the day or week--come in through the discreet East 76th Street entrance and can go directly to an elevator without having to pass through a gauntlet of loungers and stargazers at any time of day or night.
"We're very private," says general manager James Sherwin, a polished, polite yet warm Englishman who spent 20 years with the Savoy hotel group before coming here four years ago. "Friends or even rivals come to stay without knowing the other is here. It's only when they pass each other coming or going that we have a 'Carlyle moment.' "
The 191 guest quarters overseen by Sherwin and his attentive staff of 500 begin with small but well-furnished rooms on the lower floors starting at $295 a night. These rooms are no less impeccably furnished than the Carlyle's larger suites and apartments.
At the hotel's upper reaches are roomy, light-filled apartments. At $2,000 a night, the sweeping views of Madison Avenue and Central Park don't come cheap--but those who can afford the tab will still appreciate the feeling of riding the crest of the city.
Furnishing of all the rooms--each of which has its own fax machine ready to roll--is overseen by the designer Mark Hampton. The feeling throughout is one of evident but not opulent luxury and care, and is expressed in warm lighting and soft fabrics in light, soothing tones. The rooms are welcoming and even homey without relinquishing their stateliness.
If there is any place in the Carlyle where overindulgence takes the upper hand, it is in the restaurant. In this handsome room, filled with baskets of fruit, flower arrangements and well-chosen oil paintings, the menu is top-heavy with foie gras, caviar, lobster and truffles. The chef has a deft hand, turning out a silken carpaccio of beef or a woodsy, flavorful mushroom salad. Fish and shellfish are fresh and cooked to the point of full flavor. The wine list contains first-growth Bordeaux and fine selections from California and Italy.
Still, the restaurant is not really a destination unto itself. It doesn't need to be, because the Carlyle has two of New York City's great entertainment rooms, the Cafe Carlyle and Bemelmans Bar. The Cafe has just four performers, on rotation: the unbeatable Bobby Short, who plays the fall and winter holiday season, as well as the late spring, Eartha Kitt, Dixie Carter and Barbara Cook. It is one of the city's most romantic rooms.
As is any room at the Carlyle.
Peter Slatin is a New York-based writer.
The Carlyle Hotel
35 East 76th Street
phone: (212) 744-1600; fax: (212) 717-4682
Daily rates: rooms from $295 to $2,000