By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 5:19 PM
Blame it on the W's and the Kimptons of the world. Those chains' ascendancy has led to a hotel genre I call cookie-cutter boutique. Its trappings: original (but uninspired) artwork, fresh (but uninspired) floral arrangements, colorful (but uninspired) lighting.
At the Hotel Chandler in midtown Manhattan, that translates to photographs of buildings and statues in my room, lots of orange lilies in the lobby and blue-glass and brushed-steel sconces on the walls. It's not moody and dark with lounge music playing and clerks wearing headsets (like at a W), and there are no animal prints in sight (like at a Kimpton), but the look is cliched all the same.
It might not have the most unique decor, but the Chandler has some other qualities going for it. For one thing, there's the location: on Murray Hill, walking distance from Penn Station, Madison Square Park, Union Square and surrounds. For another, there's the price: starting at under $200 for a 200-square-foot room. With that in mind, how much originality can you expect?
Besides, things become cliches for a reason. Frette linens and robes and spa-like bathrooms are de rigeur for these types of hotels, and I was more than fine with that here. My room's shower, clad in (cliche alert) white subway tiles on the walls and little blue square ones on the floor, featured one of those (cliche alert) rain-type sprays that was more powerful than anything I've experienced outside a real spa. And (cliche alert) Aveda toiletries smell pretty darn refreshing.
The room was well equipped, with a desk built into a media center, armoires on either side (providing more storage than most hotel rooms of this size I've been in) and a little sitting area of two scallop-backed velvet chairs around a teensy table. The WiFi was free (if temperamental), and the iron actually worked, steaming my shirt to crispness without that annoying drip/stain problem all too common in hotels. And the fitness center was respectable, if too small for more than a few people to work out at once.
Still, there was a feeling of just-good-enough when it came to the service, as I learned at check-in. It was a Friday in November, and I was harried from a delayed BoltBus trip that had me rushing to drop bags and change clothes before hitting Broadway for "The Pee-Wee Herman Show." When I asked the perfectly pleasant front-desk clerk about printing out my theater tickets, she said, "Absolutely. We have a computer in the library connected to a printer. Feel free to use it. If it doesn't work, check the paper. It runs out of paper all the time. Just let me know."
Which of course is exactly what happened. When I shuffled back and she handed me a mere 10 sheets to put in the printer, I knew I had cracked the code to this puzzler. Why hadn't she? It wasn't a big deal by any means, but telling nonetheless.
Likewise, I initially assumed that the fitness center's "Finnish sauna" - featured prominently on the Web site, by the way - was out of service because the door was open and it was stone-cold. The next day, when I asked a janitor about it in between my sets, he said that I could call the front desk 15 minutes in advance and they would turn it on.
Without a sign saying that, though, I'll bet that most people make the same assumption I did.
Breakfast was disappointing. The "continental" buffet wasn't worth anything close to the extra $16 the hotel charges for it. I passed over underbaked croissants, sad-looking wisps of prosciutto and firm-looking honeydew and cantaloupe chunks and was about to grab some boxes of cereal and cups of yogurt, maybe a grapefruit half, when I noticed that for another $4, I could order from the small menu of hot foods.
I asked for two eggs sunny side up with sausage and toast. What I got was pale, tasteless and over easy. I wasn't caffeinated, and I wasn't happy. Don't mess with my eggs, man.
The experience left me thinking too much about not what the Chandler is, but what it could be. I appreciated that thermal canisters of hot water and coffee were available all day, complete with real milk and half-and-half rather than those offensive little plastic shot things. So why not continue that approach at breakfast and put out bowls of granola, some plain yogurt, a selection of honeys and jams, truly seasonal fruit (perhaps from the Union Square Greenmarket a mere half-mile away) - and none of it in little packages?
It's that kind of attention that could help the Chandler overcome its cliches and become, if not unique, then at least a little more satisfying.