Fashion Week in New York is always a double-edged sword. It’s fun, it’s furiously paced, and it’s dripping with covetable style, both on and off the runway. Non-stop shows, events, meetings, dinners… It may sound amazing, but as a fashion journalist, each season I crave having somewhere cozy and welcoming to run away to. When the stilettos and non-stop air-kissing gets a bit much, having a tranquil hideaway makes all the difference.
I pull up at the James hotel around 11pm after a delayed flight and a sluggish drive from JFK. It’s pouring with rain. It couldn’t be more cheering to be met by a big grin on the bellman’s face, as he magics away my bags and shelters me from the storm with an enormous umbrella. And he’s sporting the coolest hotel uniform I’ve seen.
Big burly brown leather boots, Bermuda shorts, and a white shirt rolled up to the elbows. The doorman is looking more Out of Africa than Sex & the City – how refreshing compared to some of the snooty hotel staff I’ve encountered in Lower Manhattan. Even more uplifting is the complimentary chilled glass of chardonnay he pours me five minutes later as I check in. Any journey-here dreariness is instantly forgotten.
Now, you’re talking here to a turndown freak. The housekeeping equivalent of being tucked in with a cup of cocoa, it’s the first service I ask about when I book a hotel. Upstairs, my corner room has had the curtains drawn, lighting softening and the bed covers peeled back invitingly. The space is contemporary, but not clinical: I’m just not into that whole all-white walls and floor, might-as-well-be-in-a-hospital feel to so many modern hotels. Luckily the James strikes a chic balance between being arty, and edgy, but elegant and warm. Dark wood floors, a lacquered table and chairs, floor-to-ceiling windows and a bathroom with a moveable Oriental panel to separate it from the rest of the room; yup, this is a well thought-out space.
Starving, I call up room service and order off-menu. Residing in LA, waiters look at you strangely if you don’t put your own spin on dishes when you order, they’re so used to food allergy this, intolerance that. But New York is a different ballgame. Sounding a tiny bit peeved, the chap on the phone goes to check with the chef. Thankfully, dispelling any uh-oh-what-will-they-do-to-my-food worries, the answer comes back that yes of course I can have the breakfast menu of scrambled eggs with rye toast and a glass of sancerre, perfectly chilled.
Mr Smith flies in early the next day to join me in Manhattan, and we take advantage of complimentary coffee and pastries in the lobby, before snooping around Soho’s chic shops. That’s another brilliant aspect of this hotel – its location. Nestled into in my favourite New York neighbourhood, right in Downtown’s beating heart, we’re a short walk or a five-minute cab ride from the most interesting and intriguing boutiques and bars… Although in the end we discover the most eye-popping views and zingy cocktails are just upstairs: at rooftop bar, Jimmy.
An outside deck, a swimming pool, 360º skyline vistas and super-accomplished mixologist, Johnny Swet, all await on the top floor of the James. I’ve been coming to New York for years, and this wins a prize as one of the most awesome watering holes: if only for the Mexican Beehive. A sweet glass of silver tequila, honey, lavender syrup, lime juice and a chunk of amber honeycomb. It’s so good we try this inspired concoction again. And again. I convince myself that since every ingredient is plundered from the hotel’s cute little organic garden, then it must be healthy.
Downstairs, the David Burke kitchen is a world away from this city-slicker cocktailery. Modern loft space meets rustic barn – oxymoron? – no, somehow this is how it feels as we sit down for supper. The menu is interesting to read, though I wonder if it’s trying a bit hard (‘ants on a log’: bone marrow, snails, parsley and garlic) and it’s heavier than what I’d usually go for (pork chop with bacon and onion rings). Mr Smith gets excited though and pounces on duck-meatball lasagna, followed by scallops and pork belly. For me, lobster dumpling and coconut soup is delicious, if a tad rich after all those honey cocktails.
What stands out most from our stay at the James? Meeting some of this town’s friendliest staff. It is as though the James plucked smart, smiling guys and girls from a small town in the South or Midwest: everyone has the time to care if you’re alright, whether you’ve found everything OK, and if you’re truly enjoying your stay. For a place that, outside and in, looks so fashion-forward and finger on the pulse, this proves a big, and very welcome, surprise. So be assured: we’ll be back in a heartbeat.