Story by Jessica Delfino, photos by Alex M. Smith.
Just about everyone has reluctantly stayed in a Holiday Inn at one point or another. Whether it be a snap judgment while driving heavy-eyed along a dark highway in Cincinnati, Ohio or after a work event in New Haven, Connecticut, it seems like the kind of place I’ve only ever “crashed out at” rather than “consciously chose.” But when my husband and I were assigned to an undercover slumber party at the Lower East Side’s newest hotel on Delancey Street, I found myself checking in for the first time ever, on purpose.
Approaching the brick facade, the first thing I noticed was that the entrance was not where I expected it to be, on what some might have mistaken for the front of the building. Instead, it is located around the side, on Suffolk Street. The front entrance takes you directly to the Retro Bar & Grill, the hotel’s grub stop.
Upon entering the correct side entrance, we were warmly greeted by a doorman, and then again by a desk clerk. We were the only two guests in the lobby. As he checked us in, I strolled over to the snack area and café, and helped myself to a cup of fresh coffee from a machine. The price was $2.75, which I thought was a little pricey when you can get a cup of Blue Bottle coffee, lovingly made by two scientists using a Bunson burner, just a few blocks away for about the same price.
To my surprise, however, the machine coffee—which was fair trade–wasn’t so bad, and they offered a decaf cappuccino, which I’m oddly pressed to find even in our recently over-hipster-fied hood. And not one drop of barista ‘tude! HI: +1.
Almost immediately after checking into our hotel room, the phone rang. Who would have that number–my mom? The president? No, it was just room service, checking to see how everything was so far. Either they’d had a recent roach problem or really were on top of customer service, at least for the time being while things were still fresh — like every new relationship.
We dropped our luggage in the tiny hotel room and took stock. The small space had a boutique vibe that’d had the cool kicked out of it. Corporate America just can’t do hip. But they gave it a good try. The room was comfortable, clean and served its purpose. One thing I admired was that it had every kind of hook up available attached to the flat screen TV, so you could plug in a computer, a portable DVD player, all combinations of wires, probably even a hair dryer if that was necessary for your viewing experience. HI+2 for doing a nice job with a small space, but I’ll have to take one point away for preventing guests from opening the window enough to jump, if they so decided. I hate when hotels do that. I was also bummed not to see a pot delivery guy’s # in the room guide of local businesses, but I get it.
After checking out the room, we went to grab a bite in the Retro Bar & Grill. The new restaurant was totally empty—the perfect place for a mob family meeting. We sat at the bar to more easily shake the bartender down for info. She was a young, hip woman with an artsy look to her; she could’ve been a neighborhood resident, yet she said she lived in Washington Heights. She knew her way around their surprisingly indie beer selection (but not the neighborhood — she absolutely guaranteed me that 2nd Ave. and Ave. B intersected) and easily talked me into chugging down a delicious Young’s Breakfast Stout ($7). I also think it’s worth noting that Svedka is their well vodka, which beats Georgi any day.
For dinner, I tried the French Onion soup, but was disappointed to find lots of square chunks of bacon in it. Why add bacon to a dish that could so easily be vegetarian? Yet, in true opposite day form, the chili was meat-free. I also chose the tuna burger, which had a car-themed name that now escapes me. It might have been the Ford Thunderbird, it might have been the Chevelle Super Sport, but I had it with yummy sweet potato fries and will just call it “satisfying and filling.”
For two soups, two sandwiches and two beers, our total came to $85, which included 18% gratuity already factored in. Kind of pricey, but pricey is typical for hotel fare, I suppose.
A hockey game played on a TV in the background, which the manager eyed as he entered and exited the kitchen, enthusiastically involving us and the other few people who’d come in to eat, which I found kind of charming. HI +1 for decent enough food, +2 for excellent, friendly staff and service, yet smart guests will eat at one of the thousands of delicious, less expensive nearby restaurants.
We left the restaurant and poked around a bit downstairs. There was a small fitness room which, being used by one person, was pretty much full to capacity. We went upstairs into the lobby and I played with the sci-fi help board, which I imagined in a few months would be teeming with pinworms. True New Yorkers understand that you just don’t really touch public stuff here. Or maybe it’s just germophobe-y old me. Under activities on the board, it suggested I go to Chinatown or the Tenement Museum. It didn’t mention any of the over 100 art galleries and somehow left out the nearby Troll Museum. I noticed our room’s guide book also omitted some of the smaller spots that make the Lower East Side the Lower East Side. HI: -1 for not knowing the hood, but maybe we’ll also give it a +1 for knowing their clientele.
I tried to get out onto the deck off the lobby, but the door was locked for some reason and I wasn’t motivated enough to get to the bottom of the mystery, so I went outside to the front of the hotel. There, a group of friends were hanging out, deciding what to do. They were visiting from upstate NY for their friend’s 30th birthday. “What’s fun to do around here?” I asked. “We spent the day in Brooklyn,” they said. “Brooklyn! Is it dangerous?” I chided. “No!” they answered. “Just stay in Williamsburg, and you’ll be fine.”
One thing I love about the Lower East Side is that you can pretty it up all you want. But New York is still a wild animal, and that city grit is inescapable. Sure, so the view of 7-11, Burger King and Payless Shoes across Norfolk and down Delancey may’ve shone like the 3 stars in Orion’s Belt, but the Chinese woman digging through the garbage for cans was the North Star, telling me I was still, indeed, on the Lower East Side.
After taking a walk, we returned to the Retro Bar and had a few bites of an unsatisfying blueberry cobbler, then capped the night off chatting with a few friendly locals at the bar, tossing back one more round, and then chose a selection of crappy snacks from the 7-Eleven across the street to eat in front of the flat screen in our room. When in Rome…
We were going to hit the Delancey just a block away for a Smiths concert but fell asleep in a warm cocoon of satiation in front of the new, improved ScyFy channel. Things are always getting newer, shinier, louder, crazier and wilder, but at the same time, ultimately not budging a whole lot. I can’t imagine a day when the LES will be one giant Holiday Inn. That doesn’t mean some, or many won’t try to make it that way.
For $200-ish bucks a night, the Holiday Inn offers satisfactory sleeping quarters and a surprisingly comfy bed, but no free breakfast. I hate when hotels charge for breakfast. I think it’s cheap. Who doesn’t give you breakfast when you sleep over? Even a one-night stand will toss you a waffle. But in NYC, inns and hotels are for the tragically unhip. The cool kids stay in vacant flats whose owners are in Brazil for the week and crash on their artist friend’s couches.
I’ll end by saying The Holiday Inn knows a good thing when it sees it. The Lower East Side is movin’ on up. They are employing New Yorkers, even if they are trucking them in from Washington Heights, and the service is good, for now. But the truth is, the Holiday Inn moving in represents a sign of the times, in that they are a changin’, and if you are somehow fortunate enough to still be living here, you better hold on for dear life.
Jessica Delfino is a singer/songwriter and comedienne based in New York City. She has lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for almost a decade. She is the founder of the New York Funny Songs Festival which returns to the neighborhood for a second season on May 30th, 1023.