30 Kenmare St.; nolitanhotel.com; 55 rooms from $275 (U.S.) a night. No eco-rating.
No one wants to feel like a tourist in New York. Attempting to blend in with the locals is as much a part of the Big Apple experience as Times Square and Central Park. So why do so many visitors book hotel rooms in Midtown where so few New Yorkers actually live? The area north of Little Italy, known in Manhattan parlance as NoLIta, is the perfect neighbourhood to make you feel at home while still offering easy access to all the touristy hot spots. A charming collection of boutique-lined streets between Broadway and Bowery, NoLIta is a trendy pocket with just the right amount of authentic style and true grit. It's surprising then, that boutique hotels are just starting to appear in this area and neighbouring SoHo. The Nolitan joins a short but attractive list alongside 60 Thompson and the Crosby Street Hotel, but with a laid-back, accessible vibe.
At first glance, you may suspect you've walked into the lobby of a super-cool design firm. A sunken lounge area features caramel leather banquettes beneath pristine shelves of Phaidon design books. A black and white couch by the reception area is so covetable my travel companion snapped its picture as if she had spotted a local celebrity. Owned by a development team with deep roots in the neighbourhood, the hotel was brought to life by local design practice Grzywinski+Pons, which endeavoured to mirror the independent, fashionable look of the area. The glass façade integrates the hotel into the surrounding neighbourhood, and the building is split into two connected sections, preventing it from appearing as one jarring monolith on the street. A rooftop patio boasts views to the north and south, but, more important, allows you to gaze down on the water-tower-spotted roofs where real New Yorkers catch their rays.
After making a reservation with the Nolitan, you will receive a follow up e-mail asking you to complete a personal profile that covers everything from your preferred pillow types to taste in organic groceries. The perks here aren't flashy, but they are cool: complimentary bikes and skateboards, daily New York Times and in-room gaming stations available upon request. The hotel has also printed its own handy neighbourhood maps; one folds down to the size of a credit card, the other features the location of every nearby store and restaurant, from the delicious Peasant to the addictive MOMA Design Store and overwhelming Top Shop outpost.
The words industrial and warmth do not usually go hand in hand, but from the poured concrete ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass windows to the soft hardwood floors and red cashmere throws, each room manages to find the balance between modern and comfortable. There are eight varieties of rooms, each featuring a king- or queen-size bed, 37-inch flat-screen television and mini-bar tantalizingly packed into the drawer of the bedside table. About half the rooms have private balconies, where you can sip your morning coffee while taking in the downtown bustle. Each room's unique layout features a separate toilet and an open-concept shower and sink, allowing the room to feel bigger than it actually is. The rooms are not spacious, but no one comes to Manhattan to lie around in their hotel. And besides, this is how New Yorkers live, right?
After my own unsuccessful attempt to hail a cab, a staff member quickly dialled a car service and then continued to try to flag down a taxi in the meantime, promising me a ride in whatever came first. This is the kind of staff who will run after you with an umbrella if it looks like rain, who will apologize if they don't get to a door in time to open it for you and who include with turndown service a note illustrated with puffy clouds or happy sunshine to indicate the next day's weather. If anything, the staff is too attentive. Room service visited me three times during one day to offer turndowns and see if I needed anything, interrupting the fantasy of pretending I was in my own tiny NoLIta apartment. The place is also pet-friendly and has a standard 2 p.m. checkout time, because, according to its website, "a good friend wouldn't give you the boot at 11 a.m."
An in-house restaurant is not necessarily a draw when looking for a place to stay in Manhattan, where dining out is part of the itinerary. But ellabess, billed as a "seasonal American restaurant" and helmed by chef Troy Unruh, is worth an evening in. The 70-seat restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also provides the hotel room service. Raw clam "chowder" with leeks, potatoes and American caviar shares the menu with fried chicken breast with pickled watermelon. It is in no way an insult to the quality of the main courses to say the bread is by far the best thing about this place. Warm, buttery and baked fresh every 15 minutes, the rolls alone are worth making a reservation.
This is how New York life should be: stylish, compact and right in the middle of the action. In the heart of one of the city's coolest neighbourhoods, with great views and disarmingly attentive service, the Nolitan offers the true Manhattan experience