Stay in style

Lively, sumptuous, distinctive, fresh-faced lodging options abound

By By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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Maybe it’s the fact that the First Family hails from here, but Chicago has lately upped its hipness quotient. Who needs the Olympics when the buzz is on in the city’s thriving art, design, and restaurant scenes? Hoteliers have made their own strong bid for visitors with a string of happenings, from newly updated institutions to newly opened stylish digs, and almost all are offering fall-season specials. Read on for a survey of the latest and greatest downtown.

High above the tourist throngs on shop-centric Michigan Avenue is the soothing aerie that is the Four Seasons Chicago. On an October visit, I found that the regal seventh-floor lobby no longer wears a heavy English country-manor style. Instead, contemporary color-field paintings, gleaming black porcelain bowls, and fresh orchid blooms accentuate pale walls and curved armchairs upholstered in peach silk, all making for a sumptuous yet fresh-faced look.

Guest rooms share the flair for mid-century French inspiration, with bold Cubist works and steel accents. Suites were all redone in September by Pierre-Yves Rochon, the renowned Paris interior designer, and they’re impeccably dressed with silvery-blue brocade curtains, sleek glass-topped tables, white leather Eames chairs, and bathrooms of hand-cut, ivory-hued Chinese marble. Tech touches like flat-screen, high-definition TVs and complimentary Wi-Fi bring everything up to date.

What haven’t changed are the top-notch service and lovely views of the skyline and Lake Michigan from the hotel’s 343 rooms, situated on floors 30 to 46 of 900 North Michigan’s historic limestone tower. In this city of vertiginous skyline views, this hotel still has the edge.

The Four Seasons also runs the Ritz-Carlton Chicago a few blocks away, whose guest rooms got a similar multimillion-dollar face lift earlier this year, with muted palettes of pewter and blue that mirror the colors of lake living. Design details like quirky photographs of Chicago landmarks, circular porthole-style mirrors, and smoky Art Deco glass bars pay homage to the city. Look for a continuing overhaul to the property (currently still heavy on wood paneling and chandeliers) in the coming year.

New life has also come to the Blackstone, a historic 1910 Beaux Arts stunner in the South Loop across from Grant Park, which recently received a meticulous $128 million restoration courtesy of Renaissance Hotels. Rooms have custom duvets and special “gentleman’s armoires’’ for business travelers; guests with a hankering for the past can stay in the restored “smoke-filled room’’ suite of Warren G. Harding’s 1920 Republican presidential nomination. The hotel also has its own museum-quality art collection, with a rotating exhibit of 1,400-plus works by Chicago artists in the grand Art Hall.

Of course, design-conscious visitors in town for modern art - particularly Renzo Piano’s new glass-enclosed contemporary wing at the venerable Art Institute of Chicago - might prefer a less buttoned-up aesthetic. For these travelers, there’s the James Chicago, whose ground-floor lobby showcases a rotating gallery of pieces in partnership with local curators, including Monique Meloche. Next to the check-in desk, I encountered a pile of colorful vintage suitcases heaped with the contents of a deconstructed Texas motel room, part of an installation by the Chicago-based artist Joel Ross.

Collections in the residential-style lofts, which have little dining areas and private projection-TV nooks, include framed photographs and prints by Michael Kenna, Wendy Small, and Wolfgang Ludes. There’s even art in the building’s airshaft, and the James partners with the AIC for special programs.

The crowd at the lobby bar on a recent weeknight was eclectic: a mix of business travelers and Italian runners in town for the marathon. Some guests trickled into Primehouse, the James’s restaurant, which serves a mean steak; bar snacks here are also a cut above, with chili-oil cheese sticks and truffled-chocolate popcorn. More innovations are found at weekend brunch, with executive chef Rick Gresh’s inventive new “American dim sum’’ menu: Servers bring around rolling carts of 25 small-plate items, including almond pancakes, tempura green beans, and oatmeal crème brûlée.

Just around the corner in the gallery-lined River North neighborhood is the Dana Hotel and Spa, opened last year and another addition to the lodgings “it’’ list. I loved the new building’s distinctive organic forms and textures: bamboo bricks, undulating wood walls that gleam like copper, recycled-glass terrazzo floors. Floor-to-ceiling windows let natural light and the urban landscape into every room. The day spa, which occupies a tranquil space on the fourth floor lined in iridescent blue tile, wood, and glass, is open to the public; botanical product lines feature soothing ingredients like sage, olive, and avocado oils.

The electric-green awning at the Wit Hotel, opened in May across the Chicago River, signals a decidedly more charged character. Aimed at the 20- and 30-something crowd, the establishment is tricked out with gold pillows, feathery glass chandeliers, and a double-high phoenix mural in the lobby. Huge glass windows extend to the second floor, with gritty views of the elevated train platform at State and Lake.

“You know that old Sinatra song line, ‘On State Street, that great street.’ I like to think of this area as the phoenix rising again,’’ Michael Lyman, the Wit’s director of sales and marketing, said as we talked about the recent revitalization of the neighborhood.

The Wit is definitely lively. The expansive 27th-floor rooftop lounge - with cozy booths, gas-fire features, and thrilling panoramas of downtown, it’s probably the hotel’s best feature - gets successive waves of customers, from happy hour to late night. The full-service spa has hot pink walls and a 24-hour gym and yoga studio. All 298 rooms have kitchenettes, and the decor is punctuated by bright-orange chaise longues, whimsical photographs, and framed vintage Esquire magazine covers.

Walking the Wit’s hallways, I heard the unmistakable chirping of birds: The hotel’s “white noise’’ soundtrack includes babbling brooks and other nature sounds. Buttoned-up it’s not.

The newcomers on the hospitality front are definitely loosening things up. And that’s a good thing. In a city called home by the coolest president in US history, it’s definitely time to keep up to the moment.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at


If You Go

636 South Michigan Ave.


Doubles from $152.

Dana Hotel and Spa
660 North State St.


Doubles from $229.

Four Seasons Chicago
120 East Delaware Place


Doubles from $295.

James Chicago
55 East Ontario St.


Doubles from $250.

Ritz-Carlton Chicago
160 East Pearson St.


Doubles from $235 (both the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons are aiming for affordable with rate specials and packages, like the ongoing “third night free’’ deal).

Wit Hotel
201 North State St.


Doubles from $179.