The next time you're in Chicago on business, stay at the Claridge and do lunch at the Swan, on the hotel's third floor. There are no distractions behind the shoji screen, just the soothing rhythm of a waterfall. There's no food either. But hey, who ever said lunch had to be about food? The Swan is a massage retreat at this quiet downtown establishment, and like the guest rooms and cozy lobby, it's part of what gives the Claridge the je ne sais quoi that manager Michael Wathen calls "a point of view." The point, he says, is to take a load off, take the edge off business and feel at home among friends--as opposed to jostling a bunch of other suits in a convention center-size lobby littered with bad art. Says Wathen: "We're the anti-Hyatt."
The Claridge is among the swelling ranks of small, upscale American hotels with fine art on all floors and an attitude to match. From Los Angeles to Boston, New York to New Orleans, these are places that offer attentive, discreet service, and lots of it. Their mission is to out-boutique the boutiques and, by the way, allow you to get a little work done. Call them the "biztique" hotels. Also call them expensive.
The small luxury hotels are not necessarily new, and even if they are, the management would rather you thought they had been around forever. XV Beacon in Boston, for example, opened for New Year's 2000, yet because it is nestled among the cobblestones and brick Federal architecture of Beacon Hill, it would never occur to you before entering that each of its bathrooms sports a flat-screen Bloomberg News display. The 61-room hotel's only exterior signature is its gold nameplate: xv beacon. By contrast, the Soniat House in New Orleans is draped in its history: it was created from adjoining Creole town houses that date back to the early 19th century. Houston's Colombe d'Or began in 1923 as the Prairie-style mansion of Humble Oil founder W.W. Fondren. Like Soniat House, it exudes Old World elegance--and offers Internet access.
Do not mistake these gems for the headline-grabbing, designer showcases for the stars (do the Paramount and the Mondrian ring any bells?). These luxury hotels don't want you to know who stays there. The Lowell, for instance, is an elegant 17-story building adjacent to Revlon billionaire Ronald Perelman's mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Although the Lowell caters to members of the same crowd you might find around the pool at the Mondrian, it is the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers who retire to the understated salons of the Lowell. "Our guests are from the worlds of film, fashion, finance and publishing," says sales-and-marketing director Lynne Davis. "They stay here because it feels like a home away from home." Translation: it has great security. So does XV Beacon, where you need a coded key card to work the elevator.
Hotels in this league offer all the accoutrements of the trendoleums, if not more. New York City's Bryant Park will boast a 70-seat screening room when it opens in May. San Francisco's Lambourne ups the ante on health by putting an exercise machine--a treadmill, bike or StairMaster--in every suite. (Work up a sweat, and try one of the algae shakes from room service.) The Lowell's "gym suite" has one of two bedrooms given over to a complete exercise center, including a balance bar.