Upper East Side story
Why New Yorkers are still mad for the historic Pierre at Central Park
JUST how classic Manhattan is this? Despite a $US100 million facelift of its 189 guestrooms and public areas by new owners Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces in 2009, the 1930-built Pierre at East 61st Street and Fifth Avenue feels so timeless, just so uptown Manhattan, that it’s one of the preferred hotel backdrops for the makers of the television hit series Mad Men.
Madison Avenue, the former spiritual home of advertising agencies, is just around the corner and the property features in multiple Mad Men episodes, according to websites that make it their business to keep track of such things, even down to the minute/second frame of relevant scenes.
The hotel’s debut was in season 1, episode 6, when Don Draper tries to resurrect his romance with department store heiress Rachel Menken. It’s where the ambitious Peggy Olson and Herman ‘‘Duck’’ Phillips have a tryst (season 3, episode 7). When the principals of Sterling Cooper break away from the British owners to start their new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, they temporarily set up shop in Room 435 of The Pierre (season 3, episode 13).
And it’s where on an early Tuesday evening in March, while Manhattan is all sour skies and chill winds, I am snug in the Two E Bar/ Lounge off the lobby, amid the kindness of low lighting and cushioned seating, contemplating the Mad Men classic cocktails list, which has a 1960s retro twist in honour of the much-anticipated premiere of season 5.
Tuesday is jazz night (live guitar and string bass) and from 6.30pm9.30pm, I am invited to embrace my inner Joan Holloway (I would prefer to hug Don Draper) and get stuck into that Roger Sterling staple of Irish coffee (with Bushmills, of course) or a perfectly mixed grasshopper. Orders are building for the bikini martini, designed with shapely Christina Hendricks in mind ( even the gin is Hendricks), and touted as ‘ ‘ the most voluptuous’’ drink in Manhattan.
There are regular ‘‘mixology’’ classes at Two EBar/Lounge (originally the hotel’s serious-sounding reading room) to celebrate the seasons; the next is for the northern autumn equinox on September 25 when The Pierre’s dab-hand barmen will re- create classics served here during the past 82 years. ‘‘Recipes will be pulled from the archives of debutante balls and elegant state dinners . . .’’ Pitch up for the winter solstice on December 18 for ‘‘flavoured foams, cocktail caviar and other tricks with a bit of holiday flair’’.
But most of all I want to be back in the brocaded nest that is room 3807, overlooking the long green rectangle of Central Park and fitted with Frette bedlinens and billowing curtains and hillocks of Bangalore silk cushions in soothing pastels and carpets so thick your heels sink in and little menu cards offering pillows of different downs and feathers. It’s a perfect hibernation chamber, just the spot for a snooze after a three-martini lunch and a nudge of an ad agency exec’s drinks cabinet and then, perhaps, a silver- dome roomservice dinner and a peruse of that day’s Wall Street trading stats, printed on a polite note that’s slipped under the door by a butler so discreet he may just be a figment of my imagination.
Hotels with this kind of lineage offer an effortless comfort that all but hugs you. Since its 1930 opening, when no less a culinary eminence than Auguste Escoffier was the guest chef, the rollcall of patrons has included Coco Chanel, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, assorted royals from the House of Windsor, Hepburns (Katharine and Audrey), Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and, well, I could go on and on, even as far as mentioning Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Walters held their wedding receptions here.
Service is so seamless it only seems to be there when you need it but, wait, there is a personalised twist. White-gloved elevator attendants whisk you up and down on rosters around the clock, always with a line in polite patter. Some of your fellow passengers will be permanent residents of the soaring building (Lady Mary Fairfax famously lived here); there’s a sense of old-world glamour, family money and titled names but, oddly, no hint of snobbishness. The attendants include Jose, Edmond and, especially, widesmiling Khady, who welcomes me to ‘‘her office’’ as she holds open the elevator door.
Some of the bells and whistles might be missing, such as a pool and a roof garden, but this is New York and no one ever came to the Big Apple just for a swim. As for pampering therapies, let them come to you — have a therapy in your suite or head to the third floor where a room has been converted for massages and treatments from Jiva, the Taj Hotels’ signature spa Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Pierre is perfectly situated on the Museum Mile of Fifth Avenue (which separates Manhattan into east and west) so hop up to, say, the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the Guggenheim, refuel at good gallery restaurants with lunchtime specials (Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar at the Met; the Wright Restaurant at the Guggenheim) and don’t miss the store at the Met for classy souvenirs. Make sure you purchase a New York CityPass to save up to 46 per cent off admission to main attractions, including the Met. citypass.com. Barneys: This old-money department store is just behind The Pierre; head direct to the Le brand, with its emphasis on Ayuverdic principles and ‘ ‘ the rituals of Indian royalty’’. Tip: go for a Vishram relaxation massage using oil blends of kewda, frankincense and brahmi with infusions of sandalwood and sesame.
Taj’s homeland roots are apparent, too, with the assembly of Indian artworks in the ground- Labo counter on the lower level for fragrances that all New York is mad about, especially Rose 31 eau de parfum, ‘‘compounded’’ on the spot and bottled with dated and personalised labels. 660 Madison Avenue.
Plaza Hotel Food Hall: At the floor public spaces, mostly antique statuary of Hindu gods and important contemporary pieces that add hints of an exotic elsewhere. A fine arts consultant with the splendid name of Mortimer Chatterjee selected the pieces, including items from the Taj flagship hotel in Mumbai, the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. There are art southeast corner of Central Park and minutes from The Pierre, this basement concourse eatery, masterminded by Boston celebrity chef Todd English, features sit-up counters serving the likes of oysters, pizza, pasta (at a 21-seater Carrara marble counter), Chinese dumplings and tours once a month to view the curated collection and to peep into areas such as the Cotillion Room, where scenes from the Al Pacino 1992 hit Scent of a Woman were filmed.
Be sure to linger in the Rotunda, with its fabulous 1960s trompe- l’oeil murals in which mythological figures such as Japanese soba noodles. After lunch, pop up to the hotel’s mezzanine floor and browse the beautifully illustrated volumes in the Assouline bookshop. 1 West 59th Street (at Fifth Avenue). Delissimo Deli Cafe: Pick up a fat, hot and delicious Reuben sandwich with corned beef and Swiss cheese for $US7 and scoff in Central Park (or your room at The Pierre; don’t tell in-room dining). If you want to walk it off, pound 20 blocks north or south and you’ll have covered a mile. 39 East 60th Street. Uniqlo: The city flagship store of this Japanese chain sells wellpriced and superbly cut linen shirts for men and women, unstructured jackets, accessories and men’s argyle socks so cheap apparently some Manhattan bankers buy Neptune and Venus mingle with figures who look unerringly like Jackie Kennedy Onassis plus New York society doyennes of the era; Adam and Eve are here, too, with he of the fig-leaf and apple posed for by actor Erik Estrada in his rather dashing heyday.
The hotel has such a residential feel that I begin to imagine it really multiple pairs and toss them out after wearing rather than send them to the laundry. 666 Fifth Avenue. Banana Republic: Surely this clothing chain didn’t exist in the Mad Men era but it has been retailing a line of clothes conceived by the show’s costume designer Janie Bryant, so you, too, can dress like the Drapers. 626-630 Fifth Avenue and branches. is my New York pied-a-terre with a Jaguar thrown in. If the hotel’s complimentary car is idling kerbside, you’ll be dropped off within a reasonable vicinity for dining or shopping. So off I go in leather plushness with a Pierre chauffeur for the taping of the Late Show with David Letterman at Broadway’s Ed Sullivan Theatre and then to Frank Sinatra’s favourite dining joint, Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, at 236 West 56th St, where I tuck into a dramatically large serve of spaghetti and meatballs. Just how classic Manhattan is that? Susan Kurosawa was a guest of The Pierre and Qantas.
The soaring Pierre is a Manhattan landmark on Fifth Avenue, overlooking leafy Central Park
Classic elegance is the hallmark of refurbished guestrooms
The hotel provides a backdrop for scenes from TV’s Mad Men
Channelling the Mad Men era at Banana Republic