Our Travel Office receives few requests for city hotels these days. Andrew Harper members are traveling, but quite understandably, they’re heading mostly to the countryside. Every now and then I indulge a contrarian mood, so I booked myself three hotels in downtown Chicago. I was curious what it was like to stay in a city right now. How safe would it feel? And would there be anything to do outside the hotel? It was a risk, but the room rates were so low, I couldn’t resist investigating.
It turns out that there is good reason to visit Chicago right now, and not just because the rates at some of the luxury hotels have cratered. Many major attractions have reopened as of this writing, but because of social-distancing requirements and the steep drop in tourism, they tend to be blissfully free of crowds. At the Art Institute Chicago, one of the world’s great museums, we stood alone before Seurat’s monumental “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” We also had Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic” to ourselves, as well as Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks.” Now is an ideal time to see the special exhibition “Monet and Chicago,” which would ordinarily be unpleasantly packed. It was busier than the rest of the museum but certainly not crowded when we visited.
We had a similar experience at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, a splendid Beaux Arts edifice with a modern annex overlooking Lake Michigan. It draws upward of 2 million visitors a year in normal times, and it can become a bit claustrophobic inside. What a joy it was, then, to find the aquarium almost empty on the March weekday we visited. It was easy to walk right up to even the most popular enclosures. We watched, unmolested, as a beluga whale flipped a towel around its tank, penguins toddled on their rocks, otters cuddled together, and jellyfish pulsed in mesmerizing fashion. A few families wandered around, but it was easy to keep our distance. At the Shedd and the Art Institute, visitors all appeared to be conscientious about mask-wearing.
Restaurants were more problematic. Quite a few offered takeout only, and although some were open for reduced-capacity interior dining, we weren’t ready to have an indoor restaurant meal just yet. If you feel similarly, it’s important to choose a hotel with good room service menus.
Of the three properties at which I stayed anonymously, the Viceroy Chicago had the best (only) room service menu. This 180-room hotel near the intersection of Rush and State streets is home to Somerset, an acclaimed restaurant that remained open, even in chilly March, thanks to plastic domes protecting its outdoor tables. Room service breakfasts from Somerset were relatively simple — the “omelette aux fines herbes” had no fillings available, for example. It was just a folded disk of scrambled eggs. But dinners were a delight. I enjoyed an appetizer of fresh king crab with a touch of spicy red chile emulsion served atop little crunchy-chewy rice cakes, along with a deliciously balanced salad of sweet butternut squash, spicy arugula, crunchy cashews and tangy cranberries. Larger courses were also delicious: the Rohan duck confit came well-rendered and crispy skinned, accompanied by sweet red-onion compote, and a tender pork chop Milanese arrived perfectly medium, enhanced by a rich truffle béchamel. A little crock of homemade chive spätzle came on the side. When we finished, we simply placed our tray outside the room and telephoned for someone to pick it up.
The rooftop pool was closed, and its adjacent restaurant was open only on weekends. But I did reserve a workout slot for myself in the large exercise room, which offered treadmills, bicycles, weight machines and free weights. I appreciated that windows allowed in some natural light. Only three of us were working out, making it simple to socially distance.
I encountered a similar situation at the even larger gym of the Waldorf Astoria, a 215-room hotel in an ideal location just west of Michigan Avenue, a short block from the luxury boutiques of Oak Street. I shared the fitness room with just two other guests, both of whom were easy to avoid. We remained masked for the duration of our workouts, of course. Like the fitness room, the Waldorf Astoria’s lap pool also required a reservation. We arrived to find one gentleman emerging from the water; he had just finished his workout, leaving the pool to be enjoyed solely by us. It was a pleasure having a private pool for the duration of our half-hour swim.
As at the Viceroy, there was no turndown service at the Waldorf Astoria, and rooms received cleaning service only on request. We asked for a cleaning to see how it would work; however, had I been staying for any other reason than to review the hotel, I would have likely skipped it. The staff was organized enough to arrange for the cleaning during our time at the pool, ensuring that we and the housekeepers avoided being in the room together at any point. Since the Waldorf’s restaurant was closed, room service was not available. Only the café off the lobby was open. It was still finding its legs during our stay. One morning, the food selection was quite limited, because they underestimated demand. Another morning, the café employee simply didn’t arrive. The front desk gamely offered to brew up a pot of coffee, but it seemed simpler to walk around the block to a coffee shop instead.
The new 21c Museum Hotel had the strictest (and most inconsistent) COVID-19 protocols that we experienced while in Chicago. Whereas there was bell staff at both the Viceroy and the Waldorf Astoria, we found none at the 297-room 21c, which, admittedly, is a less-expensive property. Room cleaning was not offered, even optionally, and bathrobes and extra towels had been removed from the room. When I attempted to get a drink of water, I also discovered that the room lacked glasses of any kind. These, too, had been removed “because of COVID,” and only paper cups were available.
I resolved to go out and buy some reasonable drinking vessels and placed some articles in the room safe. Its batteries had run out, and it failed to lock. A maintenance man arrived within three minutes of my calling to report the issue, to his credit. He worked on the safe a bit, then turned to me, pulled down his mask and asked where I had come from. Thankfully, I was sitting on the far side of the room. I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen, but then he turned to me a second time, in order to tell me that the safe was repaired, and again, he pulled his mask down while speaking. Feeling upset at this gentleman’s potentially dangerous carelessness, I called the front desk once more and reminded them exactly how COVID is spread (hint: it’s not via bathrobes or extra towels).
While the 21c Museum Hotel’s unhelpful COVID policies and inconsistent service preclude me from endorsing the property, I can certainly recommend visiting Chicago this spring. Restaurant patios have already begun reopening, indoor dining is available at ever more establishments, and institutions like the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Art Institute are still quite uncrowded. Most important, I felt quite safe at the hotels I reviewed, the 21c excepted. Visiting a city right now may sound counterintuitive, but that’s precisely why it’s a good idea.
Full editorial reviews of these hotels and others in Chicago will be coming soon.