If it's a glam weekend in New York you're after, I recommend that you send yourself there on Concorde, while you still can. Not only does the supersonic flight maximise your play time in the city, it's also a great conversation starter in Manhattan's bars, bestowing centre-of-attention status upon you for at least 15 minutes. And if you can't make a good impression/new best friend/ace business contact in that short space of time, what the hell are you doing in New York?
No one is more aware of this high-altitude social pressure than Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House in London, the preferred hangout of sociable types in the arts and entertainment world. Jones also owns Babington House, a chic retreat in Somerset which redefined the image of country house hotels and the weekend break. It's barely a fortnight since Jones opened the New York outpost of his members' club in the city's Meatpacking District, but Soho House New York (SHNY) is clearly headed for success in the world's most competitive urban playground. Some 750 New Yorkers have taken up membership at $900 a year, plus $200 registration fee. London members are automatically afforded membership at SHNY, and many of them are already treating it like another home from home. Which is exactly as the owner hoped it would be.
The Meatpacking District is a rough-and-ready corner of the West Village, between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson river. Its cobbled streets have been home to a wholesale meat market since the 1930s and, in the modern tradition of seedy industrial neighbourhoods, its old warehouses have attracted artists and designers seeking cheap rents and large workspaces.
Glamour has been added to the gristle in recent months, however, with the opening of boutiques by British designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. The fashion diva Diane von Furstenberg has a shop on West 12th Street. Two streets away is Jeffrey, another cutting-edge clothes emporium. It's probably the only neighbourhood in America where fresh carcasses and thousand-dollar dresses hang side by side, but there's a tenuous connection: the market supplies Peter Luger's renowned Brooklyn steakhouse, where chic New Yorkers go to eat prime porterhouse beef at $60 a pop.
The Meatpacking District has a few good dining spots of its own: Florent, a 24-hour French diner, and Pastis, whose owner Keith McNally founded the still-popular Balthazar restaurant in SoHo, seem to be the current favourites.
And now, Nick Jones has braved a move across the Atlantic and into this noisy, shabby neighbourhood. Soho House is a 24-room hotel as well as a members' club (non-members can stay in the hotel rooms), built over five floors of an old warehouse, but from the outside you'd barely know it was there. The entrance, when I eventually find it, is a single door with a tiny sign beside it inscribed "Soho House New York".
At reception, I'm checked in for my three-night stay and directed to the top-floor bar, where I'm to wait while my room is being prepared (Diane von Furstenberg's son Alex recently moved out of his marital home and is so taken with Soho House that he has booked in till Christmas, which has led to some last-minute room shuffling).
The bar, restaurant, drawing-room and Playroom (with pool table, pinball and table football) are divided by wide walls of steel-framed glass panes. These, combined with the original timbers, raw brick walls and pressed-tin ceiling, help retain the industrial feel. The decor is, by contrast, both modern and elegant. Ornate glass chandeliers gleam; starched white linen graces the dining tables; clean-lined Italian sofas sit alongside dark leather chesterfields, low-slung armchairs and occasional tables. The interior designer Ilse Crawford sourced furniture from European and local design shops and flea markets to create a style that is neither typically British nor American. It would have been easy to reproduce the look of the London club, or the Georgian grandeur of Babington House, but that was never a consideration. Unlike many modern bars and restaurants, the lighting has not been over-conceived: lamps of varying styles and sizes are dotted around the drawing-room for reading purposes, but natural daylight prevails.
A team of affable Brits and Americans are busily moving around the horseshoe-shaped bar, in and out of the restaurant. Interviews are underway for more staff. For a moment, there's the exciting possibility that I may end up on the other side of the bar mixing Dirty Martinis, and I can think of worse ways to spend a Thursday afternoon. But just then I'm whisked off to my room. I say "room", but at 950sq ft, it's almost as big as my flat, and far better appointed.
Space is the factor that really makes SHNY stand out, because in Manhattan, it's at a premium. All over the city, people squeeze into cafés, bars and hotel rooms no bigger than broom cupboards, so this room is pretty remarkable. A huge, L-shaped sofa in front of the wall-mounted plasma- screen TV would easily seat 10, and makes me wish I had a few more friends here to hang out with. The carved four-poster has a second plasma-screen TV mounted above it, and at the foot of the bed is a free-standing bath that looks like half of a giant dinosaur egg. The en-suite shower and dressing room is a calming fusion of neutral stone, mosaic tiles and satin-smooth wood, with a superb rainfall shower.
The bathroom shelves hold products from the Cowshed spa, which originated at Babington House but whose name has been adopted for SHNY's health-and-beauty suite. Shampoos, shower gels and body oils are labelled Dirty Cow, Stressed Cow and Grumpy Cow (the bovine theme translates well, of course, to the Meatpacking District). The drawers are stocked with razors, tweezers, blow-dryer and hair-straighteners, toothbrushes and whitening toothpaste, lipbalm and aromatherapy oils. (Note to the management: you may want to add earplugs to that list. The hotel is on a busy junction and New York cabbies don't let up on their car horns at night.)
The minibar contains everything from Grey Goose vodka and Evian to Dean & DeLuca pecan brownies, Nars cosmetics and an umbrella. There are playing-cards, all the latest magazines, plus a copy of the Kama Sutra. They don't call this room The Playground for nothing.
The entertainment factor is high. There's an in-house cinema available for private screenings which also has a weekend programme for guests and a children's cinema club. The White Room (very 1930s-grand, with a mirror-tiled bar and zebra- skin rugs on the gleaming floor) can be hired for parties. The spacious library is ideal for quiet reading. The Cowshed spa has treatment rooms, two huge wooden hot-tubs, steam room and a chill-out zone. It's all very diverting, but I've had a tip-off that right now, the bar is the only place to be.
Tonight, the bar is packed to the gills with an eclectic mix of clubbable, well-heeled Brits and sharp young New Yorkers. It's a scene reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities: hedonistic Brits whooping it up, cool New Yorkers seeing and being seen. There's nothing dégagé about this crowd - they're very dressed up and look like they're planning to move on somewhere even smarter. But why would they? We have here a ringside seat at the most glamorous party of the week.
Anna Wintour, the reputedly icy editor of American Vogue, is hosting dinner in the restaurant; her guests of honour are David and Victoria Beckham. It's quite a coup for the couple: they are, it seems, determined to crack America, and if Ms Wintour can't ease their passage into fashionable New York circles, no one can.
Around 8pm, black limos rumble over the cobbles outside, and two minutes later, the invited guests emerge from the elevator into the bar. This evening, entry to the restaurant is by invitation only. It's a bit of a cheek in a members' club - what are members paying for, if not full access to club facilities - but it's strictly a one-off, and frankly, no one appears to mind. They can dine in the bar and they get to watch a bunch of dressed-up celebs having dinner (even if they're not exactly sure who Posh'n' Becks are).
First through the door is Anna Wintour, not preceded by the usual frost warning but looking summery in a pale silk dress with a high, frilled collar. The dress is almost demure but for the fact that it clings to her like a coat of lipgloss. Mrs Beckham has gone for maximum tan exposure in a short, Greco-Roman tunic dusted with sequins - Helen of Troy meets Barbarella. Her old man's looking similarly reed-like in a close-cut black suit. He has the poise of a ballet dancer, not the swagger of an athlete.
Also present are David Bowie, his wife Iman, Diane von Furstenberg and her media-mogul husband Barry Diller. In the bar, a table has been reserved for Vogue magazine's lower orders. To the amusement of the British contingent, the Voguettes have all been made to wear white T-shirts with "Manchester United" on the front, and a red No 7 on the back.
Next morning, I'm up on the roof with Chris Sade, the British president of SHNY. It's cold, blustery and raining, and we're inspecting the almost-finished open-air swimming pool. The roof terrace is huge, offering long views downtown and over the Hudson river. It'll be great when the sun shines, I say optimistically.
Chris tells me that the conversion of Soho House was done in an amazingly short nine months - and New York builders are even more recalcitrant than British ones, he adds. He admits that the project was a huge risk in an untried and highly fickle market, but, so far, the bar has been full most nights and the hotel side is so busy with forward bookings that, in the long term, it too may be restricted to members only.
Further expansion plans are underway. The latest Soho House project in Britain is the Balham Bar & Grill in south London, due to open in July; in the US, the next location will probably be the Hamptons or Los Angeles. Meanwhile, further signs of encroaching gentrification are appearing here on Ninth Avenue. Across the road looms the tall steel frame of another new hotel, part of a modern chain called Giraffe, keen to cash in on the district's resurgence. Many think that it will only serve to blunt the current fashionable edge.
For SHNY, and local conservationists who are eager to preserve the Meatpacking District's authenticity, the prospect is not an aesthetically pleasing one. But it's a clear signal that new money is pouring into the area and that tourism in New York is back on its feet again. And you really can't beef about that.
Jackie Hunter travelled to New York on the British Airways Concorde. Flights to New York outbound on Concorde and returning in Economy start from £3,895, and outbound on Concorde and returning in Club from £5,459. (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com)
Soho House New York, 29-35 Ninth Avenue, New York NY 10014 (00 1 212 627 9800; www.sohohouse.com). Prices from $200 (£133) to $750 (£530) per room per night (plus tax) for non-members. There are four sizes of room: Playpen; Playroom; Playhouse; Playground.
Shops and restaurants:
Alexander McQueen, 417 West 14th Street (00 1 212 645 1797)
Diane von Furstenberg, 385 West 12th Street (00 1 646 486 4800)
Jeffrey New York, 449 West 14th Street (00 1 212 206 1272)
Stella McCartney, 429 West 14th Street (00 1 212 255 1556)
Florent, 69 Gansevoort Street (00 1 212 989 5779)
Pastis, Ninth Avenue at Little West 12th Street (00 1 212 929 4844)
More information: NYC & Company (020-7202 6368; www.nycvisit.com).Reuse content