Ian Schrager, famous for pioneering, design-centric boutique hotels in the mid-eighties, once championed the idea of "cheap chic." But as the co-founder of Studio 54 became the most influential high-end hotelier in the decades since, his properties have seemed to lean ever more toward an emphasis on daring form over simplicity – and stretched the definition of affordability along the way. With the Public Hotel, a smart, new choice for business and leisure travelers set in downtown Chicago's Gold Coast district, Schrager has returned to his initial conception: a design hotel that is tastefully stylish, comfortable, and yet priced well below the astronomical.
Residing within the bones of the old 258-room Ambassador East Hotel and Pump Room restaurant, the Public has the sort of measured-wit interiors that will appeal to anyone with a basic working knowledge of aesthetics. A walk through the public spaces reveals modern sheepskin-covered chairs, fireplaces, contemporary metal lamps, spherical lights hanging above curved restaurant booths, and a light-versus-dark color scheme along with the occasional faux-Flemish-master painting. All in all, the self-conscious, design-for-design's-sake wackiness of the late nineties is thankfully absent. This is a place where you can take a business client without he or she getting the wrong impression that you still attend raves.
The rooms are spacious, clean-lined, and embrace a minimalist, no-color color-scheme. They're what you'd call homey, if your home is a well-appointed pre-war apartment building dotted with black-and-white photos. We also found a sense of comfort that's frequently absent in business hotels, such as with Frette linens dressing the low-lying beds and large, porcelain bathroom counters, and welcome techie amenities like free Wi-Fi and a nicely sizable flatscreen HDTV.
The Pump Room restaurant, which was once a hangout for golden-age Hollywood celebs, is now overseen by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and is far less buttoned-up than before. The same goes for the farm-to-table menu, where you'll find the Colorado lamb chops are served sweet and sour (so much for heavily salted steaks on frigid Chicago nights), although you can also order proteins "simply prepared," a good option for people with allergies or just a Foodie Progress holdout. The most innovative dining option, however, is the chef's Public Express: think healthful, room-service style meals (such as salmon salad with bibb lettuce and carrot-miso dressing) sold in to-go in bags, intended for those dashing to the airport or a boardroom.
Chicago, all due respect, was long a place where a personal design hotel of this caliber simply didn't exist. Indeed, upon meeting friends at Public, we felt almost as if we had landed upon a Manhattan hideaway that caters to HBO stars in town for glossy magazine interviews. That's not to say there was anything wrong with the Windy City and its lodging options before, but this remarkable dose of new-era class in a metropolis of famously smart yet down-to-earth people is worth more than a passing look. [Rooms from $135; publichotels.com]