Do other people worry that they will feel awkward and inadequate in high class hotels? Or is it just me?
Mevrouw T and I generally travel on a tight budget, so we rarely see how the 1% live when on the road. Is it a treat or an ordeal to join them for a day or two?
Here’s my report on our recent five star Chicago experience…
‘When you arrive in those swish American hotels, they look at your shoes,’ my business-travelling friend warned me, ‘then they know.’
Just from your footwear they decide which room to give you, where to seat you in the restaurant and most importantly, they know how much you’re going to tip.
This is a worry, since we’re booked into the Waldorf Astoria, rated Chicago’s finest hotel by Conde Nast and TripAdvisor, and I have only one pair of shoes with me.
My wife’s feet will pass muster. Her simple yet elegant buckle-ups pair effortlessly with her black and white outfit by a leading Australian designer.
But my shoes are a dead giveaway. They’ve been my travelling companions for three years, equally comfortable hiking in Indonesian jungle or cycling through Belgian drizzle. My shoes seamlessly match my quick-dry trousers and superfine merino shirt that can be worn for a week without stinking. Anyone can see my shoes are new to five-star luxury adventures.
Three young, impeccably suited doorpersons greet us as we clatter our cases past the fountain in the cobbled Waldorf Astoria courtyard. We’ve walked two kilometres north from the downtown station, pretending we were ‘getting the feel of Chicago’. Really we were saving a cab fare.
Our bags are spirited from our hands, doors are held open, while a message is whispered into a hand-held radio. I suspect it’s, ‘Shoe alert, main entrance!’
Inside, huge busts and a massive chandelier overlook a marble lobby of skating rink proportions. I wipe my feet before proceeding to the reception desk and slipping my credit card (just gold, not platinum) across it.
‘Welcome, Mr and Mrs Tulloch, and thank you for choosing the Waldorf Astoria. My name is Judd.’ I’m sure he knows.
Judd escorts us up to our room. Sorry, rooms – several of them, all huge. Tasteful black and white decor and fine original art on the walls; all that’s missing is President Obama and a visiting dignitary sitting on either side of the fireplace for a photo op.
Judd shows us the workings of the heating, the two flat screen TVs and the dimmer switches, and helps stuff our tatty blue cases out of sight to avoid any colour clash. Do I tip him now, or wait till we’re checking out? How much do you tip in a place like this? Judd takes his leave while I’m dithering.
We spend some time in the bathroom investigating the fluffy towels, the robes and the dazzling array of shampoos and skin care products.
The phone rings. ‘Mr Tulloch, it’s Judd.’ Ah, here it comes. Bad shoes, no tip – he’s going to politely explain the mix-up that put us in the wrong room. Rooms. ‘I just want to make sure you’re happy there and ask if there’s anything I can do for you.’ ‘Um, everything is fine thanks, Judd. Very fine, actually.’ I ask him to confirm our evening reservation at the hotel’s Michelin-hatted RIA restaurant. We could get used to this.
That afternoon, I have an interview with hotel services manager Kathryn Day. She’s immaculately dressed too, but she’s also laid-back, and from Sydney. Perfect. I can ask about the tipping.
‘Oh we have a strict no tipping policy here,’ she tells me. No tipping? In America?? ‘We want our guests to feel they’re in a home. You don’t go visiting and tip your hosts.’
What an extraordinary relief! It’s not about the money; it’s the social awkwardness we want to avoid. In the US we’re never sure who to tip, when to tip, how much is enough and when generosity turns into unseemly showing off. I’m not convinced Americans get it either.
Kathryn explains how personnel rotate roles, from desk clerk to doorman or valet parking and all have the same title, ‘ambassador’. Most have studied hospitality and are making careers in the business. They pride themselves on their superb service. ‘If it’s not immoral or illegal, we will do it for our guests.’
The former Elysian Hotel was built in 2009, with the aim of providing ultimate luxury. The Waldorf Astoria organisation took it over and completed its conversion in February 2012. Our apartment-sized room is apparently not unusual – even the smallest room in the 188-room hotel is 60 square metres.
Decor throughout is faultless, with attention paid to the smallest architectural details. My wife takes a swim in the lap pool, where the mosaic tiles on the bottom are intended to give the impression of swimming in rose petals.
Dinner time arrives. We’re ushered into RIA, our chairs are pulled back, and I discreetly slip my feet under the tablecloth. While the atmosphere is relaxed, chef Danny Grant’s food demands our attention. This is not the place to eat when you have other things to talk about. The food takes centre stage, and left and right stage too.
We opt for the Seasonal Tasting menu with matching wines, which means we’re paralysed by choice and happy to let Mr Grant do the choosing.
Server John David explains, ‘Ria is Spanish for where the land meets the sea. Our focus here is on local produce and return to cooking.’ It takes a little nudging to get him off script, as he rattles off details of the appetisers, the entrees, the hand-made breads and even the butter. We aren’t told the names of the cows that produced the milk, but we do learn that the sea salt sprinkled on top of it is Australian. We have world class beaches, so why not world class sea salt?
Naturally the wines also get our sommelier’s detailed description. She probably suspects that our wine knowledge stops around Rawson’s Retreat, but she flatters us by treating us like fellow experts. It makes us feel special and the superb meal memorable.
When it comes time to check out of the Waldorf Astoria, we know it will be a while before we ever stay anywhere as luxurious. And yes, we do feel we’re leaving a home.
Our bags miraculously appear and Judd holds the door open. ‘We appreciate you staying with us, Mr and Mrs Tulloch. Can I call you a cab?’
‘No thanks, Judd. We’ll walk.’
We shake hands. He smiles, and doesn’t glance at my shoes. He knows. And it’s no problem at all.
Staying there: See waldorfastoria3.hilton.com
Eating there: RIA restaurant’s seasonal tasting menu US$110 per person, with matching wines add US$85. See: riarestaurantchicago.com/
The writer was the guest of the Waldorf Astoria Chicago and the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney