Review: In Soho, A Familiar Hotel Is Reborn and Better Than Ever
ModernHaus Soho is a stylish, artsy retreat with a superb restaurant and one of the best rooftop bars in the city
Anyone who spent some portion of their post-college/pre-obligation years in New York in the 2010s will remember a night or two at Jimmy, one of a handful of rooftop bars in lower Manhattan, and thus a bar that drew a line down the block every night from April through September. That this one had a pool only amplified the effect, even if said pool was largely ornamental.
What you may not remember is that Jimmy was the very literal capstone of a hotel standing underneath it: The James. Built in 2010 and boasting 114 rooms across 16 floors, the James was never quite able to make good on its prime location (Grand Street and Sixth Ave., a delightfully quiet corner of Soho), and in 2017 was sold to urban-development firm Thor Equities. The hotel was to be the first venture of Thor’s nascent hospitality division, and they took their time making plans for the new acquisition, continuing to operate it under the James banner until early last year. Then the pandemic arrived, and the onus to give the place a facelift had never been clearer.
The James wasn’t in need of a gut renovation so much as a carefully calibrated rebrand. The bones of the building have always been exceptional by New York standards: the building’s prominence in a relatively low-lying corner of Manhattan makes for 180-degree views of Downtown, there’s a multi-tiered patio and terrace that formerly housed two outdoor restaurants (the Garden at David Burke Kitchen and the Gitano Jungle Room), and, of course, the enduring appeal of the bar at the top of it all. If anything, the James had sold its canvas short, positioning itself as an accessible, mid-tier hotel in a neighborhood that caters to the jet set.
Enter Jack J. Sitt, son of Thor founder and chairman Joseph, who recruited the help of New York stylist and designer Melissa Bowers to reimagine the property from the ground up, this time as the ModernHaus Soho, a Bauhaus-inspired art hotel for people who know a Kaws sculpture (like the seven-foot totem on the patio) or a Harland Miller tapestry (a trio of them decorate the walls of the check-in) when they see one. All of the art in the common areas is borrowed from Sitt’s personal collection, and rooms feature reproductions of the same.
Speaking of …
The room layout has only slightly changed from the hotel’s James days, with 114 rooms now across 14 floors in 10 different configurations, from a 280-square-foot queen room to the sprawling, 1,300-square-foot Gallery Penthouse that attracts parties, events and photoshoots in addition to well-heeled guests. I stayed in a south-facing, corner-situated Skyline King Studio (380 square feet), which meant room for a two-person breakfast table and stupid-good views that stretched from the Manhattan Bridge to the Hudson.
In keeping with Sitt’s vision, the rooms have been appointed with elegant, mid-century furniture, dark wood floors and bright prints from the same contemporary masters you’ll encounter on an afternoon sojourn to the MoMA or nearby Whitney. And as far as creature comforts go, all of the trappings of a luxury hotel are present, from Le Labo bath products to Frette linens to a rain-style shower I could actually stretch out in (a novel concept for anyone who’s acquainted with typical NYC hotel dimensions).
Of special note are the double-paned windows that insulate every room. It might not be the sexiest way to spend your budget, but it makes for a soundproofed existence that feels downright blissful as you peer down at the waves of taxis, cyclists and pedestrians below. If there were anything to complain about, it would be that those wood floors — which are exceedingly easy on the eyes — are also slicker than owl shit. I recommend removing your socks upon entry.
Eating and Drinking
I have long maintained that any luxury hotel property is only as good as its bars and restaurants. Sure, most respectable NYC tourists will arrive with a checklist of buzzy eateries in hand, but they should also reserve the option to stay in and enjoy an equally good meal. At Veranda, they’ll find it.
A collaboration between Chef George Mendes (formerly of Aldea, a Michelin-starred pandemic casualty) and NYC hospitality veteran David Rabin (Lambs Club, Cafe Clover and … Jimmy), Veranda is hard to define but easy to love, featuring a dinner menu with bistro staples like salmon, scallops and dry-aged beef with occasional Portuguese flourishes that call back to Mendes’s family heritage. That’s especially true with the piri-piri chicken, char-grilled to perfection and served with crisp gem lettuce and a tangy herb dressing. You’d also be remiss not to order the house-made sourdough bread, which one ModernHaus staffer told me is the fruit of a passion project that Mendes — like you, probably — took up during quarantine.
Beyond the food, Veranda is exceptional for its ambience. The entire restaurant is set in a newly built greenhouse with a fully retractable roof, and it’s flanked by two drinking destinations — the cozy, art deco-hued Bar at Veranda and sprawling, outdoor Back Bar — that are worth a visit in their own right. Elsewhere, Jumpin Jacks is an all-day cafe and cocktail bar with an excellent selection of coffee beans and preparation methods. Turns out coffee was Jack J. Sitt’s quarantine hobby (sensing a theme here?), and this light-filled second-floor space is a testament to that. And finally, of course, you’ve got Jimmy, which is nearly indistinguishable from its former incarnation, save a new outdoor bar and some fresh pieces of art and decor to gawk at. (“Jimmy just grew up,” my contact tells me.)
When it comes to reviewing a hotel in New York, everything is relative. In every other city in America bar San Francisco, I might refer to the rooms at the ModernHaus Soho as “cozy” or “showing great economy of space.” But by New York standards, they are downright capacious. The same might be said of the room rates (starting at $450) or the price of a cocktail on the roof ($19): those prices would surely raise the eyebrow of a doctor in from Des Moines for a medical conference, but compared to the going rate for a comfortable, stylish room south of Houston Street, ModernHaus represents solid value for the ambitious traveler.
When The James Soho cut ribbons more than a decade ago, they introduced Manhattan’s trendiest neighborhood to a guesthouse that didn’t quite fit in. The location and layout offered huge potential, but a number of misguided design decisions (award-winning chef David Burke’s eponymous Kitchen was set in … the basement?) led to a sum that was lesser than its parts. With ModernHaus, Sitt and Bowers have delivered small but critical improvements throughout the space, preserving the things that were great about the hotel (Jimmy; that labyrinthine terrace that provides “the most square feet of outdoor space per key in the city”) while fixing the things that were lacking (a world-class restaurant that sits above ground; comfier, more luxurious room configurations).
The final effect of it all is a hotel that, like the Soho Grand or Ian Schrager’s Public, feels appropriately cosmopolitan for the clientele its setting attracts. It’s probably not where you’d put up your parents for the weekend, but it’s the ideal recommendation for fun-loving clients, those friends who visit once a year in search of a big New York weekend, or perhaps a swanky staycation of your own to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.
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