24 Hours in the Virgin Hotel

Our weird, wackadoo night at Sir Richard’s hotel

By The Editors
April 9, 2015 9:00 am

Chicago, we’re getting quite posh. Sir Richard Branson’s first-ever hospitality foray, the Virgin Hotel, recently opened in the former Old Dearborn Bank Building, a 27-story, Art Deco-y tower in The Loop. The rooms, they say, are “chambers.” The WiFi, they say, is “free.” So we, like you, were curious. Because we, like you, have in-laws whom we’d prefer stay elsewhere. And we, like you, enjoy the occasional romantic hotel stay. So we spent the night. Here’s what we found.

Words: Michael Nolledo, Chicago Editor
Photos: Sandy Noto

Check-in. There’s no lobby. There’s no lobby? There’s no lobby. Just red-carpeted stairs. A small kiosk. And Jessica — a blonde in a red overcoat who greets me by name.

“I know. Creepy, right?” she says.

Yes, creepy, right. But ok, since your British accent is delightful.

A young pompadoured swinger with an iPad checks my date and me in. Banter exchanged. As are my credit card and room keys. He ushers me to the bronze Art Deco elevator doors, “Big plans today, mate?”

I plan to drink my way through this assignment, so yes.

And I have no plan except to wander through this entire place, drink in hand and pinkie raised. God save the Queen.

Room 1108. Grand Chamber King. All rooms are “chambers” here. There’s a dog statue in front, the hotel’s sybaritic way of marking pet-friendly rooms.

First impressions of the room: tech-forward and detail-oriented. But it’s 10 a.m. and without coffee I am nothing.

I head downstairs to the sunlit Two Zero Three — the coffee bar that faces the corner of Lake and Wabash. No line — which makes for good quick-service coffee joint. The joe’s from Lakeview coffee roasters Bow Truss. I order a cup and settle in.

Lunch time. I visit retro-inspired diner Miss Rickey’s, where David Burke’s Primehouse vet Rick Gresh is dishing out old-fashioned American grub.

My waiter wastes no time with recommendations: tres leches french toast; the double-patty Miss Rickey’s burger. But their most popular, he says, is the chicken and waffles.

“It photographs really well.” He shoots me a glance as if I’m a junkie who was just offered a bump.

But does it taste really well, my dude? That’s what I care about.

I thank him and order the chicken and waffles with a side of potato hash.

Damn, this chicken though.

So good I wish I snapped a top-down photo before digging in. Sure you can find one on Instagram, anyway.

Not sure what to do next. Our waiter tells us about the in-house Tesla.

The complimentary house car at other hotels: a Ford Explorer, usually. Here at Virgin: a shiny red Tesla S P85D.

Here’s a vid of one crushing a Ferrari in a drag race.

It’ll drive anywhere in a two-mile radius. I request a test drive — natch — and meet my driver, Steven, outside.

Ten minutes into the ride, Steven’s dropping all kinds of Tesla knowledge. “You know, this car can go 0-60 in three seconds … maybe I can show you.”


What followed was a little Lake Shore Drive, and a lot of this. Let’s just say Insane Mode and chicken and waffles make not for the greatest combo.

Back at the hotel. Work isn’t on the cards today but if it were, I’d do it on the second floor at the Commons Club. Nothing common about it.

It’s Virgin’s open-to-all social club. There’s a restaurant. Full-service bar. Library area. A lounge called the “Shag Room”.

History tell us the Commons Club occupies the space of a former bank vault, which explains the massive gold gate and the large sum of cash I’ll spend later.

I head back to my chamber to relax before Happy Hour.

The first of many clever details that greet you upon entry: the “Do Not Disturb” sign is a simple, one-press button. Ample closet space. Sit-down vanity area. A yoga mat. Bluetooth sound bar. Glassed-in shower with a bench.

This front section is partitioned from the sleeping area by a thick sliding door, where there’s a Smeg mini-bar stocked at street prices.

Unexpected mini-bar treat: a Lover’s Intimacy Kit, which contains a cock ring, multi-speed vibrator, condoms and some lube.

I open a bottle of Herradura because life is good and so is tequila.

The room’s best feature: the bed. Butter-soft sheets and fine pillows. My age is really feelin’ the headboard’s lumbar support. The corner cushion is lusty.

Is that a pour-over coffee maker? Impressive. This room’s officially hipster-approved.

Now’s a good time to tell you about Lucy. She’s Virgin’s mobile app. You can do a bunch of stuff with her, like order room service.

So I request a comb, toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss.

My comb, toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss arrive. Thanks, Lucy.

I head down to the Commons Club Happy Hour. Guests drink for free from 6-7 every day.

I ask the bartender if everything’s game for the next hour.

“Anything within reason,” she says. “Premium stuff included.”

At this point I have a serious question: How much Happy Hour whisky can a reporter on assignment drink in a crowded hotel bar on a Friday night? Rest assured I do not take this lightly.

“White Oak Akashi neat, please.”

Barkeep checks in and asks when I’m skipping town. I tell her tomorrow and instantly feel more interesting. She pours one stiff and I toast to “People who fly Virgin.”

I spark up a conversation with a British couple next to me who think everything’s “quite cheeky.” Topics of conversation include: Lake Michigan, House of Cards, the original UK version of House of Cards, Tinder and whether or not Rahm would win a bareknuckle boxing match with Chuy.

I’m in the middle of a tweet when I decide I’ve had enough. I’m happy with three. On to dinner.

Chef Gresh’s Commons Club dinner menu has some Asian flair, so we decide to lean that way. We start with the Crispy Shrimp Rolls before sharing the Lobster Flatbread, Crispy Quail and Cider Mussels.

“For a hotel restaurant — not sterile at all,” says my dining companion. She’s right; it’s easy to linger. We do.

Dinner finished, we grab cocktails and settle into the Shag Room. There’s a DJ playing solid tunes. Well-heeled groups abound.

At this point I realize it would be the perfect time to take this party up to the rooftop — if it were open. It is not, but will be by the end of April. 

We did get a sneak peak of said rooftop, and let me tell ya’: 360-degree views. Best rooftop ever. I’m also drunk now. So superlatives.

Before retiring to my chambers, I remember Two Zero Three doubles as a wine bar. Whether or not I stopped in for glass, I cannot say.

Back in 1108. “Lucy, burger.”

I’m awake. Taste of tequila still in my mouth.

Shower. Coffee. Water.

English breakfast delivered. Also: a spinach, kale, pineapple and coconut milk smoothie.

And finally, checkout. Kinda survived 24 hours of luxury. Tough life. Room charge: $270, tax included. Total bill: $711.85, good times included. On my way out, Jessica — the blonde who greeted me yesterday — is at her post.

“Morning, Michael! Did you enjoy your stay?”

I did, Jessica. Thanks. And I’ll surely be back.