What It’s Like to Spend 24 Hours in Detroit’s New Shinola Hotel

The city's revitalization project just got a new crown jewel

February 21, 2019 9:00 am

You’ve probably heard of Shinola, the Detroit-based watchmaker that burst onto the scene in 2011 as the attainable luxury brand for men. Hipper, cheaper and more American than Rolex, the company swiftly expanded into leather goods, jewelry and household oddities (turntablesbluetooth speakers, even glossy one speeds). And now, they can peddle it all from their 179-room hotel in downtown Detroit. They claim “it’s not just a space — it’s an experience,” so we headed east for a breathless 24 hours to see if the new hotel is worth the hype.

Spoiler: it is.

11:40 a.m.
My rideshare pulls up to the hotel in a downtown Detroit that has undergone a radical facelift over the last decade. The scene is lively, the stores are name-brand (Madewell, Moosejaw and, of course, Shinola) and the restored buildings glow with life.

From the street, it’s a bit of whiplash to head into the quiet, dark checkin area, but I’m immediately enamored by the real room keys on leather tassels occupying individual wood cubbies behind the desk.

Gladys & The Pips plays across speakers; I’m in Motown after all. I’m early and the room isn’t ready so I ask to grab my camera before they store my luggage. “You’ll need the camera,” says the bellman. Noted.

I’ve already sat in three different chairs in the hotel’s “living room.” I want to try them all. I want to buy them all, honestly. Other guests must agree because they, too, are lingering, snapping photos and curling up by the wood-burning fireplace.

The artwork lining the walls all comes from local artists. Some pieces are on loan from the Detroit Public Library down the street. I spot a new kind of chair and make for it like a moth to flame.

The hotel restaurant, San Morello, just started offering brunch, so we collect our things and head down a dark, mirror-lined corridor. The bar is bright and Art Deco, as if transported from a different era.

12:43 p.m.
The food arrives. There’s the Spiced Apple Waffle, Eggs al Forno and The Sandwich; chicken sausage, a side of potatoes, tea, green juice and coffee round out the table. Beautiful brunch cocktails are passing us from every direction on simple wood trays and the potatoes smell unreal. Please hold.

Breakfast takes care of itself with a quickness. Time to explore. The hotel’s event spaces are breathtaking, in particular The Conservatory. The fitness center includes leather-wrapped columns, because it’s Shinola. Apparently the place is also pet-friendly, because I spot a rooftop dog run.

The room is ready and we head upstairs. Doors open on floor five. The hallways are almost nautical, with black, rounded archways and more dim lighting. I step in to a sun-soaked room. Windows are eight feet tall. All the trim is that navy-meets-forest green. Michigan white pine abounds and the large-format closet doors conceal hooded black robes emblazoned with “Detroit” across the back. I feel like a Piston.

The hotel phone is old school, with one option: press zero for support. It’s another analog touch that adds a dose of retro cool to the space. Most of the other items in the room are for sale: the throws, the pillows, even the chargers. My bed is clean and comfortable. The afternoon sun is waning and naptime is calling. I must go.

Refreshed, I start opening all the drawers looking for easter eggs. I discover instructions on how to use the Shinola Bluetooth speakers, so my search now has a soundtrack. Eventually, all king rooms will have a Shinola record player and guests can grab some vinyl from the Library. I spied Bowie, Miles Davis and Sly and the Family Stone. There’s also complimentary in-room Shinola soda, immaculately packaged toiletries and even a romance kit with a mini multi speed vibrator. They really do want you to relax.

I strike out to explore “the complex.” The hotel is made up of five restored buildings housing hotel rooms, events spaces, restaurants and retail. Starting with the Shinola store is easiest since guests can enter directly from the hotel. An employee mentions the hotel is getting 10 Shinola bikes this summer that guests can use to tool around the city. Outside, there’s a big Marshall Field’s-style clock on the corner of the building. No surprises, it’s a Shinola.

Three new eateries are in-progress, so I can only peek in, but given the bitter cold I love how close all of these spots are to the hotel. They will include a beer hall, fried chicken joint and Madcap Coffee spot.

It’s chilly, so I jump into Good Neighbor and am immediately offered champagne and candies for their Valentine’s pop-up. The owner is a Shinola alum and her store abides a similar mission to quality-made, locally sourced goods.

It’s past five o’clock somewhere, and that somewhere is here. I pop into the hotel’s speakeasy Evening Bar through an unmarked alley door. I’m feeling very hip as the bartender hands me a tiny welcome drink of Michigan hard Apple cider. Perusing the cocktails, my heart stops at their “elevated stadium food,” which includes potato skins with caviar, truffle hot dogs and a shareable pot of Michigan cheddar and lager fondue with pretzels, apple and local crudités. Why would I ever leave this hotel?

I’m between a Shiver Me Pimms and a Hat Trick. The bartender says the latter is more of an after-dinner endeavor. I notice she’s wearing a Shinola watch. She says all the bartenders receive these special-edition tickers, “Oprah style” (You get a watch! And YOU get a watch!).

We return to San Morello for dinner. It’s darker, louder and more romantic than brunch. The place is packed. We’re seated near the open chef kitchen. We proceed to devour the sheep’s milk ricotta with hot honey and garlic. For a hotel restaurant, the place definitely attracts a local scene, and our meal is expectedly great. The black truffles on my companion’s wood-fired pizza are as big as pepperonis, while my scallops are perfectly cooked.

Next door to the hotel (though not affiliated with it) is Queens, a neighborhood watering hole with loud music and board games piled up in a corner. We join a college friend and enjoy the Guthrie’s Tavern vibe. Again, a great find so close to a downtown hotel.

Dinner has settled enough that I’m ready to entertain potato skins, but Evening Bar is at capacity. Since we’re guests, we head toward the library to order drinks from there (food is also served in the Living Room, but it, too, is at capacity — the hotel is swinging). Beautiful people with winter coats stacked high on velvet couches laugh and toast as we pass. In the library, a fire blazes and it feels like we’re in the den of a wealthy friend’s house. The space has low ceilings, faux fur throws, a pool table and a library of books and records.

We order another round and leaf through art books while considering learning to play backgammon. This is an adult bar. There’s space. There’s music. There are checkers. And Wanda Sykes just walked in.

Lights come on, so we slowly wrap up our evening and head to the room. Upon entry, I discover they have completed turndown service. I love a hotel with turndown service.

7:39 a.m.
I appreciate that every light in the room is on a dimmer. It allows me to awaken slowly. Eventually, I head down to San Morello, which has transformed back into a bright cafe. Coffee refills come often.

At checkout, the hosts confirm the new hotel was at capacity for the rooms they have open. We talk about all the great things that will be open by summer. I see a dog and am tempted to show it to the private dog run, but it’s time to head to the airport. I sit in one final chair in the living room while we wait for a rideshare.

Shinola is for real. They want to bring real jobs into the areas they serve, and downtown Detroit has been a ghost town for years. Now it’s a bustling destination spot with local businesses supporting great causes. Make the trip.

And pester them about when they can build in Chicago. I talked to Tom Forrest, brand ambassador for the hotel, and he said since their model is to come to cities, create jobs and revitalize neighborhoods, the south side of Chicago is on the radar.

I’ll be the first to check in.

Words + Photos: Claire Young, Chicago Writer / @youngspeople


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