You know how the story goes, Baltimore. The news gets out that an expensive, chic store, hotel or restaurant is coming to town. It’s a place we could take our fancy Manhattanite friends without having to pull out the defensive “Baltimore has such an underestimated artscene” spiel. The buzz is loud because we are luxury-starved and ready to gorge. And then, just as we are all revved up, our collective lack of confidence kicks in. “It will never make it in Baltimore,” we say, and the self-fulfilling prophecy is soon fulfilled.
Theories abound about why something upscale won’t work here. “New Baltimore money spends in D.C.” some say. Then there’s, “Old Baltimore money just doesn’t spend.” The fears are not altogether irrational, after all, many luxury stores and restaurants have failed here. Back in the ‘90s, acclaimed chef Michel Richard couldn’t find an audience for his high-end restaurant Citronelle, and there was once a Saks at the Owings Mills Mall for heaven’s sake!
So it was no surprise when, after the economic downturn of 2008, plans to build the much anticipated Four Seasons hotel in Harbor East came to a halt. The skeptics thought it would never happen, then word came that construction had resumed and the hotel was on track to open in 2011. Would it be a dumbed-down version of the venerable brand?
Clearly this is not the most important problem facing our city. Hell, it doesn’t even make the list. But are we to be the town with bad taste forever? Haven’t we evolved? John Waters be damned, we like Heirloom tomatoes and Hermes too!
The reality is Baltimore has changed. While some may be reluctant to see it, one savvy real estate development company seems clued in to the change. H & S Properties has developed Harbor East to satisfy the demand for a more refined urban experience. I have liked most of its efforts. (Did you know that you can get drunk while watching a movie at the Landmark?) But I’ve sometimes doubted its ability to really “bring-it.” It seemed to fall just short of the mark. So when I had the opportunity to tour the almost completed Baltimore Four Seasons (due to open in November), I had preconceived notions of my own. I expected it would be perfectly adequate. I mean it is the Four Seasons, so I knew it wasn’t going to suck, but I thought it was going to be more of a business hotel that rested on its name, a place where secretaries could confidently book bosses without much homework: nice hotel, great conference rooms, comfortable beds, done.
I was wrong.
The Four Seasons pulls out all stops. Baltimore, we have arrived.
Despite its location in the center of Harbor East, the hotel is discreetly tucked away, owing to its snug home on the water’s edge. Once inside I realized its International Drive address is the primo spot on the entire harbor and the hotel’s architects have wisely ensured spectacular views throughout. The docked boats look charming, the buildings sleek, and the beloved Domino Sugar sign glows graphic and hip. (H&S owes a special thanks to the Ritz Carlton for the view.) It’s a welcome new iteration of Baltimore.
The building has a total of 42 floors. The hotel, and its 256 rooms, will occupy the first 18 and residences, as yet to be completed, will make up the rest. Although the lobby was still in progress during my tour, I got the vibe that things were going to be very minimalist, using quality materials. Think loads of ivory marble with greige accents — a subtle backdrop for the bright art collection from the “Washington Color School” that will decorate the common areas.
Judith Dumrauf, director of marketing and our guide that day, explained that the owners (the Four Seasons is just a management company) had exceeded the required spend per square foot of the contract with the Four Seasons and it is evident. The halls and rooms, by San Francisco-based interior design firm BraytonHughes, are dark and swank with attention to detail: sparkling wall panels, gleaming walnut doors and contemporary light fixtures “exclusively designed” for the Baltimore Four Seasons (so don’t be thinking you can get them at West Elm, kids). The rooms feel large (the smallest is just over 500 square feet) and are all designed with a shielded entryway/dressing area plus a place to stow luggage out of sight, a feature most appreciated since I find seeing my husband’s dirty laundry spilling out of his duffel can turn any hotel room very motel. The light, neutral decor is elegant and stylish: mod with just enough creamy luxe to round out the edges, avoiding that “operating room modern” look that so many hotels seem to exude. And of course the view becomes an omnipresent design feature, staring at you through the floor to ceiling glass.
The indoor meeting and function spaces were not the most interesting part of the tour for me. The conference rooms seemed suitably powerful and had the cool effect of making you feel like you were suspended over the harbor. The ballrooms were all done up in taupe shantung panels and dark wood that made the 5,300 square foot hall feel warm and rich. It was when I was shown the outdoor function space that I started planning my daughter’s wedding — she is six. (The wedding business will be a boon to the Four Seasons — Dumrauf tells us ten weddings are already booked.) More on that later.
The dining areas were the most “unconstructed” part of the hotel when I visited, but I got a sense of the space and general direction they were headed. The two-time James Beard Award winner Michael Mina is the concept man behind all three of the hotel’s restaurants which are all fairly casual. First there is Pabu, a Japanese restaurant that is described as an “updated Izakaya-style restaurant that inspires guests to drink and eat casually from the small plate, sushi and robata menus.” It will be open for dinner only. Its extensive cocktail list and repertoire of 100-plus sakes make me think the space will function as the hotel’s primary bar. Next up is Wit & Wisdom, which will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Described as a “tavern,” Wit & Wisdom will feature a live fire grill and a large outdoor patio that looks out on the marina. The menu will focus on “comfort food with Eastern Seaboard sensibilities.” On the tour, there was talk of a huge hand-hammered copper bell that would serve as the visual centerpiece for Wit & Wisdom. I picture a cozy, yummy, fire-lit vibe. Love it. Finally there is LAMILL COFFEE which is a take on the European cafe with counter service and communal tables. Perhaps a much needed casual lunch spot for Harbor East working stiffs? Interestingly, all the restaurant spaces were somewhat open to one another which I think will create a bustling vibe. It all takes full advantage of the waterfront position, which is appropriate. Haven’t we all had that awkward moment when a houseguest expectantly suggests eating on the water and we then have to explain that there is really no great place to do that? Problem solved.
Okay, so let’s get to the superlative stuff, the bells and whistles, the stuff that made me feel like this was less of a Four Seasons hotel and more of a Four Seasons resort.
My dear friends, on the fourth floor there is a spa, a jaw-dropping, transporting, other-worldly spa. Find men’s and women’s tea lounges, saunas, relaxation rooms and soaking tubs, in addition to 11 treatment rooms. There is also a fitness center if you care for that sort of thing. Everything is well-appointed with finishes as rich looking as any I have ever seen. This is a place where giving into indulgence would feel worth it. This is also a place that will separate me from my money at Warp speed. Of course the success will depend greatly on the talent of the technicians, but the place itself is exquisite.
On the fourth floor, the show-stopper of the tour: a chic rooftop deck with a pool and surrounding bar. I know that sounds like some cheesy Sandal’s ad from the ‘90s but just go with me here: Imagine an infinity pool, alluring but minimal, maybe even a little understated, stone outdoor fireplaces, all kinds of comfy lounge spots and a see-and-be-seen-type of vibe. A canopy would have probably been a smart move (don’t they know Baltimore summers?), but it’s an easy addition once they realize how much more business they’ll get with one.
It all reads so fun and sexy. It almost looked like our cityscape was green-screened behind some trendy Miami hotel, make it Saint Tropez, and yet I was in Baltimore. My Baltimore. I was getting giddy.
The bar will serve some light food and cocktails — I can’t imagine this is not being a huge hit with downtown singles. There was some talk of a private club option on the horizon, which made me wonder what kind of crowd the place will attract. Business women and men? Professional athletes? Valley types? The Four Seasons would do well to think that through. It will probably dictate the long-term success of the bar.
So Baltimore, what does all of this mean for us? They have built it. Will we come? I call shotgun and I don’t want to hear any trash talk on the drive downtown.