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Checking Into the New James Hotel Chicago -- Before It Opens

By Glenn Jeffers, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 6, 2006 - With a stage as tall as a skyscraper and an audience expecting a flawless performance, it's easy to liken a hotel's "soft" opening to a play's dress rehearsal.

Although it may be weeks or months before a hotel's grand opening, the staff at a new hotel needs to test its services--from the beds to the food--on real guests.

"When [a hotel has] a soft opening, usually they're at 90 percent efficiency," said Joseph McInerney, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association. "It's not like they just woke up and said, 'Oh, we gotta open the restaurant.' They really want to hone it."

And that's where the benefits to consumers come in: It's always fun to be the first to try something new, and usually hotels will offer a discount on the room in case some amenities aren't ready yet.

"[Hotels] tend to give a good rate because [guests] aren't getting 100 percent of the materials and facilities," said Mark Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association. "But there's no hard fast rule. And some hotels, they're 100 percent [of the rate] from the date of opening."

McInerney and Gordon recommend contacting the local hotel association or convention and visitors bureau to find a hotel that is doing a soft launch. "Big chain" groups such as Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott normally post openings on their Web sites.

We stayed a night at the new James Chicago at Rush and Ontario Streets during its first week. Its grand opening is scheduled for April 20. Here's what we found:

James Chicago

55 E. Ontario St., 312-337-1000, www.jameshotels.com.

CHECKING IN: After making a hit with its first hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., the New York-based James Hotel Group has brought its flair for style and comfort to Chicago, transforming the former Lenox Suites into the 297-room James Chicago. Billed between "boutique" and "luxury," the James comes off as a softer version of "cool" than, say, the Hard Rock or W hotels. With its angular, minimalist design, accentuated with upscale touches in dining and service, the James Chicago is sleek enough for twentysomethings, yet sophisticated enough for mature guests.

BOOKING THE ROOM: Though the rates may move up and down depending on the season and demand, most rooms are $250 to $629 a night, with the hotel's penthouse suite averaging $2,000. Reservations, which can be made either online or by phone, are easy. It took five minutes to reserve a standard room, their king guestroom, for $299, though my telephone agent never mentioned that certain services might not be available yet.

THE SCENE: The hotel's motif plays off dark and light, from the smooth, black-and-white clock on the hotel's Ontario Street sign to the lobby's bright colors. A row of sofas run the length of the lobby, past the hotel's cramped-yet-stylish J Bar to the entrance of New York chef David Burke's Primehouse, a contemporary take on the classic steakhouse. Originally, I thought a drum set sitting on the lobby's west end was for a band that never showed. It was, instead, a work of art, part of the hotel's plan to rotate works from the local art community throughout the hotel.

BED, BATH & BEYOND: The dark/light motif again appears in the James' king guestroom (studios, lofts and apartment suites also available). White walls. Lush dark-brown carpeting. Platform bed made of dark, stained wood. Cloud-like, king-sized mattress. Though it felt a little claustrophobic at 325 square feet, the room drips cool with its martini bar and "dining niche," a cozy table flanked by a love seat and a red reclining chaise longue, and the bar is well stocked with high-end spirits like Tanquerary, Patron and Johnnie Walker Black Label. The mini-fridge includes tons of mixers and a nearby tray has all kinds of snacks, starting at $3. The 42-inch, flat-screen plasma television, a standard feature in all rooms, was great for watching Florida beat Villanova in the Minneapolis regional final. And the complimentary wireless Internet access is a nice touch. A sliding door leads you to the bathroom, which features a beautiful raised sink basin and slate-tiled bathtub and shower.

COMFORT ZONE: Only a few of the hotel's amenities were open during its first week, and those that were had a few bugs to work out. Open was "the gym," a yellow-and-white, 2,000-square-foot workout room located one floor below the lobby. Though stocked with free weights and top-of-the-line equipment, neither the sauna room nor any of the fitness classes mentioned on the web site were available. Finding a restroom down there was akin to Lewis and Clark traversing the Pacific Northwest. Also unavailable was the hotel's spa, which will include three treatment rooms that offer facials and massages, once they install the massage tables.

DINE IN: The restaurant, thankfully, was open. Conspicuous and cavernous, David Burke's Primehouse is a pleasant treat from B.R. Guest Restaurants, a (once again) New York group that opened the popular Blue Water Grill in River North last year. Also in its testing phase, Primehouse offers a smattering of steaks dry-aged in the restaurant's salt cave (think room filled with salt tiles), as well as other fare beyond red meatsuch as organic grilled salmon and a great Chilean sea bass topped with shrimp and served over bok choy. Service was excellent as two waiters (one in training) stopped by every couple of minutes to refresh my water or dole out more wine from a six-ounce carafe. The wait was a little longer than expected for my sea bass, but the dish was worth it.

AT YOUR SERVICE: A sore spot. When I made my reservation, a telephone agent told me that room service was available 24 hours a day. In reality, it wasn't. After I inquired and was told no room service was available, a server stopped by with a gift basket from Primehouse that included toffee-covered popcorn, a cookie and some gourmet orange pop. Room service was scheduled to start April 3.

IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Marshalls are all within a two-block radius. You also have several dining options nearby, including the Cajun cuisine of Heaven on Seven, the upscale fare of the Grand Lux Cafe, or just about any kind of noodle imaginable at Big Bowl. Nightlife-wise, there's the Redhead Piano Bar for those looking for a cigar, a cognac and Sinatra on the ivories; or Rock Bottom Brewery for big-screen-ESPN-watchin' and a game of billiards.

WAKEUP CALL: Interestingly enough, my 10 a.m. wakeup call never came. Instead, I got loud bumps and clanks from the construction on the lower floors. That got me up around 8 a.m. For this and a few other reasons, I was expecting the $299 per night room rate to be a discount at the James. Nope. That's the full rate. "That rate will move depending on what's in town with conventions, but $299 is the lowest available rate," said general manager Patrick Hatton when I asked him why there was no soft-launch discount. The hotel will offer a complimentary continental breakfast through September. The only price cut came from Primehouse, who gave diners a 20 percent discount for stopping by that first week.

CHECKING OUT: When the James Chicago is 100 percent operational, it's going to be the kind of place the Magnificent Mile's south end needs: a trendy, high-quality spot that luxury hotel guests can enjoy. The staff is friendly and helpful, especially considering the hours they spent looking for a cell-phone charger I left in the room after checking out and opening my hotel room after I locked myself out. Just give them a few weeks to work out the kinks.

RATING (out of four bells): Two bells

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HOTEL NOTES

- Looking for more new hotels to try out? The Hotel Blake (formerly the Hyatt On Printers Row) is open and perfect if you're looking for a boutique hotel in the South Loop.

Although it's been open since November 2005, the Blake (500 N. Dearborn St., 312-986-1234) is planning its grand opening for June once it completes renovations on suites and meeting rooms, according to general manager Deanna Lawrence. Still, the rooms are gorgeous, especially the spacious, marble-tiled bathrooms and elegant shower stalls.

If you were looking for a break on the room price, sorry. The Blake ended its promotional offer for guestrooms starting at $149. Rooms now range from $229 to $249.

You'll get a bit of a deal at the Holiday Inn Chicago-Elmhurst (624 N. York Rd., Elmhurst, 630-279-1100), which just unveiled its new 24,000-square-foot Mayan indoor water park. Kids can zip down slides and glide down lazy rivers while parents take solace in rooms that start at $169 a night. The package includes admission for four to the water park.

- In the mood for love? Swing by the hotels Monaco (225 N. Wabash Ave., 312-960-8500) and Burnham (1 W. Washington St., 312-782-1111) for one of three hotel packages designed for couples looking to revitalize their love lives.

(Warning: We did not come up with these names, OK?)

The Romance Rx package includes a basket with massage oils and other accessories (think blindfolds, feather dusters, Godiva chocolates) as well as a guide to intimate locations in Chicago. The Joyful Sex Package throws in some advice from a therapist with the Chicago-based Berman Center, a clinic that focuses on female sexuality. The Passion Package Makeover is so intense, you'll need at least a two-night stay. It includes two days of therapy at the Berman Center, where couples work with a sex therapist.

The packages range from $299 to $1,599 and include deluxe room accommodations. 1-800-KIMPTON or visit either the Burnham's (www.burnhamhotel.com) or the Monaco's (www.monaco-chicago.com) Web sites.

- Guests who book a Thursday-to-Sunday stay at either of the W's Lakeshore or Loop hotels for the Whirlwind Weekend package will receive a LeSportsac bucket tote bag, gift cards for the W Hotel gift shop and Banana Republic and post-shopping cocktails, a $150 value. The package is available for all rooms, which starts at $209 at the W Chicago City Center (172 W. Adams St., 312-332-1200) and $234 at W Chicago Lakeshore (644 N. Lake Shore Drive, 312-943-9200). Guests must book their weekend trip before May 30.

gjeffers@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

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