"Where are you staying?" asked each and every one of my New York friends after we had embraced and told each other that we didn't look a day older than the last time we met, which was at least several months ago at least in most instances.
"The Alex," I replied, "on E45th Street." "The where?" came the immediate reply, "Never heard of it." And to each and every one of them I had to explain where The Alex was, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, very close to Grand Central Station, and not that far from 5th Avenue or Bloomingdales and an outpost of Urban Outfitters on Lexington, for those with teenage children.
The fact that most people know very little about the hotels in the cities they live in is not surprising because few have very little reason for ever walking past the lobby and into any of the bedrooms, the area that is of most concern to any traveller. In the case of The Alex this lack of recognition amongst New Yorkers is compounded by one other fact: that since the hotel opened in March 2004 it has been full of foreigners, on business or holiday, most if not all the time thanks to the weak dollar in relation to the pound and increasingly the euro, which makes occupancy rates currently the stuff of dreams of hoteliers in any city in the world.
So busy and popular in fact is The Alex at the moment that when I asked at reception whether with an 8pm departure from JFK on a Saturday night I could hold on to my room for a few hours longer, the receptionist smiled and said, "I'll see what I can do, Mr Lander, but we are fully booked tonight."
The Alex has been developed by Turkish-born Izak Senbahar and Indian -born Simon Elias (who are now also redeveloping The Mark on the Upper East Side). They then called in designer David Rockwell, whose Rockwell Group has created many of New York's leading restaurants, and chef Marcus Samuelsson, who created Aquavit, to set up Riingo, the restaurant, café and breakfast room next to the front entrance.
These individuals, plus the hotel's dynamic GM Mary Lou Pollack and the inevitable scores of talented workmen, have created The Alex with its 203 rooms, predominantly one- or two-bedroom suites, over 33 floors from two former tenement buildings so that its entrance and lobby are a reflection of the high cost of property today. There is no grand entrance, just a couple of doors and a revolving door into a small hallway which leads into a tiny reception/concierge desk where three members of staff are invariably hard at work at their computers.
There is, however, one striking feature in this small space. On the left is a glass fronted, gas-powered fire installation that is of a very obvious modern design but combines the old fashioned warmth of any hearth. It is warm and welcoming and reminded me of a comment from the late Bill Kimpton, the man who made a success of so many hotels and restaurants on the West Coast in the 1980s and 1990s when he said that the two physical features any hotel restaurant needs to succeed were a separate entrance and a fireplace.
My room up on the 33rd floor had everything one would expect of a modern, well-designed and appointed hotel bedroom: crisp Frette linen sheets; an extremely comfortable bed, which, sadly, I cannot blame for my jet-lag; lots of closet space and very efficient housekeeping. Room service was good, cleverly quoting me 15-20 minutes for breakfast and then delivering in 5, as were their IT brigade who had to come in a couple of times to fix my internet service.
The Alex is neither a large nor a boutique hotel but there is definitely a personal and personable air about it, which perhaps stems from the fact that its name is derived from the Christian names of the two developers' children. As I was going up in the lift with the receptionist on the way to my bedroom he described his career to date in some of the city's larger hotels but then ended by saying: "I do like it here because it's so much smaller than where I've worked in the past which means I get the opportunity to meet and talk to the guests."
And prices at the Alex? When I asked Mary Lou Pollack for an average room rate for The Alex this was her response:
"Since our rates fluctuate by day of the week and by season, I think it is safe to say that guest rooms are priced from the high $300s on the weekends and from the mid $400s for weekdays. In the autumn full rates are about $100 higher for every room category.
"The hotel only has 15 doubles. Our product is truly contemporary art furnished suites which run from $100 to $200 higher for studios and one bedrooms and approximately $500 higher for the two bedrooms."
One final factor in The Alex's favour is that it is located directly opposite the wonderfully named Comfort Diner. You do need good eyesight to spot this place as it is, like so much of New York, under heavy scaffolding at the moment but once inside it is a great spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner, somewhere that does do full justice to its name. As do many of its dishes: red flannel hash (hash with beetroots); Mom's meatloaf; honey dip't southern fried chicken and lots of pancakes.
The Alex, 205 East 45th Street, New York, NY 10017.
212-867 5100, www.thealexhotel.com
The Comfort Diner, 214 East 45th Street, 212-867-4555.