A Beacon of Glamour Once More:
TextPhotos Skott Snider
A star-powered champagne-fueled celebration unfolded at the grand opening of the SLS South Beach on a breezy mid-November night this past winter. Man-of-the-night hotelier Sam Nazarian played host to a Gatsby-esque spread of endless sushi, haute tapas and bottomless Perrier-Jouët bubbly for a crowd of 1,000 people. Revelers basked in glow of circus contortionists while perusing the Philippe Starck interiors and Lenny Kravitz-designed poolside penthouses. And all the while, the graceful façade of the L. Murray Dixon-designed deco hotel looked down on the party-goers, silently holding court at what was undoubtedly the hottest event of the season, its dignity restored as the epicenter of South Beach glamour.
In this city hotels are like celebrities, garnering their own share of gawkers, admirers and naysayers. And like stars they tend to have several careers, re-branding themselves after years of neglect and age. This year we've seen our share of hotel revamps–the James Royal Palm, The Gale and of course this–the Ritz Plaza now reincarnated as the SLS South Beach.
So what do you get when you mix red-hot designer Philippe Starck with successful hotelier Sam Nazarian and the deco grandeur of L. Murray Dixon? One of the best hotel rebirths to grace our city, a simultaneously sexy and tasteful combo that only Miami knows how to sell.
Admittedly the first impression here is a bit much – a red carpet rolled out from the entrance down to the steps to the large paved driveway. But soon all doubts are put to rest as you take in the expansive terrace sheathed in black and white Moroccan tile topped with a red wheelbarrow bench, a faux tree trunk table and classic French bistro chairs in bright orange, yellow and green. This is Lake Como via South Beach and it is very, very pleasant. Inside there's more of Starck's trademark whimsy – a bull's head clad in a hot pink Mexican wrestler's mask, an antique wood kayak suspended above the reception desk and a large stainless steel rubber duckie out by the pool. This is also South Beach on acid, and it works.
Built in 1939 as the Grossinger Beach Hotel (of the famed Catskills resort), it was the first air-conditioned hotel on Miami Beach and at 12 floors, continues to be the tallest deco structure on South Beach. In 1946 the building was renamed the Ritz Plaza and enjoyed a number of decades as a jetsetter destination. Then in 2004 Nazarian purchased the hotel which had been roiled in various economic blunders by investors. For four years the hotel sat neglected, until Nazarian eventually gathered the resources necessary to embark on the $85 million restoration. Now the 140-room hotel is fully restored along with an additional building in the back, which houses 10 villas (including penthouses designed by Lenny Kravitz), the Hyde Beach lounge and six bungalows.
There is no official lobby, as the space that usually signifies guest-lounging areas is now "Rojo," one of two dining rooms that belong to the Bazaar by Jose Andres, an innovative tapas restaurant from the famed Spanish chef. (The other dining room is "Blanca" and we'll get to that soon). They've kept the historic curved marble reception desk of the original 1939 structure, but turned it into an open kitchen where dishes like eel tacos and liquid-nitrogen cocktails are prepped. Above that old reception desk is a glass-enclosed balcony space now known as "Sam's Lounge," a nautically-themed private dining room with views to the action below. Further in, the Bazaar's main dining room is a re-creation of what Starck describes as an "out-of-focus memory of the charming dining room of your grandmother who loved art. Art was everything and everywhere. She loved only one color: acid yellow." The soaring ceilings are magnified by oversized framed mirrors, a massive shell-covered chandelier perches above the low-slung toffee-colored couches and dainty lamps. Here is French country elegance married to rock-and-roll edge with a bit of deco peeking through.
In the hotel's former circular ballroom is now Katsuya, a modern Japanese restaurant with locations in Los Angeles and Houston. This room seems the least coziest, with its cavernous feel and large open space outfitted in minimalist white chairs and tables. A bit of kitchen theater is provided by the clamorous open kitchen and sushi bar. And the curved wall of windows, now lined with cushy banquettes, lends the room a regal feel.
The flamboyant-yet-sleek aesthetic continues out into the pool area, which is flanked by oversized pool bungalows and Hyde Beach Club, a daytime club with a surf-themed clubhouse decked out with fooseball tables and surf boards. This is the most California-feeling space in the hotel but it's offset by the gorgeous Cuban tiled outdoor patio, an idea Starck has been toying with since his design for the pool area at Icon Brickell.
In some ways the revamp is more a meditation on Starck's process as much as it is an homage to the storied hotel of Miami's heyday. It seems all too poetic that the same designer who revamped the Delano hotel nearly twenty years ago returned to the same corner of the beach to bewitch us again. Which is exactly how we like it – dipping one toe into the alluring future while nodding at our glitzy past.