Photos Brian Ferry
In the lobby of Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel recently, a small gang of elaborate haircuts stumbled toward an afternoon breakfast as a prim older couple self-consciously waited on their grown child to appear and legitimize them. In the hotel’s new restaurant, Reynards, suits and beards alike enjoyed mid-day cocktails while a woman with a little paisley cape spoke with an indeterminate accent to a gorgeous concierge with a fro.
All were gathered for the opening week of a much-hyped destination that has three masterminds, countless craftspeople and nearly five years of planning and renovating behind it.
Peter Lawrence, a charming Australian hotelier and veteran of the night-club business, teamed up with his friend Jed Walentas, the well-known real estate developer, to turn a 111-year-old former factory and warehouse into a 72-room hotel featuring a restaurant by Andrew Tarlow (of Diner fame), outdoor dining, tons of original art, private event spaces, a screening room, and a bar with striking views of the city and a wrap-around terrace.
The renovation process hit a financial roadblock in 2008 (like pretty much everything else in America that involved money) shortly after the purchase of the building. But Lawrence took the delay as an opportunity to educate himself on the actual planning, building and launch of a new hotel—something he’d only dreamed of before. Once the renovations commenced and a timeline was set, they actually hit their opening date, which surprised Lawrence. “This has to be one of the only times a new hotel opened when they said they would,” he boasted while showing off a room with radiant-heating concrete floors, vintage mirrors, and beautiful tile work in the bathrooms. Admittedly, the sixth-floor bar, theater and a few of the guest rooms weren’t yet done, but for the most part the Wythe was up and running.
What Lawrence said he loved the most about this location during the building phase was how easy it was to recruit local artists to fill the place with original work. The most striking piece is probably the four-story HOTEL sign running down the corner of the building, which was built by Tom Fruin from recycled tin signs.
Of course, no Brooklyn building is complete without some work from Steven Powers to lighten the mood, so there are a few of his distinctive painted signs, which can be viewed through the event space and on the private second-floor terraces. Each of the 62 queen and king beds, and all the desks and windowsills, were made from wood salvaged from the building—mainly the removal of the west bay, which was replaced with glass to take advantage of the skyline views. Dave Hollier, who runs a woodshop just steps away, turned the work around in a matter of weeks, which may be why Lawrence calls him “a total sweetheart.” Flavor Paper’s Dan Funderburgh created custom wallpaper for the rooms, including a tongue-in-cheek Williamsburg pattern featuring tire-less bike frames and shoes hanging from power lines. These details combine in masculine but airy rooms that don’t try to hide their industrial past. The eco-friendly bath products by Goldie’s are notably not in wasteful travel containers, and you also won’t find any disposable slippers, notepads, or room-service menus.
The absence of room service from Andrew Tarlow’s food and beverage program is in keeping with what has made his restaurants so successful in the Brooklyn dining scene. He wants people to come together over a meal at Reynards, for locals and visitors to mingle at the bar or communal table. The menu here is also consistent with what keeps restaurants in the Tarlow empire packed many nights of the week: local, seasonal produce paired with hearty cuts of meat and fish, all prepared simply but meticulously.
If, as a non-guest of the hotel, you choose to stop by Reynards, they’d certainly love to have you—in fact, a handful of local patrons would complete this fetishized mecca of Brooklyn design and culinary arts. The Wythe knows it’s bringing an extra boost of gentrified tourism (a room of bunk beds starts at $179 plus tax) to an area that still has a love-hate relationship with the changes in the last decade or two, so it still seems a little nervous about being accepted by its neighbors. This became clear when we walked into the Manhattan King room, a slightly larger room with a floor-to-ceiling view of its namesake.
“This is our—well, I don’t want to call it our fancy room,” Lawrence said, though neither of us could produce a more appropriate adjective. In fact, the room was, like all the rooms here, fancy, and the spectacular view made it all the more so.
A little south and west of the hotel, past blocks of low-rising warehouses and factories, a new condo marred the view of the city and gave the false impression that all the gentrification is over there. I was slightly reassured as I remembered that an old building was probably totally knocked down to make room for that all-inclusive condo, likely constructed as cheaply as possible with nothing close to the attention to detail of the Wythe. It’s not that the condo is the only symbol of a changing neighborhood, but it is an uglier, less self-aware example.
If there is anything this current incarnation of Williamsburg loves more than a beautifully restored, century-old warehouse full of good-looking people and beautiful objects made by a good-looking artist who may very well be drinking an old-fashioned right now in the restaurant that serves local, seasonal fare prepared and served by even more good-looking people, I would like to know what that is. As Williamsburg tourism goes, Wythe has pretty much hit the nail on the head, though it’s still unclear if, in this ridiculous metaphor, you are the nail or the slab of salvaged wood. •