Everything about the Palmer House Hilton makes her a Grande Dame. Built in 1871 by Potter Palmer as a wedding gift to his new bride, Bertha Honoré, the original Palmer House burned to the ground in the Chicago Fire thirteen days after opening.
The second Palmer House was built across the street from the original hotel and opened in 1873, after being funded by a $1.7 million loan, which Potter Palmer negotiated on his signature alone. Since that time, through more than one restoration—including the most recent 2 ½ year $170 million restoration—she has never closed, making her the nation’s oldest hotel in continual operation, and one of the world’s last remaining Grand Hotels.
Making Your Entrance
Regardless which entrance you choose, you will be wowed. The Shops at Palmer House—100,000 square feet of new retail space—are fresh, fashionable and exciting. But don’t miss the Monroe Street entrance--and the entrance to the new 250-space hotel garage—and Tiffany’s magnificent hand-forged bronze peacock doors.
The New Loop Meeting Place, The Palmer House Hilton Lobby
The amenities of the Palmer House and its outstanding location make it an ideal spot for a family staycation or a romantic getaway.
The glorious lobby—with its magnificently restored ceiling—now is furnished with banquettes, high-backed sofas, that create intimate meeting places for groups of 2 to 6.
Have a drink or just drink in the opulent surroundings of the world-famous lobby topped with a breath-taking ceiling of Grecian frescoes by French muralist Louis Pierre Rigal. Famed Florentine art restorer Lido Lippi restored the Palmer House Lobby ceiling, and earlier in his career worked on one of the restorations of the Sistine Chapel.
The Woman Behind It All
Discovered behind the walls during the most recent restoration, the Honoré Ballroom is my favorite public space in the hotel. Exquisitely beautiful, it's a metaphor for the elegance, gracious ambiance and high standards of the Palmer House Hilton. The stunning wedding day portrait of Bertha Honoré Palmer—a legendary, glamorous socialite, arts patron and philanthropist—is a stately reminder of the romantic history of this Grand Hotel.
How Suite It Is
To get to our suite, we took a stroll down memory lane—our hallway carpeted with the Palmer House’s signature peacock carpet—where pictures of the stars who had performed in the fabled Empire Room line the walls.
There they were. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Vic Damone…We turned left at the corner of Jimmy Durante and Maurice Chevalier, opened the door to our suite, and my jaw dropped.
In honor of my birthday, a bottle of champagne, a bowl of strawberries and three dipping sauces—chocolate, crème anglaise and caramel—were waiting in our spacious suite. Furnished with understated elegance and decorated in relaxing earth tones were a wet bar, a dining room with seating for eight, a living room with a flat plasma screen HD TV, a bedroom, of course, with another flat plasma screen HD TV and two bathrooms. Everything was the latest, greatest, the most beautiful, most up-to-date and convenient. Do I need to tell you we were thrilled?
So we relaxed, freshened up and went to dinner at Lockwood, the Palmer House Hilton’s signature restaurant.
One of the top ten restaurants in the country, the Lockwood decor is classy, low-key, contemporary but warm and welcoming, softly lit without being dark. Our server, O.J., was friendly, helpful and anticipated our needs almost like Radar. Needless to say, the service was letter perfect. And oh, what he served!
It seems that Lockwood’s Executive Chef, Phillip Foss, is of the new breed of chefs who study and demand nutritional best practices. His attention to wholesome, delicious food exploding with flavor was evident in every bite.
Each course was a sensory experience. Beautiful presentation of color, texture and “sauce art” caught or eye. Just the right temperature to entice our noses. And, of course, intense, delicious flavor!
My husband’s plump, juicy Seared Sea Scallops with wild mushrooms, stinging nettles (no diners were harmed during this meal), shaved artichokes and almonds tasted as good as they look:
But my Duck Breast & Leg Rillette with country bread, wilted lettuces and whole grain mustard stole the show. Ordinarily, duck is very fatty. There was no evidence that there ever was any fat on this buff duck. Served medium-rare, every bite was amazing. And when I dipped the duck into the sauce (a very thin reduction—no heavy cream here) the flavor intensified. I’ve never had duck like that! It was extraordinary.
But every course, the wine, and the dessert, combined to create a symphony of luscious flavors.
The next day, we were back in Lockwood, which was now transformed into an anything-you-could-possibly-want-and-then-some breakfast buffet. Value-conscious families sat at long tables, cruised the many buffet tables, ordered custom omelets, and/or just munched on corn flakes. Phillip Foss even brought his beautiful daughter in for breakfast.
Luckily, it was the first Saturday of the month and, after breakfast, we were able to take advantage of the Chicago Architecture Foundation tour of the Palmer House Hilton. About 100 people turned out for the tour, so we broke up into elevator-size groups and traveled all over this the hotel. The fascinating story, told with historical accuracy, wit and humor by our very competent docent is steadily growing in popularity as Chicagoans rediscover the splendor of the Palmer House Hilton. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/d6vw94.
I highly recommend the tour.
Work Up a Sweat or Chill Out
As part of the restoration, 10,000 sq. ft. were devoted to spa and fitness in the Spa Chakra and the Spa Chakra Fitness Center (including one of the few pools left in the Loop).
Do they know relaxation! For starters, every spa service includes a complimentary foot bath and massage. After that, my 90-minute facial included warm paraffin gloves and a massage of my neck and shoulders, facial waxing, valet parking, and a fitness spa pass for my husband.
While I was being pampered, my husband worked out at the Spa Chakra Fitness Center where he took advantage of three interconnected levels, including state-of-the-art Precor® cardiovascular machines and a signature series resistance training circuit.
Location, location, location!
Saturday night, we went to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier to see the delightful production of Twelfth Night. We had door-to-door service to the pier! We boarded the #29 bus at Monroe and State and it dropped us off at Navy Pier. The bus runs 24/7, so it brought us back to the hotel, too. If you’d like, you can read my review of Twelfth Night. Visit http://tinyurl.com/conr8y.
The Palmer House is also "fall out of bed close" to the Art Institute's New Modern Wing and Millennium Park. So you can just call down to Lockwood's, ask them to pack you a picnic lunch and presto! you're ready for a great family outing.
You can even bring the family dog--the Palmer House is pet-friendly! For one flat fee, your pet can be a part of the family fun and you save the kennel fees. And at check-out, your pet will be decked out with an "I whoofed it up at the Palmer House" charm for his or her collar, too.
We had a spectacular time at the Palmer House Hilton. I hope I provided you with many ways you can enjoy her, too.
Palmer House Hilton, 17 East Monroe Street, Chicago, Illinois 60603, 312.726.7500, www.palmerhousehiltonhotel.com.
Photos: Palmer House Hilton and Herb Simms