I started hearing about the new W Hotel almost from the moment I landed in Austin last weekend. One friend said it became the new hub of nightlife the moment it opened in December. Before it was 90 days old, it had been named to the Conde Nast Traveler Hot List.
Another friend, intending a putdown, characterized it as "more Dallas than Austin."
I wanted to see it for several reasons. First, it's one of the final pieces in a major downtown redevelopment project to revitalize the former Second Street, recently named Willie Nelson Boulevard.
I was also interested because the W brand won me over after initially disappointing me. When I reviewed the very first W to open, in New York, I was decidedly underwhelmed, writing, "It takes the fun out of funky," and dismissing its sense of "corporate hip."
It was the W in Mexico City, with its pestle-shaped shower stalls and sweat lodge in the spa, that changed my mind. That W raised the bar on just how fun and surprising a chain hotel could be. Although not every W I've stayed in since then has hit that high note, I've been impressed by some aspect of all the subsequent W's I've stayed at.
I met with Drew McQuade, the Austin property's general manager, in Trace, the hotel's restaurant. When I mentioned my friend's comment that he thought it was more Dallas than Austin, McQuade took exception. He talked about some very Austin-y qualities, among them the hotel's adjacency to the Austin City Limits sound stage, which has created a strong link to a revered, home-grown institution in the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World."
He also said the restaurant's focus on "sustainable, conscious cuisine" was in tune with the town's sensibilities. Chef Paul Hargrove works with a staff "forager" who has established relationships with a multitude of small, local farms to bring in fresh items on a daily basis.
(I returned to Trace for dinner that night. The meal was amazing. Hargrove had worked in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud for six years, and in my opinion, he has surpassed his former boss.)
Arthur Andersson, the development's architect, took me on a tour of the public areas, and I began to see just how Austin-y he intended the property to be.
The details were subtle, some almost ethereal. But in the end, the vision was solid. One enters to an effect of dappled light, designed to be reminiscent of sun coming through the cedar trees along nearby Ladybird Lake.
Stepping into the lobby, one is immediately offered a choice. There is a river effect if one walks straight toward a small seating area and the check-in, bell and concierge desks, which are arranged to suggest a serpentine path. Or one can turn left into the living room bar.
But before one gets too far into the living room, another choice is offered. The entrance to the "record room," lined with 8,000 vinyl albums, appears on the right. Opposite the wall of records is the "secret bar," a room cast in red light and dominated by a large McIntosh audio system that plays albums from the record room or tapes from Austin City Limits sessions.
Andersson pointed out that one moves from the bright light of the Austin sun to increasingly darker rooms (the "secret" room is meant to suggest the caves and caverns that pock the Hill Country surrounding Austin). When ready to come back to the surface, a guest can enjoy a drink on the "porch," a small outdoor plaza connected to the restaurant.
Does this all sound more conceptual than readily apparent? Absolutely, and I haven't even touched on many of the other small supporting details that Andersson pointed out. But it's a very thoughtful design, one that can be appreciated without explanation.
There's a natural tie between Austin and the W's "passion points" of fashion, design and music. Perhaps my friend who saw it as Dallas-y was judging it through the lens of the town's slogan, "Keep Austin Weird." "W" does not stand for Weird in this hotel, but the W Austin does add to the vibrancy of the city. And in my opinion, it expands, rather than contradicts, the city's identity.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.