WALDORF ASTORIA – five stars in sensible shoes

Please wipe your feet before entering.

Do other people worry that they will feel awkward and inadequate in high class hotels? Or is it just me?

Mevrouw T and I generally travel on a tight budget, so we rarely see how the 1% live when on the road.  Is it a treat or an ordeal to join them for a day or two?

Here’s my report on our recent five star Chicago experience… 

‘When you arrive in those swish American hotels, they look at your shoes,’ my business-travelling friend warned me, ‘then they know.’

Just from your footwear they decide which room to give you, where to seat you in the restaurant and most importantly, they know how much you’re going to tip.

This is a worry, since we’re booked into the Waldorf Astoria, rated Chicago’s finest hotel by Conde Nast and TripAdvisor, and I have only one pair of shoes with me.

My wife’s feet will pass muster. Her simple yet elegant buckle-ups pair effortlessly with her black and white outfit by a leading Australian designer.

But my shoes are a dead giveaway. They’ve been my travelling companions for three years, equally comfortable hiking in Indonesian jungle or cycling through Belgian drizzle. My shoes seamlessly match my quick-dry trousers and superfine merino shirt that can be worn for a week without stinking. Anyone can see my shoes are new to five-star luxury adventures.

The courtyard cobbles are warmed from below to keep them snow-free.

Three young, impeccably suited doorpersons greet us as we clatter our cases past the fountain in the cobbled Waldorf Astoria courtyard. We’ve walked two kilometres north from the downtown station, pretending we were ‘getting the feel of Chicago’. Really we were saving a cab fare.

Our bags are spirited from our hands, doors are held open, while a message is whispered into a hand-held radio. I suspect it’s, ‘Shoe alert, main entrance!’

Inside, huge busts and a massive chandelier overlook a marble lobby of skating rink proportions. I wipe my feet before proceeding to the reception desk and slipping my credit card (just gold, not platinum) across it.

‘Welcome, Mr and Mrs Tulloch, and thank you for choosing the Waldorf Astoria. My name is Judd.’ I’m sure he knows.

Judd escorts us up to our room. Sorry, rooms – several of them, all huge. Tasteful black and white decor and fine original art on the walls; all that’s missing is President Obama and a visiting dignitary sitting on either side of the fireplace for a photo op.

Judd shows us the workings of the heating, the two flat screen TVs and the dimmer switches, and helps stuff our tatty blue cases out of sight to avoid any colour clash. Do I tip him now, or wait till we’re checking out? How much do you tip in a place like this? Judd takes his leave while I’m dithering.

We spend some time in the bathroom investigating the fluffy towels, the robes and the dazzling array of shampoos and skin care products.

The phone rings. ‘Mr Tulloch, it’s Judd.’ Ah, here it comes. Bad shoes, no tip – he’s going to politely explain the mix-up that put us in the wrong room. Rooms. ‘I just want to make sure you’re happy there and ask if there’s anything I can do for you.’ ‘Um, everything is fine thanks, Judd. Very fine, actually.’ I ask him to confirm our evening reservation at the hotel’s Michelin-hatted RIA restaurant. We could get used to this.

That afternoon, I have an interview with hotel services manager Kathryn Day. She’s immaculately dressed too, but she’s also laid-back, and from Sydney. Perfect. I can ask about the tipping.

‘Oh we have a strict no tipping policy here,’ she tells me. No tipping? In America?? ‘We want our guests to feel they’re in a home. You don’t go visiting and tip your hosts.’

What an extraordinary relief! It’s not about the money; it’s the social awkwardness we want to avoid. In the US we’re never sure who to tip, when to tip, how much is enough and when generosity turns into unseemly showing off. I’m not convinced Americans get it either.

Kathryn explains how personnel rotate roles, from desk clerk to doorman or valet parking and all have the same title, ‘ambassador’. Most have studied hospitality and are making careers in the business. They pride themselves on their superb service. ‘If it’s not immoral or illegal, we will do it for our guests.’

The former Elysian Hotel was built in 2009, with the aim of providing ultimate luxury. The Waldorf Astoria organisation took it over and completed its conversion in February 2012. Our apartment-sized room is apparently not unusual – even the smallest room in the 188-room hotel is 60 square metres.

Decor throughout is faultless, with attention paid to the smallest architectural details. My wife takes a swim in the lap pool, where the mosaic tiles on the bottom are intended to give the impression of swimming in rose petals.

Dinner time arrives. We’re ushered into RIA, our chairs are pulled back, and I discreetly slip my feet under the tablecloth. While the atmosphere is relaxed, chef Danny Grant’s food demands our attention. This is not the place to eat when you have other things to talk about. The food takes centre stage, and left and right stage too.

RIA restaurant. Our place is in the corner, with feet out of sight below the table.

We opt for the Seasonal Tasting menu with matching wines, which means we’re paralysed by choice and happy to let Mr Grant do the choosing.

Server John David explains, ‘Ria is Spanish for where the land meets the sea. Our focus here is on local produce and return to cooking.’ It takes a little nudging to get him off script, as he rattles off details of the appetisers, the entrees, the hand-made breads and even the butter. We aren’t told the names of the cows that produced the milk, but we do learn that the sea salt sprinkled on top of it is Australian. We have world class beaches, so why not world class sea salt?

Naturally the wines also get our sommelier’s detailed description. She probably suspects that our wine knowledge stops around Rawson’s Retreat, but she flatters us by treating us like fellow experts. It makes us feel special and the superb meal memorable.

When it comes time to check out of the Waldorf Astoria, we know it will be a while before we ever stay anywhere as luxurious. And yes, we do feel we’re leaving a home.

Our bags miraculously appear and Judd holds the door open. ‘We appreciate you staying with us, Mr and Mrs Tulloch. Can I call you a cab?’

‘No thanks, Judd. We’ll walk.’

We shake hands. He smiles, and doesn’t glance at my shoes. He knows. And it’s no problem at all.


Staying there: See waldorfastoria3.hilton.com

Eating there: RIA restaurant’s seasonal tasting menu US$110 per person, with matching wines add US$85. See: riarestaurantchicago.com/

Further information: For things to see and do in Chicago, see explorechicago.org or ChooseChicago.com

The writer was the guest of the Waldorf Astoria Chicago and the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under USA

12 responses to “WALDORF ASTORIA – five stars in sensible shoes

  1. If I can afford to stay in the high class hotel (some have really good rates), then I don’t feel uncomfortable in it at all.

    When talking to the person on the front desk about available rooms (and the price) I usually ask if they offer special rates.

    I travelled in Asia, Africa and Latin America on the cheap, and would often use the facilities in a high class hotel: air-conditioned lobby, swimming pool, or even just the toilet – after looking around casually.

    Some even offer good deals on buffets and the price of an ice-cold beer (away from all the outside noise) is not that expensive.

    • Thanks for the tips, Michel.

      We can sometimes afford a little luxury, but when we pay a lot our expectations go up, and we become critical of any little flaw.

      When we go for something that doesn’t cost as much we can be pleasantly surprised by the excellent service and good value.

  2. Good post Richard. In 1995 I won a holiday competition with the Times newspaper. 1st class BA flights, top of the range hire car and accommodation in a 5 star Chateau in Cahors in France. It was lovely but I must say I prefer a little traditional apartment in the Cyclades.

  3. How would we ever fit all those little bottles in the luggage, Andrew? Well, one or two may have accidentally dropped into a toilet bag.

  4. I guessing that the Gideon Bible would have been either guilt or deckle edged in keeping with hotel decor.

  5. Julie

    Hi! I was googling how much one tips at the Waldorf because I have an upcoming stay at the Waldorf in Orlando. The name alone somehow intimidates me :), and I’m not an expert on tipping, let alone at the Waldorf, hence the google search. It was a really good 6-night Waldorf deal that I booked through Costco, I hesitated fearing that it will be hopelessly stuffy and I will just feel awkward and inadequate during my stay, but it is cheaper than Disney hotel prices so..! After reading your post though…. I’m now thinking, “Oh dear, do I really dare NOT tip?”. And I was so looking forward to packing those complimentary toiletries, too. But then, six bottles (for the six nights) of each item will just make me go over the airline baggage allowance. LOL. (Just discovered your blog, btw, and I like it…. your writing makes me laugh.)

    • Thanks Julie. We Aussies are dreadfully uncomfortable about tipping. We’re used to rounding an $18.50 taxi fare up to $20 to save the change, but have no idea what’s supposed to happen in the American system. I’m pretty sure after being the guest of the Waldorf Astoria Chicago I didn’t souvenir the toiletries. It would have felt mean after their generosity.

  6. Julie

    Uh…. Let me clarify the the above “funny” comment… Meant that in a good way, ok? 🙂

    • I understood that of course!

      You just inspired me to read my W-A post again – it’s from last year. It brought back happy memories of our stay, and of the staff’s perfect service!

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