Secret Hotels of New York City

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In a town where the average room rate is now $235, it takes a real effort to find acceptable hotels with double rooms for under $100. We've found sixteen

Chelsea Star Hotel

300 West 30th Street, tel. 877/827-6969 or 212/244-7827, fax 212/279-9018, chelseastar.com. A small hotel of 20 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $83-$95

From street level, the nondescript door hardly looks like a hotel entrance. But up a narrow stairway, you'll find one of bargain lodging's best-kept secrets. Two years ago, owners Ted and Claudia Howard transformed the former hot-sheets transient hotel (Madonna lived here before her big break) into a charming, funky find facing Madison Square Garden. The clientele is largely youthful and European; the flavor, decidedly arty. A small second-floor lobby is painted cheerful yellow with blue cityscapes and glass brick; sounds of a fountain echo through industrial-chic hallways of pressed tin and exposed brick. Although the 20 rooms are small and hardly luxurious, artist Rob Graf designed each with a unique theme. The Shakespeare Room's walls are lined with sonnets and gray velvet swags; the Orbit Room's deep blue walls and ceilings glow with fluorescent stars at night. Baths are clean and new, with gray slate and black marble; all are shared (generally one shower and two toilets per six-room floor). All the rooms have TVs. E-mail and Internet access is available near the lobby. However, there are no elevators, and light sleepers might want a room facing away from Eighth Avenue. Decor varies dramatically, so get a room list ahead of time and choose one to suit your tastes.

Suites with baths are available in the building next door, though they're much plainer. At press time, plans were underway to add in-room phones and a street-level Internet cafe.

The Gershwin Hotel

7 East 27th Street, tel. 212/545-8000, fax 212/684-5546, gershwinhotel.com

Rates: $99 weeknights - $125 weekends (economy rooms with private bath); starting at $199 for family quads (private bath); but note that only 10 of the hotel's 150 rooms are treated as "economy rooms," and family quads number only 8

Though still part hotel, part pop art museum, an ongoing renovation has transformed the Gershwin from what once resembled a crash pad for starving artists into what feels like a stylish SoHo gallery. Huge colorful sculptures and lithographs brighten the freshly painted, high-ceilinged lobby. (That's a Lichtenstein hanging behind the front desk and a Campbell's soup can signed by Andy Warhol near the elevators.) Each floor is lined with cheerful green-and-yellow doors and showcases work from different artists. Guest rooms have high ceilings, plenty of light, TV, phone; some feature charming touches like bow windows and brightly painted wooden furniture. Baths vary from spanking new to well worn but clean. (Hostel-style shared-bath rooms with bunks start at $35/night, though the hotel plans to eliminate them eventually.)

Guests can visit the art gallery adjoining the lobby, browse through copies of the Village Voice, check their e-mail at one of two Internet kiosks in the Gershwin Cafe, or catch nightly comedy, live music, theater, and other performances in a back room with an enormous floor-to-ceiling fireplace and Statue-of-Liberty-motif walls.

The new, improved Gershwin even boasts a doorman. When we last visited he was hanging out curbside with a Jerry Garcia look-alike strumming a guitar. We'll take it as proof that the Gershwin's makeover hasn't diminished its unique and lively bohemian spirit.

Belleclaire Hotel

250 West 77th Street, tel. 877/HOTEL-BC or 212/362-7700, fax 212/362-1004, belleclaire.com. 189 rooms, of which 39 are with shared bath. Rates: $79-$95 (shared bath)

Thanks to a recent renovation, everything about the Belleclaire is light, airy, and cheerful-from the buttercup-yellow walls on guest floors to the stylish curved lobby with its blond wood, potted plants, and leather couches. Travelers longing to escape Times Square's madding crowds and see how real New Yorkers live would do well to check out this 100-year-old landmark on the bustling, residential Upper West Side. Nearby are Central Park, Lincoln Center, and the American Museum of Natural History. Many rooms here exceed our price cap, but the Belleclaire still offers 39 splendid shared-bath bargains. These are clustered in groups of three; each cluster has its own mini-hallway accessed by a magnetic key card for safety and privacy. Rooms are simple but stylish, furnished in a modern-chic decor that reservations and sales director Stephen DeFazio calls "Norwegian art deco." Although they lack views, they're sizable (by New York standards), with pastel walls, charcoal-gray bedspreads, and gray suede headboards. Each has a telephone with dataport, TV, and in-room sink. Baths are plain but immaculate; toilets are separate from showers. Concierge service is available, and planned additions include a gift shop, a vending area for forgotten necessities such as toothpaste, and a rooftop deck for breakfast and cocktails on the tenth-floor penthouse level. Insider tip: Stop by H & H Bagels, around the corner, for a delicious bargain breakfast-the city's best fresh-baked bagels for less than $1 each.

Larchmont Hotel

27 West 11th Street, tel. 212/989-9333, fax 989-9496, larchmonthotel.com. 57 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $90-$109 weeknights, $100/$125 weekends, continental breakfast included

Tucked away on a quiet side street of charming, historic Greenwich Village, the Larchmont wins hands-down for best location. Stepping inside this lovely 1910 brownstone town house, you feel more like you're visiting a private residence than a hotel. (In fact, upon check-in, guests receive front-door keys and enter through a separate foyer.) The lobby is cheerfully decorated with a few oversize pieces including a large boar statue, wooden armoire, and brown leather couch. Rooms have rattan furniture, dark floral bedspreads, ceiling fans, and books to add a homey touch. Hallways are narrow and some rooms are exceedingly small, but all have in-room sinks and thoughtful touches such as robes and slippers to make schlepping down the hall to the small but clean shared bathrooms more pleasant. Floors are equipped with kitchenettes, though it would take some restraint to use them in this restaurant-rich neighborhood. Free continental breakfast is served in the downstairs dining room.

West Side Inn

237 West 107th Street, tel. 212/866-0061, fax 212/866-0062, westsideinn.com. 102 rooms, all with shared bath. Rate: $59-$79

Start with this bargain-hunters' favorite. It's quite high up on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood is safe and on the upswing, with cheap restaurants nearby. The narrow lobby boasts chandeliers and gilded mirrors, though guest rooms hardly live up to such spiffy standards. And the bright pink, turquoise, and yellow walls are cheerful enough, but there's 100 years' worth of paint caked on doors, baseboards are missing here and there, and some rooms have odd configurations. This lends the place a decidedly off-campus-housing flavor. Kitchenettes are grungy but functional; shared baths are cleaner. All rooms have minifridges and most have sinks; you'll find phones and an Internet kiosk in the lobby. "It's a very cool place, very bohemian," explains manager Moni Jeitany. Indeed, backpackers and those nostalgic for their salad days might enjoy the ambiance - not to mention the price. Insider tip: tiny La Piccola Cucina gourmet shop around the corner sells irresistible focaccia - $3 for a round loaf big enough to feed three for lunch.

At press time, the hotel was completing West End Studios, which promises similar lodgings nearby on West End Avenue.

Portland Square

132 West 47th Street, tel. 800/388-8988 or 212/382-0600, fax 212/382-0684, portlandsquarehotel.com or citysearch.com/nyc/portlandsquare. 145 rooms, of which 38 are with shared bath and 33 others are triples or quads with private bath. Rates: $73 (shared bath); $140/triple, $150/quad (both with private bath)

Don't be misled by the lovely white facade and regal columns; inside, this is strictly no-frills lodging. Sure, Jimmy Cagney stayed here (as promotional brochures remind you), but it's not exactly "top of the world, Ma." You must press a buzzer to enter the lobby, where you'll find the front-desk staff secured behind Plexiglas. The abundance of pink tile gives the place a YMCA-like feel; a small sitting area with pink-and-green floral-print couches adds minimal cheer. But then, you don't choose the Portland Square for posh surroundings; you come for the convenient Theater District locale and the rock-bottom rates. Rooms are rather dark and drab, with green carpets, beige walls, and floral bedspreads and curtains. Still, both shared and private baths are very clean (no more than four rooms per bath, and in-room baths are sizable by New York standards). All rooms have guest safes, phones, and TVs; those with shared baths have sinks. Rooms facing 47th Street offer more light and a better view. There's a guest laundry and a teeny fitness room in the basement. AAA and AARP discounts available.

Habitat Hotel

130 East 57th Street, tel. 212/753-8841, fax 212/829-9605, habitat-ny.com. 235 rooms, of which about 70 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $85-$105 (shared bath)

Once a women's residence, the Habitat became a full-service hotel last year. The lobby's sophisticated green-and-cream color scheme, fresh flowers, concierge desk, and jazz background music seem a cut above budget lodging. And indeed, rooms with private baths miss our cutoff; however, you'll still find bargains on those with shared baths. Doubles have trundle beds, which means they're set up with what looks like a single bed; underneath is another mattress and frame that opens to a reasonable semblance of a double bed. Although it's a tight squeeze when the beds are open, they're new and comfy with plush velour blankets. Rooms and hallways are stylishly decorated in taupes and beiges, most with striped or harlequin-patterned wallpaper and deco-style lamps. Furnishings are neat and tidy, though some look a little worn. Rooms include freestanding closets to hold amenities and hangers, in-room sinks, phones with voice mail, dataports, and TVs. If you've got to share a bath, it might as well be elegant, and these are: small but immaculate, with brand-new marble tile and glass-doored showers. Toilets can be found in separate rooms; no more than four rooms share two stalls and two showers. At press time, the hotel was turning the erstwhile Irish pub next door into an entrance for the new mezzanine-level lobby.

Aladdin Hotel

317 West 45th Street, tel. 212/246-8580, fax 212/246-6036, aladdinhotel.com. 132 rooms, of which all but two are with shared bath and fit our price category. Rates: $65-$85 (shared bath)

The lobby's deep purple walls, red velvet curtains, saggy couches, and bright, multicolored carpet make you feel more like you're stepping into an East Village bar than a hotel-cum-hostel. Don't be fooled: the Aladdin caters heavily to serious students and young international travelers, perhaps because they're most tolerant of the bathroom situation. (Sinks are communal, and the three-stalls/two-showers-per-20-room-floor formula can mean a wait for the facilities.) The lobby, the orange-and-yellow-walled first-floor lounge, and the cheerfully painted pastel halls are the hotel's best features. Rooms are grungy and basic with low, slouchy beds, worn wall-to-wall carpeting, and bright curtains and bedspreads. Pay phones are located in the lobby. For supercheap lodgings, try the dorm-style rooms with multiple bunk beds. At press time the Aladdin was renovating, but chances are it won't shed its student-union feel.

Apple Core Hotels

(all rooms with private bath) Quality Hotel & Suites Midtown 59 West 46th Street, Quality Hotel East Side 161 Lexington, Comfort Inn Midtown 129 West 46th Street, Best Western Manhattan 17 West 32nd Street, Apple Core Hotels tel. 800/567-7720 (central reservations) or 212/790-2700, fax 212/790-2760, applecorehotels.com. Rates: start at $89 weeknights; $99-$109 weekends (private bath), continental breakfast included. Caveat: During holidays and other high seasons, rates can reach $139.

Since 1993, Apple Core has been restoring rundown hotels in Midtown and turning them into some of the best bargains around. Although rates vary and management is cagey when it comes to listing a set price range, you can often find real deals. (If you're quoted a higher rate by phone, inquire about 10 percent AAA and AARP discounts as well as availability of smaller, more affordable rooms, especially at the Quality Hotel East Side.) And if you're bringing the kids, "family suites" sleep up to six for $139-$189, and the Best Western offers Nintendo and on-demand children's movies.

Although Apple Core runs chain hotels, its four Manhattan properties are far from generic. The Quality Midtown and Best Western retain lovely Beaux Arts facades, and the Comfort Inn's restored turn-of-the-century building with its modern lobby is downright elegant. Decor ranges from black, white, and purple art deco in the Best Western's lobby to Colonial American at the Quality Hotel Eastside, with its borders of L.L. Bean-style duck-print wallpaper and bookcase-lined lobby. (The Quality, just off 30th Street in quiet Murray Hill, also boasts large windows and the best views we've seen at a budget property - ask for a room ending in the numerals 10 or 11.) On the downside: Rooms in all four hotels vary from spacious to barely wide enough to squeeze past the bed, and those still awaiting redecoration at the Quality could use better lighting. But with free continental breakfast and luxury amenities like in-room coffeemakers, hair dryers, irons, ironing boards, and 24-hour fitness and business centers, who's complaining?

Editor's Note: Though rates here can sometimes go higher (even much higher) than our limits, the chain is still worth a call and a pointed inquiry about whether rates can be found within our range; they often can be. Also, at press time Apple Core was completing a new Red Roof Inn, set to open this year on West 32nd Street.

Malibu Hotel

2688 Broadway, tel. 212/222-2954 or 800/647-2227, fax 212/678-6842, malibuhotelnyc.com. 140 rooms, of which 80 percent are with private bath and yet priced within our limits. The remainder are with shared bath and even cheaper ($69 to $89 per room). Rates: $89-$129 (private bath), $109-$149/quad (private bath)

Though they won't win any awards for decor, you can't argue with the rates at this Upper West Side standby. A steep, narrow stairway covered in gray carpet that's seen better days leads to an equally drab second-floor lobby. Rooms are small and plain but serviceable, with chunky black iron headboards, a framed poster or two, and often hangers on a rack above the bed. Still, each has a TV and a clean, newly renovated bath (phones are in the lobby). Those facing away from commercial Broadway are likely to be quieter. Skip the heavy suitcases unless you want a workout; there are five flights and no elevators. Free continental breakfast is served in the lobby. The subway is a few steps from the hotel's front door.

The neighborhood around 103rd Street is ethnically mixed but yuppifying fast; nearby are Grant's Tomb, Riverside Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Columbia University.

Washington Jefferson Hotel

318 West 51st Street, tel. 212/246-7550 or fax 212/246-7622. A big 260 rooms in size, of which 85 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $89-$99 (shared bath)

Flaking exterior paint and an Edward Hopper-esque neon "hotel" sign outside belie this hotel's recent transformation. Once a down-at-the-heels single-room-occupancy hotel (SRO in New York lingo), the Wash-Jeff retains its shabby-chic appeal - and some of its original inhabitants - with a dark wood-paneled lobby, frayed red floral carpet, and saggy but comfy rose-colored couches. Halls are lined with black-and-white city photos - the work of a resident artist who fell behind in his rent and came up with an "alternate payment plan." Another interesting touch: GM Bob Lindenbaum offers room #114 for exhibits by local artists; last year one nonconformist covered the room in cheese. (You can see the photos, if you're skeptical.) Guest floors are more New York apartment house than hotel, with eclectic furnishings and years' worth of paint on the door frames. Baths are vintage 1940s but tidy (the staff cleans them hourly). All rooms have sinks, phones with voice mail, and dataports; minifridges are available on request. Eventually, the hotel hopes to install private baths in all rooms - without raising rates, we hope.

Though once seedy, Hell's Kitchen now pulses with chichi coffee houses and trendy bars; you can still find meal deals at nearby diners and falafel stands.

Editor's Note: Unless otherwise indicated, rates are for double rooms and do not include New York's 13.25 percent tax + $2/night occupancy tax. All hotels listed offer rooms starting under $100/night for significant portions of the year; higher rates may apply to holidays and other high-demand periods.

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