How I checked in to Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek and found out for myself why it’s a superstar of the country’s inn crowd.
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I DON’T WANT TO GIVE the idea that having my shoes polished was the high point of my day and night at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel, because it wasn’t. No, the peak experience without question was room service breakfast (shiitake mushroom omelet, perfectly brewed tea, heavy silver on white linen, the best biscuits in Dallas). But I have to say that when the bellman delivered my shoes and I turned them over to find that not only had their black leather uppers been buffed to a glossy sheen but their black composition soles had been washed … I was impressed.
In the rarefied world of deluxe hotels, Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek can hold its well-coiffed head up in the company of any hostelry in the country and quite a few other stately pleasure domes around the world. Its guest list encompasses presidents (Clinton, Bush, Carter, Ford), entertainers (Madonna, Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Whitney Houston), royalty (Princess Margaret, the king and queen of Sweden), beautiful people (Claudia Schiffer), and national icons (Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali). Its tony references include the Zagat Survey of Hotels, Resorts and Spas (which just declared it the best hotel in the United States for the third consecutive year), Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards (among the three most outstanding hotels in the country), the Mobil Travel Guide (five out of five stars), and the pedigreed directory Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The roll call of accolades could go on and on, but you get the idea. Which is why I began to wonder, at first idly, then more seriously: What’s the deal? What makes a hotel the “best”? So one night in May I checked in with a friend, using an assumed name, to see what the fuss was about. And, quite frankly, to see if I could find some chinks in its armor.
Stanley Marcus, the former CEO of Neiman Marcus and Dallas’ civic guru in residence, once observed that interior designers and fine hotels are alike in that both strive to create “an intangible sense of euphoria.” At the Mansion, this frisson of heightened expectation begins with the neighborhood—an enclave of serenity and lovingly tended lawns only a few blocks from busy Oak Lawn Avenue and ten minutes from Love Field. The anticipation builds with the driveway—moderately steep, gently curving, culminating in a landscaped circular parking area full of Caddies, Lincolns, Jags, Mercedes, even the occasional Bentley. As I handed over the keys to my considerably more modest vehicle, the valet told me that all I had to do was call and give my last name and the car would be brought around at any time. Good sign: I was a person, not a number. After the driveway, the Mansion’s lobby came as a surprise. Not because it’s unattractive or uncomfortable. In fact, it’s lovely, in a subdued, old-money way, with a taupe velvet sofa, love seats, and ottomans arranged congenially around a polished fossil-limestone fireplace. No, the lobby is a surprise because it’s so, well, small. Of course, the flip side of small is intimate, even homey, and it is easy to imagine oneself sitting in the Mansion’s lobby, pretending to read a book, silently hoping that Cher will slink in.
At the registration desk our reservation was pulled up, and the clerk said, “I see you’re having dinner with us, Mrs. Hamilton. May I confirm the reservation?” One point for service, one demerit for assuming I was “Mrs.” Our room, on the first ï¿½oor, was ample but not huge—a 450-square-foot space with a pair of beds, each graced by two tall ï¿½uted posts, a sofa and commodious chair, a desk, and a tiny private patio. The color scheme was peaches and cream, with ï¿½oral-print fabrics that looked a bit like Scalamandré or Brunschwig and Fils; the bathroom counter was amber marble with brass fixtures. As a little test, and because I truly wanted to know, I called the concierge and asked if one could get the brand name and colors of the paint. In about an hour, a peach-colored envelope was slipped under the door with a handwritten note: Glidden custom shade Mansion P.T. 100 (peach) was used on the walls and Mansion P.T. 101 (cream) on the trim. How many other hotels could provide their color scheme on short notice, if at all?
A few minutes later I was perusing a list describing the Mansion’s business center (computers, copiers, fax machines), the fitness studio (exercise machines, free weights, treadmills), the salon (hair and nails), and the free limo (within a five-mile radius) when there was a knock at the door. “Room service,” announced a voice, and indeed, there was a waiter with complimentary chocolates and passion fruit—ï¿½avored iced tea. A lovely touch, made more so because it was completely unexpected.
After calling the laundry service to have three garments pressed in the two hours before dinner and making an appointment for a pedicure the next morning, I decided we should prowl. The swimming pool proved to be quite small, but gratis bottles of Evian arrived the minute we sprawled out on the poolside chaises, and the waiter said we could order anything from ostrich tacos to a sirloin through room service. Walking around to the dark, clubby bar, we found a handful of regulars deep in cigars and Scotch. Eavesdropping on two men at the next table, I learned an unusual definition of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, Pestilence, Bill Clinton, and the ex-fiancée of the younger guy.
Back in the room, we still had time to kill before dinner, so I opened up the rather impressive armoire. These days, of course, many nice hotels conceal the television sets in armoires. But the Mansion takes the concept about five steps further. Inside this Command Central facility was not only a 25-inch TV with 38 channels but also a VCR, a CD player, a tape deck, a fax machine, snacks galore, and a safe. Would we use most of these offerings? Well, probably we would watch a little TV and perhaps sample the snack bar (although $2.25 for a Snickers bar is a pretty good deterrent).
The arrival of my clothes from housekeeping reminded me that it was time to dress for dinner. When we entered the dining room, all was in readiness and every member of the wait staff knew my name. “Good evening, Mrs. Hamilton. This way, please.” Our table was on the serene glassed-in veranda, which we liked, although I know for a fact it’s considered social Siberia. If we had been celebrities or members of Dallas’ glitterati, we would have been seated in the busy, buzzing main room with its carved oak paneling and sixteenth-century stone mantel dating back to the days when the restaurant portion of the building was the monumentally posh 1925 Sheppard King mansion.
With forty items, not counting desserts and specials, the menu was overwhelming, a compendium of the pan-global cuisine that has made the Mansion’s chef, 42-year-old Dean Fearing, a culinary celebrity. Morels were in season, so we decided to split an appetizer of them. As far as I’m concerned, an unadorned morel can hardly be improved upon, but in fact the caper vinaigrette brought out their subtly earthy ï¿½avor. This was the kind of dish that makes you chew slowly, with your eyes closed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with the next dish, a generous appetizer consisting of a tempura-fried prawn, a steamed pheasant dumpling, and passion fruit—glazed sweetbreads. The concept was dazzling, but except for the accompanying dark, sweet cherry scallion sauce, the execution lacked finesse. Luckily, my companion’s smoked pecan-crusted snapper was excellent—at once light and full ï¿½avored—and there was plenty to share. As for dessert, we agreed that we’d never had better crème brûlée—a satiny custard in a rosy pool of raspberry purée.
During our absence from the room, the sheets had been turned down and the luxurious monogrammed terry bathrobes folded at the foot of the beds with their belts rolled up like fiddlehead ferns. Even though the memory of dinner had hardly faded, I filled out a request for room service breakfast and hung it on the door, then slipped into bed to read by the light of a gratifyingly bright table lamp.
When we opened the draperies and French doors the next morning, the room filled with sunlight and cool, fresh air. At precisely 8:30, an opulent breakfast cart arrived, looking as if it had been styled for a scene in a Cary Grant movie. The waiter popped up two sides of the cart to make a spacious oval table, then retrieved from an insulated compartment beneath it assorted steaming pots and fragrant covered plates.
Everything was exactly as we had ordered. The tea (loose, not in a bag) came with a silver strainer and a rest for the strainer, the caffè latte with an extra pot of steamed milk, and there was orange marmalade in a china dish. Whatever quibbles we had about dinner evaporated: The egg-white omelet provided a neutral canvas for the vivid ï¿½avors of shiitake mushrooms and scallions; the poached eggs achieved the ideal balance between ï¿½uid and firm; the biscuits were of heroic butteriness. In place of plebeian hashbrowns was an edible haystack of crisp, golden shoestring potatoes. We were lolling around reading the New York Times (delivered with breakfast, as we had requested when we checked in) when I realized with a start that I was about to be late for my pedicure, so I headed for the shower. The bathroom’s overall marble-and-brass grandeur was compromised a bit by the slightly confined space: The bath towels occupied a tray perched on the tub’s edge, and the tub itself was narrow. But the shower was good and strong, the towels were softer than goose down (and considerably more suitable for drying yourself after a bath), and the fresh-scented shampoo, lotion, and bath crystals came in pretty square-stoppered glass jars. A note discreetly suggested that, if you wished, you could purchase some to take home. Apparently, even people who can afford Mansion-caliber prices are not above pilfering.
The pedicure was a mixed experience. The results were fine—I could have started a fire using the mirrorlike reï¿½ection of my toenails—but the accompanying massage stopped at the ankles. Frankly, for $50 I had expected some serious calf kneading too. On top of that, the room needed dusting and corner mopping. As it turns out, the salon is operated by a separate company, but most people don’t know that. On the other hand, the fitness studio next-door was in immaculate condition and equipped with a multitude of machines, mostly Paramount brand, and other amenities, including a massage room, sauna, and steam room.
Before checking out of our sybaritic sanctuary, we decided to take a walk along Turtle Creek, with its swans and ducks gliding among the cannas, and here the staff was at its best, providing maps and helpful suggestions for various loops. When we returned, check-out time had sneaked up on us. And it was then, zipping our bags, phoning for a bellman—“Yes, Mrs. Hamilton, and shall we have your car brought round too?”—that I understood the true appeal of the Mansion. The hotel is justifiably proud of the extraordinary service it provides, but most guests, after all, will never request a large surprise birthday party on four hours’ notice. They will never be clueless that they have left a $100,000 check in a cab until its honest driver returns it to the Mansion and a hotel employee personally drives across town to deliver it just before it is needed to close a major deal. For me, it’s the little things—sumptuous bath towels, toiletries in stylish containers, being greeted by name—that make the visit special.
When the bill was presented at the check-out desk, it took my breath away: $696, which broke down into $375 for the room, a whopping $49 for the room tax, $130 for dinner, $42 for breakfast, $16 for pressing, and the rest for the pedicure and assorted other taxes and small extras. Thank God it was a business expense. As we drove away, my companion asked, “Well, if you had to pay for this yourself, would you do it again?”
“You mean, if all my bills were paid and by some miracle I had seven hundred dollars left over to do anything I wanted?”
“In that case, I’d be back in a minute.”