Staying at Shinola is Like Sleeping in a Showroom

A new Downtown Detroit hotel comes up short.

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The Shinola Hotel exterior. Source: shinolahotel.com.

I fell in love with Shinola when I stumbled across its Sunset Boulevard store on a visit to LA in 2015. Stationery, watches, bikes, wallets… there wasn’t a single thing in there that I didn’t want to buy. Everything was timelessly stylish with a a strong midcentury flavour. I loved its proudly Made in Detroit story. The brand’s commitment to quality.

Fast forward to 2019. By now I’m a Shinola watch-wearer (my folks gave me one for my thirtieth last year — at my request). And, fortuitously, I’m with my partner on a road-trip passing through Detroit, Shinola’s home. With its hotel having opened at the beginning of the year, I figured that I just had to stay there.

After surrendering our car to the friendly valet gents out front, we’re ushered in and handed our key at check-in — which is attached to a comically large fob with leather tassles.

Our reservation was for a Cass King, which starts at the not-insignificant $365/night (disclosure: I got a media rate for $205/night excluding tax). The room was comfortable — but in spite of its decent size, was lacking a desk. Instead, we had a couch, an armchair and a rather pointless credenza (which had empty shelves crying out for reading material or an objet of some kind). On top of the credenza were the bluetooth Shinola speakers that an extensive price list said could be ours for $1,500. The price list featured a bunch of other items in the room including the aforementioned key fob.

In the anteroom, there was a cabinet containing sweets and snacks as well as minibar crammed with drinks — all for sale (obviously). There were no complimentary tea or coffee-making facilities — unusual for a hotel at this price point, I thought. If I wanted a cappuccino enough, I suppose I could’ve paid $5 for one to be delivered to the room.

While the wash area (with a marble-topped basin above a sleek cabinet) was charming and gently lit, the rest of the bathroom reminded me of a 1950s operating room — a clinical combination of mostly white tiles with lines of dark green ones. The shower was large enough to host an orgy, but the shower-head could only properly douse one person at a time (my partner and I tested it out with a joint shower).

Reluctantly, I had to admit to myself that as much as I love the Shinola brand, I was struggling to like its hotel. Perhaps this was because I couldn’t escape the sense I was sleeping in a showroom. When almost everything in the room has been produced by one brand, against a rather anaemic backdrop (white walls, inoffensive abstract framed prints), there’s a certain stifling uniformity, a lack of soulfulness.

It was like being in a buy-to-rent apartment — by no means offensive, but a little lifeless and sterile. Perhaps a hanging plant or two (isn’t macramé kinda mid-century, after all?) would enliven things. One or two more pieces of art, perhaps. Some books — people are more likely to read them if they’re in their room and not in the hotel’s hallways where piles of them sit, unread. And perhaps most importantly — less of a Shinola product hard-sell would be nice.

Outside of the room, there was certainly bits of the hotel I liked. On the upper floors, the hallways were sexy — dimly lit, with alcoves featuring velvet couches (rather pointless given that you’d more likely want to be ensconced in your room, but still, a cosy and welcoming touch nonetheless). Downstairs, the Living Room is a tad busy decor-wise — the walls are choked with art, and almost every square metre of space seems taken up by chairs or coffee tables upon which books, magazines and newspapers are arranged. But in spite of its slightly frenzied appearance, I rather liked it — it has warmth and character, a soulfulness that my bedroom lacked. Walking through more dimly lit corridors (this place is a maze), you’ll end up in the speakeasy-style Evening Bar. The bar counter and its back mirror is all beautifully lit — celestial gold, a halo of light. Sit further away, and the establishment becomes a little gloomy — I pity anyone older than 40 who forgot their reading glasses at home. At least the drinks were heavenly (I had the Old Pal, which is kind of a negroni, but with rye whiskey instead of gin). And the service was friendly too — something I noticed throughout the hotel.

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The Evening Bar. Source: shinolahotel.com.

We wandered round the block to The Brakeman, the hotel’s beer hall, a hipsterish affair which thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. We sat in the vibey alley, eating fried chicken (hot, crispy and juicy just as it should be) from Penny Red’s, a food stand at the back, which I washed down with a local, unfiltered IPA.

Back on the fifth floor, we slept pretty well on our Made in Michigan mattress. By 7:30 the next morning, though, construction in the cavernous site adjacent to the hotel was going ahead at full, jackhammering, tilt. Given the heavy machinery down below is still tinkering at the foundation level, it looks like guests have months and months of construction ahead to look forward to. The hotel might want to consider sound-proofing its windows (or at least warning their guests how noisy it gets from the early morning onwards). Otherwise, it will be impossible for guests to use their generous noon checkout time for a lazy lie-in.

About half an hour before our checkout, I hit the “0” on the retro phone next to the bed and requested some ice. “Coming right up, sir,” the reception guy said.

25 minutes later it’s check out time and there was still no sign of the ice. We called again. “Did you ask in-room dining for it?”

Nope we didn’t, because on the phone it says dial zero “for anything” and you told us it was coming right up.

“Seriously, these people should stick to making watches and bikes,” my partner grumbled.

I had to begrudgingly agree.

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