Cold Shoulder: A Review of the Freehand Hotel New York
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You might recognize the Sydell Group as the folks behind a burgeoning handful of hotels that include brands like NoMad, The Line, The Ned, Saguaro and Freehand. Given the company’s quick expansion, I was excited to check out one of its hotels on a recent visit to New York, so I booked a room at the Freehand Hotel New York.
The Freehand New York had 395 rooms total, but they ranged from ones with bunk beds meant for friends or colleagues to share to spacious suites. Unlike the other Freehand hotels in Miami and LA, for instance, you couldn't book a single bed in a shared bunk room because of New York City laws. Room rates were high the night I was in town, so I ended up booking the cheapest room available, a 120-square-foot Artist room with a twin bed for $189 for the night.
The next-lowest room, a 205-square-foot Cabin with a queen bed, was $246 — quite a jump. A slightly larger queen room with windows on two sides and 10 square feet more space was $255 per night. I was trying to keep things on a budget, so I just went for the Artist.
In the picture above note that the exclusive-rate bullets above the rate promise discounted rates, preferred room assignments and preferred access to restaurants and bars. While the rates were the same as I found elsewhere, I thought the other two points were either moot or lacking altogether.
I paid for the room with my Chase Sapphire Reserve so I earned 3x points per dollar.
The Freehand New York was in the Flatiron District on Lexington Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets. It was a couple blocks north of Gramercy Park, a 10-minute walk to Union Square and had easy access to the bus and the subway on 23rd Street.
The Freehand was in the former George Washington Hotel, which originally opened in 1928. The building seemed more like a former theater than a hotel, with an ornate, dark stone façade. Its current look was the vision of New York interior designers du jour, Roman and Williams, whose other projects include the Freehands in LA, Miami and Chicago, as well as the Chicago Athletic Association and New York’s Viceroy and Highline hotels.
I arrived at the hotel around 11:30am, and though there was just one other person arriving at check-in at the same time as me, the two doormen on duty seemed to be busy dealing with other travelers' bags. As I didn’t need any help, I went straight in and to the front desk.
There were two agents on duty at the desk, neither of whom was helping anyone the moment I walked up. The first seemed to be looking intently at her computer screen and did not look up at all during the entire time I checked in. The other was watching what the bellmen were doing. Neither acknowledged my presence, even though I was standing patiently right in front of them for a good 30 seconds, until I finally said, “Excuse me, may I please check in?”
The man finally turned to me and said, “What name?” Neither of them said hello or welcomed me or anything at all that I’d characterize as hospitable. This was the tone of the service I encountered throughout my entire stay.
After checking my reservation, the desk agent said my room was not ready yet, but would be at around 1pm, and that I could leave my suitcase with the bellmen. That was it. He did not offer to help with my bag or call over the bellmen. He just went back to his computer and did not look up again.
I walked back to the entrance and tried to flag down a bellman. The one whose attention I finally got was friendly but very hurried, and I had to repeat my name a couple times so he could write it on my claim ticket. Once he had, he took my bag away, and I went to have a look at the hotel’s public spaces.
Because I had time to kill, I decided to go upstairs to the mezzanine level and do some work. Much of the floor was occupied by a living-room-style area with chairs and couches.
The Wi-Fi was free and open to the public (and worked pretty well), so a lot of folks were working there and having meetings.
I liked the mismatched furniture, potted plants, art books and bric-a-brac scattered around. It felt cool and homey without being precious. I also liked the distinctly Gothamesque touches like antique columns and the vintage New Yorker issues decorating the bathroom walls.
At one end of the hallway was the Studio restaurant, while the other held the George Washington Bar. More on those two later. Perhaps the most interesting room was the small game den near the George Washington Bar that had a Pac-Man console and a pinball machine as well as board games. I ended up having drinks with friends there later in the evening.
The hotel had a sizable gym down in the basement. It was empty except for two young women who were filming something for social media on the Peloton bikes.
Down in the lobby, there was also a store called the Shoppe, which was part convenience store and part concept store. You could pick up drinks and snacks but also games, bartending tools, blankets and candles. The woman at the register there seemed to have been trained in the same hospitality school as the folks at reception. I asked a couple questions about the items on sale, and she did not even look up from her tablet to look at me while answering or see if I needed any help. I guess she didn’t work on commission.
I checked back at the front desk around 1pm. There was a new agent there, and I explained I had already checked in. She typed a few things and said my room was ready. Then she made a key, handed it to me with a brusque, “Here,” and went back to typing. Honestly, the front desk staff here was among the most unfriendly I’ve encountered and really put a damper on my stay … as did my room.
Let me preface this by saying, yes, I realize I booked one of the cheapest rooms at the hotel, but I still was not prepared for how small and dark it was. I got off the elevator on the third floor and walked down the hallway, which was dreary and institutional. My room was around the corner at one end of the corridor.
Walking in, my first impression was just how tiny and cramped it was. I immediately wished I’d sprung for a larger room instead of this 120-square-foot one.
Just inside the door were a low stool and a cabinet holding a bottle of water, a tissue box and an empty mini-fridge. Above it were baskets with the room service menu and a handful of free apples.
Instead of a closet, there were hooks on the wall, and nowhere to put my suitcase, so I had to wedge it against the wall by the door and try not to trip on it as I came and went. I could not even leave it open because the entryway was too narrow. Next to that, there was a tiny desk with the telephone and hotel compendium, plugs and a small shelf above it holding a lamp and some books.
The bed was a twin and was dressed in white linens with a light, gray-green throw.
It was flush against the window and looked out onto the roof of the floor below, which was populated by air-conditioning units. There was a low hum emanating from outside at all times as a result.
A TV was mounted on the wall next to the bathroom door.
There was also a basic mural. The hotel commissioned room art from Bard College students and alumni, and this one was by a woman named Louise C. Smith.
The green-tiled bathroom made the bedroom seem spacious. It was possibly the smallest bathroom I’d ever had in a hotel, and was just wide enough to hold a tiny sink and the toilet.
However, there was nowhere to put my toiletries, so I ended up just leaving them on the toilet lid when it was down.
The shower was relatively large, with a wall-mounted shower head.
And there were Argan bath products. Unfortunately, when you used the hot water, the pipes groaned quite loudly, which made it decidedly less relaxing.
Overall, I was glad that I would not be spending much time here, as it would have gotten depressing fast.
Food and Beverage
To me, one of the hotel’s major selling points was the variety of in-house restaurants and bars. Down on the ground level was a Smile to Go, the offshoot of a popular downtown restaurant. It served breakfast items like homemade granola with Greek yogurt and breakfast burritos, while later in the day, there were sandwiches and premade salads.
While I was there, I peeked in the back corner, where I noticed a small recording studio where some people seemed to be recording an episode of this podcast.
Restaurateur Gabriel Stulman’s Happy Cooking Hospitality group ran the two other main restaurants and one of the bars. Simon & the Whale was on the other side of the lobby from Smile and was open for lunch and dinner. The contemporary continental menu had items like oysters on the half shell and chicken-liver pâté to start, and lamb carpaccio, eggplant ravioli and whole branzino as mains. The space had a sophisticated edge with a beautiful bar and large windows overlooking the street.
Upstairs was the hotel’s all-day restaurant, Studio. I decided to have breakfast there the morning following my stay, and the avocado toast I ordered was delicious. But the service here was simultaneously brusque and apathetic.
When I checked in early my first day, it was here that I decided to sit and work while having a cup of coffee. I asked a passing server if it was OK to take a table, and he just said, "Yeah," without breaking stride.
It was mostly empty, since the lunch rush hadn’t yet begun. However, not only did it take over 10 minutes to get one of the servers to come over, but when she brought me the cup of coffee I ordered several minutes later, she didn't bring any milk or sugar. She just dropped the mug and spun on her heel. I managed to ask for both before she could get too far. A few minutes later, she brought the sugar. When I reminded her about the milk, she went to clean off several other tables and then eventually popped behind the bar to get it. Once she actually had the milk in hand, she stopped by another table to talk to the customer ... and then put the milk back down on the bar and sat down at the table to talk to him.
Several minutes later (coffee cold at this point), I was finally able to flag down one of her colleagues, who ended up being much more attentive and stopped by several times later on to see if I needed anything else. If not for him, I might have walked out then and there. As for breakfast the next day, it took about 10 minutes to get someone’s attention to order again, even though it was not busy. I don’t know if it was just an off couple of days, but the service at Studio, combined with the behavior of the folks at the front desk, were a class in what not to do in hospitality.
Aside from that, the menu as Studio skewed Mediterranean, with black-eyed-pea hummus, merguez flatbread with hazelnut and goat cheese, tahini eggplant, Moroccan chicken with paprika, and lamb burger with feta and turmeric tomato.
Across the mezzanine was the George Washington Bar, also run by Happy Cooking and set in the former library of the old hotel. I loved the ambience in here, though it was so packed the night I stayed that my friends and I had to take our drinks out to the arcade room. So much for preferential access for hotel guests.
I will say there was one bartender here who practically redeemed the other service issues single-handedly. He was super friendly, quick to pick up everyone’s order and made excellent drinks. Also, he was just plain nice, and it was a stark contrast to the rest of the staff.
Finally, up on the roof, via a separate entrance on 24th Street that was guarded by burly bouncers, was the award-winning Broken Shaker cocktail bar, which you’ll also find at the LA and Miami Freehands. I did not get up there during my stay, but plan to try it on my next visit to New York.
Although the room rates were relatively cheap compared to other choices in New York the day I was there, given the choice, I would not stay at the Freehand again. The room I got was just way too small, dark and cramped. Although the furniture it contained was nice and laid out as efficiently as possible, the room was clearly meant for someone who just wanted to crash there and not spend any time. It was too small even for my carry-on bag, and it’s a good thing I didn’t have any clothes I needed to hang, since there were no hangers. The bathroom was minuscule and dark, and the view of the humming A/C units was pretty bleak.
I interacted with over a dozen staff members at the hotel overall and can say with certainty that just two of them were pleasant or helpful in any way. From the lackluster service at check-in to the rudeness and apathy of the wait staff at Studio, the whole experience just left me feeling unwelcome and unvalued, which I wouldn’t wish on any hotel or restaurant guest. I think the Freehand functions best as a public meeting place where you can camp out to work between meetings or catch up with friends over a cocktail. Otherwise, I’d limit my time here.