Style Over Substance: A Review of the Shinola Hotel in Detroit
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Shinola Detroit is a company that's been making headlines lately -- and not just for its watches and leather goods. During this year’s Oscar ceremony, packed with commercials for Rolex watches, a different brand was surprisingly brought to the stage.
"Shinola watches, unbelievable! They're saving Detroit!" said "Green Book" director Peter Farrelly as he accepted the award for best original screenplay. The shoutout incited a mixed reaction in the media, prompting both praise and skepticism.
Ever since the company planted its factory in Detroit back in 2011, it has had a polarizing effect on the community. Many have suggested that the choice of Detroit was a calculated act of opportunistic marketing, hijacking the identity of the historically disenfranchised city as a marketing tool. And perhaps that's true. But as a native Michigander, I can't help but feel proud seeing the company make a concerted effort to employ hundreds of native Detroiters, and the once great city's empty lots and abandoned storefronts teeming with life once again.
Sure, Shinola didn't singlehandedly bring the city back, but it came at a time when any sign of investment in Detroit helped spark its rebirth. Regardless of the public’s perception, the company has succeeded in moving the brand forward, including expanding beyond luxury products into sticking its name on a stylish new hotel in the center of the Motor City -- its most ambitious endeavor yet.
The hotel is a renovation of five historic buildings—including the five-story Singer building and former T.B. Rayl Co. department store, fronted by a former wig shop along Woodward Avenue for decades.
I recently had a chance to visit the new hotel that opened early this year to see if it lived up to the hype of the Shinola brand.
(Full disclosure: I was a creative producer on four Shinola marketing videos a few years ago, but we paid full price for the stay we reviewed.)
The Shinola Hotel isn't a part of any major loyalty program, so we paid a total of $1,070 for my two-night stay with a Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which earns 10x miles per dollar spent on hotel reservations when booked through the special link at hotels.com/venture. You can also stack this with Hotels.com Rewards, which awards one free night per every 10 paid nights. Since the free night is based on the average price of the 10 nights, when stacked with the 10x miles from the Venture Rewards, it effectively gives us a 20% return on this reservation, which is one of the best returns when paying cash for hotel stays.
The Shinola Hotel is located in downtown Detroit, right in the heart of the city on the corner of Grand River and Woodward Avenue. It took about 25 minutes and cost about $30 to get to the hotel from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW).
Detroit is a sprawling and vast metropolis that is only walkable in certain enclaves of the city, so any first-time visitor to the Motor City will find the hotel to be a central location for shopping, dining and going out on foot. Hart Plaza and the Detroit International Riverfront, both popular in the summertime, are about a five-minute walk from the hotel.
The Uber driver dropped TPG creative director Isabelle Raphael and me off at the front door, where we were met by two young bellmen who took our luggage as we entered. Through the front doors, I passed by the hotel's swanky living room. As expected, the decor of the room was a seamless extension of the Shinola brand, with midcentury-modern furniture, colorful artwork and velvet couches with leather throw pillows.
It was 11am, still too early for my room to be ready, but the staff said they would expedite my check-in time and hold my luggage. So I took the opportunity to check out the hotel restaurant to get a desperately needed coffee and a bite to eat. By the time lunch was done, my room was ready and I headed up to my floor.
Isabelle didn’t have such great luck. Although they expedited her check-in, they accidentally sent her to the incorrect room. She noticed the room wasn’t fully cleaned, with toothpaste left on the mirror and no soap or towels. It was in that confusion she realized her bags were missing, as well. They ultimately concluded that she was mistakenly taken to the room across the hall from hers.
The room I booked was a Gallery suite on the eighth floor. Each room was equipped with this nifty little electronic key with a leather tassel attached to it instead of a boring plastic card.
I unlocked the door, entered the room and immediately noticed all the fixings of the Shinola brand. The room was decorated with Shinola clocks and leather goods made with the craftsmanship the luxury brand is known for.
On the minibar was your regular run of fancy booze and Shinola-brand cola, as well as its leather catch-all for my wallet and dandy little key.
Unsurprisingly, the mini-fridge was stocked with Vernors ginger ale, a long-standing Detroit staple. One disappointment: There was no coffeemaker in the room to fuel my early mornings.
At 600 square feet, the room was pleasantly spacious and bright, furnished with an array of on-brand earth-toned furniture. This room, in particular, was equipped with a Shinola Runwell turntable (which you could purchase for a modest $2,500) and retro vinyl. I threw on some Sharon Jones to liven up the remainder of my room inspection. (Weirdly, none of the albums in the room were Motown — other choices included the Rolling Stones and Miles Davis.)
The bedroom had a view that looked down Woodward Avenue toward the riverfront, which, with the rapid rebuilding of Detroit, really meant a view of massive construction.
This would later become the bane of my existence, as I was woken up each morning at 7am with a series of loud bangs from the work site. The hotel wasn't really to blame for this, but I felt this misery was worth noting.
The bed itself was comfy, and on the nightstand was a Shinola clock and retro phone that would warm any hip Brooklynite’s heart.
The two-sink bathroom was fine, but beyond lay an inviting wet room and marble bath. The shower had both a handheld and rainfall shower head, and beyond was the integrated tub. Let me tell you something: I love to live life without borders, so I promptly made the shower-to-soak combo my first order of business.
The bath amenities were created by Shinola under the name Rayl & Co, a clever nod to the old department store, T.B. Rayl Company, that once stood on Woodward Avenue.
As far as amenities are concerned, if you’re planning on staying at the Shinola hotel, I would set expectations more toward enjoying the Detroit vibe with its central location over the hotel's limited conveniences. There was no spa, but there was a gym I briefly visited.
Within the hotel is a built-in Shinola store to show off all their luxury goods for purchase. The store was well-curated and worth a visit whether you wanted to shell out the dough or not. You could check out its famous watches, bikes and leather goods, but the most notable feature was the engraving station, where you could select a notebook or wallet to be engraved on the spot.
Food and Beverage
With respect to the on-property food and beverage choices, it started to feel like the hotel was more style over substance. The main dining event in the hotel was its Italian restaurant and bar, San Morello. The restaurant, which seats over 100, took advantage of its space on the main floor, with big windows that let in lots of light. Like much of the hotel’s aesthetic, the interior was decorated in a whites and tans with touches of blue and green.
The central bar was a busy scene on every night of my stay. Beyond was a second dining area and open kitchen with a pizza oven and wood-fired grill.
Upon arrival, Isabelle and I lunched at the restaurant. It was 11am, and they had already stopped serving breakfast. Without a brunch menu until the weekend, I was largely left with heavier dinner choices. The restaurant's known for its pizzas and pastas, but as it was an early lunch, I rounded up an assortment of Italian dips instead.
I found the sheep’s milk ricotta and Italian butter beans tasty, but was disappointed by the cold and almost stale bread to soak up the goods. I’m a sucker for tuna tartare (or any tartare, for that matter), but found this rendition a bit too fishy. The Detroit salumi of the day didn’t particularly impress me, either.
Altogether, the light lunch, which I shared with Isabelle, came to $68.
My first round of room service came later that day. Having grown up on Detroit’s famous Coney dogs, I felt obligated to give the truffle dog ($17) a try. The presentation was impressive, but I was quickly let down, as I expected that wonderful snap of a natural-casing hot dog every Michigan boy grew up on. The heirloom tomato soup ($16) made up for it, but the server forgot to bring milk for my coffee.
Round two of room service came the next day for breakfast. I ordered the Belgian waffle ($16), oven-baked eggs ($16) and Greek yogurt parfait ($13). All of which were good but uninventive, especially considering the thought put into the other elements of such a chic hotel.
The last and final round of food was an unpretentious BLT sandwich ($18) and crispy french fries ($7) brought to my room the next day. There is a lot to be said about perfecting the art of the sandwich, and the BLT definitely delivered with its perfectly cooked bacon. But once again, the room service forgot to bring me important elements of my meal: utensils and ketchup.
The highlight of the property was the Evening Bar, exclusive to guests. The Evening Bar was much smaller and cozier than the public bar at San Morello, and provided a great environment to grab a cocktail and vibe with other guests. I invited some old friends there and snagged a couch, where we were met with a complimentary Michigan hard cider for a toast.
Food was also available here, but I opted for an Old Fashioned for dinner instead. The staff had that Midwest niceness that I still miss after moving to New York. I could have stayed there all night.
As an extension of the luxury brand, the Shinola Hotel certainly packs a punch in terms of style. It has a wonderfully atmospheric bar and a central location that I highly recommend to any newcomer to Detroit who wants to experience what the city’s nightlife has to offer.
However, it has some new-hotel blues and needs to fix a lot of its service issues. For example, Isabelle noted that her room wasn’t turned over even after 4pm on the second day. And when housekeeping did eventually come, they provided fresh towels but neglected to clean the coffee table and left old food scraps in the room.
The dining situation — specifically room service — could use a slight boost to match the strength of its decor and ambience. If this were a Marriott or another large chain of hotels, I wouldn’t be as critical, but given the demographic it's shooting for, the bar is set high. In the end, the hotel is still in its infant stage, and I am confident it can work out the kinks.