Food Feature: How suite it is

The Chattanoogan offers upscale comfort in downtown Chattanooga

Face it. If most people (and by most people, I mean most normal people, not the chauffeur, maid and Lear jet set) could live in a hotel, they would. Someone else changing the sheets every day, fresh towels, big plush robes — these are the kinds of things people need in their lives to negate, or at least balance out, all the mornings spent in traffic, days cooped in a cubicle and evenings nearly wasted wrestling little darlings into pajamas.

Then you add the intangibles to the convenience. There's just something about hotels, the transience and anonymity of them. I used to envision myself living in the Perimeter W or Charleston Place in Charleston, S.C. I've spent quite a few Christmases there with my family, suspending collective disbelief and celebrating the birth of Baby Jesus in the manse. But sleeping in a $150-plus a night hotel room gets a little less romantic when you can't pay the rent at the first of the month and have to move out of your full-time home. Still, that doesn't change the need for mini-vacations, for disappearing for a weekend. What you do is compromise. Get the most bang for the fewest dollar bills, and that's where the Chattanoogan comes in.

I had fully intended to write a story about the nearby (one-and-a-half hours from Atlanta) charm of Chattanooga — the arts community across the river, the aquarium, the quaint downtown, hell, even Rock City — but I never made it out of the hotel. And that's not a bad thing.

The year-old Chattanoogan is a sprawling, dominating presence that, from the highway, looks out of place in the revitalized warehouse district. Inside, the hotel (part of the Benchmark Hospitality chain) has a bit of a corporate feel, and indeed, it hosts a number of conferences and business meetings. The guests mainly appear to be doing business instead of vacationing, but that just makes it all the better if you are vacationing. The desk workers, valet, etc., while not as sophisticated as many I've encountered, are cheerful, helpful and get the job done.

Architecturally, the hotel manages to incorporate the neighborhood's industrial past with an unusually warm mod look that, weirdly, evokes a slightly Western motif. Clearly, though, attention was paid to the geometry of the interior.

Now, the Chattanoogan is not outrageously priced, but it's not dirt-cheap. A fairly basic room runs $99 and a spacious suite almost $200. So this is the kind of spoiling you have to save up for, maybe an anniversary weekend-type trip. Plus, there's enough inside the hotel to make the spoiling worthwhile, things like a Riverport Stone Massage ($90 for 55 minutes) that I treated myself to on the first day, for example.

Heated stones were piled on my back, and most every part of me was oiled and stoned as the masseuse started by rubbing my icy feet. Asian music played and the lights were dim. Billed as an "ancient Chinese method of stress release," the idea is to combine hot stones from local riverbeds with massage to melt away all that built-up stress. The treatment is also supposed to improve circulation and lymphatic drainage, whatever that is. Trust me, it feels so good, you won't really care. The Chattanoogan offers a series of other massages — like the "Roll Away Stress" massage ($80 for 55 minutes), a quite nice Swedish massage coupled with aromatherapy, that I treated myself to on day two — and amenities inside its spa and health club. But, if you've got the dough, I recommend the stones.

There's an indoor pool as well. And if you need a manicure or a pedicure, that can happen as well. If you're really looking to linger, ask for info on the self-guided tour of the hotel's art collection, then wander around the main floor and check out the original works — all by regional artists — that liven up the walls.

Then there's the food. A good sign is when locals patronize the hotel bar and restaurant. And even on a Thursday evening, locals were making a pretty good show with the business folk at The Foundry bar and The Broad Street Grille. Chattanooga hasn't caught up with Atlanta when it comes to all things culinary. There are a handful of good restaurants that can compete with the big boys, but overall, there's still a little too much of a Mayberry-ian influence.

That's what makes the Broad Street Grille a pleasant surprise. First (ill-)conceived as a top-shelf, expense account steakhouse, a la Ruth's Chris, which was out of place in Chattanooga, management has thankfully allowed the chef to do what comes naturally. The hotel advertises it as fusion cuisine, a prospect at which most Atlantans will probably roll their eyes, and maybe the combinations are a bit derivative, but the Grille can pull off elegant meals capable of competing with some of Atlanta's better restaurants. The night I dined at Broad Street, my date had seared rare tuna with mashed potatoes and I scarfed down filet mignon (the best I've had in some time) — served with mashed potatoes, asparagus spears and a whole boatful of bearnaise sauce.

Against our better judgment, we decided to have a go at the dessert buffet, and quite frankly, our choices — chocolate cake and lemon pie — were the only things that came off a little flat, though, our stomachs definitely weren't.

If you really want to go all out, plan to spend a night at the "Chef's Table," a wine dinner-style engagement that is hosted in the kitchen. The setting might be a little unusual, but it serves to reinforce the feeling of getting away. And after all, that's what staying in a hotel is all about.


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