Hotel rooms are like boyfriends.

I know it sounds odd coming from someone whose main newspaper beat for three years was fashion and beauty, but I’ve always been prone to appreciate  substance more than style.

Sure, the ne plus ultra is that which incorporates both well. But most of the time your options end up valuing one over the other — and your decisions on which you prefer can be illuminating.

I took the photo above in the bathroom of one of the hotels I stayed at on last week’s trip to New York. That was my shower curtain at Dream Downtown — metal mesh (backed by a clear vinyl liner). Visually arresting, sure, and intriguing enough that I took a photo of it.

But the designers sacrificed functionality for form. For starters, it wasn’t wide enough to stretch the length of the shower, so it wasn’t possible to keep water from seeping out at one spot or another. Also, the ceiling and curtain were so tall that when the curtain hooks came undone, it was impossible to refasten them. At random moments in the room, I’d hear a metallic PING! and know that the next time I showered, I’d find another hook on the floor. I lost two in the four days I was there, and by the time I checked out, only half of the hooks were actually affixed to something. I wonder if the housecleaning staff has to use a ladder to reattach them.

The light switch for the room was equally cool at first – an electronic panel with on/off, dimmer and “do not disturb” indicator. At first I loved it — until I discovered that despite indications otherwise, all the lights were on the same switches—there was no way to leave only the bedside lamp on and shut everything off. (So that “pendant” button also controlled the recessed lighting above the pendant lamp and the beside lamps.)

I did love the circular motif that repeated itself everywhere from the porthole-style windows to the wallpaper to the bathroom tile. (The wall-mounted push-button flush mechanism was pretty entertaining, but the metal commode reminded me of an airplane toilet.) Everything was sleek, gray, circular, low and/or metallic, and each time you turned on the TV you were greeted by the lead singer of La Roux shrieking her way through the same 30 seconds of a downtempo version of “In for the Kill” over and over again. These 30 seconds, to be exact. After a while I was like, “I just want to turn on the TV. I don’t care that you’re going in for the kill. And why are you going in for the kill in my hotel room? Who thought this was the appropriate musical sample to use in a hotel?”

Don’t get me wrong: The place is stunning — picture gallery here — and the service was stellar. (Except for how housekeeping never showed up before 4 p.m. — right after I got home from meetings and just wanted to relax.) Heidi Klum even threw her Halloween party there the Monday I checked in, so I sat downstairs and watched the arrivals. But I couldn’t quite figure out why I didn’t love the place.

For my last night, I moved to Ink 48. I’ve been booking my rooms on Hotels.com, which gives you every 11th night free, so I decided to go from Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen for a change of scenery. Ink 48 is lovely in its own way (photo gallery here), but less visually stimulating than Dream Downtown.

Both hotels even have the same brand of amenities — Etro — which is what suddenly triggered a compare/contrast switch in my brain. I loved the Etro lotion from my last stay at Ink 48 so much that I was giddy about going back. It turned out that Dream Downtown has the same line. (With different packaging—that’s a lotion-vs-lotion shot at right, with Dream’s matte gray facing off against Ink 48’s shiny vibrant red.) When I got ready to shower at Ink 48, I peeled off the little foil seals on the shampoo, conditioner and body wash … and thought: “Wait a minute: The ones at Dream Downtown didn’t have little foil seals. Is that on purpose? Did I get someone else’s old shampoo? Are they refilling them?” Also, although I think the packaging at Dream is cooler, the lotion at Ink 48 is way better — both in rich consistency and scent.

  • Shower curtain? Ink 48’s was just a plain white waffle weave with liner — but it was pristine and immaculate, of great quality material … and fit the wall perfectly.
  • The room at Ink 48 was bigger.
  • The bed was a lot more comfortable, too; Dream Downtown’s low-slung platform bed was so firm that my arm fell asleep whenever I’d lie on my side. It reminded me of a big futon.
  • Dream’s rooftop lounge: $20 cocktails. Ink 48: free happy-hour wine reception nightly. (I never went, but the principle was nice.)

So even if I wasn’t dazzled by the decor at Ink 48, it came out the winner for me. It reminded me of the search for a boyfriend (or girlfriend): Personally, I was left unimpressed by the stunner who brought looks to the table but skimped on the substance below the surface. I prefer the ones that might not stop traffic, but excel at the thoughtful touches that make life really enjoyable.

And if they happen to have a beautiful heavy-cotton zebra print bathrobe hanging in the closet, so much the better.

WHAT SAM WORE: 11-8-11
The sweater: Navy long-sleeved merino-cashmere sweater from Uniqlo, Soho.
(I wore it yesterday and thought it was black until I saw it in sunlight.)
The shirt: Cotton button-down by Façonnable, from Last Chance.
The pants: Trousers by Ted Baker, from the store in Soho. (These pants, to be exact.)
The shoes: Monk-strap loafers by Charles Tyrwhitt, from the store in Manhattan.
(They were half-price!)
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