A light dusting of snow danced in swirling eddies across the sidewalk as we waited for the rumbling old elevator to arrive and admit us into its dark, wood-paneled interior. The operator nodded wordlessly to us, slid the door closed, and threw the lever that sent us upward in that creaking, moaning, shaking box. After what seemed an impossibly long and precarious ascent, the lift finally stopped and, just as wordlessly as he’d greeted us, the elevator operator bid us adieu and left us standing in a foyer lit by the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. A row of wooden telephone booths lined one wall, and the sound of a little big band working their way through a Kay Kyser tune drifted to us on wisps of blue smoke coming from somewhere down a dark hallway.
A well-dressed young woman in a wooden coat check booth greeted us with a smile and relieved me of my cheap knock-off of a camel-hair British Warm — the best one can expect on the salary of a writer. A hostess, just as smartly dressed, nodded in our direction and led us down the hall, past compartments from an old luxury passenger train and an outdoor terrace that had been sealed off against winter’s bitter cold and into the main dining room. It swirled with music and smoke. Amid the diners, the usual modern mix of people who bothered to don a tie and jacket and those who looked like they could barely be bothered to slip on a pair of sweatpants and Crocs, circulated occasional men and women from a more elegant time, in dinner jackets and slender silk dresses. We took our seats amid the throng, near the band, and settled in for a night at The Heath.
Although I pride myself on my adaptability when it comes to both food and lodging — I am as happy in a lavish hotel or three Michelin star restaurant as I am in a dingy roadside motel or grease-painted diner — there is definitely a specific aesthetic with which I hit my perfect balance. Dark lighting, slightly faded opulence, a good bartender, wood panels, and a jazz band working their way through the hits of the twenties, thirties, and forties. If a stage show involving the gradual, skilled removal of a performer’s clothes is included, so much the better. In New York City, I have found a few such places, and three in particular that guarantee me a perfect night out. The low ceiling, fireplace, and dandy ghost of the Waverly Inn; the decadence and indulgence of Duane Park; and most recently, the studiously themed restaurant spin-off of the popular immersive theater experience Sleep No More, The Heath at the McKittrick Hotel.
The easiest way to summarize both the show Sleep No More and the restaurant The Heath is to tell you to imagine what might happen if Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch designed the world, with special input from Raymond Chandler and Rod Serling. The Heath hovers somewhere between fine dining, a themed restaurant, and dinner theater. The live band is a treat, and the well-dressed men and women in dinner jackets and evening gowns are part of the show. The haze of smoke is odorless, unoppressive imitation smoke for atmosphere, since smoking is banned in public restaurants and bars. The “performance,” such as it is, is to recreate the glamor and romance of a post-war American supper club — albeit one with a dark, foreboding edge.
Because Sleep No More, The Heath, and the entire McKittrick Hotel complex is about the sinister. Murder, ghosts, spectral visions, and nightmares. Provided you are willing to play into the theme — and as you might guess, I was certainly game — the meticulous styling of The Heath includes a faint but undeniably perceptible sense of dread beneath it all, as if something about the perfect, polished veneer is not quite right. It’s the sort of off-filter, menacing atmosphere in which David Lynch specialized, and the decor would likely appeal to him as well. It also would have been right at home in BioShock‘s Rapture, though probably with fewer barking mad libertarian murderers…probably.
The sense of the sinister was augmented when, in between my first cocktail (an Aberdonian Sour, made with Bowmore legend scotch, Orgeat syrup, fresh lemon juice, and a red wine float) accompanying appetizers of HP glazed quail skewers and bitter greens and the arrival of my roast chicken entree (all of which was exceptional), I was approached by the maitre’d and informed there was a call waiting for me. Excusing myself from the company of my companion that night, I followed the white-jacketed host back to the row of old wooden telephone booths, where I was promptly left to my own devices. I took the receiver from the hook and heard on the other end of the line the desperate voice of a woman asking if I was alone. Informing her that I was alone, or as alone as a man can be in a restaurant phone booth with his date wondering what’s become of him, she told me to stay there; she would come to me.
Left now with nothing but the disconcerting buzz of a dead line, I hung the phone up and pondered over my next move. When no one appeared, I drew back the heavy green curtain of the booth to depart and resume my meal — only to be met by a hunted looking woman with large dark eyes and raven hair. She crowded me back into the booth, pressing in with me and launching into a mad tale about a secret society and the number of diners who had disappeared from The Heath only to turn up dead — if they ever turned up again at all. She beseeched me to help her protect the next victim, whose name she had scrawled on a piece of paper. Agreeing to do what I could, she handed the slip of paper to me — and the name on it was my own.
“Don’t let them speak your name. Don’t ever let them speak your name,” she begged me before her eyes darted back and forth and she led me through a hidden door in the back of the booth into a hidden passage that eventually led us to a janitor’s closet and back into the restaurant. When I looked behind me, the woman was gone.
Perfectly suited to house such a bizarre theater experience, as well as the restaurant (and two other bars — The Manderley and the seasonal Gallow Green), the true history of the McKittrick Hotel is oddly scant, especially in a city populated with obsessive chroniclers of every building, park, and pile of bricks both past and present. Built in 1939, the hotel on Manhattan’s West 27th Street was meant to be a young, upstart rival to established grand hotel palaces like the Waldorf-Astoria. And for a brief period, it seemed like the hotel might make good on this boast. Alfred Hitchcock liked it so much that he named the hotel in Vertigo after it. The outbreak of World War II resulted in canceled reservation and rapid economic collapse. Despite a high profile, the hotel closed almost as soon as it opened, and remained derelict until Sleep No More moved in, in 2011. Or so the stories go.
How much of the hotel’s history is true and how much is fabrication for the sake of the show seems inconsequential, especially once you have surrendered yourself to the experience. On our night there, after my strange encounter with the woman warning me of my own murder by a shadowy society of cultists or intriguers, I would not have been surprised to see Julee Cruise step on stage and sing “The World Spins,” or to see Kim Novak beckoning to me from a half-obscured alcove or for a man in a gray flannel suit to suddenly stumble out of the restroom with a dagger in his back. I was in the spirit of things and enjoyed myself immensely, always uncertain whether my part in the night’s drama was at an end or if something yet waited for me as I rolled in my fingers a tiny totem I found the woman had slipped to me when she took my hand and led me down that secret passage.
The Heath at the McKittrick Hotel: 542 W 27th St, New York, NY 10001, (212) 564-1662