The entryway to the Charlesmark Hotel is so unassuming it's almost enough to make a visitor feel as if he lives in a stylish little studio in the Back Bay. Inside, the analogy continues: Your living space may be small, but the design is efficient and hip, and the location unbeatable. Who needs cavernous rooms when all of Boston is seemingly right outside the door?
When it comes to Back Bay hotels, the Charlesmark, which opened in 2002, is an island of modernity in a sea of chintz. With rooms starting at only $119 a night, it's affordable, too, and that is where the studio-apartment analogy falls short, because no apartments in the Back Bay could be classified as affordable.
I spent a weekend in one of the Charlesmark's standard rooms, a mere 200 square feet (not including the bathroom), and was amazed, even once a companion joined me, that it didn't feel more cramped. The standard rooms are about the size of the deluxe rooms at Ian Schrager's Paramount Hotel in Manhattan, but the Charlesmark's interior design by Dennis Duffy makes much better use of the space.
When a friend and I stayed at the Paramount years ago, we felt we had to crawl over each other to get to the bathroom, or even the phone. At the Charlesmark, we may not have had room to spare, but we were plenty comfortable. A fabulous red leather chair was the perfect perch for reading, and the pillow-top mattress made for a restful sleep. For a mere $40 more a night, we could have had an extra 50 square feet, a bigger bed, a wall of sleek shelves, and a little sofabed instead of the chair.
The room was easy on the eyes, too, in shades of gray, brown, and red. The bathroom continued the color scheme with tiles made of glass, ceramic, and quartzite and adorable red-resin accessories. The effect was modern but warm.
In this age of nickel-and-diming by hotels, the Charlesmark has no incidental charges, which is a beautiful thing. Among the complimentary amenities are wireless high-speed Internet access; a computer and printer in the lounge; continental breakfast; coffee, tea, fruit, and ice day and night; local phone calls; satellite television, movie channels, and music; and a CD and VHS library.
One thing the hotel doesn't have is a restaurant, which means there is no real room service. So the first night, before my companion arrived, I ate out on Newbury Street, then returned to see a half-dozen 30-something men and women in the lounge drinking glasses of complimentary wine or Scotch, checking their e-mail on the public computer, and browsing the video collection.
In the morning, in a lounge dominated by an antique five-foot-diameter clockface from France, the continental breakfast was as fresh and satisfying as a continental breakfast can be, with muffins, bagels, pastries, and fruit, and the coffee was nice and strong. I spent the day shopping, then returned to prepare for a night on the town.
With no concierge, the hotel relies on the knowledge of its desk staff, so I decided to test the young desk clerk by asking her suggestions on where to have cocktails later. The hotel is right down the street from the Lenox Hotel's City Bar, which draws a hip crowd on weekend nights: Would she know enough to mention it?
Wisely, she answered my question with a question of her own: "What kind of place are you looking for? What kind of vibe?" No pubs, and not a college crowd, I said, but something slightly older, maybe kind of hip. "Quiet enough to talk, or do you want to socialize with other people you meet there?" Excellent question. Maybe somewhere in the middle, I said. "In the neighborhood?" Yep.
"I'm thinking of two places: There's the City Bar at the Lenox, where they make a great sour apple martini, and there's Vox, also right nearby, a nice place, very hip, but it may be too crowded on a Saturday night."
On the way back to my room, the hallway was lit up like Vegas as a dreadlocked photographer asked his model, an impossibly thin and glossy-lipped Asian woman, to try leaning against one wall. "Yeah, that's it," he said, clicking away.
While I waited for my companion, I decided on another test, this time of the Charlesmark's boast that its relationship with Dining In, the local delivery service, is akin to having room service access to dozens of restaurants. After trying it out, I had to admit that getting $50 worth of sushi from Ginza within an hour isn't a bad fallback position. If the hotel were in an area with fewer delivery options, the lack of a restaurant might be a bigger problem, but everybody delivers to the Back Bay. The Charlesmark staff will even pay for the delivery and bill it to your room.
We ended up having only one very minor complaint about the Charlesmark: The TV was perched too high for comfortable viewing from any position other than flat on our backs. But such an annoyance faded in the face of so many pleasant surprises: fog-free mirrors in the bathroom, local artists' works lining the hallways, electronic touch pad dimmers on the bedside lights, cordless phones.
Then, of course, there is the location, between Dartmouth and Exeter, right in the middle of Boston's best shopping district and within walking distance of the city's best restaurants and tourist attractions. In fact, several days after I checked out, in a promotion for this year's Boston Marathon, multiple winner Bill Rogers was posing for photos at the Boylston Street finish line, right outside the Charlesmark's door.
All 33 of the Charlesmark's rooms are sold out for Marathon weekend next month, but next year, if I have friends or family coming into town for the race, I know where I'll send them.
Joe Yonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.