Everyone who works at the new Virgin Hotel is impossibly chic … but in an incredibly accessible sort of way. (Photo: Virgin)
Let’s start with the minibar. It’s a very good place to start. In all my years of visiting hotels for both business and pleasure, the minibar has become a true source of discontent. While they’re handy in a pinch, the amount of egregious price gouging that occurs in those diminutive refrigerators is criminal.
Virgin’s new hotel, its first, in Chicago has an exceptional minibar. All of the items — from the Peanut M&M’s to the red wine to the little packets of Emergen-C — are priced at street prices. Yes, street prices. What does that mean? It means those Peanut M&M’s are just $1 and the bottle of red wine is $24. It means you can have a Kind bar for breakfast for the price of a Kind bar ($2.25), not the price of a filet mignon.
You can finally afford to eat from the minibar. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Hotel management was so serious about making sure the prices were equivalent to what was in the stores lining the Loop below that its director of food and beverages ventured out on foot with a pen and a notepad to record the local price of all minibar items.
The eradication of minibar inflation is just one of the things the new hotel property has done to eliminate the dozens of little indignities the modern hotel system imposes on the traveler. While having to sign in to a Wi-Fi system won’t ruin anyone’s business trip or vacation, it is often just one of a thousand paper cuts inflicted on the traveler that make time away from home more stressful than it has to be.
The Virgin hotel has free and open Wi-Fi throughout the property. “Bandwidth is a right, not a revenue stream,” the hotel’s website boasts. Praise the Internet gods, someone has finally gotten it right.
If it sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid, it’s because I did. I’m a sucker for convenience, and that is what this property gave me.
Here’s a closer look:
Located right above the Loop portion of the Chicago L at the corner of Lake and Wabash, the hotel occupies the Old Dearborn Bank Building designed by C.W. and George Rapp. The new design perfectly blends the old with Virgin’s modern chic aesthetic. On the ground floor you can still see where the bank tellers used to sit, and the current check-in desk is the bank’s original cigar bar and candy stand.
The lobby blends the old decor with the new. (Photo: Virgin)
This was clearly a building meant for business, but a whimsical one with delicate moldings on the ceiling and gilded brass elevator doors, all of which are original. Some of the doors on the room floors were the original office doors, and you can tell by the mail slots still on the bottom.
Two rooms on each floor are pet friendly and marked by an obedient pooch statue chained to the outside of the door.
These dogs used to be freestanding, but then guests started moving them around. (Photo: Virgin)
Don’t call them rooms. They refer to them as “chambers” here. That’s because each space actually consists of at least two rooms: a sleeping area and a smaller area for storing clothes and getting ready, separated by a sliding (and locking) door.
The chambers feel much roomier than a standard hotel room in Chicago. (Photo: Virgin)
Each of these chambers was designed with the woman traveler in mind. Why? Richard Branson believes that if a room has a woman’s approval, a man’s approval will typically follow suit. I asked my fiancé if this was true. He nodded obediently.
The sliding doors are meant to allow the solo woman traveler an extra layer of protection when accepting room service. The lights on the vanity are perfectly calibrated to allow for flawless makeup application, and the showers all have a bench to make leg shaving a breeze.
What I loved
There are no hidden fees anywhere in the hotel, which means you don’t feel like you’re being taken advantage of or ripped off.
Free Wi-Fi and plentiful electrical outlets make my life better. At Virgin you can’t walk more than 3 feet without stumbling upon an outlet.
Small touches abound to improve the life of the business traveler. All of the seating is ergonomically calibrated to make it easy and comfortable to type away on a laptop. Even the headboard on the bed is ergonomically sound for sitting up and working.
The in-room safe is large enough for a laptop (most hotel safes are not). Each room comes with a yoga mat for in-room exercise.
The televisions are smart TVs so you can easily stream Netflix or movies from your own device.
Need a ride? The house car here is a Tesla and will take you anywhere within a 2-mile radius.
What I didn’t love
I can honestly say there wasn’t anything I didn’t love about this hotel. The rooftop bar was a tad sceney and got crowded early, but that was to be expected on a lovely Chicago summer evening. While it can get a little loud, the crowd there is hip and fun.
Where to eat and drink
The property has a total of five food-and-beverage options. I was immediately drawn to Miss Ricky’s on the ground floor, a British take on the classic American diner with an actual casting room in the back that plays a loop of old black-and-white movies. The name is a homage to Richard Branson’s mom, who still calls him Ricky.
Be sure to indulge in one of its boozy milkshakes with a Tupelo King doughnut filled with marshmallow fluff, roasted bananas, and maple-glazed bacon.
Across the lobby from Miss Ricky’s is Two Zero Three, a coffee bar by day, with blends from the local Bow Truss coffee, and a wine bar by night with an extensive wine list and plenty of local charcuterie. Take in the mural as you walk in the main entrance. It was commissioned from a local artist who also happens to work at the front desk, and some of the subjects are people who work in the hotel.
The “Funny Library” in the Commons Club was curated from local shops. (Photo: Virgin)
The second floor of the hotel is dominated by the Commons Club, and from 6 to 7 every night it hosts a delightful happy hour with free drinks for hotel guests. Unlike the “free drinks” at most hotels that consist of a cheap white and a cheap red, maybe a local beer if you’re lucky, the happy hour here consists of an extensive wine and beer list. Want a cocktail? Just ask.
Want small bites? Head up to Cerise, the rooftop bar with spectacular views of the city and delicious izakaya-style plates.
Enjoy a tremendous view of the Chicago skyline on a summer day. (Photo: Virgin)
Where to Relax:
The Spa here occupies what used to be the bank president’s office and contains a beautiful, rich oak fireplace, surrounded by ornate marble. As with most of the hotel, almost everything in the spa is eminently Instagrammable, but isn’t that the point?
Can we please all agree that the worst thing about most spas is the supposedly Zen spa music. It does little to make anyone feel anything Zen. The Spa here played jazz during my facial service, and I couldn’t have appreciated it more. They also allow you to plug in your own phone to enjoy your playlist.
A champagne cart is wheeled around the manicure bar and the treatment rooms are referred to as cocoons.
For $15 all hotel guests can also enjoy the hotel’s Turkish-inspired unisex hammam on the spa level. Hammam access comes free with all spa treatments.
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”