Virgin Hotel, Chicago, review: Endearing quirks and cool sass

Our rating

5 out of 5

THE PLACE

The Virgin Hotel, Chicago

THE LOCATION

At the northern end of Chicago's equivalent of the CBD – the Loop – the hotel is a few steps away from the river, within easy reach of numerous public transport stops. The Lake/ Clark stop for the blue line going to the airport is a handy three blocks away – so no need for a taxi.

THE SPACE

Richard Branson has dipped his fingers into yet another pie, this time attempting to bring the Virgin touch to the hotel scene. This converted bank building in Chicago is the first in a mooted chain, and brings in equal parts endearing quirks and knowingly cool sass. An "ambassador" in a bright red dress greets new arrivals, famous paintings are recreated with cuddly toys above the reception desk, and ceramic dogs stand guard outside the pet-friendly rooms.

At the weekend, long queues form outside to get into the L-shaped rooftop bar, which has lavish city views, while the downstairs coffee shop morphs into a wine bar at night.

THE KIT

It's possible to download the hotel's app which allows you to check in via mobile phone, then control the room temperature and order room service from it. Quite why this is better or quicker than doing things the normal way is difficult to fathom. Otherwise, there's very little tech for tech's sake. The internet is free (though not as fast as breathlessly boasted) and requires no password faff, while there's a glorious abundance of plug sockets for travellers toting multiple devices.

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THE ROOM

The fairly spacious room has an unusual layout, with the first half being bathroom, desk and wardrobe, and a sliding door separating off the bed. It works though. There's a very conscious play for the female traveller, which is most notable in that first area – with a large vanity, brightly lit mirrors and a bench inside the shower for leg-shaving.

COMFORT

There are plenty of clever touches elsewhere, too. The rug on the wooden floor is splashed with images of London buses and Tube signs; the rubber sheep in the shower raises a smile; the bedheads are couch-shaped for added comfort sitting up with a laptop; the kettle comes with proper Yorkshire tea rather than the filth US hotels usually inflict. Turndown service is mercifully on request only – so there's no door-banging while you're getting dressed.

FOOD

Miss Ricky's All-American Diner on the ground floor is snazzed-up bog standard Americana, but serves reasonably priced burgers, steak frites and breakfasts. Much more fun is the Commons Club on the second floor, which is open plan but cleverly divided  into sections with distinct personalities. The massive semi-circular couch at the back seems designed for hanging with an entourage, while the library-esque section next to it has books such as The Joy of Swearing and risque board games to explore. There are some decently priced mains – a $22 Asian paella or $23 scallops with fava beans – but the emphasis is on snacking and sharing. The $13 pork belly tacos with tamarind, radish, cilantro​ and lime are tremendous.

STEPPING OUT

Theatreland is a block away on State Street, the Chicago River is just to the north and the Magnificent Mile shopping strip starts there on Michigan Avenue. Most of the city's architectural landmarks are within easy walking distance – as is the ostentatiously art-filled Millennium Park.

THE VERDICT

The Virgin gets the basics right in spades, but it's also superbly located, great fun, and surprisingly well priced. The only fault – noise from the El train as it rattles past at night – is not the hotel's doing, and earplugs are provided. Two  extras – a mini bar with items priced at street prices and the social hour with free drinks in the Commons Club between 6pm and 7pm – elevate it to a level above merely very good. Especially for the sociable solo traveller.

HIGHLIGHT 

Asking which free drinks the room key entitles you to during Happy Hour, and being told all of them.

LOWLIGHT

Light sleepers really aren't going to enjoy the noise of the "L" train rattling past.

ESSENTIALS

King rooms start at $220  in winter and $315 U in the summer peak season. 203 N Wabash Avenue, Chicago. Phone 00 1 312 940 4400, see virginhotels.com.

The writer was a guest of Virgin Hotels and Choose Chicago (ChooseChicago.com).

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