What makes a hotel great?

After six years, the Mamilla Hotel strives for something different

The Mamilla Hotel (photo credit: PR)
The Mamilla Hotel
(photo credit: PR)
 What does it mean to be a good hotel? What makes a hotel great?
For the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem, ensconced between the Old City walls and swanky shops along Mamilla Avenue, the answer lies in the fact that they know you know you’re not at home. They know that many of their guests plan to drop off their bags and head to the Israel Museum or a boardroom or government office or the Dead Sea for a day, and rather than simply provide a blank-slate oasis homeaway- from-home, a comfortable place to leave your body when you’re not using it, Mamilla conspicuously integrates its city and its city’s history.
The lobby, for example, features an interior stone façade and skylight that give you a sense of standing outdoors in Jerusalem, despite the (crucial mid-August) air conditioning and nearby concierge and front desk.
A capella performances on Friday nights and complimentary city tours on Shabbat keep the city within reach and earshot for guests.
And, of course, reclining in Mamilla’s Rooftop restaurant and lounge with the “Real Israel cocktail” (featuring mint and cucumber) and a splendid view of the Old City walls, it’s impossible to forget where you are.
That said, a hotel is a hotel is a hotel.
There comes a point when even the most audacious and setting-conscious lodge must yield to its essential nature.
Some rooms may be bigger, full of bookshelves and couches and tables and mirrored chests of drawers, but there’s always a bed, always a mini-bar. A closet (walk-in in some of the bigger rooms), a bathroom (frosted glass walls notwithstanding), a view (some better than others, but none atrocious, since this is Jerusalem, after all), water and a coffee machine (espresso, since, once again, this is Jerusalem – no drip roast here).
Which is not to diminish Mamilla’s effort or quality. This is not your average hotel.
Even the most basic Studio room feels upscale and classy (you can’t help but get a little thrill frosting and defrosting the glass walls at the flick of a switch – a gimmick maybe, but an attractive one), and the more opulent options like the Presidential or Residence Suite certainly don’t skimp (right up to and including a little library in the former and a bathroom TV in the latter).
And, critically, the staff is assiduous and unfailingly polite.
That is the reason it’s probably also safe to praise the dining options available at Mamilla, even though the experience for the press – sitting together around a long table, sharing miniaturized versions of dishes from the tasting menu – is totally unique and highly surreal. Guests won’t have to scoop one or two bites of Nicoise salad with seared red tuna, ratte potato, grilled onion and Kalamata aioli (recommended) off a plate for four or try to find room for at least one bite of charcoal-grilled entrecote steak (served with veal stock, green beans and home fries) after a good two hours of dish after dish after dish.
To an untrained and inexperienced palate, none of the food at either the café and brasserie or the rooftop restaurant jumped out as legitimately undesirable, and the majority of it (with the possible exception of the brasserie’s just-OK pumpkin ravioli) ranged from above average to excellent. One item in particular, the Rooftop’s macaroon-bunned mini-hamburger sliders, rose well above the others not for quality exactly, though it was tasty, but for sheer, bizarre idiosyncrasy verging on the inscrutable.
But it’s the always-professional and courteous staff that bridge the strange, insular world of the press tour and the experience of your average guest. They are the reason most of this (hopefully) applies to whoever you are reading this. But what they may not provide, unless asked, is context. Details about the history emanating from just about every corner of this city, let alone the Mamilla area and hotel.
You will see, if you walk alongside the hotel or simply step into the outdoor section of the café, numbers in various shades of paint scrawled over much of the hotel’s stone exterior. Each corresponds to the location and order of the bricks that comprised the area’s original structures before many were leveled in 1948 and 1967.
Even for guests that don’t read the plaque beside the wall or spend some time Googling the area’s history or ask the hotel’s concierge, there is a palpable historical texture to the Mamilla Hotel. Something that head architect Moshe Safdie (see also Yad Vashem and Ben-Gurion Airport’s new terminal 3) and interior designer Piero Lissoni and all the current staff clearly work very hard to enhance and augment.
“I am not a guest so much as I am a ghost,” Joanna Walsh wrote in her book Hotel: Object Lessons. “And like a ghost, I’m in transition. I might have left somewhere, but I never really arrive anywhere else.”
Maybe it’s inevitable that all hotel guests feel a little like ghosts, but Mamilla, I think, is a hotel with ghost detectors; and in the post-shower fog on the bathroom mirrors, someone has left the message: “You have arrived. In Jerusalem.”