Do Not Disturb



January 27, 2005 -- If I were to ask you to name the cleanest country in the world, I'd lay a dollar to a cuckoo clock that you would say Switzerland, particularly the German-speaking cantons.

Why does one always think of Switzerland that way? I really don't know, but I have a thought: Most of the world's great hoteliers, past and present, have been Swiss--and most of them from the German end. Their hotels are always immaculate and spotless. So maybe that's why our mental picture of Switzerland comes not from the country itself, but from its expatriates and their hotels around the world.

This is a story of one particular Swiss expatriate hotelier, Hans Willimann, the very model of what all very clean expatriate Swiss-Germans should be. He's been in charge of cleaning--and everything else--at the Four Seasons Chicago for 16 years. He's been general manager of the hotel since the day it opened in 1989 and the Four Seasons Chicago has consistently been rated the best that the Windy City has to offer. Many surveys, in fact, rate the property at the corner of North Michigan and East Delaware Place as the best hotel in the United States.

Now Chicago may not be high on your must-visit list, especially during this winter of our snowy discontent, but my bride, my daughter and her poor old Dad just spent Christmas at the Four Seasons. Arriving on Christmas Eve, it was a mere minus 2 degrees with a healthy snowstorm dropping a couple of inches. The lights along North Michigan Avenue were in full electronic fervor, the horses and buggies were letting off steam, street musicians were playing carols and the streets were packed with last-minute shoppers. Frankly, it was Christmas-card perfect.

The comfort and warmth of the Four Seasons was a welcome respite from the wind howling off Lake Michigan. Simply magnificent accommodations on the 45th floor with views across the partly frozen Lake. There was no roaring fire, but a Christmas stocking hanging on the door, full of nuts, chocolates and fruit, was a wonderfully festive touch. The standard Four Seasons Chicago guestroom fare--coffee machine, electric kettle, organic teas, a wonderful bathroom with amenities made by an Italian company called Acca Kappa--somehow added to the festive feel. There was a very comfy bed with beautiful linens and wraparound terry robes to snuggle in while listening to the whistling wind outside.

If you don't want to brave the elements, a branch of Bloomingdales and their attendant brown bags is in the building. So are a host of other retail names that delight in lessening your pocket book. (Would you believe $65 for a pair of women's tights from some store called Fogal?)

After we'd braved the cold, the snow and the crowds, we headed for the Four Seasons Bar on the 7th floor to thaw out. (We dropped our daughter on the 8th floor to try out the fitness club; she regretted that she hadn't brought her swimsuit for a few laps in the pool.) The bar was humming and in the mood that only seems to come at Yuletide. There are many ways to judge a bar and regular readers of this column know that I consider myself an aficionado of the scene. So what better time of year for a cozy bar than the holiday season?

The Four Seasons Bar is special and scored my highest rating for 2004. It is wood-paneled, outfitted of comfortable leather chairs and perhaps 15 barstools--none of which are so close together that you can overhear future assignations being pursued on either side of you. The bar offers a fine array of drink, even Hilditch's gin and a bottle of Napoleon Brandy. One very busy barman, a most affable fellow hailing from County Connemara, Ireland, mans the bar. He's full of wit with a lovely lilt and a pleasing but not subservient smile. His name is Paul. He must be good since he's held his job for 14 years and seems to have played most of the world's great golf courses, funded by tips from his loyal customers.

Each night of our stay, Paul greeted us and one night even asked if we'd like to meet another couple of hotel guests from the United Kingdom who are now residents in our hometown of Dallas. We declined, having much more fun talking to Paul and our immediate neighbors. Drop by when you are in Chicago and see Paul and say Michael and Suzanne sent you.

But more on Willimann, the Swiss-German innkeeper. He keeps a fine hostelry.

Anyone who has chandeliers knows how hard they are to keep clean. They attract dust in the same way that sand collects in the Sahara. Well, the Four Seasons has many chandeliers: in the lobby, in the corridors, in the elevators and, of course, in the guestrooms. Yet every single chandelier in the hotel was sparkling, not a smidgen of dust. I don't know how Willimann does it, but they are spotless.

Hotelwise, there isn't a thing to criticize at the Four Seasons Chicago. The food is amazing, too, Michelin-starred and all that. Or you can try my favorite hamburger of 2004 at Yoshi's Café. It's made from a pound of Kobe beef--and it comes with a side of fries that are each the size of cricket bats. All for $17. Couldn't finish half the plate.

It's a wonderful hotel that we can't wait to get back to. Tell Hans that Michael sent you. He's most amenable when polishing chandeliers and yodeling in the hallways. If Hans is not around, ask for Amanda, his number two. Or just talk to Demi on the front desk who will greet you with a smile and wink as you wander past to find Paul in the bar. You won't forget your visit. We haven't forgotten ours.

Salvatore Calebrese, the mixologist par excellence at the Library Bar at London's Lanesborough Hotel, has left the premises. I wrote about him in a column last year. It will be interesting to see how the Library fares in his absence.

This column originally appeared at

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