Jim Poris / November 2006
Food Arts presents the November 2006 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to David Stein, the American developer whose growing group of small hotels scattered throughout Europe is punching the stuffiness out of luxury without any loss of distinction or grandeur. His group, Stein Hotels, owns 11 hotels and manages 10 others (with five of the total under development) and reaches across the Continent from Brownes in Dublin to The Cadogan in London, The College Hotel in Amsterdam, Le Colbert and Hotel Alexander in Paris, Château Eza on the French Riveria, Villa Mangiacane in Tuscany, Gran Hotel Son Net in Mallorca, and to the Grand Hotel Rodina in Sochi, along Russia's Black Sea coast. All effuse restored architectural and decorative terroir; all (but one) contain restaurants that creatively do so as well.
"I feel the world of travel is changing, that there's a desire for things on a more human scale, for a more indigenous experience, and not the kind of luxury that's often the same no matter what the country," Stein observes. "There was a pent-up demand in Europe for hotels offering this kind of intimate experience that allows guests to feel the texture and character of each place."
In terms of service, Stein has forged a third way between European haughtiness--"no clicking heels or looking down the nose", he says—and American solicitude—"I mean, how many times do you have to hear someone tell you to have a nice day or that David from Brooklyn is going to be your waiter?" Instead, Stein wants guests to gain a sense of place from his hotels' architecture, design, and food—all presented with unobtrusive elegance. "For instance, we want our restaurant guests to be at least 50 percent local, so that when you go into Brownes in Dublin you should hear an Irish brogue. And we go out of our way to incorporate local traditions into the menu."
It's remarkable that Stein has been able to assemble such a diverse collection of refined hotels in the five years since he began the company. But then again, Stein—born in New York City, raised in Washington, D.C., and schooled in San Antonio—has been pushing the fast-forward button for most of his 58 years. As part of the Stein-Brief Group, he spent seven years developing the billion-dollar Monarch Beach project in Laguna Niguel, California, that includes Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis hotels, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. links golf course, office and retail space, and 2,750 homes.
Completing that in 1989, he established The Stein Group in Europe, with a home base in Spain. There, he lived in Mallorca, in a home that he eventually converted into his first hotel, the Gran Hotel Son Net, when work—including a position in Washington, D.C., as president of The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation—didn't keep him away from the Mediterranean island.
"Being able to own these hotels and seeing the impact they make on people's lives—guests and the people who work in them—is one of the great experiences in life," Stein says.