When I told a veteran New York hotelier that I was compiling a list of Manhattan's small, flavorful hotels he chuckled and said, ''That shouldn't take much research.''
While it's true that such establishments are as rare as warmhearted landlords in New York, a recent surge of building and renovation has injected comfort and character into a number of hotels. There are still not the choices one has in London or Paris, or even Chicago, New Orleans, or San Francisco; but neither does the discerning traveler have to settle for a charmless little cube.
One hotel that has fairly dripped with character all along is the Algonquin, an 82-year-old institution at 59 West 44th Street. Maybe it's my imagination, but there always seems a low buzz of excitement around the front desk or in the lounge, where one sinks into a deep sofa or chair and wonders what literary lion sat here last.
''Jeremy Irons, Tom Stoppard, Graham Greene - all sorts of literary and theatrical people have stayed with us,'' said Andrew Anspach, the Algonquin's managing director. ''We used to get Olivier, but he needs more luxury now and stays at the Carlyle, which is probably the best hotel in New York.
''We're often compared to Brown's and the Connaught in London. We're not as good as the Connaught, but what is?''
The Algonquin owes its literary reputation to the Round Table, that witty circle of writers - Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Marc Connelly, Ring Lardner, and others - who filled the air with quotable badinage in the 1920s. New Yorker staff members still pop in from their office on West 43 rd, and the editor, William Shawn, dines almost daily in the Chinese Room.
At key points in the day the Algonquin's energy level soars - at lunchtime, after 5 when hotel guests and workers crowd into the lounge, at suppertime just before the theater, and later when Steve Ross and his piano collaborate on show tunes from then and now. The hotel's guest rooms, though smallish, have been smartly redecorated by Clare Fraser in Liberty of London fabric, and they are a good buy, in New York terms, at $81 to $100 a day for two.
Two other hotels of modest size and Anglo-American country elegance are the Ritz-Carlton and the American Stanhope. The 236-room Ritz-Carlton at 112 Central Park South occupies a sterling piece of real estate looking onto the park near Sixth Avenue. The American Stanhope at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street is comfortably removed from the midtown crush at the lower end of Museum Mile, which includes the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the City of New York.
Owner Mimi Russell quails when someone praises her English furnishings, for the decor is determinedly American. In fact, the public and guest rooms are so well chocked with 19th-century American art and antiques that the building is awaiting museum status. One of the American Stanhope's features that carries me far away from America, to the sidewalks of Paris, is its outdoor cafe, which looks onto the Metropolitan Museum and happens to be the first such cafe in New York (with permit No. 1 to prove it).
Midtown and the theater district may be full of forgettable hotels, but one that stamps itself as memorable the moment you walk in is the Dorset, at 30 West 54th Street. The lobby has the burnished woodwork and sprawling Oriental carpets of a clubby London hotel, and if Wally Gordon is on duty, you will be treated to the banter of a Dublin desk clerk.
If the still-elegant Plaza seems out of reach at $155 to $285 for a double room, a comfortable alternative almost in its shadow is the Wyndham at 42 West 58th Street. The Wyndham does not announce itself grandly; in fact you have to ring a front buzzer to be let in. You walk into the warmth and cheer of an old-fashioned private residence, which in part the hotel is. At $85 to $95 a day , the double-room rates are low for this high-rent district.
New York's headlong effort to build and rebuild hotels has produced some structures that are shining successes and some that are merely shiny. One of the former is the Parker Meridien at 118 West 57th Street. This is a French venture with French touches, but the vaulted marble halls seem more Italianate. The clientele is eclectic. When I passed through the other day I saw Yannick Noah, the French tennis star, in T-shirt and slacks, talking animatedly with a friend in the buffet lounge just off the lobby. One of the hotel's decidedly American touches is a pool and health club on the top floor.
One of the handsomer renovations in recent years was done to the Berkshire Place, 21 East 52nd Street, whose small lobby and softly plashing skylit lounge give you no idea of the 400-plus rooms above. Although the Berkshire Place charges $145 and up for a double during the week, it comes down considerably on weekends, as do most of the major business hotels. Materials on weekend packages and many other Big Apple matters may be found at the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y. 10019.
If bargain-basement value is the aim, there is the Pickwick Arms, 230 East 51 st Street ($45 doubles); the Tudor, 304 East 42nd; or the various YMCAs such as the West Side Y at 5 West 63rd Street. Rooms at the Y go for as low as $25. For many travelers, that's flavor enough.