Travel March 2013

Elegy for the Minibar

What has happened to my most trusted traveling companion?
Frank Stockton

One of the most enduring mysteries of love is how it can burn so brightly and then die out. Sifting through the ashes provides work for poets and psychologists. The rest of us seek solace where we can. In my case, that often means a rented room in a faraway city, stocked with liquor, candy, and other plausible substitutes for human kindness provided by my favorite travel companion and muse, the refrigerated minibar.

Hotels like the Albergo in Beirut, the Bristol in Warsaw, the Mercer in New York, the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, and the Hay-Adams in Washington, D.C., offer enough loving convenience and atmospherics to do the work of the minibar on their own. Yet even in those places, the minibar is an essential part of being alone, which is what hotels are about—the high-end toiletries and the pictures of exfoliated women in spa brochures being more or less obvious distractions from the shades of hundreds of faceless travelers who have peed in the toilet and tossed and turned and done God-knows-what-else in the same bed you have rented for 24 or 48 or 72 hours.

While I am hardly a romantic when it comes to hotels, I have a great deal of appreciation for those who toil there. I have an aunt in the hotel business in Boston, and I even once helped open an establishment that rented rooms in North Miami Beach with a woman to whom I was subsequently engaged; neither the engagement nor the hostelry survived. I feel a respectful kinship with the managers, the bellhops and maids, and the room-service waiters, who push heavy steel carts that seem made for the deck of a destroyer down endless corridors to the doors of tetchy souls like me, with our complaints about overcooked spaghetti or cold English muffins.

I should also mention that I spent even more time in hotels than usual this past year because of what a gentle therapist might call “a time of transition,” or what my trusted attorney and former college classmate, Sean O’Brien, might term “a patch of bad weather” in my personal life, which left me with the use of a broken couch in a rented office three blocks from the apartment where I had formerly lived. Because sleeping in my office was forbidden by the terms of my lease, I made sure to leave there at a normal hour, eat dinner somewhere, and then reenter the premises under cover of darkness, with an alarm set so I could safely exit by 7 a.m. When the stress of these arrangements got to be too much for my nerves or my back, I would rent a room at a good hotel, where I could sleep as late as I wanted and an abundance of water pressure might make me feel like a new man before meeting my long-lost children at the playground.

To distract myself from my emotional trauma, and to pay my mounting bills, I took on an unusual number of reporting assignments that required significant amounts of travel. I went to Los Angeles for the Grammys. I went to a Jewish film festival in Toronto. I went to Washington to speak with high state officials. I flew to Beirut and to Rio.

Suffice it to say that anyone who has ever spent time on the road, let alone parented two small children part-time while dealing with lawyers, knows the pleasures of a package of peanut M&M’s plus a miniature bottle of Ketel One when no other forms of solace are available. So imagine my disappointment upon arriving in room after room to find that the familiar refrigerated cube was absent.

The first time I realized my room was missing its minibar, at a Hilton in Chicago, I thought it was peculiar. By the time I checked into the Mercer, I knew enough to call ahead and order some bread, chocolate, and artisanal cheese from Dean & DeLuca, along with a copy of Anna Karenina. I took a bath, then wandered down to the restaurant in the lobby, where I ate Jean-Georges tuna spring rolls in the company of French models who gestured with their long fingers while I texted about my kids with their nanny. When I came back to the room, I found all the place-giving, sense-making things I had ordered, plus an actual minibar cleverly concealed inside a cabinet.

Yet my sense of being powerfully comforted and protected by hotels proved to be short-lived. Sometime after midnight at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto, I opened the door to the minibar cabinet only to find a rat’s nest of disconnected wires. On top of the cabinet, I found a laminated card that regretted the end of the hotel’s minibar service. If I wanted something, I was welcome to call the front desk, and the item I requested would be brought to my room. I called and ordered a Coke with ice. Half an hour later, my order still hadn’t arrived.

“I ordered a Coke,” I told the hotel operator. “There’s no minibar anymore.”

“That’s our policy,” the operator said brightly.

Fifteen minutes later, I complained again. “You can order anything you want from the front desk,” the operator repeated, ignoring my protests that my Coke with ice had never arrived. Then I had a bright idea.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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