NYC's grand old Plaza returns with a flourish

If the fictional 6-year-old Eloise checked into The Plaza today, she'd enter her suite simply by waving a keycard above the doorknob. Once inside, she'd illuminate the crystal chandelier, set the temperature or order a butler to fetch a pot of tea by touching a computer-like screen on the wall.

Change has been brewing at The Plaza, which reopens Saturday after a two-year, $400 million lobby-to-rooftop renovation. Generations of tourists who have stayed at the imposing Beaux-Arts edifice on Fifth Avenue or nibbled scones in the Palm Court have been waiting to see what the new owners — New York-based Elad Group and Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Holdings — have wrought.

"This hotel means so much to so many people," general manager Shane Krige says. "It's an icon."

Indeed, the century-old Plaza, once run by Ivana Trump and now managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, is much more than a hotel. It's the setting for Neil Simon's play Plaza Suite. It's where The Beatles stayed on their 1964 U.S. tour. It's the site of A-list soirees and celebrity wedding receptions. And it's a National Historic Landmark too. The new incarnation — originally mostly condos until hotel unions and history buffs put up a fight — includes 282 hotel accommodations (102 are suites) vs. the old 805, Krige says. Nearly half are condo/hotel units, owned by people who lock up belongings when not in residence. Another 180 units are purely residential and sold at prices in the $4,000- to $6,000-per-square-foot range, Krige says. (Sadly, they tend to have the better views of Central Park.) Rates for hotel rooms start at $775 a night, nearly $900 with taxes (reservations: 888-240-7775 or theplaza.com). About 80 hotel rooms now are ready for guests.

The downsizing allows a new level of "personalized service," says South Africa-born Krige (pronounced "Kreeg"), 39, who has speedily ascended in the hotel world. He used to be managing director of the chi-chi Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.

He's blending the Old World and the new. Service is personified by a butler on each floor, who'll greet guests, press clothes, draw baths.

Daily afternoon tea in the marble-pillared Palm Court still will be a ritual, even more elaborate under the supervision of hotel chef Didier Virot, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants including Manhattan's Jean Georges. Four courses (including crustless cucumber sandwiches with mint butter, scones, pink éclairs, berries and a selection of 22 loose-leaf teas and herbal infusions) start at $60. Virot's tasting-menu tea, with caviar and tidbits such as melt-in-your-mouth lobster salad with tarragon-tomato compote, soars to $120 with a glass of Champagne.

The Palm Court has been spiffed up with high-backed ice-blue velvety chairs, royal blue and gold china and Christofle silverware. A star attraction: its new stained-glass domed ceiling featuring entwined roses — a replica of the one hotelier Conrad Hilton had taken down in the '40s to make way for bulky air-conditioning equipment.

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