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.

A new marble lobby off the Fifth Avenue entrance boasts five large Baccarat chandeliers, a Champagne bar and mezzanine Rose Club cocktail lounge. The Grand Ballroom, site of society functions including Truman Capote's celebrity-packed 1966 Black & White Ball, has been restored. The venerable Oak Room bar/restaurant is due to open this spring; the Edwardian Room restaurant will be replaced by retail space. The hotel will include expanded shopping, plus a Caudalie spa from France (famed for "vinotherapy" using grape-seed extracts) and a fitness facility headlined by celebrity trainer Radu.

Krige, an energetic man with a shaved head who's wearing a pinstriped suit and jaunty red pocket handkerchief, aims to attract young travelers as well as older Plaza devotees. Though rooms retain their flashy 24-karat gold-plated sink fixtures and Louis XV-style furnishing, the colors (olive, gold, cream) and décor are more refined, modern and muted than in the past.

Technophiles will be pleased, save for the fact that free Wi-Fi touted in hotel press releases won't be free after all. "It was a difficult, last-minute decision," Krige says. "All our competitors set a charge."

Showing a room, Krige demonstrates how guests get in by whisking a keycard past a panel on the door. Inside, everything from temperature to lights can be controlled by touching a screen on the wall that also can call the butler, display headlines and weather or be slipped from its holder to serve as a remote control for the TV.

Krige is primed to compete with Manhattan rivals including the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and The St. Regis. He says none has the Plaza pedigree. "Our biggest problem is going to be 50,000 (gawkers) going through the lobby." Employees have remained so loyal that three-quarters of current Plaza staffers are returnees, he says.

"It's maintained this high-class reputation for 100 years — that's hard to do," says Curtis Gathje (pronounced "GAY-gee"), author of At the Plaza. He worked there in the '80s and '90s as desk clerk, room-service waiter and director of guest relations.

He recently toured the hotel and pronounces the renovation "an incredible job. Prior to its redo, it wasn't that spiffy a place." Furnishings were worn, he says, and rooms didn't have central air conditioning.

"I think what's happened is the best thing that could happen to it," he says. "It's not meant to be frozen in aspic."