Our travel editor people-watches at the new boutique hotels and meets the young tycoons, the trendsetters and the culinary talents who created them.

Did something happen a while back to make sundry investors and real estate moguls shut themselves in boardrooms and cry, "Quick! Buy a decrepit old building and turn it into a trendy hotel"? It must have, because five years or so later, here we are with a hotel baby boom. And these aren't just any old hotels. They're the kind with aromatherapy candles, maté tea and colored lightbulbs in the minibars, Japanese anime comics and British Hello! on the newsstands, aquariums in the elevators, DJs in the bars, Chupa Chups on the pillows at turndown—the kind where the restaurants eschew silver domes and fistfuls of flatware but not trendy young chefs. In New York alone, eight brand-new, high-profile, mostly small-scale hotels have opened since last May. Miami is the other hot spot. And half the new hoteliers are also real estate shopping in Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans...No city is safe.

In any discussion of boutique hotels, sooner or later one name comes up: Ian Schrager, the man who started it all back in 1984 with a sexy, black-and-white, low-lit, apparently registration desk­less, off-midtown-Manhattan hotel named Morgans. But now that his name's come up, I'm largely going to ignore it. Enough ink has been spilled about his original hotel and its newer restaurant, Asia de Cuba; about his most recent work, New York's Hudson hotel, and its Cafeteria; about his commissioning the Basel firm of Herzog & de Meuron (architects of the Tate Modern) and Rem Koolhaas to collaborate on yet another Manhattan showplace. But we cannot ignore Schrager completely—not only because he was the first to corral visionary designers (Andreé Putman, Philippe Starck) into hotel service, but also because so many of the new hoteliers were involved with him at some point.

Hipness can have its problems, as anyone knows who's spent a sleepless night with boom-boom-chatter-chatter from the happening hotel bar leaking through the wall, or who's been iced by snooty fashion victims behind the front desk, or who's suffered the nonappearance of room service. Hotels need both drop-dead gorgeousness and efficient, unobtrusive service to be great. That's obvious—yet mistakes are legion, and the new boutique hotels can be some of the worst offenders. So let's look at the top baby-boom hoteliers, the ones with the newest places, the biggest plans and the most ambitious restaurants. Who's getting it right?

André Balazs: Setting the Standard
André Balazs is the very model of the new hotelier, overseeing every detail (no management companies for him) and handcrafting atmospheres. "I bring to each project the most appropriate talents to reflect the location," he says. That's no idle boast. Each of his very different hotels fully understands the niche it's designed to serve. At the Standard in Hollywood—the most photographed hotel of 1999 and the apotheosis of cheap chic (prices start at $99)—the perks include T-1 lines, surfboard coffee tables, giant mirrors, silver beanbag chairs, licorice laces and Vaseline in the minibars and, in the lobby, Rudy's Barbershop (complete with part-time tattoo artist) and a 24-hour superdiner. At Hollywood's fashionable Chateau Marmont, which Balazs resurrected back in 1990, guests can expect Loire Valley/Gothic/Arts and Crafts/'30s California architectural styles, free cell phones and movies, a CD library—and discretion, especially in the cottages and bungalows favored by Helmut Newton and Robert De Niro. And at the Mercer in SoHo, one of Manhattan's most glamorous small grand hotels, the draws are space, calm, wenge wood, Isaac Mizrahi uniforms on the staff, Christian Liaigre interiors, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the Mercer Kitchen.

Balazs, a man who cares as deeply about feeding people as he does about housing them, has hired Vongerichten's former sous-chef Mark Urwand to oversee the food at all the Standards. (By 2003 there will be three of them.) "I'd rather think of myself as a César Ritz than as a Conrad Hilton," he declares, drawing on the contrast between the European hotels unique to their locales and the American model of the cookie-cutter chain that "makes you feel like you never left home." Balazs, like nearly all these hoteliers, is allergic to chains: The zeitgeist honors individualism and, as he puts it, "increasing cultural sophistication." The name Standard is rife with irony: the Hollywood Standard is wacky, with cobalt-blue AstroTurf; the downtown L.A. Standard, due in September, will be businesslike and clubby. The third Standard—the first project Balazs is building from the ground up, due sometime in 2003 on Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan—will be different again. It will stand around the corner from his other next hotel, an as-yet-unnamed second luxury New York property, for which he is putting up another new building.

The Rubells: Kindness Counts
The zeitgeist matters very much to Jennifer Rubell, who is one quarter of Rubell Hotels. "I think there's a strong inclination toward humanity, realness, kindness these days," she says. The Rubells convey these qualities at their three classic Miami properties—the Beach House Bal Harbour, the Albion and the Greenview—through such inventions as the Pantry (at the Beach House and the Albion), which guests can raid anytime for soup, ice cream, a chicken dinner, fresh popcorn; the tactile and calming citrine stone one is handed on checking out; and the more cards in the bathrooms, which state: "Call if you want more shampoo, soap, towels, pillows"...then, at the bottom, "or kindness." "People do call for kindness," Rubell says, laughing. "Who isn't plagued by insecurity in some way? We supply validation and comfort." That includes comfort food. Sheila Lukins, of Silver Palate fame, oversees the Beach House's Eat-In Kitchen and Atlantic restaurants; the Albion's Mayya has Charlie Trotter's former chef de cuisine Guillermo Téllez at the helm.

The Rubells (the others are Jennifer's brother, Jason, and their parents, Mera and Don) are an enviably close clan who just happen to own a spectacular 1,000-plus-work collection of twentieth-century art. Guests can view it, but there's a plan afoot for it that involves the entire city block of Washington, D.C., that will contain the family's next hotel. (Jennifer wouldn't elaborate... Watch this space.) The name Rubell has a short but significant history in the hotel business: Jennifer's late uncle, Steve Rubell, was Ian Schrager's original partner—though these Rubells built their business from scratch. "I feel like Steve would be proud of what we do," Jennifer says.

Brad Korzen: Efficiency without Attitude
Brad Korzen got into the hotel business, as he says, "by happenstance." His firm, Elkor Realty, was in the business of remodeling apartment buildings, and Korzen happened to live near the Beverly Carlton, onetime residence of Marilyn Monroe. He snatched it up and turned it into the Avalon, which, thanks to designer Kelly Wearstler's immaculate appropriation of the mid-century Noguchi­Eames aesthetic, became the most photographed hotel of 1998. Maison 140, "L.A.'s first bed-and-breakfast," followed last year (with entirely contrasting Wearstler interiors, all red and black, with wallpapered ceilings and French crystal chandeliers). Now Korzen is hooked. "We've got the Estrella—'30s villas and casitas, full of Hollywood lore—in Palm Springs; and then the modern-Colonial Santa Monica Pacific Shore, which we're turning into the more businessy Viceroy, our biggest yet, due next year."

Every hotel, Korzen emphasizes—many times—must be unique, "something you haven't seen before. I've seen too many bad Avalon imitations, and half the new hotels in New York look like the Mercer." The talented Wearstler will take care of the visuals, and Korzen will be on top of the vitals, aiming again for efficient, attitude-free service. The Avalon's covetable custom furniture would be nothing without 24-hour room service, dedicated fax lines, oversize Game-Boy-ready TVs with VCRs, Krups coffeemakers, Philosophy products in the shower dispensers and yes, even feng shui-ed interiors. The Avalon food is right, too. Korzen hired RaShon Jones away from the L.A. Barney Greengrass "because I just loved her cooking." She passed my perennial test—roast chicken (very simple, very hard to ace)—with flying colors.

Jonathan Morr: Cheap and Cheerful
Jonathan Morr is unusual among this crowd for having actually trained in hotel management, although he is best known for a restaurant: BondSt, his extraordinarily hip four-story sushi place in New York's NoHo. With Miami's Townhouse he joined the ranks of hoteliers; next up is a Townhouse in New York. Morr is another detail-oriented type, but he's catering to a totally different group: Townhouse is for the young folk, the ones creating the boom-boom-chatter-chatter. It's cheap, it's wired, it has its own branch of BondSt; there are (empty) refrigerators in the rooms, a free laundromat, tricycles and tandems to borrow and waterbeds on the roof instead of a pool. In short, it's all about style, especially since the red-hot designer India Mahdavi created the look.

David Smith: Buzz Machine
Down the block from Morr in Miami, David Smith, a.k.a. Raven Hotel Management, is in direct competition for those younger wallets. His two late-'30s Deco conversions, the Century and the newer Royal, could hardly contrast more with Morr's approach. The Century scored a million buzz points (but way fewer food points) with Joia, co-owned by Madonna's pal Ingrid Casares. Smith went through the Ritz-Carlton training mill, and he greatly admires the way that company identifies and satisfies its customers. He feels the same way about Schrager's properties—"best product in the market," he calls them. Phrases like that, and like "global lifestyle traveler" and "we'll graduate our customers to our next-level product," come naturally to him; he translates this touchy-feely business into a science.

Each of Raven's properties gets a marketing push from the firm's sister company, Design Hotels, the wonderful German-based operation that collects modish properties—a sort of baby-boom Relais & Châteaux. Whether they're all worth pushing is another question. Since Smith can't be everywhere to oversee everything, a certain chaos can ensue, especially when a hotel remains open during renovations—a threat with Smith's next two projects, Ballantines Original and Ballantines Movie Colony, '50s neighbors in Palm Springs.

Philip Pilevsky: Grand Style
New Yorker Philip Pilevsky's Philips Hotel Group holds a fistful of aces in its collaborators, from architects (the first hotels by the British minimalist star David Chipperfield) to restaurateurs (Robert De Niro and Nobu Matsuhisa at the Miami Shore Club) to spa chief (supermodel Christy Turlington, also at the Shore Club). The great Rick Laakkonen, late of the River Cafe in Brooklyn, is enjoying a new life at Ilo, the restaurant at Pilevsky's spectacular Bryant Park hotel in midtown Manhattan, with fun conceits like an all-beef tasting menu (marrow bone to tripe). The restaurant, along with 130 rooms (with requisite cashmere throws, goose-down pillows, 400-thread-count blah blah) housed in the gorgeous American Radiator Building, a treasure from Manhattan's early skyscraper period. The aim is baby grand: no to déclassé check-in, yes to on-call butlers and digitally downloaded movies.

Ira Drukier: Midtown Edge
For Chambers—housed in a brand new Manhattan building not down on Chambers Street but up on West 56th—Ira Drukier and his partner in BD Hotels, Richard Born, called on architect David Rockwell, chef Geoffrey Zakarian (late of Patroon) and a killer 500-piece collection of contemporary art to scatter around. The idea is a downtown townhouse in midtown, with an industrial edge: the lobby has an ebony-and-parchment check-in desk and a two-story central fireplace; in the rooms, painted concrete meets Turkish rugs, and colored lightbulbs spice up the minibars. Only time will tell whether concept will translate into comfort.

Drukier says he's having great fun as a hotelier, especially now that the big architects are available. "They add value to what you do in distinct quantifiable ways," he says, sounding like another scientist—which in fact he is: He holds a degree in electrical engineering from Cornell. BD Hotels also has a hand in Jonathan Morr's New York Townhouse. The company's next project is a 150-room hotel on Bond Street, in NoHo, in partnership with...Ian Schrager.

Morris Moinian: Hybrid Hotel
Morris Moinian, a clothing manufacturer who owns a resort in St. Thomas, has spent $30 million turning the Chemists' Club, a Beaux Arts landmark near Grand Central Terminal, into Dylan. The hotel is an appropriate place to end our tour, since it's a bit of a hybrid—and not in the ironic way of Chambers. High ceilings with moldings don't exactly marry with sandblasted titanium; they just sort of agree to live together. But the fabulous Alchemy Suite, a Gothic dream of stained glass and vaulted ceilings, works very well. So does Virot, Dylan's separately owned restaurant. Here the food is the thing, the buzz immaterial. Virot belongs to Didier Virot, fresh from positions as executive chef at Jean Georges and, before that, JoJo. His menus are divinely minimal—sardine tart with mackerel and saffron; broiled crispy squab with oatmeal porcini cake—because he wants eaters, not poseurs. That makes his restaurant a stark contrast to Schrager's latest see-and-be-seen spot, Cafeteria in the Hudson. When the buzz fades and the bloom wears off, I dearly hope we find the old-fashioned hotel virtues of service and comfort standing in the shadows.