New Business Traveler: For Hotelier Ari S. Heckman, Baltimore Is a Playground

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Ari Heckman loves a good list. The co-founder and CEO of Ash, the New York City-based hotelier and design firm whose hospitality projects include the Hotel Peter & Paul in New Orleans and The Dean in Providence, Rhode Island, has used Google Maps to compile extensive, truly tantalizing indices for more than 100 locales around the world—an inventory of people, places, and things that, stashed in his device, are perennially at his disposal. “I'm like a sponge for trying to get the tea on interesting places,” he says. “I have Google Maps lists for pretty much every city that I've ever been to, or that I'm thinking of going to.”

In 2022, Heckman oversaw the opening of Ulysses, the brand’s fourth property, in Baltimore's historic Mount Vernon neighborhood. The hotel, once a gentlemen's boardinghouse, is a paean to louche classicism, stocked with antiques and eclectic bric-a-brac that could have been scooped up on a European Grand Tour. A sense of campy irreverence punches up the concept—a quality that can largely be attributed to the influence of indie darling and Baltimore native John Waters. (Those flamingo-printed bed canopies, for instance? A nod to the auteur's 1982 cult classic Pink Flamingos.) “It seems impractical, but I've been to places where I just couldn't do a project because I could not catch the vibe,” he says. “But Baltimore is a playground for adventure, if you're open-minded and willing to give it a chance.” Here's what Heckman did, and where he ate and shopped, on his last trip to Charm City. You can bet that it's all pinned to his map.

So, you were in Baltimore recently—why?

I've actually been there a couple of times in the last few months just because, when you have a newer hotel, it requires you to check on things more often. And I also had the really fun experience of going to a wedding there. It was a very fun experience to be at the hotel in Baltimore, but for a completely non-work-related reason. Long story short, I've been down there a lot recently. Most people were staying at Ulysses, but it also hosted the pre-function and the afterparties.

Lane Harlan, who's the premier Baltimore restaurateur-bar person, became a friend of mine when I was getting to know Baltimore and working on Ulysses; she just opened her little cocktail bar in the alley/lower-level of the hotel. That's the newest addition. It opened the week before I was there for the wedding. It's such a hit and it's so cool. It just brings another dimension into this property that is already chock-full of dimensions.

When were you there?

I was there in the spring—this was actually the weekend of the wedding. I went down two days early because I had to be there anyway. I was like, okay, I'm gonna check some boxes on things that we're working on at the hotel. We bought the building next door to it, the old Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon, which was a beloved neighborhood restaurant and dive bar that closed during COVID-19, in this grand Mount Vernon five-story former residential townhouse. We've been undergoing an exercise to figure out what we want to do with it, what the property needs, et cetera. So I was spending time on site, and talking to some of the team about where they saw opportunities for how to use the space.

Who were your travel buddies for this trip?

My husband Ethan [Feirstein] was there because he was tagging along for the wedding portion of the trip. Then I had a couple of folks from Ash who were already on property doing various other sundry tasks, some of whom are local to Baltimore and some of whom had come from New York. But really, my husband is my travel buddy.

How did you get there?

Like bad urbanists, we drove—just because for some reason, the Acela, or any Amtrak train in the summer, costs about $700 round-trip. We also stopped in Philadelphia on the way because we have a hotel property that we acquired there during COVID-19, and some other projects we're working on there. So we did a quick lunch stop in Philadelphia to check out the hotel.

What was on your agenda?

Pretty much every time I go to Baltimore, I go to Le Comptoir du Vin. I'd say it's a top 10 American dining experience that I have had in the last five years. I try to go there every time I'm in Baltimore. It's one of my favorite restaurants—one of those places that's so modest in how they present themselves and talk about themselves but everything is really on point. When I go to Baltimore, I also always go to a series of vintage stores there because Baltimore has sneaky, amazing vintage shopping—both clothes and home wares—and I'm always looking for little odds and ends to replace things in the hotel that somehow have gotten damaged or destroyed or lost. My favorite is Bottle of Bread in Mount Vernon. It's one of the places on my Baltimore Google Maps list. We're actually making these really cool city guides for all of our hotels. It's not live yet but I have my own Baltimore list than I personally use. There's a bunch of fun stuff on there.

Any other places you particularly like?

In terms of vintage, there's a place called The Zone that's about half a block from the hotel. It's a little bit campier and a little bit more costume, but also really good.

Let's pivot a little bit. What was on your agenda for the work component of the trip?

A lot of what I do when I go to the properties is—well, I would almost call it quality control. There's just certain things, certain small details, that I think the operating team—because they're in the thick of it all day every day, dealing with urgent matters, keeping guests happy, dealing with engineering issues—finds hard to prioritize or see. I think one of the reasons that our hotels are what they are is because we pay a lot of attention to detail, not just during the construction, but also during the operation of the hotel. I'm kind of going in there with a cinematographer's lens and making sure that there's nothing that's glaring in the hotel that somehow snuck in or feels different than the experience that I want my guests to feel, whether that's a light bulb color, temperature, or frame on a sign telling you the hours of the restaurant. So I was kind of doing that, and then I was working on the building next door. It was also the first weekend that Lane's new place, The Coral Wig, was open, so one of the first things I did was, on Thursday night, I went down and parked myself at the bar.

What's the one item that makes work travel easier for you?

Applicable to this trip, probably my iPhone charger. I'm on my phone all day, talking, texting, reading emails, making lists, editing Google Sheets, photographing things for either inspiration or that I need someone to flag and fix, and so—my phone, as I speak, is at 8%, 7%—it’s always getting taxed.

But in general, I'd say CLEAR. I travel so much and I like an extremely seamless travel experience, so I prioritize any of that friction-reducing stuff. But also, as I alluded to, I'm a huge Google Maps list person. My passion is travel and places and interiors, and I meet so many people on a daily basis. I'm like a sponge for trying to get the tea on interesting places. I have Google Maps for pretty much every city that I've ever been to or that I'm thinking of going to. I was just looking at my Baltimore list while we're talking. So that's one of the biggest tools that I have when I travel, because I use it.

How many lists would you say that you have?

Oh, at least 100. Right now, I have Mexico City, Athens, the Hamptons, Atlanta, Seattle, Tel Aviv, Mallorca, LA, New York, Madrid, Rio, Baltimore, Detroit, Venice, Richmond. New Orleans, Philly, Chicago, the South of France, London, Paris, Palm Springs, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Monaco, Istanbul, Milan, Menorca, Phoenix, Lisbon, Berlin, Rome, Spain, Sicily, Miami. There are 30, 40, 50 more.

Who’s the most interesting person you met with during this trip?

I'd like to say Lane, because she's such a gem and she exemplifies something I value about the types of cities that we open hotels in. A jaded New Yorker might not expect to go to Baltimore and find this cultural ambassador and earth angel. But it's amazing how there are these people in almost every city—and I can think of a few of them in every city that I have a hotel in—who not only have done excellent things in their places, but they're also super well-connected and insightful, globally speaking. So I met with Lane a few times, obviously to see her new bar, but also to talk about some upcoming programming things. That's always a personal and professional highlight.

What was the best thing you ate?

Well, Comptoir is pretty hard to compete with in Baltimore. It's family-style there, so you're getting a bunch of dishes. The steak tartare there is unbelievable; I also love the crab pot with croutons and the chicken liver pâté. They also have such a sensitive and insightful wine list, and I'm not even a wine person. Our head of food and beverage who's based in Baltimore recommended a really good crab cake place called Nick's Fish House; I also loved the steamed crabs at Locust Point Steamers.

We talked about the vintage shops, but is there anything else you want to tack on?

I'll put a plug in for Club Charles, also known as Club Chuck, which is a sort of original Waters crew watering hole that's one of my favorite bars in America. It's just such a vibe and so not trying to be anything other than what it is, but it also has this incredible sort of Deco bar. I just love it, and I have to go there every time I'm in Baltimore.

How and when did you get home?

I drove—very hungover—on Sunday.

Let's end on your relationship to Baltimore, specifically. Are things that you come back to, or things about the spirit of the city that you really enjoy?

I've said it before, but I have a special relationship with every hotel city. I won't do a hotel project in a place unless I find myself able to fall in love with the place at least on some level. I couldn't add enough places to my list, you know, or find the Lanes and the other people in that world to really show me why this place was culturally unique.

Baltimore has this enviable geographic position in that it's really close to DC, and close to New York; it also has this incredible building stock because it was so wealthy prior to the midcentury period, yet it really is an underdog city and it's obviously had a lot of issues related to economic development and crime. So I think to know all of those facts, but also to see that there's a really fertile, interesting, extravagant sort of subculture, and a population of characters and artists and chefs and doers that are creating this heartbeat—every time I get a little bit deeper and deeper into that. I juxtapose that with a place like DC, which is probably more functional, and certainly has a better economy. But when I go there, I have a very hard time finding more than two restaurants that I want to visit. And Baltimore's just the opposite.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler