If holiday cheer is what you seek, look no further than the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel—a surreal assault of cozy, posh joy. The geographical and temporal dislocation peculiar to hotel lobby bars is compounded by this one's crazy octagonal shape, walls of Honduran mahogany, and general opulence. Things are tasseled and gilded and overstuffed; lampshades are beaded, surfaces gleam, ottomans create almond-shaped islands of squishy leather. It takes concentration to discern that one side of the octagon isn't a mirror, but a portal to the reception desk. Upholstered chairs wear stripes of varying widths and colors, while already puffy couches bear embarrassments of bonus cushions. Add some amber and white lights and a flock of poinsettias, and it's as if you're somehow wallowing comfortably at the bottom of your great aunt's dish of hard candies on a low dose of a strong hallucinogen.

Midway through a long winter's night, the patrons are carefully polished. Three women with lacquered hair and impeccable posture exchange gifts, one of them exactingly winding up the ribbons. The requisite lone businessman socks away a couple of Irish coffees, his tie barely loosened. He looks as if he might commit suicide upon returning to his room, but he won't. Two well-heeled women depart, their twinned coats varying only in pattern; they seem to have been sent to the same upholsterer as the chairs they've vacated.

Elegant snacks, like rosy house-cured salmon with frisée and bits of green apple and slightly too much balsamic, are on offer. So are popcorn shrimp. In the liquid-cheer department, a list of warm, sweet-sounding beverages includes the ominous, inaccurately named, and out-of-place Silent Night: a shot of Jägermeister. On one table, the detritus of previous merrymakers (drained drinks, wadded napkins, sticky straws) lingers longer than it ought to; the miracle of superlative service remains elusive.

As people get a little lashed up, the holiday spirit moves them in strange, loud ways. Another suit-and-tie regales a small crowd with a fish story, complete with a well-lubricated, sideways charade of the victim swimming upstream. A couple of blondes grow giddy; lodged at a table in the center of the room, they're listing to one side on the circular upholstered banquette. Amid gales of laughter, one begins crowing at the other, "You whore! You WHORE!"

In the ladies' room, an ancient woman in a hot-pink Chanel suit stands with the help of a walker and a middle-aged daughter.

"Mother, I can't understand a word you're saying," the daughter says severely, but she can. "You'd know if you had someone else's glasses, Mother. Oh, I'm so glad I don't celebrate Christmas. Careful of my feet. My feet hurt so much, Mother. You keep walking all over them."

By midnight, everyone's drifted away except a couple having a tête-à-tête fireside, dwarfed by matching wingback chairs. She has an accent. "Can I kiss you now?" he asks. She assents. recommended

The Sorrento Hotel is located at 900 Madison Street, 622-6400.