London's New Old Guard Hotels
Published: April 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Several renowned London hotels aren't what they used to be. But arch-traditionalist <b>Christopher Petkanas</b> doesn't even mind
Three of London's most iconic hotels are duking it out—gloves off—for headlines. Digging deeply into their real estate, the Berkeley and the Savoy have come up with ingenious ways of adding dozens of guest rooms. Countering the punch, the Dorchester has spent $18.1 million on a bells-and-whistles renovation to woo a new generation of tradition-minded customers. Plus: the Cadogan, an Oscar Wilde-vintage property, is being dusted off by a leading Paris designer. May the best hotel win.
In countless visits to London over 25 years, I have driven past the Berkeley a million times without ever once suspecting it was a hotel. Innocent of flags and brass plaques, the building looks like an expensive, elegantly poker-faced apartment house—the kind that breeds fantasies of a Belgravia pied-à-terre.
Behind the discreet exterior, it turns out, lies my new favorite London hotel. I'm crazy about the Berkeley because it's an old-school hotel that gives the genre a kick in the pants by also being blisteringly hip (yes, that was Madonna basking in the inky violet glamour David Collins confected for the Blue Bar). The miracle is that the hotel pulls off this yin-yang act with no signs of schizophrenia, proving you can have it both ways. Factor in 49 recently coinedguest rooms that blend old-fashioned and current notions of luxury, including mirrored bathing alcoves and heated marble floors, and the Berkeley is the London hotel to beat these days.
Most of the Berkeley's new space was created by building a vertical extension onto a windowless courtyard wall. The views from the resulting accommodations aren't the hotel's best, but the design is. Decorator Alexandra Champalimaud has a light, tonic, insinuating touch everyone could learn from (don't miss her pairing of Hepplewhite chairs and Moroccan tables in the entrance). Champalimaud's fondness for reflective materials like polished chrome could have been a maintenance nightmare, but the Berkeley housekeepers are more than up to it. Real estate investors Quinlan Private paid $1.36billion this past spring for the Berkeley, Claridge's, the Connaught, the Savoy Theatre, Simpson's-in-the-Strand restaurant, and a third hotel, the Savoy. It may seem like a no-brainer, but the first thing Quinlan should do is let Champalimaud loose on the Berkeley's other 165 guest rooms. I'm sure the ones done through the years by A-listers Tessa Kennedy and John Stefanidis were splendid in their day. But now they're either tired, dated, or both.
No one ever went hungry at the hotel, which is a magnet for a certain kind of Milanese woman (Signora, in a special-effects Fendi fur coat, looks 10 years younger than her calendar age). The morning Doughnut Menu is poised to be copied. A ladies-who-lunch-type-place for the 21st century, the Boxwood Café does a veal-and-foie gras burger that puts all the American burgermeisters on notice. Haute cuisine credibility is conferred by Marcus Wareing, who has transplanted his one-Michelin-star restaurant, Pétrus, to the Berkeley. It was a good move. Each cashes in on the other's buzz.
Wilton Place; 800/637-2869 or 44-207/235-6000; www.the-berkeley.com; doubles from $396.
London is rich in historic hotels, but none feels more like a landmark than the Savoy. If any hotel could get away with charging extra for its past, this is it. Pavlova danced here. Caruso sang here. Gershwin debuted "Rhapsody in Blue" here. And did I mention the hotel's ravishing Art Deco legacy?
Given the Savoy's patrimony, news that it was undergoing some tinkering made a lot of people nervous. I am happy to report that following the addition of 60 guest rooms by London's Lesley Knight, plus the intervention of Los Angeles decorator Barbara Barry in the public areas, the Savoy is still the Savoy.
Although no competition was implied in hiring the two women, Barry comes out ahead. Changing the lobby's coffered ceiling and column capitals from white to cocoa might not sound like much, but it has transformed the space, which now emits a low-voltage, present-day chic. No one's first impressions of the Savoy are of a museum anymore. Unbelievably, not long ago there was no proper place in the reception area for one half of a weary arriving couple to park himself while the other half checked in. Today there are back-to-back mohair settees from Barry's drawing board.
When it was announced she would also take on the Grill, an old-boys redoubt whose dour appointments were as beloved as the greasy lamb, Barry became the most unpopular American woman in London since the Duchess of Windsor. But the designer prevailed, and nobody would argue that the Grill isn't a younger and livelier place for it. Gray flannel cloaks the windows, tea-paper faces the ceiling, and awning stripes in black (a wink at newsprint and the restaurant's Fleet Street constituency) and tobacco (a reference to patrons' fondness for cigars) cover the banquettes.
A fully loaded chef, the Berkeley's Marcus Wareing, is trying to shake things up, too. Drawing on a battery of foams and emulsions, his cooking is as clean and fashionable as you could wish, but also rather boring. For something gutsier—fish pie or eggs Benedict—try Banquette, Wareing and Barry's tribute to the American diner. It looks like a '57 Chevy.
The new accommodations bring the total to 263 and were mostly carved out of offices and room-service staging areas. While they are done in a much-watered-down version of the well-behaved look Lesley Knight and Francesca Basu gave the Dorchester, her hardworking Savoy bathrooms get full marks. Piped with plasterwork, the older guest rooms—which are either nostalgic or dowdy, depending on your point of view—have an appointment with the wrecking ball. They are among the targets of a $48 million renewal campaign to be launched by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which begins operating the Savoy next month, and its new owners, the Bank of Scotland and the Saudi prince who is a major Fairmont shareholder.
The Strand; 800/637-2869 or 44-207/836-4343; www.the-savoy.com; doubles from $288.
Not since Oliver Messel festooned the Dorchester's façade with coronation bunting in 1953 has the hotel looked so smart. Last year the 250-room Mayfair classic came off a refurbishment so complete it practically amounts to a rebranding. From room keys (fiber-optic) to desktop paraphernalia (handsome tented calendars with gardening tips), there's little at the Dorchester that hasn't been reexamined, rethought, or reinvented.
As a guest, you can feel every well-spent penny. The hotel is decorated with no apologies in an entrenched English idiom that conjures names like John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster. Voluptuously swagged windows, sunburst bed canopies, and lacquer tray tables are the order of the day. And how refreshing that at an overheated moment in hotel design, when every armchair is freighted with irony, the Dorchester is happy simply to let the furniture and accessories speak for themselves. Finally, a bud vase that has the humility to be a bud vase, and not also a telephone.
As a deceptively small part of the makeover, the hotel's old, uptight logo has been mothballed in favor of a friendlier typeface. As a result, you suddenly find yourself thinking about the Dorchester in a more modern way. Big Statement Bouquets—drowned aspidistra leaves anchoring a supernatural spray of calla lilies—command the Promenade lobby. Formulated for the hotel by Floris, spearmint and spice toiletries scale scrumptious new heights. Exquisitely mannered and dressed in gray morning coats, "e-butlers" exist only to help guests negotiate the in-room computer systems, which feature broadband Internet access and three Microsoft Office programs. And though not all of the staff are thrilled with their new uniforms (too glitzy, says one concierge), they heartened me, for I know the alternative. I'll take a doorman in a redingote over one in a T-shirt any day.
Old-timers who feared that the Dorchester's dining venues might be casualties of the redo are breathing easy and continuing to eat well, though the Oriental, a Cantonese restaurant, was too fancy for my blood. In the Grill Room, roast Aberdeenshirebeef is carved tableside in the atmosphere of an Elizabethan dining hall. The Alberto Pinto-designed Bar is a decadent essay in bleached wood and mirrors, and the place to snuggle into when all you want is a plate of gnocchi.
The Dorchester runs like a machine, but a machine with compassion. The face it puts on all the gear-turning is a human one. If the hotel has a mantra, it's "comfort, comfort, comfort." The sofas are beyond squishy. The fireplace fenders offer lovely perches for knocking back a Pimm's. The Irish linen sheets make it impossible for you to sleep on cotton ever again.
One thing at the Dorchester hasn't changed, however: the patrons. They're not getting any younger.
53 Park Lane; 800/727-9820 or 44-207/629-8888; www.dorchesterhotel.com; doubles from $646.
I always worry when I read "renovated in a resolutely contemporary style" about a hotel, because I tend to like old ones. Where other people see frumpy, I see charm.
The latest London hotel to go contemporary is the Cadogan, which used to be as English as baked beans on toast but is now trying to be both English and trendy. Calling the shots is a new management and design company, headed by Grace Leo-Andrieu, whom you probably already know from the Hôtel Montalembert and the Lancaster in Paris. Only the public areas and 25 of the Cadogan's guest rooms have been redone to date. But if the response to evacuating William Morris's ghost is positive, the remaining 40 rooms will go under the decorator's knife as soon as next year.
The results are mixed. Some elements, like a hulking marble-and-ruby-glass reception desk, seem gratuitous, even desperate. Others were hardly worth recycling, unless you're the controller and replacing them would take you over budget. Leftover brass hall sconces were painted pewter, but honestly, nothing could save them. Still other elements are sympathetic. I love the "stardust" wallpaper in the Drawing Room, which retains its original paneling and leaded windows. Chanel-style tweeds are amusingly deployed as upholstery fabrics, but it's shocking what $450 for a standard double doesn't buy—like a real leather headboard.
Leo-Andrieu hopes to maintain the Cadogan's warm and chummy reputation as Knightsbridge's living room, the neighborhood place for afternoon tea. The jury is still out.
75 Sloane St.; 888/452-8380 or 44-207/235-7141; www.cadogan.com; doubles from $317.
CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is special correspondent for T+L.