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London's New Old Guard Hotels

The Dorchester
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.

The Cadogan
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.


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