Brown's has always been as indelibly English as Queen Victoria or Agatha Christie—both of whom frequented the London hotel. Daphne Merkin discovers that an ambitious new makeover is, happily, no cause for alarm.
Ditte Isager A Brown's doorman
| Credit: Ditte Isager

There are hotels and hotels, and then there is Brown's. Like the famous patch of green that is forever England, Brown's Hotel might once have been described as representing everything well-bred and unaffected about the British character. (The kind of Brit, in other words, who understands that you're either born into a country estate or you're not—and if you're not, no use trying to buy your way into the good graces of the landed gentry.) For those who considered this cobbled-together bunch of townhouses (11 in all), with its higgledy-piggledy hallways, endless expanses of dark-wood paneling, and stylish Mayfair address, the only place to stay in London—if you weren't, that is, a sweaty aspirant to the bespoke life (in which case you went to the Connaught or Claridge's), or a trend-following social flea (in which case you went to Dukes or some equally newfangled boutique outfit)—Brown's had no rival for hospitality. It was sui generis, a trusted retainer of a beloved institution from a time before anyone had heard of thread counts, spa treatment rooms or, heaven forfend, celebrity sightings. Kate who?

You had only to look at Brown's centuries-old history and the elevated guests it discreetly welcomed—including Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, Theodore Roosevelt, and Haile Selassie—to understand why its habitués considered it a noble and totemic entity. Brown's came into being as a "genteel inn" (as hotels were then called) in 1837, when one James Brown, a former valet of Lord Byron's, acquired four adjacent houses in Dover Street. In 1859 the hotel was sold to James John Ford, who installed one of the first elevators and eventually extended the property to include the St. George's Hotel on Albemarle Street, which backed onto Dover Street. Brown's rapidly established a name as an understatedly elegant accommodation, one that focused on creating an atmosphere of privacy as well as providing top-notch service. Alexander Graham Bell made the United Kingdom's first telephone call from the hotel in 1876, before electricity had been introduced, with the help of a private telegraph line that had been set up between Brown's and Ford's household. In 1882 a smoking room for gentlemen and a public dining room were added. (Prior to this, guests who wished to dine at the hotel had either eaten in their own rooms or rented licensed suites for the purpose.) Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor, although she never stayed overnight, as she had Buckingham Palace nearby, and Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book there. Three more townhouses were incorporated in 1905, a banner year, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent their honeymoon on the premises. In 1941, the Dutch government in exile declared war on Japan from Brown's, and in 1965, Agatha Christie, another frequent visitor, published At Bertram's Hotel, a novel based on her experiences there. Finally, let's not forget Winston Churchill, who is purported to have said, "I never stay in hotels. I stay at Brown's," and whose magisterial spirit hovers over the enterprise. (A photo of Churchill, as well as a selection of his best quips in Wicked Wit—along with V.S. Pritchett's London Perceived and Christopher Ricks's edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse—can be found in every room.)

So that, in a nutshell, was Brown's: irreplaceable, unrenovatable, intractably anti-trendy, immune to contemporary notions of destination chic. When I stayed at the hotel for a luxurious 10 days in the late eighties—having been advised by a Brown's-besotted editor at the publishing company where I worked to request a room on the quieter Dover side, and to make sure to leave time for their famously traditional tea—I thought I had found my dream lodging away from home, an earthly piece of paradise fitted out with creaking floors and worn carpeting. I loved everything about it, from the courteous and well-informed concierge, who was forever ordering me up recondite books from Hatchards and advising me which restaurants didn't live up to their billing, to the winding staircase that I often chose to use instead of the rickety lift.

Most mornings, instead of meeting with agents and publishers as I was supposed to, I ordered breakfast in my beige-on-beige room, content to stare out the curtained window over my tray of brown toast and soft-boiled eggs and imagine myself reborn as Eliza Doolittle, after she had wormed her way into Henry Higgins's heart. I remember feeling acutely sad on the day I was set to leave; I had gotten so accustomed to the place and its uniformly friendly staff—the top-hatted doormen, the bellmen and porters—that it seemed as though I was leaving behind a trusted, if slightly dowdy, nanny to venture into the heartlessly glossy world on my own. So enamored was I of my experience, I might add, that I never tried to repeat it. I am a subscriber to the Proustian belief that the best paradises are lost paradises, so there seemed no point in my returning to Brown's on the few brief trips I made to London in the intervening years. Instead I sampled other varietals: the trendy (Charlotte Street Hotel); the eccentric (Hazlitt's); and a sleeper called the Cranley, a townhouse-hotel located on a quiet, tree-lined street in South Kensington. They were all appealing in their way, but none of them displaced the unique hold Brown's had on my affections.

Fast-forward to 2004, when Brown's, after being acquired (or, more correctly, reacquired) by the Rocco Forte Hotels group, was closed for a complete overhaul, to the tune of $33 million. Talk about the shock of the new! One can only imagine the collective shudder that must have gone through the faithful—the aging matrons and eminent gentlemen who lunched at 1837 (renamed the Grill) and brought their grandchildren to savor the crustless sandwiches and strawberries with clotted cream that were offered up for delectation in what is now called the English Tea Room—at the rumblings of change over on peaceful Albemarle Street. Although Brown's had been freshened up more than once since I'd stayed there, it had never been seriously deconstructed and put back together again, in that full-bodied, gutting-the-apartment sort of way so beloved of contemporary hoteliers. Never, that is, until now.

Enter Olga Polizzi, interior designer extraordinaire. If there was anyone in the business who had the chops—the mixture of aesthetic élan and historically cadenced sensibility—to take on the daunting project of coaxing Brown's into the broadbanded, flat-screen-LCD-televisions-in-the-bathroom mode that is the current 21st-century standard without sacrificing the hotel's high-ceilinged style and intimate quality, it was Polizzi. For one thing, as the daughter of Lord Forte, the eponymous founder of the original chain, and the sister of Sir Rocco Forte, who responded to the takeover of the family business by Granada in 1996 by forging ahead and—with his sister as a co-investor—strategically building up a dazzling collection of top-rated hotels, Polizzi has taste bred into her bones. She has always lived a full private life—she is married to the writer William Shawcross and has two daughters—and, as I discover when we meet late one morning in the suavely updated Grill, she has a charming, very female tendency to act as though she ambled into her executive design role (one she has inhabited for almost two decades) as a hobby.

Under the attentive eyes of the dining-room staff—who take small irons to the tablecloths, painstakingly fold napkins, and run vacuum cleaners over the carpet as the place empties out, before the lunch crowd tumbles in—Polizzi and I talk about books (she's been reading Vikram Seth's memoir, Two Lives) and trade gossip. She's eager to hear about the internationally celebrated skin doctor on Wimpole Street I have seen and we share a laugh about an unbearably pompous agent I avoided at lunch the day before at the Wolseley, a buzzed-about restaurant a stone's throw from the hotel. But underneath her unassuming presentation and casually elegant manner, Polizzi has a formidable expertise and a steeliness of purpose. These have helped establish her as something of a design visionary, one who imbues the interiors she oversees with a whimsical and personalized ambience that paradoxically succeeds in soothing travel-worn nerves rather than jangling them.

A case in point is the Grill, which is presided over by two prize catches, nabbed from other posh London outfits—maître d' Angelo Maresca, formerly and famously of the Savoy Grill, and executive chef Laurence Glayzer, whose sterling culinary résumé includes London's Harry's Bar and the Ritz. The restaurant's unfussy approach is reflected in both the menu and design. Classic fare such as oatmeal, grilled kippers, and poached finnan haddock is available for breakfast, along with more au courant offerings like muesli and fresh yogurt and something billed as an "energy/tonic breakfast," replete with herbal infusions. For dinner, there is perfectly rendered Dover sole meunière, roast saddle of English lamb, and a daily special from the gleaming carving trolley—as well as a selection of international dishes. The room itself has a soigné, yet welcoming, feel, done up in the muted seashell colors Polizzi is fond of using as a background canvas, with some vivid, eclectic touches thrown in for surprise. The original wood paneling is still intact, but the banquettes are new and upholstered in moss-green leather; the windows are shaded by Roman blinds in cream linen; cut-crystal vases with fashionably tight floral arrangements in deep shades of red and purple adorn the tables; and the tasseled FontanaArte lighting fixtures from the thirties are to die for.

Over a bowl of strawberries and a cup of tea in a corner of the Grill, Polizzi describes her intentions with quiet conviction: "I don't want people to feel they have to do their hair before they see the porter. And I want to push the boundaries slightly, so people think, 'That's a good idea—where'd you get that?' We take calls every day from people asking where can they get this or that." I can well imagine. Polizzi has the sort of instinctive eye that makes you want to revamp your own surroundings as styled by her. The visual effect she achieves—from a small slope-ceilinged retreat tucked away on the fifth floor to the grand (and grandly expensive) Kipling and Hellenic suites—is undoubtedly harder to emulate than it looks. The rooms provide an environment that is complex and multilayered, partly a cocoon and partly a reflection of a cultured sensibility.

Polizzi clearly shops for Brown's as if she were buying for her own house, acquiring pieces in locales as various as Pimlico and Brussels. She has a particular affinity for craftlike fixtures that began as something else: lamp stands that are pieces of old railings; wooden boxes with silver clasps that might have once been filled with snuff or oversize bills; old hat stands that stand around, looking memorable. Suffice it to say that I would have been more than happy to ship everything from my room home with me, of humble or grand provenance: the piles of Knopf Everyman's Library books; the colorful fabric pillows and woven throws; the art by Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, and Barbara Hepworth; the blood-red Murano glass bowl; and the William Yeoward vase that still had an indelicate price tag on the bottom.

I would be less than honest if I said that everything was in lickety-split, perfected condition when I arrived for my three-night visit, this past January. Although the hotel had officially reopened with great fanfare on December 12, with a marching band in attendance and Margaret Thatcher on hand to cut the ribbon, here it was a month later and the heated towel racks seemed undernourished; some of the lighting proved dysfunctional; and there were workmen still plastering and painting in the hallways. A couple of the rooms I peeked into seemed to lack the Polizzi polish, as though they had been readied too hastily, and there were wake-up calls that never got through because the phone somehow failed to ring. But I would also be less than honest if I said that these small glitches seriously distracted from the warmth and sophistication of the place or the experience it continues to offer of being attended to in the best possible way—without feeling intruded upon.

In the end, you've got to hand it to Sir Rocco Forte and Olga Polizzi for pulling off a hazardous juggling act with great aplomb. Their version of Brown's is both bold and cozy, familiar enough (the halls are still higgledy-piggledy and the floors uneven) to seduce the old guard and sufficiently cutting-edge to entice the younger set, who hang out nightly at the Terrence Donovan bar. Stuart Johnson, the slightly clubby (he comes by way of Claridge's and the Cliveden) but refreshingly candid ("We opened too soon") general manager, puts his finger on what makes the streamlined, gussied-up Brown's as alluring as its crotchety, shabby-chic precursor. "You judge a hotel," Johnson observes in his plummy old-boy accent, "on how it makes you feel. The best hotel in the world is the hotel you are known in." To which I can only add that someone at Brown's knew me and my absent-minded, last-minute proclivities well enough to return the acid-green suede glove I dropped somewhere in my frantic rush to make my flight out of Heathrow; it arrived by post within several days of my walking in the door to my apartment. No questions asked, no answers required. Now, that's the kind of service—so intuitive it seems like a form of, well, devoted nannying—that you can't buy.

Brown's, 33 Albemarle St.; 800/223-6800 or 44-20/7493-6020;; doubles from $510.

Brown's Hotel

Luxury hotelier Rocco Forte restored this historic treasure beyond its former glory, and his sister, Olga Polizzi, transformed the public spaces and 117 bedrooms within these 11 Georgian townhouses. It all fits perfectly into today’s London. The Donovan Bar displays black-and-white portraits of city stars from the 50’s and 60’s to great effect. Scottish tartan banquettes and British racing-green woolen armchairs abound, while the wood-paneled lounge evokes elegance without feeling old-fashioned. Guest rooms are a snazzier affair, with reproduction antique furnishings juxtaposed with soft colored textiles and walls of modern art. Its impressive basement spa performs Carita, Aromatherapy Associates, and Dr Sebagh treatments.