Before we begin, let’s take a minute to remember all the Roberts and Johns and Anthonys, those dear old men with bright blue eyes who not long ago were the backbone of every London hotel, arranging your 60 pounds of luggage under their arms, climbing stairs like mules, and opening every door with an embarrassing “Thank you, sir.”
That’s over. The face of your new London hotel is more likely named Pawel, and while he too has bright blue eyes, he is no beast of burden. Steering your worldly little roller bag with his fingertips, he is young and chatty and not for one minute resigned to his station in life. Pawel wears an earpiece.
It’s sad to witness the passing of good old-fashioned obsequious English service in a London that’s acting less London-like with each year. But let’s not get carried away with our grief. London has also never been more thrilling. The crossroads of everything and everywhere, it feels like the capital of the world right now. The money here is stunning, to the point that Claridge’s, the Dorchester, and the Connaught can no longer handle everybody passing through. According to VisitBritain, more than 13,000 rooms are being built in anticipation of next summer’s Olympic Games, with five-star hotels in particular opening at a frantic pace.
It’s not only the formal airs that are falling away quickly. So are the cabbage-rose fabrics, the awful quilted bedspreads, the choke-a-horse curtains, the fussy chairs, the smell of slow drains, the hand showers that writhed like cobras and drenched the bathroom floor. The new London hotel is all about the niche. There are hotels for people who dress up or dress down, who never leave the West End or the East End, who arrive by helicopter, frequent the Eurostar, have a thing for boats, who are passionate about food or art or fashion or design. They’re so targeted, so finely tuned to specific tastes, that I couldn’t imagine being truly comfortable in more than two or three of them—nor, I suspect, will you.
The New Classics
The extravagant Corinthia Hotel London is something of an obsession here. Londoners are all talking about it, though many have not yet made the trip to see it. It’s a long way to this former government building below Trafalgar Square, if your universe is defined by Scott’s and Harvey Nics.
You’ll know when you get there by the lineup of armored black sedans and driver/bodyguards in the street. Up the steps you go, past the entourage of Qataris (or are they Saudis?), past the woman in the $800 shoes that have never touched pavement, past the man in the silk shirt you’ve seen only in hotel-lobby showcases, into a rotunda filled with hundreds of blooms.
Corinthia is big and stately, the only new establishment modeled on the grand hotels. Approximately half a billion dollars were spent on elevator doors worthy of Ruhlmann, on a Baccarat chandelier, on a bar with shagreen walls and a 20-foot-long piano off which people sip cocktails laced with violet liqueur. Harrods has installed a branch on site; the colorist Daniel Galvin of Marylebone has opened a vast salon that includes a private space with two TV’s; and Espa has created a four-story spa with a white-leather lounge and an ice fountain just outside the sauna. The two restaurants are scaled like cathedrals: the Northall for meats, Massimo for fish (especially crudo, as in shaved scallops with vanilla salt). Dress up, and don’t hold back.
The rooms don’t try to be clever. Start with a traditional layout (hall, bedroom, bathroom; some have dressing rooms), decorate it with restraint in mellow woods and marbles, then detail it with heavy wooden hangers, a safe big enough for a laptop and a tiara, a leather slipcase for the plastic TV remote. It’s tempting to call the in-house florist, Ercole Moroni, to send up a spray of delphiniums.
The Corinthia may be taking aim at the Dorchester, but the Dorchester—its lobby buzzing as usual with English businessmen in Thomas Pink shirts and elegant Middle Easterners sipping tea—is more than holding its ground. The hotel group recently opened 45 Park Lane, a new property across the street from the original glamour girl.
Interior designer Thierry Despont, who previously worked on the Dorchester, plays the thirties card here too, though 45 Park Lane is much more intimate, sleeker, younger. The rooms have an Art Deco flavor, with tinted mirrors and cerused mahogany and carpeting that calls to mind the Duke of Windsor’s argyles and plus-fours. All 45 rooms face Hyde Park. And in this new London where food rules, here’s the biggest restaurant news of the season: Wolfgang Puck has opened his first European restaurant here, importing the Cut concept from Beverly Hills. The movie people from L.A. are going to be falling over themselves to stay.
The luxury is more relaxed, more American, down the street at the completely rebuilt Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, where you could even appear in your Nikes in the dazzling new black-and-red lobby. (Don’t try that at the Corinthia.) This was the very first Four Seasons hotel built outside North America, 40 years ago, and it badly needed this two-year remodeling guided by its general manager of 18 years, John Stauss. “This hotel represents all that the Four Seasons has learned,” he says.
The rooms, contemporary and neutral, have the signature Four Seasons calm, but everywhere else the volume has been turned way up: tartans and zebras, a red-lacquer piano, a man cave of a bar, and some Arne Jacobsen furniture. The hotel is especially proud of its glassy new spa and gym on the top floor, where you can have a massage with a view. And this was a first, at least for me: How many times have you arrived in London on an overnight flight at 7:30 a.m. and waited hours for your room, trying to look respectable as you nod off in the lobby? Here they’ll let you go to the 10th-floor lounge when you arrive, shower, have breakfast, book an early treatment at the spa, use your laptop, and keep your dignity. This is what breeds those Four Seasons fanatics we all know.
On the south side of Hyde Park, in the shopping heart of Knightsbridge, the action was bound to heat up, and it has—thanks to two yet-to-open properties. The Bulgari Hotel & Residences London (scheduled for next spring) has strategically positioned itself opposite One Hyde Park, the Mandarin Oriental’s luxury residences, which include the world’s most expensive apartment: a $222 million penthouse. You can see the McLaren Automotive showroom from the window of your room. Armani Hotels, which made quite an impression with its smartly suited staff in Dubai, is planning a new outpost in the area for an unspecified date. Details are hard to come by, but the number $475 million is regularly tossed about. That should do it.
Eurostar commuters have an interesting new choice of accommodations: St. Pancras Station, where the trains terminate. The architectural equivalent of a Brontë novel, and arguably the greatest Victorian building in London, it opened in 1873, went into decline during the Depression, fell hopelessly out of fashion in the 1960’s, and after 40 years of preservation battles has been restored as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel (pictured). While the towers and turrets still look as if lightning bolts should be hurled at them, the renovation is fresh, joyful, and improbable, every tile, wallpaper, stencil, and 19th-century brick re-created with Gothic passion.
St. Pancras is actually two buildings: a new wing with 207 sleek rooms that appeal to the business traveler, and the old building, with 38 idiosyncratic rooms full of architectural drama for those who appreciate it. The rooms vary widely; mine had an 18-foot ceiling, three huge Gothic windows, and curtains with two-foot-long silk tiebacks, while others have a thrilling view of the historic glass-covered train shed. Rumbling can be a problem for the light sleeper.
They’ve certainly had fun with the muttonchops ambience. The grandiose former ticketing office has been reworked into a bar and restaurant. Its other restaurant, the Gilbert Scott, is well worth a visit for anyone coming to London right now, a historic space serving English classics such as pies and peas with the most sophisticated farm-to-table spin. It’s filled with Londoners celebrating all kinds of occasions; the couple next to me were both clearly married to other people and headed to a room upstairs after their Eton Mess.
Of course there’s a spa, but also a chic little men’s barbershop called Melogy. Its wet shave seemed worth a try as a jet-lag remedy. As he took a razor to my throat, Dan Gregory reassured me he’d been doing this for 11 years. (He’s 25.) His 45-minute series of hot towels, creams, shaves, and tingly sensations convinced me to throw out the melatonin. Guys, this is the cure.
The Style Circuit
Now let’s leave behind the caviar and mother-of-pearl spoons. There’s a lot of young art, fashion, music, and finance money in London, and hotelier André Balazs—the king of this crowd—has his eye on it, with rumors of an unnamed property opening in Marylebone in 2013. Over in Pimlico, where shabby B&B’s still fill the backstreets of Victoria Station, the Eccleston Square Hotel has already planted a beachhead for the stylistas in a formidable Georgian building.
It was still under scaffolding and a scrim when I saw it, but I could feel sparks coming off Belgraves, a Thompson Hotel, on Chesham Place. This is the heart of Tatler-ville, where shopping means champers from Jeroboams and lingerie from Agent Provocateur, and you run into royals at the Tesco. Thompson Hotels cofounder Jason Pomeranc saw the need here for a slight homage to British tradition with a rock-’n’-roll edge. “London hotels are differentiated by the level of intimacy that they offer,” he says, calling the Belgraves “alternative luxury.”.
That inscrutable white-glass building on Leicester Square that you’ve been wondering about is the W London - Leicester Square. When you arrive, don’t be surprised to find a velvet rope with a crowd behind it, tall beauties with clipboards yanking down their too-short dresses, and a formidable young man to confirm that you are indeed a hotel guest.
Every inch of this hotel seems to whisper, “Tonight could be the night you sleep with a model.” Hundreds of mirrored disco balls follow you everywhere, from the lobby through the hallways. It’s a party on the reception floor, all young singles sprawling on the black-leather tufted banquette; it’s a party in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s superb Spice Market restaurant, filled with the gorgeous young mixed-race couples who personify the new London; and it’s a serious party, well after midnight, in the red-and-black VIP bar called Wyld, which has the disco ball to end them all, 10 feet in diameter.
“Nice uniform,” I tell my reception clerk. I like his gray waistcoat, checked wing collar, and skinny tie a lot.
“Very fitted. Keeps me skinny.”
The staff, all young and hot and hired for their vibe, is referred to as “the talent.” Traditional English reserve is not practiced here; the talent is expected to engage. They know where the newest music is played, the newest art is shown, the newest clothes are sold—and if you’re not interested, you’re probably in the wrong hotel. The terrific head concierge, Joshua Brown, an American, spent the past few years in Miami and is deft at handling the style crowd. He will put you on the list for Wyld but knows better than to promise you will get in.
The rooms—categorized as Wonderful, Spectacular, or Fabulous—are bold, even for a W. At the window end there’s a chaise longue and a very low, very downy bed. At the entrance end there’s a long, high table with a shallow sink, a lighted makeup mirror, and a tall white-leather salon chair—your desk and your bathroom, all in one. Walls of mirror face walls of mirror, so you see infinite reflections of yourself. All the essentials are provided: Bliss cosmetics; arty books; an up-lit bar with lots of martini glasses. At night, the room glows from the neon tubes decorating the hotel’s façade.
Come checkout time, you wonder how it could still feel like 4 a.m. as you make your way through the darkened hallways, watch a fashion video in the elevator—thump, thump, thump—down past the last disco ball and finally the velvet rope. Even after a good night’s sleep, the morning sun hits you hard.
Just across the road, past the cheap Chinese restaurants and herbal-medicine shops on Lisle Street, is the curious little St. John Hotel, from the same people who introduced snout-to-tail dining back in 1994 at Smithfield Market. Be prepared for a point of view that is strong and uncompromising. The 15 pristine rooms are blindingly white, with blue-green rubber floors waxed like glass, pegs for your clothes, and open bathrooms. Some have frosted-glass windows. Some have no windows at all. The highly regarded restaurant serves a menu calculated to shock—one doesn’t usually see the words blood and pig this often—and it helps to like your pork on the pink side.
Pushing the Boundaries
Hoxton, yes, Spitalfields, yes, but who’s been toBethnal Green lately? Hang on an extra stop past Liverpool Street on the Central Line, and the galleries thin out quickly. Council housing and halal restaurants lead the way to the Town Hall Hotel, in the famously raw East End neighborhood synonymous with legendary 1960’s gangsters the Kray twins. Now, however, you’ll find the very young from all over the world drinking flaming brandy cocktails in the bar at midnight. The building is a stately old government pile that has not been overly buffed. With Midcentury furniture and lots of ironic touches—a vending machine from the thirties; an old safe; a mural depicting sex positions—it’s a bit like staying in a Paul Smith store. Every room has a kitchen, so some people literally set up house. But there’s also, astonishingly, a Michelin-starred restaurant, Viajante. No menu here—you simply ask for six, nine, or 12 dishes, and along they come, from Portuguese chef Nuno Mendez.
Nothing says sexy like a helicopter, and you see lots of them from every room, every restaurant table, every barstool at Hotel Verta, a small, well-hidden property astride London’s only heliport, on the South Bank in Battersea. Verta was built for those accustomed to making the tricky dash from the backwash of a rotor. Here they can slip straight from the heliport’s VIP lounge into the hotel without ever being seen. The remote location, in a commercial district a long, lonely walk from the Tube, presumes you have a car and driver, so Verta is not for the casual London traveler. Privacy freaks, especially sports figures, come here “to chill-ax,” an employee told me. Masculine, leathery, and very built-in, the rooms are beautifully detailed and the windows—just to be clear—quadruple-glazed.
Moored in the Docklands, a few minutes’ walk from Canary Wharf, is an old barge called with one bright, cozy guest room in the stern for perhaps the most individualistic visitor of all. Your hosts—Polly Dickens, the former creative director of Conran, and furniture designer Mark Gilbey—live on the boat in relatively spacious quarters and can be convinced to rent out the whole thing. Dickens and Gilbey spent a lifetime working as stylists, so there’s not a wrong moment anywhere. Charm, charm, charm. Technically this isn’t a five-star establishment, but then it’s not easily classified. Dickens, who has a real passion for food, cooks your Columbian blacktail eggs and ginger bacon in the morning, which you take in the wheelhouse with a view of the docks. Bring your iPad outside and sit on the deck awhile; the water is very calming. It’s not for everybody—you’d better like their dogs, you might bump your head, and Piccadilly Circus is a good 30 minutes away by Tube—but in a very short time it has found a following among young business travelers chafing at their suspenders. Carrying their own luggage does not seem to be a problem.