Hotel Café Royal
In 1973, David Bowie chose Hotel Café Royal for his legendary party, “The Last Supper.”
Located less than a five-minute walk away at the southern end of Regent Street, the Hotel Café Royal is a London institution. Founded in 1865 by Daniel Nicholas Thévenon, the establishment is credited with having introduced French haute cuisine to England. By the close of the 19th century, it was the epicenter of bohemian society, frequented by painters such as James McNeill Whistler, and a constellation of writers that included Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde. Like Wilde’s famous character, Dorian Gray, the Café Royal seemed immune to time and remained a fashionable address for most of the 20th century. In 1973, David Bowie chose it for his legendary party, “The Last Supper,” at which he retired his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, an occasion that gathered Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and the entire rock aristocracy.
The original incarnation of the Café Royal finally closed in 2008; it reopened in December 2012 as a 160-room hotel. Taxis tend to unload their passengers at the side of the building to avoid the heavy traffic on Regent Street. This means that most arriving guests do not enter the property through the fabulously ornate foyer, clad in caramel-colored marble and illuminated by stained glass windows, which once formed an antechamber to the legendary Grill Room. Instead, they find themselves in a rather cramped modern lobby. The new hotel is an amalgamation of the old Café Royal and an adjacent former office building. The task of combining the two was given to the distinguished firm David Chipperfield Architects, but at times, the marriage is distinctly uneasy.
Chipperfield is associated with refined minimalism, and the design of the new rooms uses expanses of English oak and Portland stone to create an environment of Japanese simplicity, which is in deliberate contrast to the gilded extravagance of the original Edwardian structure. Our Mansard Deluxe room came with oak-paneled walls, a wood ceiling, a parquet floor, a leather sofa in dusty pink, a leather-topped work desk with a chocolate-brown leather chair, and a Bang & Olufsen television. Everything was in peerless good taste, but I nonetheless had the feeling that I had been shut inside an enormous cigar box. This was exacerbated by the electric blinds, which wanted to be fully up or fully down, and nowhere in between. An impressive bath was faced in gray Carrara marble, and came with a mirror TV screen and a soaking tub carved from a solid block of marble. On reflection, a requirement of the minimalist style is space — the aesthetic just doesn’t work on a restricted scale — so in the future, I would opt for a Junior Suite (560 square feet) or a Westminster Suite (657 square feet), the latter with views of Regent Street
and Piccadilly Circus.
Downstairs, the former Grill Room, now the Oscar Wilde Bar, is a riot of gilded cherubs, Louis XVI mirrors and crimson leather. In its new incarnation, this fabled space is used for afternoon tea and, in the evening, as a Champagne bar (with live cabaret Tuesday through Saturday). At the time of our visit, the hotel’s principal restaurant, The Domino, had yet to open, but we ate extremely well in the more casual surroundings of the Ten Room, where Executive Chef Andrew Turner serves Modern British cuisine. We preferred to take breakfast in The Café, fronting Regent Street. A bright and exceptionally pretty room faced in golden marble, it is a homage to European café culture. Having read the newspaper, I would typically spend half the morning tapping contentedly on my iPad, ordering far more espressos than were good for me, and wondering whether to stay on for a light lunch of salade Niçoise. The other principal amenity at the Café Royal is the grandiloquently named Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre, which offers a spa, hammam, Vichy shower, Watsu pool and 60-foot lap pool.
Usually, I find it quite easy to decide whether I like a hotel. But the Café Royal left me feeling conflicted. I think I shall stay there again in around a year’s time, then reach a final decision.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The sense of history; the delightful European Café.
DISLIKE: The cramped and inconvenient new reception and concierge area.
GOOD TO KNOW: The named suites are spectacular (and breathtakingly expensive), especially the Dome Suite, which has a large terrace overlooking central London, and an astonishing Ming-green marble bathtub. Those who prefer more traditional interiors will be at home in the Club Suite or the Tudor Suite.
Hotel Café Royal 89 Mansard Deluxe Guestroom, $655; Junior Suite, $905; Westminster Suite, $1,060. 68 Regent Street, London W1B 4DY. Tel. (44) 20-7406-3333.