Hotel review: Hotel Café Royal, London
PUBLISHED: 16:50 04 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:27 15 May 2017
Naomi Sheldon explores the many facets of an intriguing West End hotel
Usually I avoid Piccadilly Circus like the plague. The thronging crowds, the noise, it’s enough to give even a hardened tourist a headache. So, you can imagine my reservations as I battled along Regent Street to reach Hotel Café Royal. But my oh my how they vanished upon arriving.
From the unassuming Regent’s Street entrance you are led down a corridor into a florid historic atrium. Still spinning from rush hour, I took stock of the lobby, a grand sweeping white marble staircase, impossibly elaborate flower arrangements and 1920s-style lifts with original finishes, complete with clock hand pointers indicating each floor (Wes Anderson eat your heart out). It screams old school glamour. Owner, The Set Hotels, specialises in transforming what it calls ‘Grand Dame’ properties. The aim is to combine history on the outside with modern comforts inside. No characterless refurb here though, the modern elements are inspired by older features of the building and in often surprising ways. For instance, at Hotel Café Royal this works particularly well with the Japanese sliding doors, which maintain natural light and chime with the lead squares, a feature of the original windows.
The hotel is made up of what were three separate buildings, a wine shop, a bank and a fire department. It’s fun to spot clues where one ends and another begins. You can still see the fire department sign on the outside, a fond reminder of its less glamorous past. Much of the original furniture and features were sold at auction between 2008 and 20012 while the hotel was refurbished but a few key pieces can still be found such as the large oil painting on the first floor depicting the hotel’s Oscar Wilde Bar, at the time called the Grill Room. Notice the glass of green fluid in every patron’s hand and that gentry and laymen are conversing – a picture of intellectual equality. This is what the bar, which dates to 1865, hoped to foster, the tag line - ‘where great minds come to discuss great ideas’. Today, however, you’re more likely to find a tea-and-scones crowd than an absinth-fuelled discussion on literature.
The Oscar Wilde bar, named after its regular patron, is a vision of gilt and mirrors, serving afternoon tea between three and five. It’s the most elaborate, evocative room in the hotel by a cucumber sandwich mile. Unfortunately, outside of afternoon tea, it stands empty but there are plans to revert it to its original purpose. The live piano, the original bar stand, the little plush cushion banquets, will make a splendid bar. It’s impossible not to have a quick sit down on what was Wilde’s favourite seat imagining him surveying the room, sipping a drink. He was reported to have seen a field of tulips from here, but it must have been the green fairy talking. From the bar room a glass door opens on to a staircase to the Domino Room where ladies would sit to play, you’ve guessed it, dominoes.
In 1863 French wine merchant Daniel Nichols opened the Hotel Café Royal. The ‘N’ insignia peppering the building honour him – or possibly Napoleon, no one is certain. Nichols brought over fine French wines (thank you Monsieur) which he sold in a small shop, now the site of The Green Bar. The Café, part of the hotel but open to the public, is my new coffee and cake pick me up in central London. Here legendary pastry chef Sarah Barbara is accompanied by her team of 17 chefs. Her grandfather was the original head chef at the Café Royal and passed his knowledge down to her. It gives me a warm and syrupy feeling to know this, not unlike one of her divine raspberry croissants.
In 1951 Hotel Café Royal became the home of the National Sporting Club and boxing matches would be held here, sometimes frequented by Muhammad Ali. This is the building where the rules of boxing were drafted, and in 2015 as a nod to this heritage, a ring was reinstated for a charity Royal Marines bout. How I wish I’d been there for that.
To get your own boxing gloves on, head to the gym in the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre. It’s particularly well equipped, rare even in luxury hotels. But the pool is the jewel in the crown. It’s complete bliss, calm, with gently perfumed air. You descend steps flickering with tea-lights and slip into 16 meters of beautifully heated water. Loungers and towels line the pool in little sections so you get some privacy.
The hammam is huge. Great big slabs of marble to flop out on. The sauna is equally impressive. No jostling for space in this paradise. They have private yoga and meditation rooms for guided sessions upon request. If this isn’t relaxing enough there are hydrotherapy treatments in mineral infused waters with a dedicated Watsu specialist. The mind boggles.
I hate to walk about post massage in front of any Tom, Dick or Harry so the private lift spa access for staying guests is a welcome treat.
There are 54 suites and seven signature suites but the contemporary guestrooms are not to be sniffed at. Munser style, wooden and sloping, if you can’t have a suite at least you can feel like you’re in an extremely smart tree house. There are carved marble baths in each guestroom no matter the budget. It makes for a shorter bath as the water cools quickly but the style is second to none.
The signature suites come with a 24/7 hour butler. My favourite was the Tudor. A medieval door leads you into a set of wood panelled rooms complete with fireplace and Tudor roses embossed on the walls, perfect for Shakespeare fanatics. There is even a cinema room, great for kids, and a butler armed with a popcorn tray and pretend cinema tickets.
We stayed in the Regent Suite, which like the others is made for living not just sleeping. You could have dinner for six around the table in the living space, the sliding doors to bathroom and bedroom ensure privacy from visitors. It doesn’t feel like a hotel anymore; it’s an apartment. I felt like James Bond for the night. The views of Westminster and Regent street from the bedroom are stunning. The décor is white stone but is warm and cosy not cold. The marble bath and rainfall shower are show stopping features.
Despite having a restaurant, the hotel’s line is: London is the cuisine capital of the world, go and explore. The concierge has a list as long as my arm of upmarket recommended eateries. However, the hotel’s Green Bar has a lot to offer too. The walls are made with emerald hued stone, the colour representing the absinthe served here. Sat beside us were people drinking from ornate absinthe fountains which dripped through sugar cubes into delicate cups. We sipped some of their delicious signature gin and tonics in globe glasses. Try the Doctor’s Orders, the herbs are medicinal so no need for an aspirin in the morning.
For dinner, we went for steak baguette and a lobster club sandwich. Don’t leave without trying the house ketchup, it’s divine. I’m a sucker for condiments and I’d take away jars of this stuff if I could.
Breakfasts are held in the Ten Room where we were treated to pastries. Condiment heaven again with a special nod to the Marmalade with Earl Grey Tea. The Iberico Benedict was an unusual take on the classic and all washed down with White Silvertip tea. A perfect post-swim breakfast that leaves you raring to explore this beautiful city. Though you might be tempted to stay the day in the spa.