All great cities are dynamic: their economies evolve; their populations shift; new neighborhoods prosper. But even though this restlessness is the norm, the transformation of London in the past quarter-century has still been extraordinarily dramatic. Some argue that London today is the first truly global city — the poster child for globalization — a metropolis where the populations of Europe, Asia, Africa and North America now all meet and mingle.
All great cities are dynamic: their economies evolve; their populations shift; new neighborhoods prosper.
It began with the liberalization of London’s financial industry in 1986, which resulted in a huge influx of foreign expertise. More recently, large numbers of Eastern Europeans, now free to work anywhere within the European Union, further transformed the city’s demography. Today, in London’s hotels and restaurants, it can be a challenge to find a native employee. (Personally, I regret this development, not because I begrudge the Polish housekeeper a chance to make a living, but because, for the visitor, London’s sense of place has been significantly diluted.) A generation ago, London had little modern architecture of distinction, no contemporary art gallery of note, and restaurants that had few pretensions to innovation or refinement. Now, the skyline of the City sprouts skyscrapers by the world’s leading architects; Tate Modern is an arts institution to rival those of Manhattan; and many enthusiasts regard the culinary scene as the most varied and exciting in the world.
I reflected on these remarkable changes while gazing from my window at the new Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, which opened in May. From the 44th floor of the 95-story, 1,016-foot building, the view was simply astounding. To the east, the Thames snaked past Tower Bridge and the Tower of London down Canary Wharf; on the northern horizon, I could make out the latticework of the 2012 Olympic Stadium; directly opposite, a clump of startling glass towers rose abruptly from the Square Mile of the financial district. At their base lay the walls of Roman Londinium and streets that Dickens once trod — or at least those that survived the destruction of The Blitz. It was not until the end of the 18th century that London expanded westward. And today, London’s center of gravity is shifting back to the east. So I was acutely conscious that I was looking at the city’s future, as well as at its ancient past.
I was acutely conscious that I was looking at the city’s future, as well as at its ancient past.
The 202-room Shangri-La occupies Floors 34 through 52 of Renzo Piano’s dramatic, glass-clad pyramidal tower. On arrival, I was able to check in at a convenient desk on the ground floor, but the actual lobby is reached by a brief ride aboard a high-speed elevator. There, I was greeted by a soigné young Russian woman, who immediately explained that the hotel had already proved popular with Russian oligarchs and their families — for whom she served as an interpreter — as well as newly wealthy Chinese.
Most accommodations at the Shangri-La have glamorous views, but the Iconic City View rooms, at corners of The Shard, afford 180-degree panoramas. Their décor is pleasant but unremarkable, and with Chinese motifs, expanses of pale wood and marble, and a palette of mostly neutral colors, would not seem out of place in any of the major cities of Asia. Overall, my room felt businesslike, rather than especially luxurious. The adjoining bath, however, was sensational. There, a soaking tub stood less than three feet from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and lying back in the foam, I could gaze either down at the Thames and the neoclassical façade of the old Custom House 500 feet below, or across to the skyscraper forest of the City.
That evening, I opted to dine in the hotel’s main restaurant, TING, which, despite its Oriental name and the chinoiserie of its interior design, confusingly serves Modern British cuisine. Chef Emil Minev’s signature dishes include hand-dived scallops from northwest Scotland cooked a la plancha, and organic Welsh lamb served with root vegetables and Kentish apples. The sommelier turned out to be a delightful and exceptionally knowledgeable young Frenchwoman; and throughout the meal, the service was prompt and cheerful. Guests at the Shangri-La may also dine at other independently owned restaurants within The Shard, notably Hutong on Level 33 for Cantonese cuisine, and Oblix on Level 32, where chef Fabien Beaufour, formerly of Eleven Madison Park in New York, serves a selection of grilled meats and seafood. Other amenities include a 35-foot indoor “skypool” with views of St. Paul’s and Westminster, and an adjacent gymnasium with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Overall, the London Shangri-La is not dissimilar to many of the group’s other excellent properties. What puts it into an entirely different category is the view. The panorama of London is itself reason enough for a stay.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The sensational view; the delicious Modern British cuisine; the sense of being afforded a glimpse of London’s future.
DISLIKE: The difficulty of obtaining a restaurant reservation, or a table in the spectacular bar on Level 52.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel is located just a few minutes’ walk from Shakespeare’s Globe theater (where the Swan Restaurant provides delicious food against a memorable backdrop) and the Tate Modern contemporary art gallery.
Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard 92 Deluxe City View Room, $895; Iconic City View Room, $1,060. 31 St. Thomas Street, London SE1 9QU. Tel. (44) 20-7234-8000.
Longtime subscribers to the Hideaway Report will know that I am a fan of Firmdale Hotels, a London-based group owned by interior designer Kit Kemp and her husband, Tim. I currently recommend Covent Garden Hotel and Dorset Square Hotel. On this trip, I stayed at the group’s new flagship property, Ham Yard Hotel, which opened in June.
Although nominally in Soho — a district once infamous for seedy nightclubs but long grown respectable as the home of television companies and specialty food stores — Ham Yard is also on the edge of Theatreland and Mayfair. A seven- or eight-minute stroll brings you to Savile Row, with its world-famous bespoke tailors, and to Cork Street, historically the key address for London’s fine-art dealers.
Formalities were completed by utterly charming young reception staff.
Ham Yard (the place) is an unexpectedly leafy and peaceful courtyard just steps from the congestion of Piccadilly. On arrival at the eponymous 91-room hotel, we were greeted by a chatty Hungarian doorman who led us into the flamboyant lobby. There, the formalities were completed by utterly charming young reception staff. Our Deluxe Junior Suite #107 proved to be pleasingly spacious, but the view of a commercial building across a narrow alleyway was less than inspiring. (Accommodations that look out over Ham Yard — especially those on higher floors — would be preferable.) As expected, the décor displayed Kit Kemp’s imaginative and idiosyncratic style. A gray-brown sofa and a large rough-hewn occasional table provided a separate area in which to relax and read, while the king-size bed was backed by a headboard covered in one of the designer’s signature bright prints. The exemplary bath was clad in attractive gray marble.
In the expansive public areas, Kemp has given her imagination free rein. The interconnecting restaurant, bar and conservatory are decorated with splashes of intense primary color and are appointed with a dazzling array of one-of-a-kind furniture and contemporary artwork. Ultimately, you either like these design pyrotechnics or you don’t. (I do, in small doses.) The restaurant serves a seasonal menu of outstanding Modern British cuisine, while the adjoining bar offers a selection of small plates, rather like outsize tapas. In both, the atmosphere is animated and the clientele chiefly youthful, though this is one of those places where people in their 50s and 60s need not feel uncomfortable, as long as they are relaxed in a multi-generational environment. Hotel guests in search of tranquility have a choice of two dedicated lounges, one of which contains a library filled with books that one might actually want to read. Another peaceful spot reserved for hotel guests is the enchanting fourth-floor roof terrace and garden. Although the hotel lacks a pool, there is a well-equipped basement gym with personal trainers, plus a small spa.
I suspect that a majority of Hideaway Report readers would feel more at home in the traditional surroundings of, say, Claridge’s or The Goring, or even one of Firmdale’s more sedate properties, such as Covent Garden Hotel. But those who are at ease with contemporary design and appreciate being surrounded by youthful energy could well enjoy Ham Yard. There is also a playfully eccentric quality to the place that is peculiarly English.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Exceptionally comfortable accommodations; the residents-only library and roof garden; the animated restaurant and bar.
DISLIKE: The lack of a swimming pool.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel is less than 10 minutes’ walk from both Mayfair and Covent Garden.
Ham Yard Hotel 93 1 Ham Yard, London W1D 7DT. Deluxe Room, $810; Deluxe Junior Suite, $1,005. Tel. (44) 20-3642-2000.
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.
In London, there is much to be said for staying near one of the city’s parks, which, to a great extent, define its character. From the window of my room at 45 Park Lane, I was able to gaze over the treetops into Hyde Park’s green acres. Opened in 2011, this 45-room hotel is the boutique sibling of The Dorchester, located little more than 100 yards away. Although the design of the property is uncompromisingly modern — with décor by Thierry Despont and paintings by Damien Hirst — my accommodations were light, spacious and comfortable. Effective soundproofing eliminated the din of the Park Lane traffic, while lacquered furniture, leather-topped tables and pale wood paneling all created an atmosphere that was stylish and serene.
Nowadays, there are times when you think it might just be cheaper to fly home for dinner in New York.
My room’s tranquility was in marked contrast to the buzzy public areas: Bar 45 claims to have the largest selection of American wines in the United Kingdom, plus snacks such as mini Kobe sliders, and to my surprise, in spite of its overtly fashionable ethos, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the place. And at CUT, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in imitation of his original establishment in Beverly Hills, I opted for the Suffolk lamb chops with a cucumber-mint raita, which proved outstanding. Mind you, an unexceptional Sonoma Pinot Noir at $30 a glass provided a sobering reminder of just how insanely expensive London has become. Nowadays, there are times when you think it might just be cheaper to fly home for dinner in New York.
Although 45 Park Lane has no other amenities to speak of, you are free to use those at The Dorchester — the spa and gymnasium, for instance — as if in residence there. So, to an extent, you have the advantages of a boutique property — the staff on the front desk know your name and are inclined to take a personal interest in your welfare — along with those of a grand luxury hotel.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Stylish and comfortable accommodations; proximity to Hyde Park.
DISLIKE: The public areas become noisy as the evening progresses.
GOOD TO KNOW: Guests can enjoy all of the facilities at The Dorchester, including the spa and Alain Ducasse restaurant.
45 Park Lane 91 Superior King Room, $870; Studio Suite, from $1,360. 45 Park Lane, London W1K 1PN. Tel. (44) 20-7493-4545.
This article appeared in the October 2014 print edition of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report under the headline “London's Spectacular New Hotels."