One of the few great cities that combine charm and dynamism in equal measure, London boasts inexhaustible cultural riches and a stellar restaurant scene that befits its status as a world capital. The traveler’s greatest enemy is time. It’s all too tempting to spend every morning in museums, every afternoon shopping and every evening at the theater (adding a gourmet meal or two, of course, and perhaps an afternoon high tea for good measure). Choosing what to leave out of an itinerary is a painful task required of all visitors to the city, whether they stay for a week or a month.
On this occasion, I had decided to focus on new or recently renovated hotels with 100 rooms or fewer. Some of these proved enchanting, but more than one failed to live up to the hype.
Overall, the voluptuous new L’oscar hotel in Holborn, an easy walk from the British Museum and Covent Garden, was the most impressive. We stayed shortly before the 39-room hotel’s official opening in September, but the staff exhibited none of the clumsiness one might expect during a property’s earliest days. Things started off on the right foot before we even exited our taxi, when a friendly bellman opened the car door and gathered our luggage.
The hotel is housed within the former headquarters of the Baptist church in London. The early 20th-century Baptists who gathered there would surely be startled by designer Jacques Garcia’s theatrical transformation of the space. In the black-walled main lobby-lounge, we discovered a mustachioed staffer wearing a sport coat speckled with metallic copper daisies. But his coat managed to look subdued, as he was standing before a screen embroidered with golden peacock feathers. While he fetched us some sparkling water, the general manager approached to welcome us to the hotel. Within two minutes of our arrival, I already felt like a celebrity guest.
The personable front desk clerk, André, who also proved to be an efficient and knowledgeable concierge, took us up to our Junior Suite. Our luggage had already arrived, watched over by our butler, who gave us a tour of the room. The bed, he explained proudly, was topped by an eiderdown duvet that cost more than $16,000. I can’t deny that I slept exceedingly well beneath it. Black silk embroidered with red butterflies covered the closet doors lining the hallway to the bath, which occupied the former belfry of the church. There was no tub, but I loved the large red-marble shower, which doubled as a steam room.
Our butler offered to assist with unpacking. I declined and sent him away with some laundry instead. He returned it a day later, boxed and wrapped in tissue paper like a gift from an expensive department store. That afternoon, I emailed André to ask him to print our boarding passes before phoning our butler to request a room-service snack. The meal arrived within 20 minutes, along with an envelope containing our boarding passes. This sort of service coordination takes thoughtfulness and organization, and it is, alas, increasingly rare. Numerous other touches, include well-designed light switches, his-and-her bath products and top-quality yoga mats.
All this indicates that management has thought carefully about all aspects of the guest experience.
The main gourmet restaurant, The Baptist Grill, located in a circular gallery beneath the cupola of the former chapel, had yet to open. But we had a fine dinner of ricotta-filled ravioli with pesto, and flaky Cornish sea bass in the more casual Café L’oscar, a gorgeous all-day bar and restaurant that has already become popular with fashionable locals. I also appreciated the expertly mixed cocktails served in vintage-style coupes and the unusual items on its à la carte breakfast menu, such as a fried duck egg atop a hash of duck confit and pink fir apple potatoes.
L’oscar won’t appeal to traditionalists. But I loved its sensuous décor, highly attentive service and dramatic flair. The strength of my affection became clear when I regretted having to exchange it for the year-old Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square.
The sumptuous and theatrical Jacques Garcia design; the convenient location; the thoughtful, well-organized service; the glamorous public spaces; our unique bath.
In order to avoid receiving a poor exchange rate at checkout, it’s necessary to tick a box on the registration form, asking to be charged in pounds.
Be sure to visit The Library, with its spectacular plasterwork and peacock murals.
Like L’oscar, this 100-room hotel occupies a repurposed historic building: the Beaux Arts former home of the Port of London Authority, across from the Tower of London. Its exterior and entry hall impressed with their grandeur, but much of the rest of the property lacked period details (Grand Heritage Suites excepted). Contemporary plaster bas-relief landscapes lined the walls of the rotunda lounge at the hotel’s center, and its pink glass dome with brass tracery felt more 1970s-chic than Beaux Arts. But the general absence of historical patina can’t be blamed entirely on the Four Seasons; German bombs destroyed the original rotunda during World War II.
I felt immediately welcome at the hotel, and it was reassuring to receive an itinerary of the plans we’d made with the concierge. He hadn’t been able to arrange the backstage tour of the Globe Theatre offered on the hotel’s website, but he did obtain tickets to a sold-out performance, in addition to helping with restaurant reservations. The front desk agent proved equally helpful, organizing check-in to our room before noon.
In keeping with the rest of the hotel, our Premier Room gave nods to the building’s history as well as the ’70s, with wood paneling and sleek brass accent pieces. The king bed was deliciously comfortable, but the wingback armchair encouraged proper posture more than relaxation. I liked how natural light flooded the beautiful white-marble bath, but the window above the soaking tub faced another hotel across the street, making it necessary to keep the shade lowered most of the time. These quibbles aside, it was always a pleasure to return to the room.
I also thoroughly enjoyed my “Escape to Taliouine” Moroccan-style hammam treatment in the extensive spa. I had the spacious hammam chamber, complete with a warm white-marble navel stone and opalescent mosaic-tile dome, entirely to myself. My therapist placed cool towels on my face in between scrubs, an innovation all hammams should emulate, and I emerged from the ritual relaxed and refreshed. Nothing kills the lingering effects of jet lag like a good hammam treatment.
Unfortunately, the spa’s large swimming pool and the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, La Dame de Pic London, were closed during our stay (the restaurant has since reopened). Even without those amenities, I had a lovely time at the Four Seasons, largely due to the warmth and efficiency of the staff. Its City location also was appealing, within walking distance of the Tower, the rapidly gentrifying Shoreditch neighborhood, The Shard, Borough Market, the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern. The City is London’s main business district, but the Four Seasons, with its pool and other family-friendly amenities, is an ideal choice for those traveling with children.
The highly attentive and professional service; the sybaritic hammam; the indoor pool.
The hotel’s PR touts its location’s history, but few period details remain.
As is often the case with the Four Seasons, numerous activities for children are available.
I had hoped that No. 5 Maddox St. in Mayfair might also prove to be a fine alternative for families. A minute’s walk from the famed Liberty department store, this property comprises 12 apartments ranging between one and three bedrooms, accessed via a discreet door next to an upscale Thai restaurant. Numerous travel publications gush about its exclusivity, style and “five-star” concierge, and indeed, things started well. The concierge confirmed dinner reservations within seven minutes of my emailing the request. A friendly colleague of his met us in the vestibule after we rang the doorbell, carrying our luggage up the flight of stairs to the small reception room lined with an aquarium.
Our one-bedroom apartment was on the fourth floor (or fifth, if you count American-style). Since the building lacks an elevator, it was a long walk up past the scuffed walls and dated ’90s décor of the stairwell, the only public space other than reception. Our well-equipped galley kitchen would have allowed us to cook meals, had we wished to, and the adjacent blond wood-floored living room had a comfortable sofa and plenty of light. But the suite was in need of freshening. The wrinkled slipcover of the armchair appeared to be coming apart; the worn kimono-style robes had faded; the beige-tile bath looked straight out of a nursing home; and black stains on some of its floor tiles didn’t improve matters.
Nor did service dazzle. I’d looked forward to a hot room-service breakfast, but we had a 9 a.m. guided tour of the Egyptian collection of the British Museum, and room service on Saturdays didn’t start until 8:30 a.m. On Sundays, room service was entirely unavailable, aside from a complimentary morning breadbasket. I requested a copy of The Sunday Times, which failed to appear (the concierge made vague excuses). And there was no turndown service. Regret was not the emotion I experienced when we checked out of No. 5 Maddox St.
The location near excellent shopping and numerous restaurants; the large accommodations; the well-equipped kitchen.
The lack of an elevator; the scuffed stairwell; the dated décor; the signs of wear in our apartment; the faded, scruffy kimono robes.
Room service is available only during certain hours and not at all on Sundays; the hotel will grocery shop for you for a fee.
The neighborhood just to the east, Soho, has gentrified in recent years, but it still retains enough of an edge to be interesting. On a small side street surrounded by West End theaters stands the 33-room Kettner’s Townhouse, which reopened as a hotel earlier this year. For most of its history Kettner’s was a restaurant, one of the first French restaurants in London, opened in 1867 by a chef of Napoleon III. Its private dining rooms upstairs became infamous, reputedly facilitating the affair of Edward VII and actress Lillie Langtry and hosting dinners for Oscar Wilde.
The Soho House club renovated the property and opened its storied restaurant, The Piano Bar and Champagne Bar to the public; no Soho House membership is required.
I felt skeptical about the hotel, after having experienced amateurish service at Chicago’s Soho House hotel a few years ago, a feeling not assuaged on our arrival. I was obliged to bring our luggage to the front desk myself, as the doorman seems to work only in the evenings. A stylishly dressed front desk agent gave us a friendly welcome and, to her credit, helped bring our bags up to our Medium room.
There we discovered all manner of thoughtful touches, including a bar cart (supplied with fresh ice each evening) and an astonishing variety of Cowshed bath products. The room’s décor felt fresh and chic despite its early 20th-century inspiration. For one person, our Medium room would have been ideal. Two people will have more trouble sharing the very limited storage space. One-third of the small wardrobe — there was no closet — was occupied by drawers and a safe, and the attractive shower-only bath had only one pedestal sink, unencumbered by counter space. We crowded our toiletries onto a small stand of shelves nearby, already partially occupied with various bath amenities. Couples should book one of the three larger accommodations in the hotel, the Medium Plus room, the Big room or the Jacobean Suite.
After a glass of Drappier Blanc de Noirs Brut Nature Zero Dosage in the Champagne Bar, which has its original mosaic-tile floor, we had dinner in The Dining Room, the restored Kettner’s Restaurant. I loved how the room’s many mirrors reflected the dozens of candles on the tables. Our engaging waiter, Ulrick, recommended some delicate Devon crab with sea purslane and fresh lovage, and sumptuous roast Banham chicken with mushroom duxelles, crispy pommes Anna and truffle jus. Live piano music accompanied our nightcap in the popular bar next door.
Kettner’s Townhouse has much to recommend it, but our room’s lack of storage never ceased to be an irritant, and the busyness of the public spaces grew tiring. In ever-bustling Soho, I want a hotel that serves as an oasis, not more of the same. It was something of a relief to decamp to The Franklin in Knightsbridge.
The central Soho location; the chic 1920s-inspired décor; the wealth of bath products in our room; the sense of history; the fine restaurant.
Our room’s limited storage space.
Laptops are not permitted in public spaces after 11:30 a.m., and talking on cell phones is allowed only in the reception area.
Tucked onto a tranquil residential street near the newly renovated Victoria & Albert Museum, The Franklin also recently underwent a major refurbishment. Designer Anouska Hempel redecorated the public spaces and 35 guest rooms to great effect. We sat at one of the two octagonal inlaid-marble tables in the striking black-and-white lobby to check in, before heading up to a Junior Suite with a pretty view of the garden behind the hotel. Other townhouses share the green space, punctuated with plane trees, but whenever we sat outside at one of the hotel’s patio tables, we had the gardens entirely to ourselves.
Our wood-floored Junior Suite may not have been very large, but we never felt cramped. The sandy-hued limestone bath, for example, had only one sink but an ample counter, as well as a two-person walk-in shower adjacent to a soaking tub. And its heated floor was a delight. Its cream, gray and black color palette felt both stylish and soothing to the eye. My only complaint is that the shower’s seal was poor, forcing me to stuff a towel against it in order to keep the bath’s floor dry.
Downstairs, mirrors filled the gorgeous bar, set off by the black walls surrounding them, and the charming bartender, Marina, presented all-too-delicious cocktails from the creative drink menu. We didn’t try The Franklin’s Italian restaurant, decorated with similar drama as the bar, but it was a delightful place to breakfast each morning. Instead, we took advantage of the helpful concierge, who made us last-minute reservations at Michelin two-star Claude Bosi at Bibendum nearby.
The tranquil Knightsbridge location; the striking décor; the large semiprivate garden; our Junior Suite’s smart layout; the jewel box of a bar.
The poor seal on our shower door.
The spa in the basement has a treatment room for massages, a small fitness room and a steam room (turned on by request).
We ended our London explorations on the opposite side of Green Park in St. James’s, the neighborhood that is home to one of our most enduringly popular hotel recommendations, The Stafford London. It has long overshadowed DUKES, located just around the corner. But the latter recently completed a renovation, and I decided to see if it could now compete.
Our stay started off on the wrong foot, as we dragged our bags toward the front desk, where two staff members smiled pleasantly while they observed our progress. A 90-room hotel that charges such rates should have a bellman or a doorman at the ready. We had tea in a genteel cream-and-powder-blue candlelit lounge as we waited to check into our Luxury Room. It had a sense of classic nautical luxury, with a royal-blue window seat and framed antique prints of sailboats and rowboats. I liked the comfortable king bed, ample closet space, strong towel warmer and Floris bath products. But I’m never fond of shower-tub combinations, and I didn’t appreciate that some of the tub’s lining had flaked off.
We had a delicious dinner in DUKES’ bright new GBR (Great British Restaurant), which included Scottish scallops, Cornish pollock with cheese sauce and burnt leeks, and Barbary duck with salt-baked turnips. Breakfasting in GBR was also a pleasure. Surprisingly, the famous DUKES Bar proved to be a disappointment. I ordered a $25 Vesper martini from the legendary bar trolley. A white-coated bartender rolled it up and simply poured some bitters, Sacred DUKES Exclusive Amber Vermouth and ice-cold gin and vodka into a chilled glass. He skipped mixing the ingredients with ice, resulting in a stronger but rougher-textured martini.
I had a much better cocktail at The Stafford’s homey American Bar. I also like how most of The Stafford’s public spaces feel larger and more open than those at DUKES. The latter will have to up its service game in order to compete.
In spite of the problems, I left with regret. We had spent almost two weeks in London, and although each day was packed with memorable experiences, there were dozens of sights and activities our limited time forced us to pass over. My consolation is that it surely won’t be long before the Hideaway Report’s calendar requires me to visit this magnificent city once again.
The hidden-away location in St. James’s, near Green Park and Buckingham Palace; the reserved and quiet atmosphere; the classic décor; the bright and cheerful GBR restaurant.
The overrated bar; the lack of help with luggage when we arrived; the housekeeping and maintenance issues in our room.
The hotel has a spa with one treatment room, which is closed Sunday and Monday.