The Hotel Café Royal: Legendary London at its Luxurious Best
By Ruth J. Katz
Steeped in history ever-so-glamorous, the Hotel Café Royal is, simply put, a London legend.
Established in 1865 by Frenchman Daniel Nicholas Thévenon (who later anglicized his given name to Nicols) and his wife Celestine, Café Royal immediately became one of London’s finest dining rooms, the epicenter for international café society. Its location, in Piccadilly Circus, literally put it at the nexus of Londinium, as the metropolis was originally known. Renowned for its extraordinary and excellent wine cellar, Café Royal gained the reputation as the place where the smart set downed its Château d’Yquem and Château Lafite. After it was purchased by the current owner, The Set (which has properties in Amsterdam and in Paris) in 2009, it was shuttered for nigh on to three years, while it was artfully renovated and historically restored to its former grandeur and glory. When the curtain was lifted and the ribbon cut, its simply jaw-dropping splendor was unveiled. Arguably the jewel in the crown of this stunning hotel is the famed Oscar Wilde Bar, formerly the Grill Room.
This club-like brasserie, established in 1865, was the then go-to boîte for the bold-faced names of the era. Literati, titled gentry, marginal artsy types, and gadabouts met and drank convivially here, among the gilded columns and ornate statuettes. It was also here that the near-mythical Oscar Wilde, playwright and author, dallied with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury, establishing a relationship that resulted in three horrific lawsuits; the upshot of those litigious clashes was Wilde’s sentence to two years’ hard labor. Ultimately, this sordid history and the subsequent legal shenanigans formed the backdrop of playwright Moisés Kaufman’s searing œuvre, Gross Indecency.
It was also here in this staggeringly spectacular and over-the-top chamber that the Duke of Windsor courted and canoodled with Wallis Simpson; Aubrey Beardsley debated with Whistler; David Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust (and quite a merrymaking gala that was, dubbed by its host as “The Last Supper”); and Mick Jagger, the Beatles, and Elizabeth Taylor pirouetted ’til the wee hours. History is infused in these walls, and if only they could talk.
The restoration is a sight to savor. (The overall hotel renovation was undertaken by David Chipperfield Architects, which seamlessly merged the old and new—it is a Grade II-listed building—and the historical restorations were executed by specialist-architect, Donald Insall Associates). A tip, if you visit the Oscar Wilde Café: Wear sunglasses, as the gobsmacking ormolu might just blind you. It is so over-the-top that it is, in a word, perfect! With its mirrored walls, wood-rich parquet floor, sumptuously paneled moldings, gold-leaf and frescoed ceilings, and fiery-red banquettes and settees, it is so majestic and dramatic as to defy description. I dallied for a few hours here, sipping Champagnes (I will say, the drinks menu is overwhelming, with its inspired cocktails and unusual offerings), and nibbling on the delicious small plates, each a culinary surprise. Afternoon tea is also served here, and I cannot think of a more ornate and worldly place for imbibing a cuppa’.
It’s worth a parenthetical note that when, a few years ago, The Importance of Being Earnest was playing in the West End, a mere few steps away at the Harold Pinter Theatre, the hotel offered a “Wilde Package,” and I suspect it was pretty wild, too. Remember, it was Wilde who said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
Hotel Café Royal was the second member of The Set, a developing collection of hotels created to redefine the concept of the luxury hotel for sophisticated, design-literate travelers in the 21st century. Located in existing landmark buildings, each member of The Set is rooted in the history and culture of its location while mindfully catering to the contemporary needs and desires of its guests. Adhering to the intrinsic DNA that makes for a grand, old-world hotel, the designers, nonetheless, infused the framework with current concepts, offering amenities that are 21st-century, among the glam and poshness of yesteryear. The Lutetia in Paris, a member of The Set, is slated to open next year, and I am curious to see it, as I have stayed there and found it be a grand old dame, fading in her stateliness, and in need of a facelift. I suspect she is getting that roadwork now.
As for Café Royal, it could not be a better blend of its imperial roots and modern technology, peppered with the best hotelier’s personal cossetting and coddling. The rooms (160 of them) are sleek, elegant, and tech-loaded. A panel on the wall controls everything; let the bellman show you, lest you get caught in the technosphere. My serene room, accented with rusticated Portland stone and earthy-toned soft furnishings (including soft-as-butter Frette linens), was virtually over Piccadilly Circus, yet it was remarkably quiet, with the double-paned windows; I could hear nothing of the din outside the window. There were button-controlled black-out shades, sheers, and daylight-curtains, so I could decide just how much twinkling holiday cheer (I was right above the Christmas lights of Regent Street). The bathrooms and amenities were sublime and every detail in the closets was well thought out—where to hang this, how to polish that, what to do with rain-soaked shoes.
Worth mentioning, also, is the delightful and seductive Café at Hotel Café Royal, with a Regent Street entrance in case you are not staying at the hotel, but want an alternative to Starbuck’s, Patisserie Valerie, or Caffè Nero. It is a charming sweets shop and pâtisserie, serving breakfast as well as snacks and light fare all day long. It features absolutely intoxicatingly delicious and heartbreakingly beautiful délices. Some of the tempting treats on the general patisserie menu include strawberry crispy mousse, almond sponge, and lemon curd; pistachio and apricot mille feuille; passion fruit, ginger, and chocolate éclair. There is a newly launched dessert-tasting menu for anyone willing to challenge his or her glucose-tolerance level!
Occupying the first floor of the exquisite building is The Club, designed to be a comfortable and creative space for members (you are a short-term member if you are staying in one of the hotel’s suites), simultaneously dazzling and welcoming. Precious historic spaces have been sensitively modernized to create an elegant sanctum and exclusive haven in the heart of the city: a place where members are encouraged to pursue their creative vocations, to work, socialize, network and relax.
If you want to ensure relaxation, head to the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre after check-in, to soothe and smooth away jet lag. It’s an urban sanctuary spanning more than 13,000 square feet, hidden below Regent Street. The spa offers a trusted approach to holistic wellbeing, with the natural elements—earth, water, fire, and air—as its underpinnings, and features a state-of-the-art-gym, large lap pool, Watsu pool (for underwater shiatsu), sauna and private hammam/steam room; the spa uses luxurious brands, Valmont and Sodashi, not found in too many other spa-retreats.
You will get a sense of just how Zen the hotel is, when you alight from the elevator and walk to your room. The hallways are lined with what appear to be shoji screens, back lit. It was a short hike to my room, and I was tempted to leave Reese’s Pieces to find my way back. And frankly, finding my way back, is what I think about now—I cannot wait to spend another few nights, next trip to London, at this lovely, welcoming, and top-tier hotel.
68 Regent Street, London W1B 4DY
+44 (0)20 7406 3333
Guestrooms from £440 (approx. US$640); suites from £810 (approx. US$1,178)
The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz is the former style/travel editor of Promenade magazine. She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate.