Competition is intensifying at the upmarket end of London's hotel market, and the changes are coming fast as the British capital gears up to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel has installed an exquisite, Michelin-starred restaurant. The Dorchester Hotel has nearly completed a sleek makeover, as has clubby, historic Brown's Hotel. Hyatt International has premiered its hip, designer hotel brand, Andaz, in the city's square-mile financial center. Meanwhile, the Four Seasons Hyde Park and the Fairmont's venerable Savoy Hotel have shut down for top-to-bottom renovations; they'll both reopen well in advance of the Olympic Games.
As I experienced on a recent visit, luxury meets trendy in London hotels, and the competition is as ferocious as in any Olympoic gold-medal showdown. For those who can cover the tab -- think $400 to well north of $1,000 a night -- a commoner can live like royalty in these posh London hotels.
I have been a fan of the Dorchester since I first stayed at the landmark hotel on Park Lane in the '90s. Opened in 1931, the Dorchester's streamlined Art Deco style has always felt forward-looking while retaining a timeless touch of class. The Dorchester has spent a tidy sum on property upgrades, with only some touching up in the main lobby left to finish.
The makeover becomes a hotel that was none too shabby to begin with. The Promenade -- a long, high-ceilinged, linear space that runs from the lobby past the hotel's restaurants on the way to the new Promenade Bar -- has gained enormous potted palms, beige silk walls and smart new furniture, clustered just so, so that it now feels like a series of attractive rooms, rather than a long corridor.
Just off the Promenade is The Grill, the hotel's reliable, traditional British eatery, and on the other side, the nightclub-like, neon-lit entrance to the re-imagined, two-level main bar. Once a tad conservative, the bar now gleams with a contemporary sensibility; it has its own entrance off Park Lane, luring scene-makers.
The Dorchester's Bar gleams with a contemporary sensibility.
At the far end of the Promenade is China Tang, an elegant Cantonese restaurant by David Tang, the Hong Kong entrepreneur who runs the Shanghai Tang clothing and accessories shops. Alain Duccasse at the Dorchester, which opened late last year, is another new addition, serving haute cuisine.
Brown's, in exclusive Mayfair, was unknown to me, though my London-born wife, Georgina, stayed there back in the day. She was delighted by the recent $36 million transformation of Brown's by British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte.
Sir Rocco -- teaming up with his sister, designer Olga Polizzi -- has brushed the dust off the hotel's public spaces and modernized the guest rooms. London's oldest hotel, Brown's opened in 1837.
Polizzi displays a keen eye in the spacious English Tea Room off the small hotel lobby, keeping the wood paneling but adding lighting fixtures of assorted colors and shapes and lightening the room's color palette. It's tricky to mix tradition with innovation, but Polizzi has pulled it off.
Just past the tea room is Brown's intimate and comfortable Donovan Bar. Its walls festooned with British photographer Terence Donovan's evocative, black and white images of London, the Donovan Bar pours a proper martini with Britain's own aromatic Hendrick's gin and features live jazz every night save Sundays.
Guest rooms at Brown's are large by London standards.
Guest rooms at Brown's are large, for London, where hotel rooms tend to be, shall we say, rather cozy. The beds are blessedly sleep-worthy, armchairs and couches are modern in style without being overly sculptural and thus uncomfortable, and the windows overlooking busy Abermarle Street provide silent relief from the bustle outside -- a relative rarity even in luxury hotels.
In a newly trendy part of the East End is Andaz, the first Hyatt hotel to carry this new brand, just ahead of properties in New York and Los Angeles. The public rooms in the former Great Eastern Hotel are varied, interesting and often grand, in the original style of the 1884 redbrick Victorian pile that Andaz now occupies. Some guest rooms are saddled with furniture designed to look good, not feel good. But bathrooms are modern and commodious, with plumbing that works perfectly -- not always the case in renovated English heritage buildings.
Steps away from the humming Liverpool Street Underground and rail hub, Andaz has a warren of bars and restaurants, many with their own street entrances. Miyako is a good Japanese eatery. The George is a superior sausage-and-mash and pint-of-bitter pub. One big space, used for authors' readings and comedy, is an ornate former Masonic temple.
The business center has free Internet access, and the hotel offers free laundry and pressing. In the lobby, hotel staffers (called "hosts'') wander about with tablet PCs. There is no formal check-in desk -- which can get confusing for jet-lagged guests.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
If the new Andaz is a work in progress, the Mandarin Oriental, beautifully located in Knightsbridge on the southern edge of Hyde Park, is a finished, polished product. The trendy Mandarin Bar, with a see-and-be-seen open front, attracts an of-the-moment crowd. The hotel as a whole showcases gorgeous traditional touches and impressively rich materials: think marble and fine fabrics. Guest rooms are large, and some -- such as our expansive suite -- afford photo-ready views of Hyde Park.
The Mandarin Oriental is located on the southern edge of Hyde Park.
Not a major spa guy myself, I was nevertheless impressed by the Spa at the Mandarin Oriental. Spacious, Asian-inspired in décor and treatments, fitted-out with amenities such as hot and cold plunge pools, a gym and a sauna, the spa's two-hour Time Traveller treatment -- an energizing hour session in the morning, plus a stress-buster hour in the evening -- is a winner.
The Mandarin's other big winner is Foliage, its Michelin star-winning, showcase restaurant. We dined on sumptuous John Dory with squid bolognese, eggplant and basil accompanied by a 2006 Domaine Adhemar Chablis, and grouse and braised cabbage with a 2005 Joel Remy Bourgogne rouge. If there were gold medals for hotel restaurants, Foliage would have an inside track.